Winter 2011 – 2012
Vermont Life Magazine
Profile: Q & A
Every Vermonter Has a Story
Adam Howard: Active, Enterprising, Self-sufficient, Involved
Though he lives off the grid in Cambridge, Adam Howard could hardly be more connected to life in Vermont. As the editorial and creative director of Height of Land Publications, a company he co-founded, this former builder and ski patroller works in Jeffersonville producing such adventure sports magazines as Backcountry, Alpinist and Tele-mark Skier. Howard also helped found the Cambridge Historical Society and the Brewster River Mountain Bike Club; he sits on the Cambridge Development Review Board and, at 37, is one of the youngest members of the state’s House of Representatives. Howard is something of an anomaly in the capitol — a libertarian Republican in a Statehouse controlled by Democrats — but he says his life is more Vermont than it is either right or left. The father of two lives with his wife and family in a house he built himself, on land his ancestors settled nearly two centuries ago.
VL: What do you know about your family’s origins in Vermont?
AH: As best I can tell, I had ancestors who fought in the Battle of Bennington; and in the town of Sterling (no longer in existence), there were a lot of Revolutionary War [land] Grants, which is why, I believe, they came to the area. The town of Sterling was essentially Smugglers Notch, itself: Spruce Peak, Sterling Peak, Madonna, the Adam’s Apple on Mount Mansfield, et cetera. Not very inhabitable land, but certainly the valleys below were pretty nice.
VL: When did you first take up skiing?
AH: I started skiing when I was probably in the first grade. My parents had skied, but really, it wasn’t a lifestyle for them, it was a pastime. So I didn’t start super young, like I started my girls skiing when they were 18 months and 2 years old, because that is what we do. We are a skiing family.
VL: Have you skied every mountain in Vermont?
AH: No. I think in Vermont we are very territorial. We tend to know where it is going to be good and when it is going to be good, and we’re pretty protective of our local haunts. So Mount Mansfield is my playground, and when it is good, that is where I am going to be.
VL: Is there anything about skiing that has directly informed your political views and interests?
AH: Absolutely. With skiing you get absolute freedom and absolute control, and you are the master of your destiny, from turn to turn and from mountain to mountain, and it is hard for me to not want to take that freedom and apply it elsewhere in my life. I live off the grid. I am a libertarian. I want less government control over my life and the lives around me, so I think there is a very strong parallel that can be drawn there.
VL: How long were you a builder?
AH: I was a builder from 1995 to 2002. I wanted to build my own home and wanted to learn the skills to do it, and that is what I did. For so many of us here in Vermont, it has been a great way to make a living.
VL: What motivated you to build your house off the grid?
AH: We did a cost analysis of what it would cost to bring power to our site and applied that cost to the installation of our system, and the numbers worked. If we could tie into the grid tomorrow, I don’t think we would choose to.
VL: Would you consider yourself an environmentalist?
AH: No, I wouldn’t, but I think anyone who knows me might have a different take. To me, it is just being a Vermonter. I think most country people tend to be environmentally minded just because that is how they have to exist to survive. When you live on the land, right, you’ve got to take care of it.
VL: Do you get all your power from wind and solar?
AH: For about 10 months of the year, we get all our power from wind and solar, and then in December and January, we have to run a generator about once a week.
VL: What moves you to be so involved in your community?
AH: To me, if you grow up in small-town Vermont, where out of necessity your family is involved in the functions of the town you live in, you can call that politics, but it is really more community service.
Winter 2011 – 2012
Vermont Life Magazine
Feature: Outdoor Recreation
Melting Worries Away
Undaunted by winter, hardy runners say icy treks clear the mind
There is, perhaps, no more a peaceful time in Vermont than the predawn hours of a midwinter day. The air is light and clean. The sky clear. And the density of a three-foot snowpack dampens back the noise.
It is 5:30 on just such a morning and Tim Noonan of Montpelier is up and out of the house, silently passing through the ice-slicked streets of Vermont’s small-town capital. The occasional car eases past. The odd window light of an early riser stretches out across the snow. It is cold and dark, and echoing off the house fronts is the plodding thump of Noonan’s footfalls on the road — a rhythm he has set for more than 35 years.
