Energy Efficient Construction

The Benefits of Adding Solar Power to Your Home

In our development in Florence, MA, just 2.5 miles from downtown Northampton, MA, it seems that solar panels are going up on yet another neighbor's home on a weekly basis. We started the process of interviewing local solar providers last year, but had to put the project on hold for a variety of reasons. Now we are ready to open this can of worms once again. Luckily, our neighbors have done a lot of research, which they are happy to share. The following article from Apartment Therapy does a nice job of explaining the costs and benefits associated with installing solar panels on ones' home. The good news is that buyers do seem to be willing to pay more for solar power - so you needn't stay in your home long enough to see a direct return on investment. 

Can Solar Power Pay Off? One Homeowner Crunches Real Numbers

By Julie Sprankles 

Aside from the obvious benefit of helping the planet, solar power can be pretty enticing to homeowners who are tired of paying an arm and a leg for their electric bill every month. Given that outfitting a home with solar panels comes with considerable costs upfront, though, is doing so practical from a financial standpoint? Can solar power in fact pay off?

For starters, it's worth noting that the benefits—as well as costs—of installing solar (also called photovoltaic) power systems will vary from house to house. This makes sense, right? Your house might be much larger than my house. My house may be in an area where solar power is more readily available and therefore more affordable. The variables go on and on.

In general, however, there are a few universal benefits of installing solar power: it lowers your electric bill, minimizes your carbon footprint and, depending on where you live, it can even bump up your home value.

On the flip side, you'll need to drop a pretty penny upfront in order to buy the equipment and pay for the installation. The big question, of course, is whether the potential savings will outweigh those upfront expenditures—or, more pointedly, whether you'll actually be able to save money (or make money, if the value of your house goes up considerably) should you invest in solar power.

How much does solar power cost to install?

Let's talk numbers, shall we? A solar power system for an average-sized house in the U.S. can run anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000. If those figures give you a serious case of sticker shock, don't fret just yet—many companies allow you to "lease" the equipment, which dramatically reduces your upfront costs. But should you decide to purchase outright, you may qualify for government incentives that cut the cost of the system. In all 50 states, installing a solar power system qualifies the homeowner for the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit. This tax incentive allows you to claim a credit of 30 percent of qualified expenditures for your system and, most importantly, helps to shave down the time it would take for your savings to equal out or exceed your initial investment.

If you're the type that likes online calculators, you'll be particularly happy to learn that Google has come up with a handy little number-cruncher to give you an approximation of the costs and savings you can expect with solar in your own home. Called Project Sunroof, the tool relies on high-resolution aerial mapping to calculate your specific roof's solar energy potential. According to Google engineer Carl Elkin, the site "figures out how much sunlight hits your rooftop through the year, taking into account factors like roof orientation, shade from trees and nearby buildings, and local weather patterns."

Technology... crazy, huh?

When I plug my home's address into Project Sunroof, it spits out an aerial thermal image of my street that is, if we're being honest, pretty damn impressive in its detail. The fact that my roof is glowing bright yellow clues me into the fact that sunlight is aplenty, but the site spells it out for me, too.

By their estimate, my roof receives 1,606 hours of usable sunlight per year. Based on 3D modeling of my roof and nearby trees, the site figures I have 564 square feet of roof available to be outfitted with solar panels—and they recommend an 8-kilowatt system, which would cover 40 percent of our household electricity usage.

What does all of this mean for my bottom line and, theoretically, yours? That, yes, a solar power system can pay off.

With the system covering around 40 percent of my household electricity usage, my 20-year benefits of utilizing the system would total $37,000. If the upfront cost of a system after tax incentives amounts to $17,000 and we deduct that from the benefits, the 20-year savings comes out to $20,000. In other words, it would take nine years to pay back that initial investment.

You may be thinking, "Yeah, but this only pays off if I actually stay in the home for nine years." In which case you may be relieved to learn that research conducted by the Department of Energy in 2015 showed that buyers are happy to pay more for homes with solar power systems.

The study, which was cited by The New York Times, revealed that buyers were willing to pay a premium of $15,000 for a home with a solar power system, compared to a similar home without one. The only caveat is that these findings apply to systems that are owned, not leased.

So although there's no hard-and-fast rule for whether or not solar power systems will pay off in every unique situation, they can certainly save you money immediately on your electrical bill whether you buy or lease. And if you have the capital to make the full investment upfront, you could be looking at paying off the system in less than a decade and enjoying sizable savings and a big ROI in the long-term.

Houseplants that Improve Indoor Air Quality

Who knew that having a green thumb could help with air quality in your own home? As the winter months set in, we are sealed up inside of our ever-more energy efficient homes. The "tighter" the home, the less fresh air that will naturally circulate within that home. I know that in our household, it seems my family members and I take turns feeling lousy this time of year. We live in an energy star rated home with a circulation system to keep fresh air moving through the house - but still, access to fresh air is limited as compared to warmer months. I have often thought that the lack of fresh air can lead to this increase in illness or allergic responses. The following article from Northampton's The Daily Hampshire Gazette on Tuesday, January 17th, makes helpful suggestions about how homeowners can keep indoor air cleaner during the winter. I love that adding beautiful plants to your home has the added benefit of making the air cleaner!

Plants, techniques to keep indoor air clean in winter

  • Peperomia, seen at Hadley Garden Center, is a plant said to purify air.

  • Poinsettias, seen at Hadley Garden Center, are plants said to purify air

  • Chinese evergreen, seen at Hadley Garden Center, is a plant said to purify air.

