Greenovation: A Hot Roof and a Cool Attic

  • Ann Arbor based Meadowlark Energy sprays foam onto Matt's attic ceiling creating a "hot roof" which ironically keeps the attic much cooler in the summer. (Photo by Matt Grocoff of

What happens if you seal up the leaks in your house… add a bunch of insulation… and then find out it’s too tight?

For a while now, we’ve been telling you about an attempt to make a 110-year old house in Michigan the oldest net-zero home in America. Net-zero means it uses no more energy than it produces. Lester Graham has the latest installment in our ongoing story.

A site where you can find an authorized energy auditor for your home

Matt Grocoff’s website, Greenovation TV

Tips on adding attic insulation from Energy Star

A Greenovation Story: New Storm Windows

A Greenovation Story: Fixing Old Windows

A Greenovation story: Spray Foam Your Home


Matt Grocoff is getting close to his goal. He’s been sealing up his drafty old house, restoring and tightening the windows, insulating everywhere possible. But he’s got to make a change. The house is so tight, he now needs an air exchanger to get some fresh air circulating, otherwise, the air would get too stale – too much CO2 and not enough oxygen.

He kinda knew eventually he’d have to have one, but wasn’t exactly sure what kind or where he’d have to put it. It turns out the attic is going to be the best space because of easy access to return air ducts. Since this project is all about energy efficiency, the air exchanger is a fancy energy-saving unit. We’ll talk about it more in our next report.

But first the attic has to be insulated at the roofline.

I’ve climbed up a stepladder to lift myself into the attic and peek at what’s going on. A guy in a hazmat-like suit and filter mask is spraying insulation foam on the underside of the roof.

If you think of the attic as the triangle shape at the top of the house… you’d usually insulate the bottom of the triangle to keep the rooms below warm. But, because of the new equipment Matt will be installing… the angled sides of the triangle need to be insulated. This is called a ‘hot roof.’

Doug Selby is with Meadowlark Energy. He’s the contractor for this job.

DS: “With a ‘hot roof,’ what we’re able to do is to insulate the actual roofline itself. So, it creates a conditioned space in the attic and what that does for us is seal a lot of the places where a house leaks naturally and it also creates a space where we can run our mechanicals without fear of losing a lot of that energy to the atmosphere.”

We’ll get to why that’s important in our next report on the energy efficient air exchanger that they’re installing.

But for now… let’s just say… it’s kinda cool to see this sticky foam sprayed on the underside of the roof… expand for a bit… and then harden into a sort of styrofoam that’s sealed every nook and cranny. Matt Grocoff says this is easier than it might sound.

MG: “You’re right, we’re spraying it into the rafters rather than laying the stuff onto the floor. And if you look for Greenovation TV on our Facebook page, you’ll be able to see some photographs that we’ve got up there and you’ll be able to see exactly how this stuff is installed and sprayed in and what it looks like when you’re done.”

It’s making a whole new usable space out of an attic that was not usable for much of anything.

Matt can finish it off with drywall, paint it, and then put down a floor. Voila! New space.

MG: “Well, that’s one of the cool things, is that we’re kind of fantasizing now about what we’re going to do with this extra space. And what we think we’d like to do is just have this little cozy space, we’ll put a little pull down ladder up in the attic and have a little yoga space or a little place with some cushions where we can read and stuff like that. And just make it a really cozy, quiet getaway up there in the attic that will be conditioned.”

LG: Matt Grocoff the Greenovation-dot-TV guy, doing yoga in his attic. Alright, thanks, Matt.

“My wife is the real yoga expert.”

We’ll look at the new air exchanger the Grocoffs will install in a small part of that attic space… next Tuesday on the Environment Report. I’m Lester Graham.

If you’re wondering how to make your house more energy efficient…. Matt recommends first getting an energy audit to find out where the leaks are in your house. You can find out how to do that and you can catch up on Matt’s adventures on our website: environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Habitat for Humanity Fixes Up Foreclosures

  • House leader Steve Denman helps Kallista Walker build a knee wall in the attic of this house. Walker is putting in part of her 300 hours of sweat equity so she can qualify for a house of her own. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Michigan has consistently been on a top ten list nobody wants to be on. That’s the list of the top highest home foreclosure rates in the country, but for some people this means opportunity.