Noonan, 55, is a long-distance runner and about as serious a runner as one might imagine. He took up the sport in college and has rarely since missed an opportunity to train. He has run 67 marathons, including 14 at Boston — the preeminent race for any runner — and, all told, has clocked an estimated 70,000 miles in his lifetime, the equivalent of nearly three times around the earth.
Bundled in multiple layers, ski gloves and often wearing a facemask, Noonan defies the worst of Vermont’s winter weather to keep up on the sport he loves. Boston looms in early spring, and through the winter, Noonan faces his most rigorous months of training, pushing out 35 to 40 miles a week, which means, for Noonan, early mornings, cold starts and a personal motivation that is as steely as the stiffest, northeast wind.
Sure, there are challenges — the dark mornings (and dark nights), the ice, the snow. But there is also something different, something special that draws runners, like Noonan, out day after day, even on the bitterest days of the year.
“The crisp air, a clear day without wind … it is invigorating to run in the winter,” Noonan says. “I love to run. I like to be out there. And if you dress for it, you can protect against anything.” As for Noonan’s limit? It is 20 degrees … below.
“Most people think you’re a little crazy,” Noonan admits, though he insists that, in actuality, the opposite is true: Running, especially in the winter, is one of the ways he maintains his sense of well-being. “I think it is crucial to be outside in the winter, in Vermont, for mental health issues,” Noonan says, echoing the sentiments of many winter sports enthusiasts.
A few miles away, in Barre, elementary school teacher Andrea McLaughlin is also up and out of the house and meeting with friends along a country road near her home. For McLaughlin, 48, the sport of running has offered a hearty list of benefits, the most important of which are the friendships she has developed and maintained through the sport.
It was 15 years ago that McLaughlin took up running, under the encouragement and guidance of then-acquaintance Lori LaCroix, who unrelentingly plied the younger McLaughlin with fliers for various running events. Later, McLaughlin held a two-year term as president of Central Vermont Runners — a group of about 150 runners who organize regional road races — and the two women, along with several additional friends, continue to run together every Tuesday and Thursday in nearly any weather.
“Running is a great stress releaser,” McLaughlin says. “It is a whole attitude adjustment for me. It is an adrenaline rush. And it is just about the only time I get to see my friends. And you know what? If I didn’t know somebody was out there waiting for me, I probably wouldn’t get up.”
Feature: Project Profile
From Ghoulish To Glorious
The Historic Restoration of the Old Salem Jail
On a crisp, Sunday morning in March 2010, a long line of visitors gathered outside the latest development project of Boston-based developer New Boston Ventures. It was the project’s first open house, and the mood that day was electric. Organizers had scheduled the event to start at 10:00 a.m., and yet long before the doors had opened, the line had swollen to well over 100 feet long and two to three people thick. It was as if those waiting were “queuing up to see a prestigious show,” wrote one attendee at the event. And the line kept growing. Over the next few hours, an estimated 3,000 people toured the project, nearly all of whom, oddly enough, had no interest in renting one of the 23 available units.
The project, the adaptive reuse and historic restoration of the Old Salem Jail in Salem, Massachusetts, had captured the imagination of nearly everyone in and around the city. Built in 1813 and added onto in 1884, the jail had been in continuous operation for 175 years, making it the oldest in the country. Its main building, the jail house, is an imposing granite and brick building, four stories tall with two spire-like cupolas that rise 20 feet or so above the ridge. A second building, the jail-keeper’s house, is a long, slender, four-story brick building that stands in front of, and perpendicular to the jail house, forming the second side of an L-shaped courtyard. The jail’s third and final building, the carriage house, is a small, barn-like structure adjacent to the jail-keeper’s house, on the southeast corner of the property.
