A tale of two houses: In Belmont, two families decide between a rebuild or renovation

Green versus old

When Keith-Hynes started dreaming up her perfect new home, she first considered a design using an old world material. Virginia Lime Works, Ondick’s employer, offers an off-the-shelf housing solution known as Enviro-Ment Building Systems. The buildings are constructed with a material that replaces Portland cement with lime. Because the cement manufacturing process gives off a significant amount of carbon dioxide, Virginia Lime Works says their product reduces volatile organic compound emissions. Plus, the blocks are designed to lay perpendicular to a house’s walls, rather than long-ways, resulting in a better-insulated, more energy-efficient house.

A 5.28KW photovoltaic solar panel system at Keith-Hynes’ home is expected to reduce power consumption by nearly 60 percent. Photo: John Robinson
A 5.28KW photovoltaic solar panel system at Keith-Hynes’ home is expected to reduce power consumption by nearly 60 percent. Photo: John Robinson

It turned out the lime-based blocks didn’t fit Keith-Hynes’ budget and would have taken too long to manufacture to meet her timeline, so she elected to go in another direction. But building an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly house was still a top priority. She was able to obtain the efficiency she wanted by tapping into Abbott’s knowledge (and slight obsession) with insulation and heating/cooling packages. While the house doesn’t use what Abbott calls the “next step toward net zero,” suspended insulation outside the interior walls, it is designed to maintain its air handlers at a comfortable temperature so they aren’t heating air from a cold, uninsulated space in winter or vice versa in summer.

“We are trying to get the envelope of the building contained and all the ductwork within it,” Abbott said.

Behind the new house at 608 Belmont, Keith-Hynes’ garage and attached upstairs studio are also a model of efficiency. The garage has been fitted with an electrical outlet designed for a plug-in automobile, and four rain barrels are lined up, ready for deployment when the family moves in. The studio, which the family expects to use to play music, dance, or possibly turn into a fully functioning apartment, is fitted with the same advanced insulation system as the main house.

Insulation was also a sticking point for the Frees, who wanted to make their home as green as possible without sacrificing its old-world aura. The home they were moving into had about as much insulation as cheesecloth, so in order to keep the place from hemorrhaging heat and AC and drawing excessive energy, changes had to be made. Take their front door.

“Scott really tried to convince me to do a high R-value door,” Petrosky-Free said, referring to the construction industry’s term for thermal resistance. “I told him, ‘I need an old door. We are going to have to agree to disagree on this one.’”

No one agreed to disagree on the house’s windows, though. It was the single most significant change required to make the home more environmentally friendly, according to Free. And at $450 a pop, it was one of the tougher decisions the couple had to make during the renovation. But Free said it was worth the effort and cost—since they moved into their new residence last fall, the only thing they now think it needs is smaller furniture.

Going solar

Turn west onto Belmont Avenue from Avon Street these days, and it won’t be long until you spy a sweeping bank of solar panels on the top of a large-looking house on the street’s south side. That’s Keith-Hynes’ new place.

Contractor Scott Abbott checks the direct current and redirects the power being received from roof panels to alternating current. “The panel can also produce production reports,” Abbott said. Photo: John Robinson
Contractor Scott Abbott checks the direct current and redirects the power being received from roof panels to alternating current. “The panel can also produce production reports,” Abbott said. Photo: John Robinson

Both she and Abbott insist the home isn’t out of scale from the rest of the neighborhood. It just appears that way because it sits at the crest of the hill that runs beneath the street. And while the 5.28KW photovoltaic solar system is certainly a more modern touch than can be found almost anywhere else in the neighborhood, Keith-Hynes says it was one of the keys to meeting all of her requirements, both as an environmentalist and as a devotee to the character of the Belmont neighborhood. First, she expects the system to reduce her power consumption by nearly 60 percent and it contributed to EarthCraft House Virginia, placing the house in the top 5 percent of greenest homes in the state. Second, she says solar panels are right in line with Belmont’s founding aesthetic. Established in the late 19th century, the neighborhood grew up around the Victorian-era “Belmont” estate, the home of John M. Carr, whose uncle was a boyhood friend of Thomas Jefferson.

“We really wanted to embrace the Victorian belief in progress, marrying technology with beauty,” she said. “I wanted the solar power and didn’t want it to look like a cold, modern house but a house that had been here since the last century.”

Whether Keith-Hynes achieved the goal might be harder to judge than if she had remodeled an existing house. But whether she did or not, one thing is certain—it wasn’t for a lack of principle.

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