  • English ivy, seen at Hadley Garden Center, is said to purify air. GAZETTE STAFF/Jerrey Roberts - Buy this Image

  • Orchids, seen at Hadley Garden Center, are flowers said to purify air.

  • Angela Karlovich, who works at Hadley Garden Center, beside a display of plants that are said to purify air. At left a close-up of a Chinese evergreen. Gazette staff/Jerrey roberts 

  • A spider plant, at Hadley Garden Center. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS 

  • Angela Karlovich, who works at Hadley Garden Center, holds an aloe vera plant, one that is said to purify air, Dec. 12, at the store.

  • Chinese evergreen, seen at Hadley Garden Center, is a plant said to purify air

For the Gazette
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
The ravages of winter drive us inside, where we take comfort in a warm home well protected and insulated from the elements.

But while a weather-tight home is great for saving energy and resources, that efficiency often comes at the expense of indoor air quality. 

When the windows are closed for the season, a variety of indoor air contaminants can accumulate and bother residents. Some of these contaminants are allergens such as mold spores or dust mites. Others are toxic organic compounds off-gassing from furniture, building materials or carpets. 

Dr. Jonathon Bayuk, medical director of allergy services at Allergy and Immunology Associates of New England, says there are many things homeowners can do to clean indoor air. 

Getting rid of allergens 

Air purifiers can remove allergens and other air contaminants, including dust mites, smoke and mold particles. Bayuk advises buying one that is big enough for the area of the room and uses a HEPA filter to trap contaminant air particles. He cautions against products that utilize blades. This type of air purifier creates ozone by generating tiny electrical sparks when the blades strike a contaminating particle. While each spark generates a minimal amount of ozone, over the course of a day, the ozone can accumulate to toxic levels. 

Keeping the relative indoor humidity below 50 percent helps to discourage mold growth, according to Bayuk, but it’s important not to let humidity drop too low as dry skin can often become a problem when relative humidity drops below 35 or 40 percent. 

Mold growing on a hard surface, such as a tub, can be relatively easy to clean (Bayuk recommends a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water). However, porous objects, such as a box of books in the basement, may need to be disposed of in order eliminate that source of mold spores in the home. 

Dust mites are another common indoor allergen that can cause year-round problems for people with a sensitivity to the enzymes they excrete.

Dust mites feed on the dead skin cells that humans and pets naturally shed, as well as dust, pollen and other organic material. They live in areas where they can find food, sufficient moisture and warmth. 

Carpets, couches, and mattresses are common areas where dust mites live and breed. As these surfaces are porous, they gather below the surface of the fabric, making it difficult to get rid of them. 

Bayuk says a mattress cover is a great place to start in curbing dust mites. The cover is made of a very tight fabric the mites cannot penetrate. Cleaning the cover on a weekly basis keeps them from piling up on these surfaces.

Reducing clutter and keeping a house clean can also reduce the number of dust mites. Bayuk recommends using a high-efficiency vacuum with a HEPA filter to remove mites and their food sources from carpets and sofas. 

Dust mites are fairly easily removed from hard surfaces as they stick to a damp cloth. Bayuk says using a feather duster is virtually useless, and simply moves the mites and the particles they feed on to another surface.

Chemical contaminants 

Organic compounds off-gassing from dry-cleaned clothes, and from newly applied paints, lacquers and varnishes, as well as from newer furniture, carpets and building materials are another source of indoor air pollution. 

In the late 1980s, NASA conducted a series of experiments to see if indoor plants could be used to purify the air of future space habitats. The agency’s final report on the experiments showed that some of the most common and easily cared-for houseplants were surprisingly effective at decreasing levels of the most common organic compounds found circulating indoors. 

Hadley Garden Center stocks many of the plants named in the study. Greenhouse manager Angela Karlovich is familiar with the NASA study, and can lead customers to a wide variety of air-cleaning plants that perform well in a wide variety of indoor settings. 

Karlovich says that many of the plants cited by NASA can thrive in low-light conditions, which makes them versatile and easy to care for indoors, including: 

Dracaena: Several varieties were tested by NASA and were found to be effective at removing trichloroethylene (TCE), benzene and formaldehyde.

Spider plants: effective at removing formaldehyde. Spider plants are also non-toxic to pets. 

English ivy: removes TCE, benzene and formaldehyde 

Chinese evergreen: removes formaldehyde and benzene 

Bamboo palm: removes TCE, benzene and formaldehyde. Bamboo palm is non-toxic to pets. 

Golden pothos: removes formaldehyde 

Philodendron: removes formaldehyde 

Peace lily: removes TCE, benzene and formaldehyde 

While sun-loving Gerbera daisies are usually planted outside, these plants removed the most TCE and benzene of all the plants tested at NASA. They are also non-toxic to pets. 

Bayuk says like all plants, those mentioned above also add to indoor air quality by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.


Time For an Energy Assessment for Your Home!

As winter approaches, heating costs may be on your mind. Perhaps you have put off winterizing strategies in past years. Or maybe you've been curious about how to make your home more energy-efficient, but you weren't sure how to get started. The Mass Save program makes it easy for homeowners to start the ball rolling towards creating a more energy-efficient home. Better for the environment, and easier on the wallet!

Buyers often want to gain as clear a picture as they can about the degree of energy efficiency in a house they are considering, especially in many of the older homes for sale in the Northampton area. Sellers often want or need advice about what they can do to improve household energy efficiency, when preparing to put their homes on the market. We realtors often suggest contacting Mass Saves for an energy audit as a starting off point. 

Yesterday's article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, below, describes the process in detail!