The group Habitat for Humanity typically builds new homes, but now, some of the chapters in Michigan are taking advantage of all the foreclosures around the state. They’re buying foreclosed homes and renovating them, instead of building new.

The group says it’s less expensive to renovate an existing home than it is to build a new one. It can save resources, but it can also mean dealing with a few surprises.

Detroit Habitat for Humanity

Map of foreclosures in Michigan

A bike ride through Detroit with David Byrne


(sawing sound)

This yellow ranch house in Ypsilanti Township has been gutted, stripped down to the studs. Up in the attic, there are a bunch of volunteers in hard hats and face masks.


Sam Moore is a volunteer. He says they’re making the house more energy efficient.

“We’re just building knee walls inside this attic to hold loose fill insulation on top of the house so it won’t blow all over the place.”

This house was built in the 1950’s and it had basically zero insulation.

Steve Denman is in charge of overseeing this renovation for the Washtenaw County Habitat chapter. He says their main goal is making the home more affordable for its new owner.

“We want the homeowner to not pay so many bills in energy. She’s going to have a tremendous amount of less money to pay.”

These renovated homes are being sold to low-income families at cost, with a zero interest mortgage. And they’re usually first-time homeowners.

The Washtenaw County chapter switched over to just doing renovations a couple years ago when the market went south.

Megan Rodgers is with Habitat. She says buying and fixing up foreclosures costs about two-thirds of building a brand new home. So they can do more of them in a year, and get more families into homes.

But Rodgers says there’s no question building new is easier.

“In new builds we had five specs of homes, you could build the wall in a warehouse, and have it delivered. With a renovation you just really never know what you’re getting into, how long that task might take.”

Rodgers says they’ve come into houses that have been stripped of all the electrical wiring and all the copper. Sometimes the siding is gone. And there can be bigger problems.

“A lot of these homes have lead. Lead abatement is extremely expensive to do, so we have chosen to have several members of our construction team go through lead abatement training.”


Kallista Walker is one of the people who’s buying a renovated foreclosure from Habitat. She’s here working, putting in some of the 300 sweat equity hours she needs before she can close on her house in a different neighborhood.

“This will be my first time ever owning my own home where I can paint and put colors on my own walls. That’s the thing I’m most excited about and having a garage of my own and a back yard, so I’m excited, I’m really really excited.”

The Washtenaw County Habitat group has been fixing up several foreclosures in the same neighborhoods, to try to add some stability to the neighborhoods. Kallista Walker says she thinks that’s a good idea.

“I love it because that means you’re changing the face of the community, you know what I mean? When you drive through and see houses where no one’s living in them, no one’s lovin’ on them, no one’s doing the yards and all the other houses are sorta nice. I mean, it changes the feeling and it draws different things to it.”

She’s hoping to move into her new home with her two sons and her mom in a few months.

The Washtenaw Habitat group says they’ll keep buying and fixing up these homes as long as they can continue to afford them.

Rebecca Williams, the Environment Report.

Greenovation: New Storm Windows

  • Matt Grocoff’s 110-year-old house was recently painted with eco-friendly paint and new storm windows cover refurbished wood windows. Grocoff is attempting to make his house the oldest net-zero energy home in America. (Photo by Lester Graham)

We’ve been following Matt Grocoff with Greenovation.TV as he tries to make his home the oldest net-zero energy house in America. Last time we talked to him, instead of replacing his windows, he was refurbishing the 110-year-old wood framed windows. Lester Graham checked to see just how well that worked.
More from Greenovation.TV
The Clean Energy Coalition
Repairing old windows


The old windows in Matt’s house were drafty, but he didn’t like the idea of all the resources, energy and cost that replacing the windows meant. He got some help and took them apart, got them working right, painted them, and sealed the window panes the gaps. Today is the big test.

(blower sound)

Nick Helmoholdt with with the Clean Energy Coalition. He’s conducting a blower door test to see whether the Grocoff house is any tighter.

