No Heat Needed

I went to the house rather early yesterday morning – at about 7:45, just after the sun came up. I walked into the house and it was pretty warm inside despite the fact that it was 42 degrees and windy outside and we don’t have heat in our building yet. Given that the sun had just come up the warmth wasn’t due to solar heat gain either…

Besides a few light bulbs on, and a small heater down in the uninsulated part of the cellar (to keep the pipes from freezing) there wasn’t much the the way of heat sources, yet the house was still warm. It was a little on the chilly side, but we like that – that’s pretty much how we want to keep the house during the winter months. Cold enough to warrant wearing a light sweater or hoodie, but not so cold that our hands get cold.

It appears the heat was coming from the building next to ours – 166 West 123. Despite the fact that 166 is sandwiched between two cold, unheated shells it remarkably has no insulation in the party walls. I can’t imagine what their heating bills must look like – they’re radiating so much heat that it’s enough to keep multiple buildings warm. All the buildings next to them have to do is insulate well and trap 166’s heat.

I would feel guilty about having our neighbor heating our building for us but it’s costing them less than when our building was open to the elements and the party wall was freezing cold. The core principles of conservation are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. To that end we’ve Reduced our neighbor’s energy usage, and Reused their radiated heat. It’s pretty much a win-win.

Even without a sweater I found the temperature yesterday to be pretty comfortable. What that means is that we probably won’t need to turn the heat on in our building until it gets down into the 30s and even then it doesn’t look like we’ll need much heat.

The moral of the story is closed cell foam is pretty incredible – and while it’s a bit more expensive upfront, it’ll save us far more money than it cost.


It’s gotten colder since I wrote the post and I’ve figured out the house is comfortable down to roughly freezing. I was comfortable at 35 degrees outside with a 10 mph wind, but it was maybe 5 degrees too cold when it was 27 outside with a 14 mph wind. Even at 27 out the temperature wasn’t that bad. A hoodie or sweater would have made it comfortable enough except hands would have been a bit cold. And as a temperature for sleeping – it could even get colder inside with a proper down or wool blanket.


Today we finally got thermometers. The temperature outside was 32 degrees but inside it was 51 degrees on the parlor floor (the coldest part of our unit) and 52 degrees near the window in the cellar of the rental unit (the coldest part of the rental unit). That’s pretty sweet – we get 20 degrees of heat off light bulbs and from the warm wall with the neighbor. We also noticed at lower temperatures the heat gained is even more.

I think I’m going to be pretty comfortable with the house set to the high 50s during the day and the high 40s at night. That means we won’t need to turn on the heat until we’re in the high 30s (day) or below freezing (night). We’ll see what temperature we can get away with when we actually move in…

A White Christmas (w/ Closed Cell Foam)

The house is turning white just in time for Christmas… No, it’s not snowing – this (yellowish) white Christmas is thanks to closed cell foam…

In other words our house is turning into a big styrofoam cup. 🙂  And actually it was sorta snowing in the house today – as they cleaned up this powdery foam fell down the staircase – much like snow…

The other day someone asked us what about the house was “green”. I always hesitate when people ask me that question – I don’t do things just because someone calls them “green”. For example NYC requires low VOC floor sealers which these days means water-based sealers. But traditionally oil-based sealers perform better than water-based ones. I’d have no problem shipping high VOC oil-based sealer in from Pennsylvania if it means our floors will be more durable. In that particular case we were convinced to go with a low VOC water-based sealer because the modern sealers have epoxy-like hardeners in them that make them perform better than the old oil-based sealers.

So I’m not green just to be green, but I am definitely green when it increases efficiency, durability, etc. (provided it doesn’t compromise on the end result). Insulation is a huge part how our house will be green since, more than anything else, it can reduce energy usage through lower heating and cooling bills.

I had done my research ahead of time and knew that closed cell foam just performs better than the other alternatives. For starters closed cell foam has a much higher R value per inch than fiberglass – 6 to 7, compared to 3.14. Thinner insulation = thinner walls = wider rooms. But beyond that we’ve been told that closed cell foam has a real world performance that’s twice as good as fiberglass insulation with similar R value. So an R20 closed cell foam wall will perform about the same as an R40 fiberglass wall. The reason for that is pretty simple… R value ratings do not take air movement into consideration. Closed cell foam gets into all the nooks and crannies and creates a seal – there’s no way for air to get around the insulation. In contrast air can travel pretty easily around fiberglass batts.