Dirty or graying insulation above this basement wall is an indication of an air leak to the outside. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Mass Save’s energy assessment is cheapest route to weatherizing your home

For the Gazette 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Any time of the year is a great time to think about how to save energy, but the crisp night air of autumn is an especially good reminder to get the house ready for winter.

But before going to the hardware store to buy all the products needed to fill in all those drafty areas around windows and doors, you might want to consider bringing an energy-saving expert to your house to do that and more — for free.

One of the most informative and economical ways to make your home more energy-efficient is through the Mass Save program, a private/public partnership between the state and all the utility companies.

Homeowners can call and schedule a free energy assessment for their home. During the assessment, which takes several hours, a trained energy specialist walks through the house and creates a report, or “road map,” detailing what aspects of the home can benefit from upgrades, weatherization or additional insulation.

In addition to energy assessments, the program offers: 

  • rebates for upgrading to more energy-efficient appliances; 
  • substantial discounts on insulation; 
  • no-cost weatherization of drafty areas around doors, windows, sills, etc.; 
  • no-cost replacement of standard light bulbs with energy efficient LEDs; 
  • no-cost replacement of shower and faucet heads with more energy efficient models; 
  • no-cost replacement of heating system filters.

To get a better sense of the program, we tagged along on an assessment of a one-story contemporary home in Hatfield belonging to Eversource spokeswoman Patricia Ress. Brian Tierney was the energy assessor, and Eversource spokesman Bill Stack was also present to answer questions about the Mass Save program.

Stack encourages all residents, whether renters or homeowners, to take advantage of the program and schedule an assessment. Every month, Eversource customers pay a couple cents for every dollar they pay for electricity to fund the Mass Save program.

“Everybody is paying into it,” he said, “It’s like putting money into a savings account. If you don’t do an assessment, it’s like putting money into the account and never using it.” 

Down in the basement 

Tierney started the assessment in the basement, where he tested the heating/cooling system to determine how efficiently it was working. Ress’ home has a geothermal heating and cooling system, which exchanges heat through pipes that run into the ground to heat the home in cool months and cool it in the summer.

Tierney checked the system’s filter. Whether geothermal, oil or gas, if HVAC system filters are not replaced regularly, then the system will not function efficiently. He recommends a filter rated at Merv 8 or higher. Lower-end filters will protect the system from damage by large particles, but will not improve home air quality the way higher-end filters do.

He checked the hot water heater to ensure efficient combustion, and adequate venting, then checked the dehumidifier.

While dehumidifiers use a fair amount of electricity in the summer, keeping a basement below 60 percent humidity is important to prevent the growth of mold. Colder air, such as that in a basement doesn’t hold humidity well. That’s why homeowners will see sometimes see their basement walls sweating in summer.

“People sometimes tell me that they opened up the bulkhead to air out the basement, but that’s the worst thing you can do,” Tierney said, “It’s just a recipe for mold growth.” 

A better strategy is to seal any cracks or air holes around the sill and dehumidify the basement when necessary. Peeling back a piece of insulation near the sill, Tierney said that in some older homes, “you can actually see daylight along this line.” 

A gray or yellow discoloration of the insulation in attics or basements is a clear sign that air is somehow flowing in there. Air sealing in basements and attics is free of charge through the Mass Save program.

Air sealing is important not only to keep humid air from leaking in through the basement during summer but also to keep warm air inside the home during winter. Later in the assessment, Tierney will check the sill plate and inject an expandable foam into any holes to make this seal tight.

Spotting a chest freezer in the corner, Tierney mentioned that older chest freezers and refrigerators can be real energy hogs. Mass Save will pay residents $50 to haul these units away, and will then recycle 97 percent of the parts of these older appliances. Depending on the model, chest freezers are more efficient than those attached with a stand-up refrigerator as the cold air stays in the box when it is opened.

He also noted that it takes less energy to keep a full freezer at the set temperature. If there isn’t enough frozen food to fill the freezer, old milk jugs can be filled with water and set around the food packages to ensure efficient cooling.

Main floor 

Tierney asked Ress about her energy usage. Ress said her electric bill went up substantially when she moved into the house earlier this year.

Ress’ home was built in 2000, and so far, Tierney found little to indicate that it was inefficient. During his spot check of the basement sill line, the insulation and sealing seemed sufficient.

Ress said that the mix of generations living in her home may increase the demand for energy, as her elderly parents need to be in a comfortable temperature and her teenager uses a fair amount of hot water and electronics. 

“We have the TV on just about all the time,” she said, adding, “the geothermal system is great and keeps us comfortable, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but the pumps are running all the time.” 

Then Tierney started replacing dozens of small light bulbs with LEDs in several chandeliers on the main floor. He noted that Ress may start seeing substantial savings right away, because the cost of running a lot of incandescent bulbs, even if they’re small, can really add up. 

Stack added that homeowners may see savings up to over $500 with these lighting upgrades alone, as the bulbs use so much less energy and cost at least $4-5 each in stores.

Mass Save uses LEDs rather than compact fluorescent bulbs because they do not contain mercury, and last much longer. 

“One thing we tell customers is that if they put in an LED bulb when they have a new baby in the house, they may not have to replace that LED until their child is off to college,” Stack said.

Tierney also pointed to a few different power strips on the main floor where different appliances and lights were plugged in and, in many cases, still using electricity, even though they were turned off. He replaced power strips in Ress’ home with “smart sticks,” which cut power to several appliances on the strip when they are not in use.