LG: “What kind of improvement did just refurbishing the old windows do for the house?”

NH: “Roughly two-thirds the air infiltration was reduced.”

LG: “Is this typical when you see a house just replace the windows?”

NH: “I have never seen this before. I am very impressed with the amount of leakage that was reduced from this repair. This is really, really impressive.”

So a 66-percent reduction in air infiltration by just fixing up the old windows.
Matt Grocoff is pretty happy.

MG: “I think it’s a lot better than new windows because we’ve proven you can make these old windows way more energy efficient and for a lot less money.”
LG: “But that’s not today’s project. Today’s project is putting these storm windows on which, I have to say, really look nice.”

MG: “It looks great! The house looks amazing right now, and especially in a historic district, putting a good storm window on is accepted by a lot of historic associations. The big bang for the buck that we’re going to get out of these storm windows is the Low-E glass that we have and a little bit of thermal insulation by creating a secondary glazing. What that means is that we have almost the equivelent of a dual-pane window.”

LG: “You mentioned Low-E glass. What’s that and what does it do?”

MG: “Low-E stands for low emissivity and what that means is that Low-E glass is just an invisible coating that keeps the heat from coming into your house and heating it up like a greenhouse. I can show you right here. If you put your hand here, we’ve got just a single pane up right now.”

LG: “Yeah, I can feel the sunshine coming through.”

MG: “And you can feel the sill, and you switch this up, pull the sill down with the Low-E glass, you can feel almost instantly how much cooler it is. You don’t get that greenhouse heat coming through.”

LG: “Cool.”

MG: “The other cool benefit is that it filters out all the UV light so it prevents your furniture from getting bleached and everything. We’ve got that red sofa over there facing a south wall. So, we could use all the help we can to help our furniture from fading.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think about storm windows, I think of those old bare aluminum windows that just weren’t all that attractive. Those days are past. Bill Trapp with the George W. Trapp Company supplied these new windows… and he says they come in a lot of colors to match paint schemes.

BT: “And we have people from all over the country calling us right now, getting storm windows in grey and red and green and all these different colors. And also, there are different levels of storm windows as well and I like to think we make the tightest one out there.”
LG: “Well, I can’t verify that, but they did pass the ole Matt Grocoff test, so Matt that’s the windows. Thanks, and I’ll talk to you on your next project on the house.”

MG: “Thank you, Lester, and here’s to staying cool.”

That’s Matt Grocoff with Greenovation.TV. I’m Lester Graham with The Environment Report.

D.I.Y. Cleaning Products

  • Reporter Karen Kelly's daughter making safer cleaning products at home (Photo by Karen Kelly)

Most people probably don’t enjoy cleaning. But we’ve all got to do it. And if you’ve ever looked at the household cleaner aisle in the grocery store, you know there can be some pretty strong chemicals involved. Karen Kelly reports on a cheaper, chemical-free alternative:

Related Links

Radon Continues to Plague Americans

  • David Aschenbrenner from Pro-Tech Environmental installs a radon mitigation system. (Photo by Mark Brush)

There’s an invisible, odorless gas that kills 21,000 Americans every year. We’ve known about radon gas for a long time. But as Mark Brush reports, experts say we’re still a long way from fixing the problem:


There’s an invisible, odorless gas that kills 21,000 Americans every year. We’ve known about radon gas for a long time. But as Mark Brush reports, experts say we’re still a long way from fixing the problem:

Radon gas is found down here…

…in the basement.

Really, it’s all around us. The gas drifts out of the ground from bits of uranium ore. Normally, there’s not enough of it to cause a problem. But it can get trapped in our homes, schools, and offices. We breathe it in. And the gas can cause lung cancer. It’s the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking. And if you’re a smoker – you’re even more at risk.

The level of radon gas in this basement is unsafe. More than four times a safe standard set by the EPA:

So a crew of two guys is here to fix the problem.

David Aschenbrenner works for Pro-Tech Environmental in Ann Arbor, MI. He says radon gas seeps up from the ground and makes its way into the house through cracks and holes in the foundation:

“So as the air is rising through the house, the house acts as a chimney. It’s creating what we call the stack effect. And that’s what’s actually pulling the radon in.”