The jail had once been an economic boon for the city of Salem, but in 1991, a federal judge declared it uninhabitable and the prison was soon abandoned. The chain-link fence and razor remained in place, but offered little deterrent to the curious. Vandals broke in, smashed windows and painted graffiti on the walls. The yard grew thick with weeds and litter. In 1999, a fire gutted the jail-keeper’s house, destroying a wood addition and leaving much of the exterior brick blackened with soot. To ghost hunters and thrill seekers, the prison’s slow moldering into ruin only increased its appeal—the property made all the more haunting by the historic Howard Street Cemetery that borders it to the rear. The city of Salem didn’t share this affection. The prison had become a blight on the community. The buildings, added to the National and State Register of Historic Places in 1976, couldn’t be demolished, and yet repeated attempts to attract a developer failed to take hold. When, in 2000, the city bought the property from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a whopping $1.00, then Salem Mayor Stanley Usovicz reportedly joked, “I think I paid too much.”
The city again issued and RFP for the jail’s redevelopment in early 2006, and that is when Finegold Alexander + Associates (FA+A) and New Boston Ventures got involved. Jim Alexander, the project’s lead architect and a principle with FA+A, is a bit of an adaptive-reuse celebrity in the area, and the two firms worked together often. “Several of our architects live in Salem,” Alexander explains, “and so we saw the notice early on and brought it to the developer.” The site itself is a prime piece of real estate: 1.04 acres, just blocks from downtown, the train station and the water, and only 45 minutes from Boston. The team’s plan was to convert the buildings into high-end condominiums, along with a 4,000-square-foot restaurant (now the Great Escape Restaurant) on the ground floor of the 1884 addition.
The preliminary bid-work and city approval process then took the next two years to complete. There were no plans to draw from, and so in December 2006, Alexander and his associates entered the buildings to take measurements. The fire had mostly destroyed the jail-keeper’s house, leaving only the shell and remnants of the floor structure, spiral staircases and wooden mantel pieces that once defined its interior. The coach house, built of timber frame and wood siding, had rotted through and would be torn down and replicated. But the jail house itself was altogether different. Four floors of masonry and steel cell blocks filled the building’s central cavity, from basement to roofline, with catwalks and cast-iron staircases that led from one floor to the next. Massive slate and granite slabs made up the floors. Large flecks of lead paint peeled from the ceilings and walls. The place was a horror story and would have to be gutted completely.
New Boston Ventures agreed to buy the property for $100,000, and the project continued to progress until 2008 and the crash of the U.S. housing market. The market for condos had withered almost overnight, and New Boston now faced a finance market that had dried to a trickle. Again, FA+A presented a solution. “After the market crashed,” Alexander explains, “it was decided that the original scheme was not going to work.” The solution: reconfigure the project to make it eligible for federal and state incentives. Alexander calls these projects “Tax-Act” projects, referring to the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program administered by the National Park Service. The program provides a 20%-of-cost tax rebate on historic restorations. Massachusetts has a similar program, the Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, administered by the Massachusetts Historic Commission, which also provided a 20% tax incentive. All told, New Boston was able to reduce its estimated cost of roughly $10 million by a game-saving 40%, or $3.9 million.
“Of course, in exchange for that,” notes Alexander, “we had to do certain things in the preservation of the buildings, [and] we had to negotiate that with the National Park Service. If you are just working on a historic building, [there are] certain local historic guidelines, and you can’t tear it down. But a lot of times there aren’t a lot of other rules. There aren’t the same kind of requirements you have when you are getting tax credits and using federal money.”
One of the key changes New Boston had to agree to was to convert the project from condos into apartments and to maintain the property as rental units for at least five years. In addition, FA+A eliminated plans for balconies and raised terraces that would have obscured the buildings’ facades. The Park Service also required, among other things, that more of the building’s historical fabric be retained and that a display of its history be available to the public. To this end, workers stripped and restored one of the ornate cast iron staircases on the east end of the building and left intact (and open to the public) two of the original cells [pictured above]. New Boston also chose, as an added touch, to bolt an original cell door next to each of the apartment entrances. “It gives people something to talk about,” Alexander says.
Work on the project began in May 2009, with Boston-based Metric Construction serving as the general contractor. Bob Puracchio, the project executive with Metric, recalls the complexity of gutting the old jail. Crews first spent nearly a month cleaning the interior of lead paint, scrubbing and scraping by hand to protect the brick and mortar and removing an estimated 30 drums of chips. Then came the dismantling of the cells. The cell block masonry supported the roof framing, and so before the cells could be removed, workers had to cut through the roof, insert steel beams across the building and construct massive trusses up inside the jail’s attic. Once completed, workers could then dismantle the cell blocks, brick by brick, down through the center of the building. “At one point,” Puracchio recalls, “we had totally gutted it out and had only this big cavernous expanse of nothing but the exterior granite walls.”