To illustrate that point I went with a friend a few months ago to see a place in Brooklyn that was under construction. They were insulating, but in the most haphazard way possible… There’s no way the wall below is going to perform very well – look at the huge gaps in some areas and how it’s squished the fiberglass is in other areas.

sloppy install of fiberglass batts

In contrast closed cell foam tends to be a little oversprayed – so if anything it will perform better than expected and since it creates a perfect seal all over the wall – there’s no problem with air passing through the wall.

So sealing the house up really tight should drastically reduce energy consumption. Over time that will save us money and pay for the increased cost of the closed cell foam.

If your curious, here’s how the floors and walls are being done. NY State energy code requires R19+ walls and R39+ roofs (I think those numbers go up if the building is heated with electric). [And I should mention, if you’re landmarked or on the National Register you’re exempt from energy conservation rules. But seriously – if insulation will save you a substantial amount of money, why wouldn’t you want to insulate properly?]

insulated wall

That’s 2.5″ of closed cell foam, plus the R value of the brick, etc. gives us R20 walls. Actually, the R value of the brand we’re using is slightly higher than the architect expected, so we’ll have R21.5 walls.

insulated roof

That’s 4″ of rigid foam above the roof deck (rigid foam is similar to closed cell – except it’s not sprayed on and hence isn’t as air tight), plus 4″ of closed cell foam in the roof joists.

If you look closely at the image above you’ll see an inconsistency – the calculations say 2.5″ of foam, the detail drawing says 4″. I didn’t catch that until earlier today when they’d already started insulating. On top of that the insulation guy put 5.5″ of closed cell (R38) in his estimate, so our roof will be more like R61.5 with about R41.5 in the bulkhead. That amount of roof insulation is actually almost absurd – R60 is what “zero energy” homes have. With 3″ of closed cell foam you get 97% of its potential efficiency. So with 9.5″ (including the rigid insulation), most of our roof has got to be pretty close to 100% efficient.

The other thing closed cell foam does is reinforce the structure of the house. Because it becomes rather hard when it drys and because it fills every nook and cranny it actually becomes somewhat structural – all without adding much weight. We were told it can make a typical wood frame house 40 times stronger than normal which makes it popular in hurricane zones. We’ve got brick walls, so that’s not a big factor – but it can’t hurt.

The one downside to closed cell foam (other than cost) is that you have everything in your walls completed perfectly before you spray on the foam. Going back and fixing something you didn’t quite get right is incredibly difficult.

One thing we should mention is closed cell foam on brick walls. We were told by one insulation sub-contractor that old brick would suck up the equivalent of 1.5 inches of foam. But it turns out that was just wrong. The closed cell foam expert that we’re using says the foam is applied at 150 psi and starts drying and hardening almost immediately. It doesn’t really have time to get sucked into the brick.

It Isn’t Easy Selling Green

I first wrote this about a year ago when Dan and I went through a LEED certified townhouse that was for sale, but I was afraid my wording was too harsh, so I never published it. But a year later the place still hasn’t sold so I’m stripping out the details of which house it is, reworking some parts, and putting up the post.

The townhouse we saw is a gut renovated townhouse that was one of the first to get LEED certification (it achieved “silver” certification). Everything in this townhouse is “green”. The plywood is green (at 3 times the cost), the dumpsters of garbage were recycled (a 1.5 times the cost), the paint is “green” (and I’m not referring to the color), there are 3 huge solar panels on the roof, the insulation is incredible (composed of things like closed cell foam and recycled blue jeans), the heating and cooling very high efficiency – EVERYTHING about the house is green. The project is even got fairly substantial national recognition and had all sorts of big name sponsors (who donated things like appliances).

It’s been finished for a while and on the market for about two years, yet it still hasn’t sold. Here’s why I think that is…

#1 – The Price

When we went through the house another couple was also looking at it. As they left a guy shouted to them from a van “how much are they asking for that place?” Their answer summed it up nicely – “Too much”.

The asking price at that time was $2.79M down from an initial asking price of $2.995M when they put it on the market two years ago (it’s now down several hundred thousand more). Simply put, NOTHING in Harlem is selling for that price. The top of the market right now is about $2M, and things were selling for even less two years ago when they priced it at $3M.

Compared to other townhouses at the high end of the market this one’s primary advantage is all the green technology, but the question is how much will someone really pay to be green? A million dollars? That’s a lot of money.

#2 – The Layout

The layout to me just seemed odd. The living room was TINY, the dining room HUGE, there are huge wide hallways with wasted space throughout the building. On one floor there are two bathrooms across the hall from each other – you’d think they’d connect at least one to the bedrooms that were right next to them. The workspace for the kid’s computers didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I understand why parents might like that, but aren’t parents buying laptops for kids these days? Plus it’s incredibly specific to a particular market segment. You have to have kids of a certain age to find that a good feature.