You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. But it’s often there.

“So with the radon piping, and the radon fan, it’s going to create a suction slightly stronger than the house breathing normally.”

They drill a hole in the basement floor – put a PVC pipe into the hole. And fan on the pipe will vent the radon gas outside.
Right now – a lot of people find out about radon when they buy or sell a house. The air is tested and if there’s a problem – it can be fixed.

Bill Field is an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa. He’s studied the health risks of exposure to radiation for decades. Field says these systems work. But even though more people know about the threat of radon gas – there are still more people exposed today than in the past:

“We’re further behind now, than we were 20 years ago with addressing the radon issue, because more homes are being built that aren’t radon resistant than are being mitigated. Each year there are tens of thousands of home that are coming on the market that will hopefully be fixed someday, but they could have been fixed when they were first built.”

Field says new homes should be built to keep radon out. He says simple changes in home construction – changes that would only add $500 in construction costs – would work. He says there should be a federal requirement to build homes this way, since radon can be a problem in every state.

There are some states, counties and cities that have radon resistant new construction written into their building codes – but more than half don’t – and even in the places that do have the code on the books – workers told us that it’s not always enforced – so it’s easy to just skip the requirement.

The National Association of Home Builders says it would oppose any federal requirements to build homes this way. They say radon should be dealt with where there are known hot spots.

There are parts of the country where radon can be bigger problem than in other areas. But it can be a problem no matter where you are. The EPA has a recommended standard for radon gas. It says that homes or offices or schools should be fixed if they have radon levels of 4 pico-curies per liter or more. But Bill Field says sixty percent of the cancers caused by radon were caused at levels below this EPA standard:

“Talk about a safe level of four pico-curies per liter is really a misnomer. It’s like saying it’s o.k. to cross the road blindfolded because there’s only one car coming instead of three. There really is no safe level of radon.”

A recent report by the President’s Cancer Panel evaluated the progress being made on cancer prevention. Exposure to radioactive radon gas is one of the areas where the experts said not enough is being done. And because the problem is getting worse – they’re recommending the government do more.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

“You can test your air for radon gas by buying a test kit at your local hardware store. They cost between ten and twenty dollars.”

Related Links

Greenovation: Spray Foam Your Home

  • While there are tax credits for spray insulation, credit is available for the material only, so the contractor should separate out the material and the labor costs.(Photo courtesy of the NREL)

When people talk about making their home energy independent, they often talk about solar panels and wind turbines. But before all of that, a home has to be tight. That’s not as exciting, but necessary. Lester Graham is following’s Matt Grocoff as he tries to make his home the oldest net-zero-energy house in America.


When people talk about making their home energy independent, they often talk about solar panels and wind turbines. But before all of that, a home has to be tight. That’s not as exciting, but necessary. Lester Graham is following’s Matt Grocoff as he tries to make his home the oldest net-zero-energy house in America:

The note on Matt’s door told me to come on in and head for the basement. Matt’s 110 year old home has what’s called around here a “Michigan basement.” Basically, cement floor, stone walls, low ceilings. Not glamorous.

Matt is spraying expanding foam insulation up in that area where the floor framing sits on the foundation. The sill plate… which is basically nothing more than one-and-a-half inches of wood between inside your home… and the great outdoors.

“There’s no insulation between your house, or your living part, and the foundation itself.”

Maybe you’ve been in the basement of an old house and sometimes you can actually see daylight through the sill plate in places. Those leaks need to be sealed. That could be done with caulk. Then the area needs to be insulated. That could be done with fiberglass insulation.

“What we decided to do is to do both at the same time, seal and insulate, is to use a do-it-yourself spray foam insulation kit from Tiger Foam. There’s plenty of professionals out there, and for most people, that’s what I’d recommend you do, go to the professional. If money is an issue or if you’re a really handy person, these spray foam kits are fantastic.”

