Family plots green future for old house

March 20, 2009
By

David Taber


Gazette Photo by David Taber Andrée Zaleska and Ken Ward inside their house at 135 Bourne St. The couple plans to turn the house into an “green” residence and sustainable living community center.

WOODBOURNE—In the hills behind Hyde Park Avenue, on an out-of-the way corner, a stone’s throw from Forest Hills Cemetery, Andrée Zaleska and Ken Ward are planning ahead.

They are converting a long-abandoned storefront/residence on the corner of Bourne and Catherine streets into a super-efficient house that produces zero net carbon emissions. They are trying to grow as much of their own food as they can in their back yard.

If everything goes to plan, the couple says, their project—straightforwardly named “The JP Green House”—will point the way to a new future. And they want to spread the word. They plan to open the storefront—until the 1970s the site of Jack’s Corner Store—as a “‘Green Community Center’ for meetings, gatherings and music, gardening, climate action, and education on low-cost, sustainable living,” their blog says.

Sustainability and local community involvement are “what the future is going to look like,” Zaleska said during a recent Gazette visit to the house. “People need to see that it can be done.”

The family of five—Ward has an 8-year-old son named Eli and Zaleska has two sons, 7-year-old Simon and 10-year-old Kuba Zalesky—hope to move in next fall.

Ward said providing a living demonstration of a sustainable lifestyle in the city is one of the major goals. He has been hard-pressed, he said, to find an example in the U.S of, “Real people in a real house that meets environmental standards and is cost-effective, and if you want to look at it, you can look at it. As far as I can tell, there is nothing like that.”

When the Gazette recently visited the 135 Bourne St. house, it, frankly, didn’t look anything like that. For now, the family is living in a rented house a few blocks away on Bourne Street. The insides of the future Green House are completely gutted, leaving bare frames and unfinished floors, walls and ceilings. The interior of the house, “looks like an Escher painting,” was how neighbor Peg Preble, a master electrician who is one of many donating services to the project at a reduced rate, put it. “Its like, this wall will go here? That will fit into there?” she said.

MC Escher was a Dutch artist famous, among other things, for creating prints of mathematically inspired impossible constructions.

In some ways, though, the project is proving easier than Ward and Zalesky had initially expected. Ward said he got some experience in green building techniques in the 1970s, but the field has leapt and bounded since then.

Instead of having to install a mish-mash of solar arrays, energy efficient appliances and heating systems, and other green technologies, the couple plans to build according to the passive house standard—a system that will allow them to mostly rely on the heat their own bodies generate to keep them warm.

“The passive house standard will mean we do not have to do a lot of the things we had been thinking about,” Ward said.

In broad strokes, the system entails retrofitting the house with 12-to-16 inch insulation and shoring up any drafts, essentially sealing it. An air filtration system that uses the warm air circulating out to heat the cool air circulating in will prevent mildew and mold from forming.

According to the web site of the Passive House Institute US, the standard can “slash the heating energy consumption of building by an amazing 90 percent.”

Zaleska said they might not adhere religiously to the standard. Some, in their zeal to reduce drafts, produce dreary houses with few windows, she said. “We are probably going to have to compromise on the windows.”

They are hoping to get a photovoltaic array for their roof, and set up a small, tasteful wind turbine system to meet most of the rest of their energy needs. Those efforts, particularly the wind-power, will be experimental and “we are probably going to be on the grid for a while,” Zaleska said.

The couple is working with the Roxbury-based design/build firm Place Tailor to get the job done. Founded in 2008 by a group of three architects and carpenters, Place Tailor’s credits only include renovation of company co-founder Simon Hare’s house in Roxbury.

Work on that house “was our first [passive house] effort and the first effort in the area,” said Declan Keefe of Place Tailor. The only other passive house close to the Greater Boston area that he knows about is in Nantucket, he said.

