Monday, April 28, 2008

Free Heat

If you live in a city such as Chicago or New York, you’re probably used to seeing the “Free Heat” banner on many of the “vintage” apartment buildings. The advertisement is that your heat is included in your rent. One less utility bill to pay, that’s great but that’s not what I’m talking about. And it’s really not free now is it?

What I’m referring to is “geothermalheating and cooling systems. It’s not a new idea. In fact, geothermal systems have been around for decades. So why should I waste my time writing about an old system? Well, let’s get back to the idea of “Free Heat.”

Obviously, no one is going to install a geothermal system in your home for free. To be honest, you may be shocked by the installation cost of such a system. They can run up to twice the cost of a comparable, “ordinary” heating and cooling system. BUT, like I often promote here on the Renovation Resources Blog, the payoff is in the life-cycle or operating costs. And, if stories like the one on the front page of the
New York Times Friday morning are any indication, we could all use some relief from energy costs.

Ok, let’s get back to geothermal and how it works. Basically, geothermal systems use the relatively constant temperature of the ground to heat and cool your home. In the winter, the temperature under ground is warmer than the air so heat is extracted to heat your home. In the summer, the temperature under ground is cooler than the air so heat from your home is extracted and dissipated under ground. These transfers of heat are made through a series of “loops” of pipes underground. That may sound pretty complicated but the bottom line is it’s free, it’s renewable, it’s Green. For a more detailed explanation of the technology behind current geothermal systems, a good resource is a manufacturer called

So really, what about the true benefits of a geothermal system? The benefits of geothermal can be organized under the following 4 headings:

  • Operating Cost – Even though geothermal systems do use some electricity, and an electric backup system is advisable in some climates, they are much more efficient than other heating and cooling systems. Some owners report up to a 70% savings over conventional units that they’ve replaced.
  • Comfort – Because of the way they operate, geothermal systems deliver a more consistent temperature output whether in the heating or cooling cycle. In addition, the units reside inside your home rather than outside so they are designed to be “silent.”
  • Reliability – Since geothermal units are installed indoors, they do not suffer the abuse of the elements like the air conditioning compressor that you currently have. And the design of the units has proven to have a life span of up to 10 years longer than traditional furnace and air conditioning systems.
  • Environment – The Department of Energy and the EPA have deemed geothermal systems the most environmentally friendly way to heat and cool your home.

The final note on the geothermal topic is this: Whether you're Renovating or building new, installation of geothermal heating and cooling may be expensive, but at a cost savings of up to 70%, it's not difficult to see how quickly Mother Earth will pay you back. With that kind of return you may actually get free heat sooner than later.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fiber Cement the Wood Alternative

Whether you're replacing hail damaged siding, preparing to put your home on the market or simply want to spruce up the exterior appearance of your house, fiber cement siding is a product that you should be aware of. The popularity of fiber cement is exploding as it makes excellent replacements or alternatives to aluminum, vinyl and wood siding and shingle products.

First, a little history: Fiber cement products have been in the market place for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, the composition of the original fiber cement products contained asbestos. They weathered extremely well but were eventually pulled from the market along with everything else asbestos laced. Modern fiber cement products are composed of cement (sand and concrete), cellulose fibers and water.

Most manufacturers of fiber cement products offer siding, shingle and stucco panel lines in their repertoire. All are designed to present the appearance of natural materials from wood lap siding to cedar shingles to cement stucco plaster.

Fiber cement products are "sustainable" or green products and have many advantages over their vinyl and wood counterparts. As a homeowner, one thing that probably concerns you the most about the exterior of your home is its maintenance. Wood siding and shingles are an American tradition. Just look at the number of products that have been designed to imitate wood and the way we use it: aluminum siding, vinyl siding and shingles, fiber cement siding and shingles, even pvc and urethane trim. The list covers just about every post-war innovation on the market. But what's wrong with wood? In short, it rots, it warps, it makes great fires, insects love it and it has to be painted or stained frequently.

Enter fiber cement. These products don't rot, they're cement. It doesn't warp or "oil can" like wood, vinyl or aluminum. It doesn't burn like wood or melt and produce noxious gases like vinyl. Insects don't like it but, as a rule, they have questionable taste anyway. The color range is limitless, unlike vinyl products, and most manufacturers offer 15 year paint warranties. But in the end durability is the key. In addition to wood's inherent shortcomings, vinyl becomes brittle and can be damaged by the weather or by the neighbor kid's wiffle ball. Fiber cement products don't suffer the same durability issues and many manufacturers extend 50 year warranties.

I think that the real testament to the popularity, if nothing else, of the fiber cement products is the fact that many, if not a majority, of the "price-point" production builders are moving away from vinyl siding and cladding their houses in fiber cement siding. The market demands it. In fact, some municipalities are creating ordinances that outlaw the use of vinyl siding. If you have any intention of selling you home in the near future, remember that most homebuyers are beginning to expect, desire or demand fiber cement siding on new or "updated" home exteriors. Check Renovation Resources Online Resources
for links to several of the most popular manufactures of fiber cement siding, shingles and stucco panels.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Value of Good Design. Can You Afford Not to Have It?

How many times have prospective home buyers toured a property with their realtor when a trip through the new master bedroom wing elicits "oh, that's unfortunate?" There's no doubt that the addition was conceived as a way to increase both the livability and resale value of the home. But, in the end, the poorly designed space may have cost the sale of the property.

It's no secret that many homeowners consider hiring an architect too expensive. And, admittedly, not all
Renovation projects require such expertise. But consider the Renovation that involves structural changes or additions, reconfiguring spaces, moving plumbing or other mechanical systems or designs that impact the exterior character of your home. Any of these elements, as part of your Renovation project, can represent a large percentage of the overall construction budget and will have an enormous effect on the value of your home. It makes sense to work with someone who is trained to protect, even enhance, your investment.

Architects are trained to be creative. But this creativity isn't just some academic excuse for producing artsy renderings of ego-driven, over-inflated, far-too-expensive monuments to the way people don't really live. Quite the contrary; the training and experience that an architect brings to your Renovation allow them to creatively consider cost, materials, efficiency, codes and regulations and current and future use. All while working with you to design creative, dynamic environments and aesthetics that both satisfy functional needs and enhance the way that you live and fit within your budget.

In the end, good design sells. It adds value to your home and to your neighborhood. American homeowners collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on
Renovation projects. A well designed Renovation is a smart investment that will return dividends in the way that you live and at resale time.