The foam insulation kit costs about 300-dollars. It’s basically two tanks -each about the size of a propane tank you’d use for an outdoor grill. A hose from each tank is attached to a spray gun that mixes the chemicals. The chemicals mix as they come out and the make a sticky foam that expands into nooks and crannies and then hardens after several minutes.

“Way easier than I thought they were going to be, by the way. I was actually terrified. I went back and read the instructions three – four times. And when I started spraying, it wasn’t that bad.”

“You still ended up with a goof, though.”

“I did have a goof. There was a little bit of foam there, dripping, when I forgot to turn on one of the canisters, but what ya– c’mon Lester.”

Matt’s goof means he’s going to have to wipe up some of the mess and spray again. But it’s not a disaster.

If you’ve got a big job… maybe new construction or a remodel that takes it down to the studs… you might want to consider a professional.

John Cunningham owns Arbor Insulation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He says, sure, if you’re up to it… do it yourself.

“You could assume that it’d be cheaper to do it yourself and the kits are a really good option, especially for people that have smaller projects or they’re looking to do the work in a very specific time frame or in a distant location for instance.”

But the professionals are recommended for those big jobs. And right now there are federal tax credits for spray foam insulation– 30-percent up to 15-hundred dollars. That credit is limited though.

“The tax credit is available for the material only, so the contractor should be separating out the material and the labor. Also, there are additional incentives from some utilities and more incentives coming down the pike.”

Some states and even municipalities are considering incentives.

One final note… to use the spray foam, Matt Grocoff is decked out in a white haz-mat suit, latex gloves, goggles and a respirator…

“You’ve got to take all the safety precautions. You’ve got to wear your goggles, your suit. And it also can be messy too. Any overspray that gets in your hair will stay in your hair.”

And as he zips up, I get the hint that Matt has to get back to work.

“I do. I’ve got 30 seconds before this nozzle sets up. So, Lester, thanks again.”

“Sounds like my cue to get out of here. That’s Matt Grocoff with Greenovation-dot-TV. I’m Lester Graham with The Environment Report.”

“Thanks Lester.”

Related Links

EPA Questions Pet Pesticides

  • The EPA plans to develop more stringent testing and evaluation requirements for both existing and new products.(Photo courtesy of Isiegert CC-2.0)

Tens of thousands of pets are getting sick when their owners use flea and tick pesticides the wrong way. The Environmental Protection Agency wants the companies to change the directions on the labels. Rebecca Williams has more:


Tens of thousands of pets are getting sick when their owners use flea and tick pesticides the wrong way. The Environmental Protection Agency wants the companies to change the directions on the labels. Rebecca Williams has more:

EPA officials are concerned about spot-on pesticides for fleas and ticks – the drops you put on your pet’s back.

EPA has been investigating these products because of a recent huge jump in reports of negative effects on pets. Most are mild… such as skin irritation. But there have also been reports of vomiting, seizures and in some cases, death.

Steve Owens is with the EPA. He says these products are poisons. And he says the labels are not always clear.

“The consumers in many cases were left to guess for themselves the appropriate amount to be used on their particular pet.”

The EPA is working with companies to put more detailed directions on the labels.

In the meantime, Owens says you should be really careful about reading the directions. He says it’s especially important not to use dog products on cats.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

New Houses Get a Little Smaller

  • Huge houses are on the decline. (Photo courtesy of Brendel Signature)

The American dream of home ownership has become a trend of bigger and bigger houses. The square footage of new, detached houses crept upwards for decades even though families shrank. Recent economic troubles have stopped the big house trend. Shawn Allee reports:


You might not know it but the American dream of home ownership has translated into bigger and bigger houses.

The square footage of new, detached houses crept upward for decades, even though families shrank.
Shawn Allee reports recent economic troubles have stopped the big-house trend.

Housing stats kinda say it all.

Just after World War II, brand new single-family detached homes were about 1100 square feet.
By 2007, they were twice as big.
One builder, Andrew Konovodoff, says 2007 was the peak.

Konovodoff: My analogy is, you go to McDonalds, you can up-charge or supersize your meal and get a couple hundred extra french fries.

Alee: People did that with homes?