The standard is popular in Europe, though, and closer to home, it appears that Zalesky and Ward’s plans are in tune with the spirit of the times. On March 11 the state Zero Net Energy Building Task Force announced recommendations designed to “point the way toward universal adoption of zero net energy standards for new residential and commercial construction by 2030,” according to press materials.

Formed in March 2008, the task force was also charged to identify a new construction project that could be designed as a zero net energy pilot construction project. It found two: The state Department of Fish and Game’s Fisheries and Wildlife headquarters in Westborough and North Shore Community College’s Health and Student Services Building in Danvers.

The state is also paying close attention to the Arlington-based Massachusetts Super-Insulation Project, an effort—sponsored by the state Department of Energy Resources and NStar, among others—to retrofit an Arlington home so that it is 80 percent more efficient to heat.

Another JP group, Stony Brook Cohousing, is also looking into the passive house standard. “We have been together for a few years now [with the goal of] building a green co-housing project,” said group member Cora Roelofs. “We are intrigued by passive housing.”

Inspired by JP Cohoousing on Cornwall and Amory Street, Stony Brook Cohousing plans to develop an intentional community that features individual housing for its members as well as common space. “We totally think it’s fascinating how green building technology and materials and strategy have advanced, but we are also focused on how people live—in sharing and working together and living in a more efficient sustainable way,” she said.

Stonybrook Co-Housing is currently made up of five families committed to taking equity stakes in an eventual development project, and others who are interested in it.

Ward and Zaleska expressed similar sentiments about community when talking about their project, and Zalesky particularly focused on it when talking about the younger members of the family.

“We told our kids that they are going to be living a life that is partly in view,” she said. “We would like to have the kind of house where you know that something is going happen on Saturday morning, that you know something is going on there…Part of the idea of having more open, more locally focused communities is that you have to be willing to have people around.”

Zaleska, who works for the JP Forum—a local non-profit that sponsors regular educational events about social issues—recently inaugurated an Urban Sustainability Series there.

Ward said he only recently started looking into the possibility of state support for the Green House project. The JP Green House is not lacking a network of supporters, though. When the Gazette visited the house, Ward pointed out a box sitting in the middle of the floor and said it contained an air filtration system—essential for keeping an airtight house free of mold and mildew—that had been “donated by a friend.”

Zaleska and Ward have also solicited the help of the Mission Hill-based non-profit Boston Building Materials Co-op. The co-op is keeping an eye out for donations that might aid the effort, Ward said.

The couple is hoping to spend $120,000 to $160,000 on the project between now and next fall, when they plan to move in. All told, they are trying to bring the project in at around $575,000, including the $275,000 they spent on the building, which had been foreclosed on.

Goodwill and community support will be integral to meeting or beating that budget.

“We have kind of been trying to work with them,” Keefe of Place Tailor said, “We are not working pro bono, but we are putting more time than we typically would into the project because we believe in it and agree with it.”

But, Ward said, he and Zaleska will also try to develop an analysis of the “fair market” cost of the work they are doing, and both the financial and environmental benefits of the effort.

Preble said she is involved because of the community benefit of getting the house on the corner of Bourne and Catherine streets back in working order. “I have lived two doors down for 15 years or so, just watching the poor thing decay,” she said of the house.

“I want to see something happen with the building, and not see it torn down. Some people in the neighborhood consider it an eyesore, but I like it for being funky and its history,” she said. “I am just so much happier that someone with a vision and alternative interests [purchased the house] than developer planning to slap up a sheet rock house.”

Across Catherine Street, she noted, a more traditional ranch-style residential development effort has been sitting stalled for two years. That project has been on hold, she said, since community members complained that the foundation was poured too close to the property line.

“It’s like opposite bookends. That one was supposed to be a quick and easy new construction to turn around and sell,” she said. “I really hope [Ward and Zalesky] get done first.”

Sidebar: Even Greener

Learn More: JP Green House website

Correction: Due to a reportig error, Andrée Zaleska’s last name was spelled incorrectly in the print version of this article. Andrée’s sons, Kuba and