The Mass Save program provides programmable thermostats during energy assessments, which can improve efficiency. Stack said the program can also provide Wi-Fi thermostats, some of which allow homeowners to adjust temperatures from afar, lowering or increasing them automatically when they are within a specific radius. A second visit is required to install Wi-Fi thermostats.

Tierney advised against temperature shifts of more than 8 degrees between day and night. 

“Temperature swings greater than that will require more energy to heat the house back up than if you had left the thermostat alone,” he said.

He also checked Ress’ appliances to see if they were running efficiently. Mass Save offers a tiered rebate program based on income to encourage upgrades to more energy-efficient models. Rebates on refrigerators, for example, start at $150 but are higher if a resident is low- or moderate-income. Rebates for clothes washers start at $350.

In the attic 

Tierney climbed into the attic and found that Ress’ home was well insulated. With 14 inches of cellulose insulation in addition to a layer of hard insulation, her home was well protected from heat loss. But Mass Save offers large discounts on insulation for homes that need it. Homeowners may qualify for discounts of 75 percent of the cost of approved insulation improvements, up to $2,000, Ress said. Discounts are even higher if residents are low- or moderate-income. 

In addition, the program offers no-cost targeted sealing of air leaks. She added that qualifying residents may also be eligible for zero percent financing for eligible measures through the HEAT loan program

Stack said Mass Save also works with contractors building and remodeling homes, offering discounts on energy-saving measures. He said homeowners who are in the process of construction can encourage their contractor to call the program to take advantage of these savings. 

In addition, the program is reaching out to real estate agents to do energy assessments before new owners move in. 

“When the house is empty, that’s the best time to look around and see what can be put in place to make sure it’s energy efficient,” he said.

Are Smaller Kitchens The Wave of the Future?

I recently put together a comparative market analysis for homeowners in Northampton who are hoping to sell their home in the spring market. Their ranch-style house has 3 modest bedrooms (yet with a small en suite master bath) a relatively small eat in kitchen, some nice open common living spaces and a lovely back yard. I was struck by the functionality of their small, yet streamlined kitchen. I'm always impressed by friends and clients who have the vision to create beautiful and functional small spaces within their homes. We realtors are seeing a trend towards buyers (generally speaking) seeking homes that aren't overwhelmingly spacious. With more modest-sized homes comes smaller rooms, including the kitchen.

Local design writer, Debra Jo Immergut, recently wrote the following article for the Boston Globe, describing how to design a functional and great looking compact kitchen. As we move towards becoming a culture that is ever more mindful of waste, hyperconsumerism and keeping a check on our carbon footprint, the trend towards smaller kitchens may become more popular.


Great design ideas for small kitchens

Advice from the experts on creating a tasteful and organized kitchen when you're short on space.

The new 21st-century kitchen is less focused on square footage and more on a general sense of openness, flow, and functionality.


For the last decade or two, the dream kitchen has been bulking up. Peruse popular home-centric websites, and you'll see marble-topped islands big enough to merit their own coordinates on Google Maps, ranges with sufficient burner capacity to launch small rockets, and cavernous fridges that could double as bunkers. Yes, some people have kitchens on steroids. And some -- urban dwellers, tiny-house revolutionaries, and countless homeowners who simply live less large -- don't. The good news: The small-kitchen crowd needn't feel deprived. When designed for maximum efficiency and style, a more modest kitchen might even be considered the next big thing.

"The kitchen is ever increasing in importance," said Treff LaFleche, principal of LDa Architecture & Interiors in Cambridge, "but the space being dedicated to it is changing dramatically." The new 21st-century kitchen is less focused on square footage and more on a general sense of openness, flow, and functionality, he said -- it's less about a huge footprint and more about "serving as the heart of the home."

A few years down the road, a compact kitchen area may even be an attractive selling point. "Boomers are the ones with the money right now, but their millennial children are driving a move toward efficiency and sustainability," said Bill Darcy, CEO of the National Kitchen & Bath Association, a trade group of manufacturers and designers. Smaller spaces fit the lifestyle of a generation more encumbered with student debt and less enamored with sprawling dream homes, Darcy said.

To make a small kitchen work, owners should plan a savvy layout and opt for simple aesthetics, said New York designer Young Huh, who sat recently on a trend-spotting panel for the association. "You have to make the most of your choices," Huh noted. One upside to remaking a tiny space: You might be able to splurge here and there. "You can really go for it and choose a beautiful floor tile, because it's not so expensive to order a small amount," she noted.

So forget the vast culinary palaces of the Internet. Instead, make the cleverest possible use of the space you've got. But first, arm yourself with these strategies from kitchen-design geniuses.

Tailor it to fit

A slatted shelf unit hangs over the sink; it air-dries and stores dishes in the same spot.

A slatted shelf unit hangs over the sink; it air-dries and stores dishes in the same spot.

Even the tiniest space can be extremely functional if it's been fine-tuned to suit a family's daily routines. "Kitchens are very personal," said designer Emily Pinney, principal of Pinney Designs and owner of Cambridge boutique Syd + Sam. For example, "If your kids are always running in for drinks and snacks, maybe you need a refrigerator drawer that's really usable," Pinney said, noting that kitchen design should "be about what you really need in your life."

Creative solutions define the kitchen Charlestown's Bunker Workshop designed for an in-law apartment in Duxbury. The occupants wanted a dish-drying rack similar to ones they'd seen in Italy, so interior architect Chris Greenawalt devised a slatted shelf unit to hang over the sink; it air-dries and stores dishes in the same spot. A deep-green glass backsplash protects the wall from stray droplets and serves as a focal point for the all-white kitchen.