Konovodoff: Yeah. Money was available. People bought more home than they needed. Now, I think people have trended back the other way.

Konovodoff’s right.
The U-S Census bureau says brand-new homes shrank for two years straight, and home builders say they’re going to build smaller for at least another year.

That hasn’t happened in decades, and builders like Konovodoff are adjusting

In the smaller square footages you won’t see a formal dining room … you’ll have an eat-in kitchen. We’ve pushed out the formal dining room.

Konovodoff says he’s considering even smaller designs.
He says it’ll be trickier to make a good living, so he’s not exactly happy with the trend.
But there are people who are glad houses are getting smaller.

One of them’s Alex Wilson.
He edits a magazine called Environmental Building News.

Wilson: In building a house, we need lumber, new windows and a whole range of building materials. It’s just common sense that a smaller house will use less materials. Even with any material, a so-called green material made from recycled content, there’re still impacts from manufacturing that product and shipping it to the job site. So, when we use less, we reduce environmental impact.

Wilson says the size of new homes has dropped just a bit … maybe the equivalent of a big closet or a tiny, tiny dining room.

He’d like homes to see homes get even smaller, but that won’t happen until our heating and cooling bills jump higher.

Wilson: I think if we were paying five dollars a gallon for gasoline and equivalent prices for natural gas and heating oil, then we would see a much more dramatic drop in house size.

Wilson says most of us won’t demand or build small houses until we truly fear a life-time of high utility bills.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Financing Energy Efficiency

  • More than half the houses in the U.S. were built before 1970. (Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laborator)

Reducing your carbon footprint
by using less energy can cost
money. Efficient cars, energy
efficient homes, and energy-saving
appliances all take money. That’s
why some states are testing whether
homeowners would be willing
to borrow money to upgrade their
homes and, in turn, save a few
bucks in energy costs. In one
state, the plan is to get private
banks and credit unions to finance
energy efficiency. Peter Payette reports:


Reducing your carbon footprint
by using less energy can cost
money. Efficient cars, energy
efficient homes, and energy-saving
appliances all take money. That’s
why some states are testing whether
homeowners would be willing
to borrow money to upgrade their
homes and, in turn, save a few
bucks in energy costs. In one
state, the plan is to get private
banks and credit unions to finance
energy efficiency. Peter Payette reports:

When you hear green building, you might think of a fancy new house with solar panels. But most homes are not new, so reducing the amount of energy communities use means doing something about old houses.

Max Strickland owns a business in Michigan that certifies green homes and buildings. He says more than half the houses in the U.S. were built before 1970.

“We had very little energy code requirements previous to that.”

But upgrades cost money that many homes owners don’t always have. And a lot of people saw whatever equity they had in their house disappear during the past couple of years.

Now, the State of Michigan is trying to help people find the money to make their homes more energy efficient. The program is called Michigan Saves. The state launched the pilot project in a rural area of the state. The pilot is a collaboration of a local credit union, an electric cooperative and a building supply company.
Borrowers will have their new payment tacked onto their monthly utility bill.

Trevor Williams is with Brown Lumber, the building supply company involved in the pilot. Williams says it’s likely most of the improvements will be in heating costs. He says to begin with, home owners will be encouraged to have an energy audit.

“The audit it would say things that need to be done, the top three things that are recommended. Furnace replacement, ceiling ducts and weatherizing the house those going to be the three most common items.”

But homeowners can also borrow money for new energy efficient appliances like refrigerators and hot water heaters. Sometimes loans like this are promoted as immediately paying for themselves. That is, it’s suggested the money you save on your utility bills will fully cover your new payment. That’s not necessarily the case.

Marc McKeller is with Members Credit Union which is financing the project. He says after a few years, people will be able to break even on the costs. Government tax incentives and other rebates will help that happen. But McKellar says people shouldn’t expect to take out a loan, retrofit their house and not have more to pay each month.

“The only way it could be was if a government was to give zero percent loans out and that they received tremendous rebates from the utilities and that they received a tremendous government credit.”

But, McKellar says it’s still a good deal. The interest rate for project’s loans will be a little bit better because the state is backing the loans.