Another “magic of restoration” detail for Puracchio was the re-creation of the historic chimneys on the jail-keeper’s house. The interior renovation of the building had removed the interior substructure of the chimneys, and the challenge was to support the new, replicated chimneys without this foundation. Rather than build massive supports in the attic, Puracchio explains, the engineers instead chose to fake it in. From the outside, the chimneys look authentic, but are actually only hollow shells, constructed of plywood and encased in a half-inch thick brick veneer. “When you do this a lot, as we do,” Puracchio says, “you come up with fairly crafty ways of making things look authentic.”
All told, the jail’s renovation includes 23 units. Apartments in the jail house range from a 551-square-foot one-bedroom up to a 2,621-square-foot penthouse. There are now three, 1,700-square-foot townhouses in the jail-keeper’s house and a detached, two-bedroom home in the re-built carriage house. “The idea was to provide as many options of housing as we could to just cover the market,” Alexander says.
New Boston Ventures and Finegold Alexander are also currently working through plans for a fourth building that will measure 21,000 square-feet (including underground parking), add 13 new units and close off the third side of the central courtyard. The success of the project, notes Alexander, has been remarkably impressive. The community is thrilled. A blight is removed. And back in March 2010, after that first open house, it took less than a week to fill nearly all of the available units. “I’ve got to give Metric a lot of credit,” Alexander says. “They did a terrific job.”
Feature: Building Science
Outwitting Mother Nature
Builders Learn to Adapt to Different Regions and Seasons
If there is one thing to be said about building homes in the U.S., it is this: There is, in fact, little that can be called standard building practice. From the frozen reaches of northern Alaska to the sweltering heat of the desert, the U.S. is host to some of the world’s most extreme and divergent weather conditions, and to build a home in each environment often requires a uniquely local bag of tricks. In New Orleans, for instance, hurricane-driven rains can pelt a home at 140-plus miles an hour, while in the Pacific Northwest it is the near constant soak of rain that most threatens the life of a building.
To find out how builders are building in these and other extreme weather conditions, we called upon professionals from around the country and asked them to share a few ways they have found to outwit Mother Nature.
In Phoenix, the summer heat can slap against the skin like a thousand tiny bee stings. The average daily high, from early June to late August, tops an easy 105 degrees, with record temperatures boiling to 120 degrees or more. During the summer of 2010—the ninth-hottest summer on record—even the nights in Phoenix brought little relief, with an average nighttime temperature of 84 degrees and at least a few nights remaining well above 90.
Keeping out the heat is an obvious priority for homebuilders in such blistering climates, but as local homebuilder Jeff Lupien notes, in the Valley of the Sun there is more than just heat to contend with.
“Unfortunately, the sun gets into everything out here,” says Lupien, a senior project manager with Kitchell Custom Homes, a high-end Phoenix homebuilder. The first and obvious line of defense for beating the heat, Lupine notes, is building a well-insulated home, which Kitchell achieves by sealing the exterior with open-cell foam. But beyond that, the greatest challenge is combating the sun. A few of the more common and less-expensive approaches to beating the heat begin with the design and placement of the home, with the goal of orienting the home to the north and east and away from the sun. When this is not possible, however, Lupien recommends installing high-quality, Low-E, aluminum windows.
Two particular favorite brands of windows for Kitchell clients are Fleetwood Windows and Western Window, both of which manufacture a luxury, all-aluminum, Low-E window with thermally broken frames that help reduce the transfer of heat from the exterior to the interior. If a client wants a high-efficiency window without the tinted glass, Lupien often suggests a specialty glass, the Solarban 70Xl from PPG, which provides an equivalent solar control, without the tint.
Protecting the home’s exterior is another important concern, and for this Kitchell relies on materials that can handle the heat and resist fading. Stone and stucco are favored choices for the siding, or better yet, adds Lupien, synthetic stucco, like Western 1-Koat, from Western Stucco Co., which is more flexible and less prone to cracking.