The couple made other requests for the space: They hoped for a kitchen island, a spot to sit and watch their grandkids play in the yard, and a full-size dining table. "We built a low, wheeled desk in front of the window where they could sit and have a glass of wine," Greenawalt said. The ingenious desk can then open into a table and double as an island work space.

Keep cabinetry streamlined

McMansion-dwellers may splash out on ornate cabinetry and crown molding, say designers, but in a small kitchen, it's best to keep it simple. "Go for a really good rhythm -- a line of cabinetry that's as clean and unbroken as possible," Huh said. If flat-panel styles are too contemporary, she said, Shaker is an ideal traditional alternative.

Consider covering appliances with panels to match your cabinetry: "It makes the refrigerator door disappear," said Huh, "and makes the kitchen look larger." Hardware, too, should be as simple as possible, designers say -- or go without it, opting instead for touch-latch doors. Portsmouth, N.H.-based designer Patty Kennedy found the paneling principle at work in a New York City kitchen she helped style for a photo shoot; the walls, refrigerator, and cabinets were covered with anigre, an African hardwood, lending a seamless finish to a potentially awkward nook.

Let there be light

In tight quarters, generously sized windows and pass-throughs can make a huge difference, as can white or neutral color schemes. "I'm a big believer in bigger windows that sit right down to the countertop, opening up to daylight and the outside," said Pinney, who loves their effect in a white-on-white Back Bay apartment she designed. Even a tiny over-the-sink window can be enlarged to make a confined space appear more spacious, she noted.

Sticking to the same materials and a neutral color works best in a diminutive space, "so your eye can focus and it's not all over the map," Pinney said. In the Back Bay kitchen, she used white Calcutta marble on the counters and white marble mosaic on the adjoining backsplashes, adding just enough visual interest while maintaining a restrained, unified scheme.

Choose small appliances

In this Cambridge kitchen, the fridge was placed below the counter.

In this Cambridge kitchen, the fridge was placed below the counter.

As alluring as those blazingly powerful six- or eight-burner ranges may be, they're often not a great fit for many households. "I'm trying to get clients to consider using smaller appliances," Greenawalt said. "The way most people shop is changing, and the way we cook is changing as well." For smaller spaces, he prefers a separate wall oven and stovetop to avoid breaking up the counter lines.

LDa's LaFleche does see more homeowners moving away from "that whole trend of the giant Sub-Zero refrigerators" and shifting toward "right-sizing their cooking and buying fresh." To that end, he often recommends small refrigerator drawers dedicated to produce or dairy that are closer to prep and cooking areas. In a small but inviting Cambridge galley kitchen, LaFleche specified an under-the-counter fridge, plus a smooth glass-topped stove and separate wall ovens.

Go vertical


Outfitted with pegboard accessories from the local hardware store, the aligator board in this kitchen serves as custom storage for kitchen utensils and other small gadgets.

Before moving her operations to Portsmouth, Kennedy worked for years designing interiors for the cramped confines of New York City apartments, where she learned that "every space needed to serve a double or triple function." She advises owners of compact kitchens to squeeze maximum utility out of vertical spaces. She works with high-end materials, but in her own New Hampshire kitchen, she devoted a narrow wall to her pot collection, hanging them from inexpensive IKEA racks. ("I'm a big IKEA fan -- they just get it.")

Greenawalt used a similar strategy in a loft apartment in Boston's Leather District. In lieu of a traditional backsplash, he installed panels of bright red perforated metal ("It's called AlligatorBoard, and people usually use it to hang tools in their garages," he said). Outfitted with pegboard accessories from the local hardware store, it serves as custom storage for kitchen utensils and other small gadgets.

Most important, LaFleche said, is to think hard about what you actually need to store. "We're seeing the reverse trend from the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s, when the goal was to put everything in the kitchen." He advises clients to divide gear into categories and keep items that might be used only every few weeks or months elsewhere: "They might move out to the closet or the hallway." Besides, if you're truly into cooking, he suggested, "the only thing you might really want is a set of knives."

And, on a related note, if you're truly just into eating, the only thing you might really want is a set of takeout menus -- and happily, those take almost no space to store.

Debra Jo Immergut is a Massachusetts-based design writer. Connect with her on Twitter @debraimmergut or send comments to


New Condominium Complex in Downtown Northampton

51 Phillips Place was in need of a lot of TLC when Linda Muerle purchased it back in 2013.  The house was rich in local history, full of lovely original architectural details, and set on a sizeable lot.  Linda had just sold the last of 6 units at her condo complex around the corner at 90 Pomeroy Terrace (formerly the Northampton School for Girls - another lovely historic building), and she was looking for a new project.  Linda Muerle is a licensed and trained architect, owner of the local company Consulting Design, and she is drawn to beautiful older homes in need of a new purpose.  

The original house at 51 Phillips Place was built in 1848, and Linda's purchase of the property coincided with the new zoning in Northampton which encourages infill.  She was able to complete a gut renovation of the existing structure, preserving some original floors, moldings, doors and staircases - and transform them into 2, beautifully appointed and energy efficient condos.  In addition, the size of the lot allowed her to build 2 brand new townhouses on the same property.

