How does one transform a run-down, circa-1960, poorly insulated and constructed ranch house into a near-net-zero-energy home? Bob Ritacco and his wife Wendy Blair of Gardiner not only transformed an 860-square-foot home into a beautifully spacious, 2,600-square-foot eco-friendly home, but they did so while living in a trailer on the property over the winter while the demolition and construction was being done.
“When we decided to purchase the home [on Sand Hill Road], we had to sell our home in Garrison” to afford the buying and the deep retrofitting of the ramshackle home. They could have rented, but with a cat and two rabbits and Ritacco’s desire to be the general contractor onsite every day, they decided to purchase a recreational vehicle, plug it into the electric at the home and live in those small quarters for months.
“That’s part of what made us fall in love with this area,” said Wendy. “We always came up to hike and camp, so for us, it felt like camping — just for a really long time!”
The passion and commitment to leave their native home of Westchester, move to Ulster County and go the distance to retrofit a rundown ranch home did not happen overnight. As the owner of a painting business for more than 30 years, and someone who had owned three of those 1960s/70s insufficiently insulated homes that burn fossil fuel and leak energy and heat in every corner, Bob said that he had “always had an interest in owning a home that had a tight envelope, that didn’t require fossil fuels, that was green…I’d been researching this for years, as had Wendy. But we had young kids, were working, the housing market was skyrocketing. It wasn’t the time.”
While both were sold on the idea of a zero-net-energy home and living in a healthier environment in a structure that generated energy rather than burned it, with the rat race of life and kids and both working full-time, there didn’t appear to be the economical opportunity to do what they dreamed of doing.
One turning point for Wendy was when she and Bob watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary. “Our kids were so moved by it, as were we; and we realized how important this was for us, for them, for our future,” said Wendy.
Once their kids left home, the couple began seriously to pursue a home or a piece of land where they might put their desire for a zero-net-energy home into reality. Bob found the home on Sand Hill Road and, as Wendy noted, “He was afraid to show it to me!” At first the couple loved the view (and still do) of the Shawangunk Ridge and the backdoor entrance to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, but they were unsure of what to do with the home. They hired a local architect, David Todder of Bolder Architecture, who convinced them that the “greenest” approach would be to deep-retrofit the existing home. He helped design the addition that they have put on, the roof pitches for the solar panels and various aspects of the soon-to-be zero-net-energy home.
“We gutted the entire home, down to the studs and the beams,” said Bob. “We took out all of the terrible insulation, the plywood, the linoleum, the fixtures, the dilapidated deck. It took three guys more than a week, including myself, to gut the place.”
While they tore it down, they also rebuilt, with the design of their architect, an addition where the porch used to be. They utilized all densely insulated concrete forms filled with mineral wool for intense insulation, manufactured by the company Durisol. They created a pitched roof so that they could mount 24 solar panels, utilizing the local company Lighthouse Solar, who designed a 5.16-kilowatt photovoltaic (PV) system mounted on the roof.
With the combination of the roof pitch and the southern exposure, this enabled the home to create more energy than it uses off the Central Hudson electric grid. There are also three-paned windows in every portion of the home that help seal the house and provide great solar gain without leaking energy.
The couple burns no fossil fuels; they only utilize electricity, much of which is generated by their own well-designed insulated home, and often have to be careful not to light their EnergyStar woodburning fireplace too often, or else their house gets too hot! “It’s so well-sealed that when we utilize our fireplace or our air conditioning, which both operate under the same system, the house holds that heat and cold in!” said Wendy.
The investment is already paying off in dividends, not only in terms of fuel costs, which are zero, or electricity costs, which only come in the form of a user fee, but also in the quality of life that the couple experiences. “We tried to utilize local people whenever we could, which was 95 percent of the time,” said Bob. They have corn-based rugs and bamboo flooring, LED lighting, used non-toxic paints and have turned a ranch house into a spacious, inviting, warm place that they both love to live in, as do their visiting children and guests.
The outside was super-sprayed with foam insulation, as was the roof, sealing the house ever so tight. But when a home is that tight, they have to utilize a fresh-air system that continually pumps fresh air into the home. “We love living here. We never tire of the view, nor the comfort of knowing that what we built is non-toxic and utilizes sustainable materials,” said Wendy.
In terms of the interior, the home has a very warm, earthtone-based feel, with a beautiful stone fireplace and mantel, and yet have some modern designs that make it the best of both worlds. “We look on the trailer with fond memories, but it was getting cold and then hot and damp; and the day we finally moved in was our greatest wedding anniversary present ever,” said Wendy, referring to their 28th wedding anniversary.
This is a model home and a couple to whom many of us can relate. To learn more about the process and the details, go to Bob’s article at www.solartoday-digital.org, the June 2012 edition.