Lupien also recommends a metal roof with a Grace Ultra underlayment for pitched roofs, while for flat or low-pitched roofs, he suggests using closed-cell foam sealed with a derby-gum membrane. The metal, he notes, sheds the heat more efficiently than tile, and the derby-gum withstands UV deterioration far better than the more commonly used elastomeric coating. “In the cold country,” Lupien notes, “you want the sun to come in and warm the house, but here in Phoenix, we do everything we can to keep it out.”
In the mid to late 1990s, what many called an epidemic swept through the Pacific Northwest, from Vancouver to southern Oregon, causing a major health concern and spurring a critical review of the region’s building codes and practices. The problem was widespread failure of building envelopes, resulting in extensive black mold and rot damage and almost exclusively affecting homes and buildings built since the 1980s. By the time the full scope of the problem was realized, “the city of Seattle estimated that 50% of all multifamily structures (in the city) had undisclosed rot that needed remediation,” says Jim Freeling, the founding engineer of Seattle-based firm Building Envelope Engineers (BEE).
“What is going on,” Freeling says, “is that we have southwesterly winds…that take up storms from the South Pacific and hit us along the coast.” These storms, he explains, which might occur six to eight times a year, pelt the Pacific Northwest with rain and cause a phenomenon known as wind-driven rain, where unequal internal and external pressures turn the house into a straw that literally sucks up the moisture. The region’s then otherwise damp climate provides rain-soaked homes little opportunity to dry out.
The Pacific Northwest, explains Freeling, is damp more than 50% of the year, meaning that any moisture that infiltrates a building might remain moist for upwards of six months, and in a warm, wet wall, mold can germinate in a matter of days. That said, Freeling is less inclined to blame the weather. “I don’t blame the wind and the rain for the leaks,” he says. “It has to be in conjunction with poor construction practices.”
What happened, Freeling explains, is that in the early to mid-’80s, energy codes outpaced building practices, calling for tighter and tighter homes that, in effect, couldn’t breathe. In the pursuit of saving energy, the allowable rate of air flow in a home was restricted and ventilation reduced, but when coupled with more efficient windows, an interior vapor barrier and other measures, the result was, in effect, a vapor lock. What moisture got in a wall, stayed in the wall, rotting the wood and causing mold.
Not surprisingly, once the problem was understood, the solution was relatively simple: The wall needed to breathe. Today, explains Freeling, nearly every project in the region is built with a drainage plane (or rain screen) behind the exterior cladding, which sheds the exterior water, while allowing interior moisture to escape. Though there are numerous products used to create this drainage plane—from mesh-covered housewrap to plastic furring strips—Freeling relies on the older method of installing ¾-inch battens over an exterior housewrap and nailing the siding to the battens.
Typically, Freeling specs out any one of several housewraps from VaproShield—depending on need and budget—but he most prefers the company’s WallShield, which works like Gore-Tex to keep out air and rain, while letting moisture escape.
“We are now wrapping a house like we dress ourselves in the winter,” Freeling says. “These are sophisticated designer products and solely what we spec out in the Pacific Northwest.”
When it comes to building homes in cold-weather climates, it’s hard to contend with builders like Dave Dillard, president and treasurer of 3-2-1 Construction Inc. in Fairbanks, AK. The average winter temperature in Fairbanks, from early October to late April, rarely beats freezing, while midwinter lows can plummet to -25 degrees for days at a time.
“It is just amazing what we are trying to do here,” Dillard says. “We are sometimes trying to keep a home 100 degrees warmer than the outside temperature.” Dillard has been a Fairbanks builder for more than 30 years and has, in addition, held numerous, high-ranking positions in the Alaska State Home Building Association, the Interior Alaska Building Association and the National Association of Home Builders. In 2000, he helped develop the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC), where he continues to serve on the board.
The CCHRC was founded in 2000 by Fairbanks builder Jack Hébert, owner of Hébert Home LLC, with a mission to research, develop and test building materials and methods for cold-weather climates around the globe. As Dillard explains, prior to the founding of the CCHRC, Alaskan builders often adopted building methods developed in other climates, only to have them fail in the Alaskan extremes. As an example, Dillard cites similar rot and mold problems experienced in the Pacific Northwest. “Several years ago, when energy got so expensive, we tightened up the envelope, but then we caused a vapor problem by not ventilating properly,” he says.