At the moment, 3 of the 4 units are available for purchase.  They are, as follows:

51 Phillips Place, Unit 1:

A 3 bedroom, 2 bath unit with a private front porch and detached one car garage, as well as one dedicated off-street parking space.  Eat-in cook's kitchen and dining room comprise the first floor, the upstairs has refinished original wide-plank wood floors, 3 bedrooms (including a light-filled ensuite Master), laundry and 2 full baths.  There are pull-down stairs leading to attic storage as well.  This unit has original moldings and staircase, as well as dedicated green space outdoors. Offered at $379,000


51 Phillips Place, Unit 2:

In the back of the main house is Unit 2.  This condo has a sweet side porch, an open concept downstairs, comprised of cook's kitchen, dining and living room.  As well as the option of a first floor master suite (which could also be a guest room or office).  There is an attached one car garage, dedicated parking spot and outdoor green space.  The second floor houses 2 more bedrooms and full baths, as well as laundry.  The upstairs master has large windows and cathedral ceilings, a walk in closet, additional storage in the eaves and a beautiful master bathroom. Offered at $429,000


51 Phillips Place, Unit 4:

Unit 4 is a 4 bedroom, 3 bath condo with an attached one-car garage and one off street parking spot.  It is brand new construction and purchase at this point would allow a buyer to weigh in on finishes and paint colors.  There is both a first and second floor master, as well as two additional bedrooms.  There is a large kitchen/dining room with a bay window, and a large living room on the first floor as well.  The upstairs houses the 3 additional bedrooms, bathrooms and more storage.  There is a full basement which could easily be converted into living space. Offered at $549,000




The original house at 51 Phillips Place, now Units 1 and 2


The new construction at 51 Phillips Place - Units 3 and 4.


The interior of Unit 2, housed in the original structure.   Original posts and stair rail were able to be incorporated into the design.

New Home for the Hitchcock Center for the Environment!

Great news for Northampton and Amherst area residents!  The Hitchcock Center for the Environment will be breaking ground on the construction of their new, uber-energy efficient building on the campus of Hampshire College on May 1st.  The new building will have all the green construction bells and whistles you would expect: roof-mounted solar panels, rain collection barrels, composting toilets and a naturally ventilated structure.  The construction of the building will follow the strict mandates of the Living Building Challenge, defined as "a building certification program, advocacy tool and philosophy that defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today and acts to rapidly diminish the gap between the current limits and the end-game positive solutions we seek.

The Hitchcock Center strives to connect people with nature and the environment with it's educational programs.  It seems that housing the organization in a new home which also ties people back to nature makes good sense.  It will be exciting to see the building in it's completion this fall.  Read on for the full article published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 22nd, 2015


The Red Barn at Hampshire College, near where the new Hitchcock Center will be built


Construction of new Hitchcock Center for Environment building will begin with groundbreaking May 1

The 9,000-square-foot building is expected to be New England’s first public environmental education facility to meet various standards under the Living Building Challenge, which mandates energy and water self-sufficiency and use of green materials, and will be large enough to accommodate the 11,500 children and adults participating in its environmental programs by 2020.

The building will go up in a hay field between the Red Barn and the Hampshire College Farm Center. The Hitchcock Center and college agreed to a 95-year ground lease April 17 on the land. The building should be complete and ready for programs in the fall of 2016.

Julie Johnson, executive director of the Hitchcock Center, said it is committed to the philosophy of the Living Building Challenge as part of its educational mission.

“The process will transform how we think about design and construction as an opportunity to benefit both the environment and community life,” Johnson said.

The building will include natural ventilation, roof-mounted solar panels, rainwater collection barrels and compostable toilets.

Speakers at the ceremony, scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m., are expected to include state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Rep. Ellen Story, both of Amherst; Dan Burgess, acting commissioner of the state Department of Energy Resources; and Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash.

Founded in 1962, the Hitchcock Center fosters awareness and understanding of the environment through its programs, many aimed at children. At the new site, existing programs will be strengthened and new ones added using both the building and the surrounding landscapes, where the center will have access to miles of trails and a variety of ecological habitats.

The new location is 2.5 miles south of the renovated carriage house at the Larch Hill Conservation Area on South Pleasant Street. This town-owned building is too small for the growing number of participants and there is little opportunity to expand on that site due to wetlands and other issues.

What the future holds for the current building, which Hitchcock has used for more than 40 years, is unknown. Johnson said the center has a lease with the town through 2020 and is discussing with town officials how Hitchcock might use the building for the remaining five years of its lease.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the conservation restriction on the 25-acre Larch Hill property explicitly states that as long as the building remains on site, it is to be used for environmental education and similar outreach purposes.

He anticipates the building will remain useful, perhaps as a satellite teaching facility for Hitchcock.

“We’ll continue to have those conversations with Hitchcock to see where that goes,” Ziomek said.

The land, which is bordered on two sides by preserved farmland, will remain protected and the trails that extend through it will remain open, as they are today, to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, Ziomek said.

The groundbreaking for the new Hitchcock Center site will also start the public phase of the capital campaign, which has already raised $4.5 million through support from the Kendeda Fund, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and local individuals, foundations and businesses.

Parking for the groundbreaking will be at the Red Barn.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


Lower Electricity Rates on the Horizon!

Good news! It seems that we can expect to see lower electricity bills, and perhaps lower gas bills, imminently here in the Pioneer Valley. I must say, I still hear the voice of my own parent's resonating in my ears with demands to "turn of the lights when you leave a room!". I have, of course, carried on the same tradition with my own children (harping on them to turn off lights/power when not in use, that is). Someday, I'm hoping this they will do so without even thinking about it (and demand the same of their own offspring). Meanwhile, Northampton area residents who are still reeling from the sticker shock of extremely high electricity bills this winter, can now breathe a sigh of relief -- and hopefully still remember to turn off anything that requires electricity when they aren't using it. Read on for the details about lower electricity rates from the Daily Hampshire Gazette article.


