Story and photos by Peter McBride
I am proud to say I live in a "tear down." Yep, my quaint abode built in 1897 would have hardly lasted a millisecond during the peak of the mountaintown real estate bubble. Backhoe operators would have joyfully dug their claws into it, vanquishing each and every antique board.
Thankfully, I never considered razing my mining-era Victorian, located 30 minutes from Aspen on historic Second Street in Basalt, Colorado. But if you live in one of the many affluent mountain towns across the West, "scraping" homes is the norm these days, even for those who claim green intentions. It's a trend that has survived the bubble.
I've seen 2,000 square foot historic homes in Aspen and around western Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley renovated to such extents that the only original thing left was the front door and its trim. How else would you make room for the additional 10,000 square feet?
While there are occasions to start anew with a home, the general attitude is that if you purchase a home and it ain't shiny and new, the only value is in the land. Likewise, if you want to make something green, it is cheaper to start fresh. An open field where cattle once grazed is best. "You can't make chicken soup out of chicken shit," my builder friends like to say. Even for many greenies, the carbon footprint is only considered during construction and beyond. The sourcing or production side of new lumberand materials is conveniently ignored.
Growing up on a cattle ranch near Basalt, I acquired a taste for old things. Our ranch was scattered with tractors, sleds, barns, and fences that were worn, battered, and pretty close to chicken shit. But they worked. And taking the old ranching mantra to heart, we didn't fix what wasn't broken. And anyway, fixing almost always involved bailing wire and duct tape. Full replacement seemed like overkill.
So when I became the fifth owner of my antique Basalt pad, I ignored the comments about tearing the old beast down—even if it was long overdue for serious love. The place was essentially "covered with scabs" as one architect put it. With each advance in technology—like indoor plumbing—the most logical and easiest solution was taken; aesthetics be damned. The first indoor bathroom was installed on the front porch. The thinking? Who cares about a view or a porch swing if you can avoid trudging to the outhouse in mid-winter. "By jeezem, put the bathroom on the darn porch," whispered the walls.
Such add-ons made my place a bit of a carpentry "Gong Show." The wiring was shot and the plumbing consisted of 40 years of do-it-yourself. One wall in the kitchen had so many retrofits that only one 2x4 stud remained intact. When I started peeling away the scabs, the house seemed freshly injured. It hurt to look at it. I was tempted to give in and consider starting fresh, but I held firm. The place had potential. More than that, it had soul.
I started seeing ways to recycle lumber and space. My tear down started talking to me. She gave me ideas of how to save money and, even better, energy. She wanted to be renovated.
I vaulted the A-frame ceilings. This enabled new, hyper-efficient, blow-in insulation. And since I ever-so-carefully recycled the 100-plus-year-old 1x8 inch, coal-stained planks that originally served as the flat ceiling, I ended up with free antique siding—the kind my neighbors in Aspen pay thousands for—which promptly went onto my reborn front porch (sans bathroom). Some of the moves actually shrunk the square footage of the house as I was focusing on quality over quantity—so often a rarity with homes today. I did the same recycling technique with an old redwood fence from the backyard and put it to use as trim around a bathtub.
After digging through years of add-on flooring (linoleum, plywood, and brown shag carpet) I found the original hardwood planks. Gingerly, I replaced a few of the old growth and seasoned boards, did a bit of sanding, stained them, and presto: fancy new floors full of historic scuffs, grooves, and heart, at the cost of not much more than my time. But even if I paid myself out as a contractor, the square footage price of my remodel would have stretched to reach $150. Excluding my time, it came in at $90. Not bad considering that in the Roaring Fork Valley, the average new construction cost starts at $250 a square foot. My biggest costs involved updating the windows. I replaced most with double-paned glass to tighten the whole joint up. A layer of interior plaster added thermal mass for heat and cooling. And then came the fun. My tear down was ready to go solar.
From photovoltaic to hot water systems, I had looked at solar for years. Their environmental benefits were alluring, but the costs were not so sunny. "It only takes 30 years to pay for itself," was the saying. Thirty years? What if I move, or my renovation skills prove to be dodgy and my home actually collapses in 20? But thanks to incentives in Colorado and the West, new solar systems can pay for themselves in one day. Utility companies encourage homeowners to install solar systems with rebates because they help with energy conservation and create much-needed redundancies in theelectrical grid.
I went with a 2.5-kilowatt system on my roof. In full, it cost $27,000. But with utility and government rebates and tax credits available at the time (they have since shrunk due to popularity, but solar experts hope they will be replenished soon) the price quickly dropped to $7,700. A Carbondale, Colorado company named Inpower installed everything and calculated all the rebates and tax credits for me. I wrote one check. They even provided an online service to monitor my energy production and consumption—hourly to yearly. Using borrowed money to pay the remainder, my loan payments come in at less than the average American electrical bill. Much less. By going green, I was in the black—at least on energy. Last September, I banked a 97 kilowatt-hour surplus. And now I frequently see electrical bills as low as $6 a month (transmission fee only).
Of course, such low bills depend on your energy habits. During cold winter months, I chewaway my kilowatt surplus significantly, but much is linked to short days and of course, how much laundry one does. I knew dryers were energy hogs, but wait until you see a dryer spike your energy consumption (nearly 6,000 watts). I promptly went out and purchased a clothesline, which can be challenging in the winter. So now I just do less laundry—perhaps like the previous owners did a hundred years ago. I like to gloat to my friends about my September surplus and how efficient my old tear down is now. But I am quickly reminded that I am a bachelor—who needs to do more laundry.
From the Spring 2010 issue