When a quirky old cottage comes on the market, not everyone sees it as an irresistible testing ground for the latest thinking on how to save the earth. Weatherstripping—sure. A wind turbine and a gray-water recycling system—not necessarily. But then, Curt and Christine Mann aren't your typical home buyers. When they went shopping for a house in Atlanta five years ago, they pictured not a McMansion but a Pygmalion with more personality than polish, one that would allow them to experiment with ways to save energy, water, and, in the long run, money, too. As Curt likes to say, "What's good for the environment is also good for the pocketbook."
After zeroing in on a neighborhood with a good school for their kids—Foster, now 9, and Rivers, 12—they found their ideal subject: a circa 1910 shingled house in sore need of an update, sitting on a rare double lot within walking distance of historic Grant Park. The property had a nice vibe, inviting Christine to imagine family meals prepared with the help of a big garden. Curt, a green-building consultant, noted the width of the lot and pictured inching off the grid with the help of solar power.
Keeping Up Appearances
Because the house fell within a historic district, they would have to keep the street-facing facade intact. But there was nothing stopping the couple from altering the interiors to meet their needs and satisfy their curiosity: Could a reconfigured layout plus ceiling fans reduce air-conditioning bills? Could the old house be taught the new trick of collecting, filtering, and pumping shower and sink water into low-flow toilets? In Atlanta, where water rates are among the nation's highest, "that system could pay for itself in less than three years," Curt recalls thinking.
Drawing Up the Plans
Although the couple was pretty savvy about ways big and small to conserve here and there, they knew they couldn't do a major renovation without the help of pros. Local architect Keith Summerour arrived to help remap the layout, including the cramped second floor with its small, lone bath, and to sketch plans for a porch to shade the back of the house from the western sun. He was followed by general contractor Scott Nagy, who specializes in bringing vintage houses up to speed. The foursome started poking into walls and under floors, seeking ways to reuse and reduce.
Shown: The new first-floor porch has a fireplace to allow dining outdoors six months of the year.
At the top of their list was upgrading the HVAC with high-efficiency equipment split into two zones governed by programmable thermostats. Next: a tankless water heater, which would cut down on gas bills by supplying hot water only on demand. But "the house had no basement, just brick piers holding it up," says Nagy, so to create a mechanicals area the Manns had to dig out a crawl space and pour a foundation for a below-grade utility room.
More hard work was required on the first floor. Renovated over the years in a willy-nilly fashion, it held "a difficult warren of funny spaces," says Summerour, whose plan called for demolishing two interior walls to create what he calls "one huge hall." Running from the front to the back of the house, with the kitchen at the center and gathering spots at either end, this open-plan area helps circulate light and air. Glass-paned pocket doors provide a sight line from the kitchen to the TV room, while solid pocket doors close off a sitting area–turned–home office.
Family Space Renewed
The pine flooring was beyond repair, and walls needed to be opened for new wiring, plumbing, and insulation. This allowed Summerour to insert French doors in the living space's exterior south-facing wall to bring in the sun's warmth in winter and connect the public spaces to the outdoors.
Curt and Christine built a flagstone patio along that side of the house and began planning their lush vegetable garden. They also helped design and equip the hardworking kitchen, reusing existing cabinets and adding a used restaurant range and broiler. "Most people overthink the kitchen and lose the spirit of what it's about: cooking and living and laughing," says Summerour. "This kitchen captures the life they have."
On the second floor, the plan called for beefing up the insulation and carving out two proper baths. But as the design-build team contemplated the challenge of opening up walls and ceilings, it became apparent that it would be easier to replace than renew. They were able to save the old pine floors while erecting walls filled with spray-foam insulation. And once they got that far, they realized, it would be easy to cap the second floor with a low-ceilinged attic playroom.
Open to the Outdoors
That's when Christine and Curt realized how pleasant it would be to step out of their bedroom and onto a covered upstairs porch. Summerour went back to the drawing board, stacking a second, nearly identical porch over the first. Today, both porches are outfitted with ceiling fans to counter heat and mosquitoes. As the couple contemplated the ways they'd put their porches to use, it occurred to them that they could also add fireplaces to extend porch season.