National Grid to lower rates May 1

A National Grid crew member works to restore power on lines in Revere, Mass. Monday, July 28, 2014, after a tornado touched down. Revere Deputy Fire Chief Mike Viviano says the fire department in that coastal city has received dozens of calls reporting partial building and roof collapses, and downed trees and power lines. Viviano says there are no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

A National Grid crew member works to restore power on lines in Revere, Mass. Monday, July 28, 2014, after a tornado touched down. Revere Deputy Fire Chief Mike Viviano says the fire department in that coastal city has received dozens of calls reporting partial building and roof collapses, and downed trees and power lines. Viviano says there are no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)



Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 

(Published in print: Wednesday, March 25, 2015)


Valley home and business owners can expect some relief from high electric bills this spring.


On Monday, National Grid announced that, pending Department of Public Utilities approval, the cost of power is expected to drop from the current rate of more than 16 cents per kilowatt-hour to just above 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, a more than 40 percent decrease, starting May 1. With the cost of delivering the power remaining the same, this means that typical basic service customers using 500 kilowatt hours of electricity a month will see a decrease of $32, or 26 percent, on their overall bills. 


National Grid spokeswoman Danielle Williamson explained that energy costs typically go down in the summer since there is less demand for natural gas than in the winter, when wholesale costs go up due to pipeline constraints.


“It’s not a shortage of natural gas that makes the price higher. It’s pipeline capacity constrictions,” she said Tuesday. “There’s enough natural gas, but in New England we don’t have enough pipelines to get into the area.” 


Meanwhile, natural gas customers can also anticipate lower bills this spring. Customers of Boston Gas and Colonial Gas, affiliates of National Grid, can expect to see their bills drop by approximately 30 and 25 percent respectively, according to Williamson.


National Grid has almost 1.3 million residential and business electric customers in Massachusetts and serves several Hampshire County communities, including Northampton, Belchertown, Granby, Williamsburg and Goshen. The news of lower rates was welcomed by residents and business owners in these communities.


Patricia Shaughnessy, who lives in Florence and is director of the Northampton Senior Center, called the news encouraging both as a city resident and professionally.


“I work with a population who in many regards cannot afford rate increases for anything,” she said. “So I think it will be a great experience to have their bills going down.” 


Customers of Eversource, the utility that formerly operated in this area as the Western Massachusetts Electric Co., will wait another month or so to learn whether their rates will also drop.


Unlike National Grid, Eversource operates on a January-through-July schedule with the Department of Public Utilities. In the next month, the company will put out a request for proposals from wholesale electricity suppliers, then submit the lowest bid received for state approval. Eversource does not generate power.


Priscilla Ress, an Eversource spokeswoman, said the new National Grid rates hold out hope for consumer rate relief.


“This is a very good sign for what’s happening in the electricity market,” she said.


The wholesale market has been shifting, she noted, now that customers are seeking alternative suppliers in the face of rising rates. Ress noted that over 90 percent of Eversource customers were previously signed up for the basic rate, but that percentage has fallen since rates jumped by roughly 29 percent Jan. 1.


“It’s a very volatile market. That’s why we hesitate to predict how the rates will go.”


Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at


Energy Efficient Construction in the Pioneer Valley

When we decided to move from our 100 year old home in downtown Northampton, we never thought we'd wind up with new construction.  We are both drawn to older homes with interesting architectural details and quirky design elements (dumb waiters, back staircases, hidden storage perfect for "hide and seek"), but we also loved the idea of purchasing an energy efficient home.  When we first saw our now new home (85% constructed when we signed the offer to purchase) we were wooed by the view from the attic/office, and the fact that the home would have an energy star rating upon completion.  It feels good to know that we are living in a home that helps offset our carbon footprint.  I was excited to see the following article in the in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about the "Passivhaus" in Amherst - new energy efficient construction with much forethought given to every element of design and construction.  


Soaking up the sun: Physicist Alexi Arango’s ‘passivhaus’ in Amherst is more than a simple solar home



By Cheryl B. Wilson Gazette Contributing Writer

Practice what you preach — or what you teach.

Alexi Arango teaches renewable energy at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley where he is an assistant professor of physics. And he lives in a “passivhaus,” a passive solar house that is heated without a conventional furnace.

Arango, who uses a video about a passivhaus in Maine for instruction in his class, decided to build a similar home himself, partly because he believes in the concept and partly because he wanted to create a living lab for his students.

“I teach how in all aspects of our living we can use energy more efficiently,” he explained during a tour of his new home. “Now, what I’m trying to do is show ways to be efficient and also pleasant and comfortable. You don’t have the sacrifices you expect in living efficiently.”

After a year of construction, Arango moved into his house in South Amherst last September. He lives alone, but he is engaged to be married and plans a family.

On a recent February morning, snow was falling and the temperature outside was 8 degrees but inside the 1,000-square-foot-house, it was light and airy and toasty warm.

The bright yellow home sits in a field adjacent to wooded conservation land with views of the Holyoke Range to the south and a stable for his neighbor’s goats to the west.

Passive solar construction was first promoted widely in the 1970s. Designed with large south-facing windows, solar houses relied on thermal mass, usually of concrete floors, or often huge translucent drums of water to capture and hold the rays of the sun streaming in from large windows, storing it by day and releasing it at night. 

But the whole concept of siting houses to take advantage of southern sun, northern windbreaks and shade trees actually goes back centuries. “Then we lost that sense when energy became cheap,” Arango said.