There were lounge spaces on each of the two upper floors instead of bedrooms. When asked why there weren’t more bedrooms the answer was that that more bedrooms would have made it even more difficult to comply with LEED standards. As a result they only managed to fit 3 bedrooms into an owner’s unit that should have had 4 to 6 bedrooms. There were also 2 bedrooms on the ground floor that I’m not counting, but that raises a whole other issue (see the next section – C of O Issues)…

That said, the top floor master bedroom suite was pretty nice. The terrace off the master bedroom was extremely pleasant.

#3 – C of O Issues

For some reason after doing all that work, the owners still haven’t gotten a new C of O three years later. Legally it’s still a C5 Rooming House that’s SRO restricted. The renovations were done legally, but for one reason or another they never took the final step. I can see on the DOB website that they put some more work into it last year, but still no C of O.

When they do get it, the plan was for it to be a single family home which seems odd to me. That’s just too big of a house to be single family. 2 family with a ground floor rental is a lot more practical. In fact they’ve set it up for a 2 family, put in the plumbing, etc. Why they didn’t file to convert it to a 2 family to start with, I just don’t understand.

#4 – The Level of Finish

While there were some very nice aspects to the house, overall the finishes were of uneven quality. The stairs are a good example. They have this cool LED lighting that’s a very nice touch, but apparently the budget was tight and they couldn’t finish the stairs the way they wanted to and so they covered the center railing with sheetrock with the metal end posts poking through (and the metal was rusting). At $3M (or any price over $2M) people expect better finishes.

What Will It Sell For?

The odd layout and wasted space make it difficult to price. I think the new square footage is about 5000 sq. ft – which is quite big – especially for a single family home. If it weren’t for the inefficient use of space $450 to $500/sq. ft. would be reasonable based on the comps and that would come out to between $2.25M to $2.5M. Based on square footage they’re finally priced right. But my gut tells me it won’t sell for that ’cause it’s got the “issues” I talk about above. I’d guess the sale price will be closer to $2M – possibly even lower.

The issue is that they purchased the place in early 2008 (really bad timing) for $1.45M and given the fact that they did a rather expensive renovation that included major structural work and absurdly expensive “green” materials, I’m guessing they’ll lose money – even at their current asking price the losses could be substantial. If they’re paying a mortgage it gets even worse given high carrying charges.

What Does It Mean?

It’s sorta sad to see a demonstration project of green architecture end in people losing money, but that seems to be the likely outcome. While I think it’s great to be green, I don’t see the point of being green at all costs. From what I’ve read LEED is an absurdly difficult standard for existing structures, but the owners and their sponsors had committed to living by LEED and by the time the expenses were mounting and the market crashing it was too late – the financial damage had been done.

In my mind the project points out that LEED isn’t a standard Harlem townhouse renovators should strive to live by. Instead, be green in ways that are practical and relevant to what we’re working with – old, imperfect buildings.

And be less dogmatic about the whole green thing… For example plywood is green by it’s very nature since it’s made up of wood byproducts that are waste material, or “junk” wood from young trees that come from well-managed, renewable forests. You’re really not achieving much by paying 3 times more for “green” plywood.

To me energy efficiency is the name of the game. Use closed cell foam insulation when possible. Have efficient boilers and zoned heating and cooling. Have energy efficient windows. But don’t try to be so green that it causes you financial problems. Done properly being green should benefit your bottom line – not hurt it.

Different approaches to being “green” with tenants’ utilities

The other night when we were having drinks with Peter Holtzman, who owns one of the Astor Row townhouses and is an architect with The Downtown Group, the question of how to handle tenants’ utilities came up. His approach was to go all out for efficiency. He has one high efficiency boiler that provides heat and hot water for him and his two tenants. He doesn’t even have hot water heaters – just an insulated tank attached to his boiler. It’s worked for him – he’s got very low utility bills to show for it.

Our approach is different, but it’s only different – I don’t know that either of us can say our approach is better. We’re going to sacrifice a little bit of efficiency to emphasize conservation. To achieve this we’re having the tenants pay for many of their own utilities. For example we’ll meter the water separately. We figure if the tenants are aware of the cost of their water, they’ll use less of it. In a similar vein we’re giving them their own hot water heater which will be powered by their (separately metered) gas. Again, if they see the cost of their hot water they’re more likely to use less of it.