And tight credit means not many banks are loaning people money to make their house energy efficient and not many people are putting money into a home that’s lost value because of the housing market bust. That’s one of the reasons they need to run a pilot project.

“They’re trying to determine through this study, how do you get a consumer to actually do this and what are the benefits?”

The directors of Michigan Saves hope to roll out a statewide program later this year. So far no banks have agreed to participate but there are other credit unions interested in the concept.

For The Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

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Fixing Up Foreclosures

  • Megan McNally in front of her home in Buffalo. She purchased the house for $3,800. (Photo by Emma Jacobs)

In many older cities, some
neighborhoods are known for
their abandoned houses. A
lot of these will decay beyond
repair and end up as debris
in landfills. Emma Jacobs
takes us to one hard-hit
neighborhood, where one house
has become a laboratory for
doing green construction:


n many older cities, some
neighborhoods are known for
their abandoned houses. A
lot of these will decay beyond
repair and end up as debris
in landfills. Emma Jacobs
takes us to one hard-hit
neighborhood, where one house
has become a laboratory for
doing green construction:

(sound of climbing steps)

Last year, at age 20, Megan McNally bought a house.

”This is the front room. Um, this is gonna be the bathroom. Doesn’t look like much now. It’ll get there.”

Not just any house. She wanted to find a project in this neighborhood to tie to the environmental science she studied during the year.

While home from college for a summer, McNally had been working with a nonprofit, Buffalo Reuse. It works in a neighborhood of East Buffalo with rows of abandoned homes. She paid $3800 dollars at the city’s foreclosure auction for a small, wood-frame house that had been vacant for three years.

“I really wanted to help some effort in Buffalo and so I was trying to brainstorm and I sat down with Michael and we sort of came up with this idea of buying a house.”

(sound of truck)

Michael is–Michael Grainer, who runs Buffalo Reuse. We make a coffee run and he tells me this neighborhood is part of a city whose population has shrunk by half.

“What we’re trying to do is to build a base of projects that are undergoing some kind of transformation and also lots that are undergoing a transformation.”

McNally’s house looks like it’s in good shape, but it had also taken a lot of abuse.

“On the outside, it looks really great. You could move in tomorrow. But as I came in here the first weekend it was leaks that people didn’t take care of. There was…this floor we had to cut out because it was all rotted from black mold.”

McNally had no prior knowledge of home repair. Transforming this house soon escalated as she found she would be replacing the plumbing and heating. But in some way, she’s also found her lack of experience to be an asset in recruiting help.

Ken Hicks is helping to measure out a part for a radiator in the front room. He turned up near dusk one day last winter. McNally was under the house checking the foundation, and Hicks, a construction worker was helping out the owner next door. He saw her feet sticking out from underneath. When she crawled out they started talking.

“It was a big joke, you know. We went back and forth and I said, you know, it was just so weird to see you in that situation and that situation and that predicament. And we just started from there,”

Slow work during a down economy means Hicks spends more time on volunteer jobs. He’s become one of the main people McNally turns to with questions about plumbing and carpentry.

“Being really young, you can ask a lot of stupid questions, and people go, ‘Oh man, this girl,’ but then go on and like, answer it in a way where maybe they wouldn’t be so open with somebody else.”

“Anything you can possibly do wrong has been done has been done in this house. But all those things that I’m talking about are now corrected, and there’s so much more knowledge here.”

There’s still months of work left, but McNally knows she will be living here soon. She has learned both a lot of construction skills and a lot about teaching, herself. She holds workshops to help the neighbors who are left take on their own properties. Her house, still unfinished, is a good training ground for beginners. McNally also realized people are less afraid to approach her with their questions than the experts she first had teaching.

“It’s hard putting things together. And, I don’t know, there’s been times where you just want to sit down and you get so frustrated that you don’t know how to do something that I think it’s really important to have people there who say, whatever, it’s ok and it’s ok that you don’t know everything, because you know, once you figure it out or ask questions, or just do it (laughs) and hope that things work out for the best, they usually do.”

For The Environment Report, I’m Emma Jacobs.

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