Beyond simple solar 

“Passivhaus” is a German term and it describes a building more complicated than a simple passive solar structure. It goes beyond proper siting and thermal mass to incorporate the latest technology. Heat recovery ventilation systems, super insulation, triple-pane windows, an air barrier enveloping the structure, tankless hot water and energy-efficient lighting and appliances are all essential elements of a passivhaus.

In Arango’s home, the downstairs is a single large room with a long kitchen wall opening into a sun-drenched dining area with large windows adjacent to a snug seating area with an off-white upholstered sofa and matching chairs. There is a bright geometric rug on the concrete floor.

A staircase leads to three bedrooms and a full bath upstairs.

Tucked under the stairs are a tiny lavatory, a coat closet and storage. There is no basement so the mechanical necessities are also hidden under the stairs.

A large mirror on an interior kitchen wall brings reflected light into the house while camouflaging the electric circuits that are tied into a computer system that allows Arango to monitor every bit of energy use, from home or from his workplace. His students can also access the information. When he turns on a light, runs the hot water or uses the stove, a graph records the new electrical use.

“Everything you do, you can see the results,” he said. He learned it is actually more efficient to use the dishwasher than to wash dishes by hand.

“Monitoring the use is fun. You could do it all day,” Arango said. “You know you are paying for energy but you never see it. What else do you pay for but get no receipt?”

No oil, no gas 

What is startling is the lack of any furnace. No oil, no gas, just a heat pump on the wall that looks like a large air conditioner.

“The truth is that as far as heating the house, solar heat gain is what heats it,” said Kyle Belanger, project manager for the builder, Integrity Development of Amherst.

Also lacking at the moment are the expected photo-voltaic solar panels on the roof or any solar hot water panels. The heat pump operates on electricity provided by the traditional electric company grid. The house is planned eventually to be off the grid, but that is in the future.

“There will be solar panels someday but I think it’s a good idea to live in a house and see what energy needs you have first,” Arango said. Some solar advocates have installed hot water panels only to discover they produced more hot water than they actually needed. Belanger said they made sure everything was put in place for photo voltaic panels to be added later.

Hot water for showers, laundry and dish washing at Arango’s home is produced by an up-to-date drain water recovery system. The residual heat from water runoff from a shower or washing machine, actually heats fresh water through a coil so that the water heater itself doesn’t have to work so hard. 

“In a shower the hot water hits your body for a very few seconds and then goes down the drain,” Arango said. In his system that water is recaptured and helps warm the fresh water before being flushed away. A tankless heater boosts the warm water up from 80 degrees to 115 degrees.

“It is supposed to save 60 percent of your water-heating costs,” Arango said. He expects it to pay for itself within three years.

Sealed tight 

“It takes a lot of planning with the architect to build a passivhaus,” Belanger said. Arango’s home is believed to be the first official passivhaus in the Pioneer Valley. Belanger and his crew had to learn new construction techniques from the architect, Matthew O’Malia, from GoLogic of Belfast. The video Arango uses in class came from GoLogic, so “I thought I might as well call them up. We got along very well. It was so inspiring,” he said.

Two critical elements in a passivhaus are the continuous air barrier that surrounds the foundation, walls and roof of the house, and the heat recovery ventilation system, Belanger said.

“The first thing is to create a continuous air barrier around the house,” Belanger explained. Under the foundation is a polystyrene insulation film that is sealed up against the wall sheathing. The “poly” continues up the walls and over the roof, sealed at every possible point. The walls, Belanger said, are SIPs panels (structural insulation panels) that “look like a sandwich cookie.” Parallel panels of rigid foam eight inches thick are filled with blown-in cellulose or fiberglass insulation.

Making the house as tight as possible to avoid heat leakage and drafts requires a carefully calculated air exchange system. “When the house is so tight, you need air to live but you limit the air exchanges,” Belanger said. The manufacturer of the heat recovery ventilation system does the calculations.

Fresh air wafts through unobtrusive vents that look like miniature stereo speakers high on the walls.

“You have a constant supply of clean air that is brought up to room temperature without the clicking on and off of a furnace,” Arango said.

Arango’s house features German-made triple-pane windows that are two inches thick. 

Insulation, rated by R-values, is R-55 in the walls and R-96 or R-100 in the roof, Belanger said, adding that the R-value is less important than that continuous air barrier. Industry standards call for R-49 to R-60 attic insulation in new construction.

Cost decisions 

Arango acknowledged that his passivhaus cost more to build than a conventional house. “No question about that.” 

However, he said, other people might make different decisions that would reduce the costs. “I wanted to have nice appliances and good windows,” he said.

Arango’s appliances are primarily the German-made Miele. He is especially happy with his induction flat-surface stove top. With a conventional open-burner gas or electric stove, “you lose 50 percent of the energy,” Arango said. This stove is very fast, he said. For example, the hot water kettle heats the water before you can get your cup ready, he said.

The three upstairs bedrooms are small but filled with light from the large windows. 

Double doors into his study make the room feel much larger as does the view of Mount Norwottock from the south window and the placid woodland view in the opposite direction through the window at the top of the stairs.

A vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom enlarges that room as do the triple south-facing windows. The bath features an unusual sink and vanity from Ikea with drawers deep enough to serve as a linen closet.

Arango’s research convinces him that solar energy has a great future as do other forms of renewable energy. He cautions, however, that only 25 percent of existing roofs aren’t shaded by trees. “Not everyone has the perfect site,” he said.

But he found one and has built a snug home filled with light and warmth for himself and his future family. It also demonstrates to Mount Holyoke students that renewable energy is not only feasible but practical, comfortable and attractive.

Cheryl Wilson can be reached at