After six months in a nearby rental, the family was eager to move in. Christine, an artist, looked for ways to salvage sofas and chairs and opt for low-VOC paints and finishes. Her mother, Alice Williams, also an artist, contributed paintings and her skills as a decorator and garden planner.
Some decisions worked out better than others. The penetrating varnish chosen over polyurethane for the kitchen floor hasn't quite cut it—blame an emphasis on aesthetics over kids and pets (three dogs, four cats, and two chickens). And Curt began to notice that the gray-water recycling system required an awful lot of attention to keep the filters clean.
Raising the Bar
Still, as someone who helps clients save money by switching to energy-saving cooling, heating, and lighting systems, Curt was eager to test the feasibility of renewable energy. Solar power didn't seem realistic—too many trees. So he held up a theoretical wet finger: Maybe an elegant SkyStream wind turbine could do its job within city limits.
"We chose one only 50 feet high to be sensitive to our neighbors, so if it ever fell over it couldn't hit any house but ours," says Curt, who had no trouble obtaining a city permit and three years later still seems surprised by the uproar that ensued. Another lesson at the Mann Family Living Lab: Don't assume everyone sees a sleek little windmill as a neighborhood asset. "It was a civics lesson for our kids," Curt continues. "A handful of people had misinformation. Once the truth surfaced"—and the TV crews went away—"we had people profusely apologize." The turbine also turned out to be a lesson in wind dynamics. At only 50 feet, below the fastest winds, the SkyStream has been a helpmate but not a replacement for their grid-supplied kilowatts.
Light on Energy
Smaller experiments continue. Energy-saving ceiling fans are getting a thumbs-up, as are tubes that channel light from the roof to a windowless bath and a large closet. Good-looking LED fixtures were hard to find, so Curt and the kids rewired two pendants for pronged LED bulbs.
Today, family members supply the fireplaces with fallen trees and the dinner table with fresh produce, eggs, and fruit from out back. Instead of TV Guide, they read utility bills out loud over dinner. "The kids know that gas comes in therms and power in kilowatts," says Christine. "We say, 'Here's the bill: When you leave a room, turn the light off.' They self-monitor, they really play a role."
A New Outlook
The living lab also has been an eye-opener for friends and visitors. Three years after those neighborhood protests, people still ring the doorbell and ask about the windmill. Only these days it's no longer seen as a folly, Curt says, but "a source of pride."
The same might be said for the house. It may look like a well-preserved circa 1910 cottage, but its spirit, to paraphrase its proud owners, is pure 2010s.
Ways They Save
Wind power: Whirring blades atop a 50-foot pole generate a small, unmetered portion of the household's electricity needs. In hindsight, they wish they'd opted for a 70-foot tower: The power generated rises with greater wind speed, which is affected by height.
High-efficiency HVAC: Heating and cooling account for 46 percent of energy costs in a typical home, says the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE). The Manns upgraded their decades-old systems with a 95-percent-efficient furnace and central air with a rating of Seer 13 (equivalent to Energy Star).
Ceiling fans: In summer these air movers allow a 4-degree increase in temperature with no loss of comfort, says the DOE. The Manns added seven inside and reverse the blades' direction in winter to lessen the need for heat.
Ways They Save (cont'd)
Tube skylights: Two reflective pipes channel light into a windowless bath and a closet, reducing the need for artificial light, which typically accounts for 15 percent of household energy.
Tankless gas water heater: About 15 percent of a home's energy costs go toward heating water. Their on-demand system can cut costs up to 30 percent.
Dual-flush toilets: Toilets typically account for 30 percent of indoor water use. The Manns' dual-flush models should save about 18,000 gallons a year.
Gray-water recycling: The Manns' system filters and stores bath-sink and shower wastewater, then pumps it into toilet tanks. Filter maintenance has been a problem, so they're not sure they'd do it again. And with their ultra-efficient toilets, there's a gray-water surplus—they'd like to find a way to use it outdoors.
Shown: The master bath has its original pine floor, a vintage-table vanity, and pendants fitted for LED blulbs.