The most recent innovation of the CCHRC was introduced about five years ago and has quickly gained traction with Alaskan builders. It is an insulating method known as the Residential Exterior Membrane Outside-insulation Technique (REMOTE wall system), or as Dillard jokingly refers to it, “outsulation.” The CCHRC borrowed much of REMOTE from an older, Canadian system, and after conducting a series of tests, made a few alterations and improvements.
In simple terms, REMOTE installs the vapor barrier and a percentage of the insulation on the exterior of the home’s sheathing, bringing the dew point to the exterior of the wall and greatly reducing the potential for rot or mold within the wall cavity. The wall is constructed with a standard 2×4 or 2×6 framing, sheathed with plywood or OSB, and then covered completely with a nonpermeable membrane, such as Grace Ice and Water, Tyvek DrainWrap or 8 mil plastic. Four to six inches of foam insulation is then installed outside the membrane and secured to the house by furring strips and long screws. The siding is then attached to the furring strips.
Dillard then uses blown-in fiberglass insulation to fill the wall cavities, resulting in an airtight, well-insulated wall, with a drainage plane behind the siding, an impermeable membrane and a dew point outside the wall structure, rather than within the wall cavity. For any moisture that enters the wall, the interior vapor barrier is eliminated, allowing it to dry to the inside, where, of course, great effort is made to properly vent the home.
Since long before Hurricane Katrina, builders, architects and engineers were working to build more storm-resistant homes, but since the storm’s shocking devastation an increased sense of urgency has developed in the market. Katrina, and other recent storms, made the worst of Mother Nature an immediate reality, and the fear of a repeat now concerns every community from Galveston, TX, to the southern Atlantic seaboard.
For two homebuilders in the region, both of which are working to outwit the wind, the solution has come down to a question of geometry and the difference between a circle and a square.
Deltec Homes, in Asheville, NC, has, since 1968, designed and manufactured a panel-system home that is literally outside of the box of thinking when it comes to withstanding wind. The company manufacturers a “circular” home, which is more accurately described as a multisided home containing up to 22 8-foot sides and encompassing up to 2,500 square feet per floor.
It is the spoke-like construction that makes a Deltec Home particularly resistant to hurricane winds, explains Steve Linton, the director of sustainable technologies at Deltec. The floor and roof trusses, as with the spokes of a wheel, radiate out from the center of the building, so that any force applied to one side of the house is displaced throughout the whole of the building, vastly increasing its strength. The circular design also diminishes the buildup of pressure on one side of the building, reducing the potential for an imbalance that can facilitate the intrusion of wind-driven rain.
In New Orleans, another company, Build Now, is taking an entirely different approach. Rather than look for an out-of-the-box solution, Build Now is building homes that build the box one better.
Build Now is a nonprofit that was founded in the wake of Katrina with a mission to provide safe and affordable housing to some of the city’s worst-hit residents. A leading feature of any Build Now home—38 of which have been built in the past two years—is that it is elevated on pillions buried some 30 feet into the ground. Breakaway trellis paneling is then used to skirt the home, which will allow any future flooding and fast-moving water to pass beneath the house with minimal impact. This, however, is only one of several measures used to improve the home, says architect William Monaghan, the founder of Build Now. To help increase the strength of the building, Monaghan designed the homes without overhangs, which, he explains, prevents any uplift on the roof during a storm, while also allowing the whole of the building to be locked together as one continuous unit.
Without overhangs, the rafter tails are cut flush to the framing and a 10-foot sheathing panel is used to tie the floor’s rim-joists directly to the rafter tails. This, Monaghan notes, also provides a less-expensive option to metal hangers and other more costly means of tying down the roof.
On the exterior of the home, Build Now, as well as Deltec, then installs an impact-resistant housewrap, such as Typar StormWrap, which helps protect the house from damage caused by flying objects. To insure proper installation of the housewrap, Monaghan draws out detailed plans of everything from taping the seams to flashing the windows, which, he says, the importance of which cannot be overstated—no matter the weather conditions.