CLIFTON PARK – Anyone who saw “before” photos of Paul and Joanne Coons’ Clifton Park home would have to admit that they had incredible vision.
They didn’t see overgrown foliage, peeling paint, water in the basement, wallpaper falling off the ceiling or the fact that in one room, “the only thing holding up the roof was frozen sawdust,” as Paul Coons put it. Instead, they saw beauty and potential — and moreover, a chance to demonstrate how to create a net-zero performance home.
The former Carlson Farms Greek Revival-style house built in 1830 had been abandoned for 10 years, and raccoons and other animals had taken up residence. The developer who owned the property could not demolish the structure, because the town of Clifton Park considered the building historically significant. But he could not seem to sell it, either.
Clifton Park’s Historic Preservation Commission and the town Planning Board worked with the developer, offering a couple other building lots in exchange for a lower price on the house. Then the commission approached the Coonses.
“We came and looked at it and fell in love with it,” said Joanne Coons. “They don’t make them like they used to. We loved the architecture and the character.”
The Coonses were not newcomers to energy-efficient historic preservation, nor to living a green lifestyle. In 1990 they restored their 1854 home in Vischer Ferry and subsequently the Vischer Ferry General Store.
When the United States again became involved in wars in the Middle East in the early 2000s, the couple decided they no longer wanted to be dependent on fossil fuels or foreign oil. They installed solar panels and radiant floor heat so they could heat with solar thermal energy. They even bought a diesel car and began making their own biodiesel fuel from cooking oil.
This latest opportunity at the former Carlson Farm fit right in with their sustainability goals.
“We wanted to give up on fossil fuels and reduce our carbon footprint for future generations,” Joanne said.
They purchased the house as their retirement home and began construction in 2009 with three goals in mind: They wanted to maintain the historic character of the home; make it green; and achieve net-zero energy performance, which means the home produces the same amount of energy from renewable sources as it uses in a year’s time.
The center part of the house, with a staircase leading to two bedrooms and a bathroom, was the original part of the home. At some point those who lived there added two other sections on either side of the main portion. One houses a large eat-in kitchen where most family activities take place, with a tiny bedroom off the kitchen that they converted to Joanne’s office. The other side was transformed into the owners’ suite, where two smaller bedrooms were remodeled to provide a walk-in closet and bathroom.
In essence, Paul, who is retired from New York state as the director of environmental health and safety for the Office of Mental Health, acted as general contractor for the project, working with a team of skilled professionals. Paul’s and Joanne’s styles complemented each other when it came to the restoration.
“I want to jump in and start doing things,” Joanne said. “Paul plans things. I’m like the energy force. He sits back and plans it all. You make a lot less mistakes when it’s planned.”
They attempted to save as much as they could of the original structure. They kept the home’s 19th-century frame and southern orientation, which is a good choice for capturing passive solar heat.
“The way you orientate your home when you construct it determines if you get the solar gain that way,” Joanne explained, noting that 19th-century builders knew what they were doing when it came to benefiting from the sun’s energy.
Wherever possible the couple retained the original wide pine plank floorboards, moldings, windows, stairways, doors, a decorative fireplace and metal ceiling. When they had to replace items they looked toward recycled products, such as reclaimed lumber from Rochester. To replace a door, they found a salvaged one and accompanying hardware at the Historic Albany Foundation’s warehouse. When they had to replace molding, they took a small piece to a lumberyard and had the molding reproduced to match. Paul noted that since the house was added onto twice, the moldings in each of the three sections differ.
The casement windows on the front of the house are original, showing the bubbles in the glass. To make them energy efficient, the Coonses installed magnetic storm windows on the exterior and the interior, with the original windows sandwiched in between. They even used an infrared heat gun to measure any heat loss to make sure they were energy efficient.
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They created a vaulted ceiling in the large kitchen area by taking the original ceiling down, exposing the ceiling joists (some of which are slender tree trunks), turning them on their sides and bolting them through the rafters to hold the walls together. Now, they’re exposed below the vaulted ceiling and serve as an interesting architectural element.
