South Deerfield family retrofits home for ultimate conservation despite great odds

Jennifer and Bill Marrapese wanted to find a modest house in a family-oriented neighborhood, a fixer-upper with which they could do a deep energy retrofit to improve energy conservation. They found their ideal house in South Deerfield last spring, but had no idea how complicated their project would become.

They smelled something musty in the house when they walked in the door but the real estate agent suggested it was old pet urine on the carpet.

“We could tell there was a problem,” Jennifer Marrapese said. “Coming in there was a smell that made us suspect mold.”

Unfortunately they were right: There was mold in the 1977 ranch house they bought last April.

“From the beginning we were planning to have an energy efficient house but now we needed to make healthy and safe for us,” she said.

The problem was caused by having a concrete slab foundation on a very wet lot.

“It was carpet down on slab and the concrete slab had acted like a sponge soaking up the water,” said contractor Sean Jeffords of Beyond Green Construction in Easthampton. “It was bad, really bad.”

The solution was also expensive. It meant jacking up the house to access the slab foundation.

“It’s like jacking up a car,” Marapese said.

Since there was no floor — except the concrete slab — jacking up the house was a challenge, Jeffords said. “The house became like spaghetti,” with the walls and roof lacking bottom support. Jeffords said the hardest part was holding the walls and roof plumb level during the process.

Chris Vreeland of Precision Decisions Inc. in Otis designed an elaborate jacking system which was installed by Mike Poole of Blue Collar Artisans in Easthampton.

“They suspended the house in mid-air,” recalled Bill Marrapese.

The process took about five weeks this summer and Jeffords and his staff often worked 70-hour weeks.

Shocking surprise

“We didn’t have a clue,” Marrapese said. “We didn’t realize what it would do with our timetable, what it would do with money. It was a huge shock.”

The couple discovered that the mold and water issues were so severe in the back sunroom area that the room had to be taken out. It had been constructed cheaply with a wood floor and crawl space, Jeffords said. The mold had crept all the way to the rafters in that area.

All the carpet was ripped out and the back sunroom was demolished. Once the house was up on jacks, Jeffords and his crew put down 4 inches of rigid foam insulation which also acts as a vapor barrier. Then they laid strings of radiant heat tubing which was embedded in a new concrete floor. The sunroom area also got a concrete slab with heating in the same manner.

“We ran out of money for wood floors,” Jennifer Marrapese said, so they turned the concrete into attractive flooring.

“We made four-by-four foot squares as we cut expansion joints into the slab,” Jeffords said. “We did it in a pattern in two different colors.”

The result: The floors look like huge tiles in beige and light brown.

“We like earth tones,” Marrapese said. One wall in the reconstructed sunroom, which now serves as living room and kitchen, is painted terra cotta.

The exterior of the house is sage green with an oxblood red front door.

All the exterior siding was removed for the deep energy retrofit. The skimpy insulation, which harbored mold, was removed and new insulation installed.

There are three inches of rigid foam plus five inches of densely packed cellulose in the walls.

“I love the deep windowsills,” Marrapese said. “It’s one of the aesthetics I like about the energy efficiency.”

Reusing the old siding would have been too labor-intensive, she said. Someday they may put on fancier siding but for the moment, the exterior is simply painted plywood. She said they may have to paint it more frequently than standard wood siding, but it is adequate.

Solar thermal for heat

In addition to insulation, the deep-energy retrofit involved installing solar thermal panels for hot water, not only for basic use like bathing and washing laundry and dishes, but for the radiant heating in the floor.

“The house has phenomenal southern exposure, perfectly positioned for solar,” Marrapese said. There are three horizontal solar panels on the roof, on angled supports which can’t be seen from the street, plus three vertical panels on the back side of the house. “The verticals are optimally planned so they catch the winter sun,” she said.

The exterior solar panels fuel the 160-gallon water tank in the mechanical room to feed the radiant heat tubing as well as daily hot water needs. In case of snow or a long, cloudy period, there is a back-up, on-demand water heater that is electric-powered. The entire system was designed by StiebelEltron in Hatfield and installed by Donavin Gratz, also of Hatfield. Electricity for lights, however, still comes from the utility company. The Marrapeses hope to add solar photovoltaics some day to reach zero net energy.

Bill Marrapese says they have radically reduced the energy use in the house, according to the national standard HERS (Heating Energy Rating System). HERS was 152 before work began. A standard new house has an average rating of 100, net zero energy being 0. The Marrapese house is now judged to be 40 HERs.

The project was expensive, they agreed, but, luckily the couple say, they saved money by buying the house in foreclosure, below the market value. However, the total remodeling was more than $250,000 of which the energy efficiency work was perhaps $60,000 to $70,000. They expect to get federal and state energy tax credits of nearly $20,000.

The real savings, however, will come when the heating season is in full swing and, as Marrapese said, “we don’t have to call and ask for a fuel delivery.” With the solar hot water system, “all of our heat and hot water is going to be coming by the sun.” Another energy efficiency facet is the high-tech thermostat, which can be programmed via the Internet. Jennifer Marrapee, who is executive director of the New England Sustainable Energy Association in Greenfield, said she checks the weather forecast at her office and sets the next day’s home temperature using her computer. One day last week the thermostat was set for 64 degrees but it was a cozy 70 degrees in the living room.

Whenever possible, the Marrapeses used local contractors and suppliers.

Their new Energy Star appliances by GE came from Manny’s TV and Appliances in Greenfield. Their kitchen cabinets and countertops are from the Eco Building Bargains (formerly ReStore) in Springfield, which sells recycled building materials and appliances. They chose oak cabinets and Corian counters at a cost of $1,400, far below market rate. For a kitchen peninsula they reused an old farm table from their former home.

“We’re reduce/reuse/recycle kinda people,” Jennifer Marrapese wrote in an email.

Interior redesign

When they first bought the house, the Marrapeses hired architect Mary Kraus of Kraus-Fitch Architects in Amherst to do the interior design. She created a master bedroom out of the original front living room, leaving an entry that leads into the dining area.

“Mary showed us how to use space,” Marrapese said. That was especially important because the slab construction means no basement and there isn’t an attic, either.

Now there are four bedrooms, one with purple bunk beds for their daughters, Chloe, 10, and Isabel, 8. Another bedroom is the children’s playroom while the other is a small guest room.

Although they only moved into the house Sept. 30, they opened it to the public for the NESEA Green Buildings Tour Oct. 13. On the outside it still looks like a construction site with what Jennifer Marrapese calls “our prison fence” surrounding the property. They will have to replace the fence because there is a backyard swimming pool. Inside there are still boxes of belongings and no pictures on the walls.

“There were a lot of little heartbreaks along the way, but each time Sean would find a solution,” Jennifer said.

“Jennifer had planned on the perfect house,” her husband said. “We had to cut out a number of things like a larger master bedroom and a mudroom.”

Philosophically, Jennifer Marrapese concluded, “We found a house in a location we loved. It turned out to have a lot of issues with it. In essence we built a new house and one that is super energy efficient.”

With low interest rates, rebates and tax credits and vastly lower heating bills, the Marrapeses said they feel confident they have made the best decision with their massive project.

Jeffords said the Marrapeses’ home is “a good example of what you can do with existing housing stock,” but advised home buyers to consider the costs of remodeling costs investing in a foreclosed house.