A covered walkway connects the home to a barn where the Coonses house their electric-powered equipment including cars, lawnmower, barbeque and snowblower. They purchased the plans for this period barn from an architect to ensure that the barn fits in with the historic character of the home. The doors on the top front of the barn were the former basement doors when the basement was accessed from the front of the house. The Coonses moved basement access to the rear of the house, and this is where they house all the home’s mechanical systems, including a ground-source heat pump, heat recovery ventilator to bring in fresh air, whole house dehumidifier and whole-house vacuum system.
The Coonses have found some antique treasures in the house and on the property. With no garbage collection in the 19th century, homeowners just used a garbage pit in the backyard. They have found clam shells, ink bottles, nails, bottles, Dutch clay pipes, a metal fishing reel and even a brick stamped with the Half Moon logo that would have been used as ballast for a barge returning to New York City. In the attic they discovered a prom ticket from Shenendehowa High School from 1950. Admission was $3.50 per couple. Joanne took shards of china and pottery and created a frame from them to honor the history of the home and those who lived there before.
GREEN AND CLEAN CHOICES
If you touched any surface or item in the Coonses’ home, they could tell you why they chose that particular item or material. All their choices were intentional, to make the home as healthy and energy efficient as possible.
For example, the kitchen cabinets were fashioned by Amish builders in nearby Amsterdam. The counters are PaperStone, a durable, nonporous paper composite surface made of recycled paper and nonpetroleum resin with natural pigments. All wood is coated with PolyWhey from Vermont Natural Coatings, a finish made from whey protein instead of the toxic chemicals found in traditional finishes, so it reduces the amount of volatile organic compounds in the home. The walls are finished with a soft-textured natural earth plaster product, designed to ionize odors and pollutants, from New Mexico-based American Clay (the only exception the Coons made to their 500-mile sourcing rule).
All appliances are Energy Star certified. They have an induction range top that cooks with magnets, and a convection oven. They have only a washing machine in the small laundry area adjacent to the owners’ suite bathroom — no dryer. Lights are all LEDs.
The cavities in the walls were shallow, so they built them out 3 inches around the perimeter of the home and had inches of high-density spray-foam insulation pumped in. Under the roof there is 14 inches of spray foam, along with 8 inches in the basement.
The house has a ground source heat pump that extracts heat from the home and sinks it into the ground in the summer, then extracts the heat from the ground in the winter to heat the home. Outside are two types of solar panels, photovoltaic ones that provide electricity and thermal panels that heat water for the home.
The same goes for the exterior of the house. The driveway is gravel, not asphalt, because that allows rainwater to recharge to the ground rather than running off. Slate on the back patio comes from Whitehall, a local supplier to reduce the carbon footprint of transporting it to Clifton Park. They xeriscaped the slope in the backyard that leads down to the garden using plants that require little water rather than grass. Joanne waters her garden with rainwater collected in two barrels on either end of the house and fertilizes it with compost she makes herself. There’s also what Joanne dubs her “solar dryer,” a drying rack; the couple leaves the drying of clothes to the sun.
The result of all of their careful attention to detail is that their National Grid bill is just $17.93 per month, the service fee for being hooked up to the grid. They also took advantage of government green building and energy-efficient benefits, as well as tax benefits from the historic preservation group.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) walked the couple through obtaining a few certifications, including New York Energy Star WaterSense, LEED for Home (Platinum) and New York Energy Star. The home has also won awards for historic renovation and green building.
“The house was rescued from oblivion,” said town historian and preservation commission member John Scherer. “The Coonses have been quite an asset to the town and preservation.”
The couple clearly enjoy living a sustainable lifestyle and demonstrating how it is possible to live comfortably using renewable energy, as well as healthy and sustainable building materials and systems.
For them it’s about showing that energy efficiency and historic preservation can go together successfully and comfortably. As a professor of photovoltaics at Hudson Valley Community College, Joanne said that example is more powerful than words, and the couple has set an example of how these goals can be accomplished. In fact, the Coonses’ son is in the process of renovating his own 1954 home to be all-electric and energy efficient, and even started his own company to help others do the same.
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