With heat it’s a bit more complicated. If we provide heat, NYC requires that it be up to a certain temperatures. We want our own unit cooler than the legal minimums – we like a little chill in the air. So we’re shooting for “a bit cool” but not so cool that our hands will get cold. To us that temperature is invigorating. For other people it just feels cold. We’ll extend the concept of awareness leading to conservation by giving our tenants combo heating/cooling units so they can raise the temperature in their unit even higher if they like a warmer apartment. But the supplemental heat will be electric heat and the cost of the additional heat will show up in their electric bill.

There’s another difference between Peter’s approach and our approach – ours requires a lot more equipment. We’ll have a boiler, two water heaters, as well as mini-split units for supplemental heat for the tenants. He just has a boiler. If you’re strict in your approach to being green you do need to consider the carbon footprint of making and maintaining that extra equipment (we’re not that fussy in our approach).

Where we agreed with Peter was on using closed cell foam to insulate all the exterior walls. The 2 1/2 inches of closed cell foam, plus everything else in the wall will give our exterior walls an r-value of R20. That will drive down utility bills for everyone, require a smaller heating and cooling system, etc. But it’s beyond that point where you need to figure out which you like better – maximum efficiency, or slightly less efficiency with an emphasis on conservation.

Energy Efficient Window Choices – NYC

Choosing the right windows for our townhouse is a lot more complicated than you’d think. The best website for guidance is which has a page dedicated to what the effect of different choices will be on your heating and cooling bills. Here’s a screenshot showing what the top choices are (click on the image to see more).

efficient windows nyc

First, a few explanations of what some of those values mean…

  • “U” is “U-Factor” which measures the insulating value of the window. The lower the better.
  • “SHGC” is the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient which measures how much solar rays can heat the building. It’s a proportion, so an SHGC of 0.26 means that 26% of the sun’s heat gets through the window and 74% is blocked.
  • “VT” is the visible light that’s transmitted. It’s also a proportion, so a VT of 0.50 means 50% of the visible light is transmitted through the window. The higher this value, the brighter your room will be.

The problem is that they assume that you’re installing the same types of windows in all the windows in your house and that you heat and cool your house evenly. Neither of those assumptions are true for us.

In our case the windows in the back are facing south and will get an incredible amount of light. The windows in the front will only get direct sun for maybe an hour early each morning, and the windows on the side will get no sun at all. Simply put you want different windows where there’s lots of direct light than you do where there’s virtually no direct light, so those recommendations only take you so far…

The other issue is balancing the windows effect on heating and cooling. The U-value is going to determine how much the outside temperature affects the inside temperature. You want well insulated windows so on cold or hot days the temperature inside the building isn’t affected. This means you want as low of a U-factor as possible. However, with solar heat gain it gets a lot more complicated. The more solar heat gain you have, the lower your heating bills will be, but the higher your cooling bills will be.

If you’ve heard of “passive houses” the idea is that they want solar heat gain in the winter and try to avoid it in the summer. They’ll have concrete floors on the south to absorb and store solar heat in the winter, but then they’ll have overhangs that block solar heat gain as the sun climbs in the summer. Passive houses are all about being intelligent about solar heat gain.

We really don’t care about LEED certification in the least, but we do care about how much it costs to run our house. We’re going with more expensive closed cell foam insulation in the walls, and (as you can see) I’m giving a lot of thought to our window choice in an attempt to reduce the heating and cooling bills. We’re more than happy to put extra money towards stuff that will save us money down the road. So here’s my thinking…

Windows that get almost no direct light…

  • U-factor is important
  • SHGC is irrelevant (no direct sun means virtually no solar heat gain)
  • Visible light transmission should be as high as possible

Windows that get lots of light…

  • U-factor is important
  • SHGC “depends”
  • Visible light transmission “depends”

I don’t like to be in overly sunny rooms. I often cross the street to get out of the sun and I hate sunny places like Arizona and Southern California. So I don’t want a whole lot of visible light transmission on the southern windows. Your taste may differ – many people like direct sun – I’m just not one of them.

The SHGC you want depends on how you have your house arranged. In reading Julia Angwin’s blog on the Wall Street Journal I see she’s taking a very different tack than we are. She specifically said “We chose the south side for our office so we could have good light during the day.” (source)  She and her husband are clearly people who like direct sunlight. In my mind “good light” is indirect northern light, so I want our home office on the north side. I would hate Julia’s south-facing office, but that’s just me… In addition to light issues I want the office on the front because the street is noisy and I can tolerate more noise in the office than I can in the bedroom when I’m trying to sleep.

I say all of that for a purpose. How you arrange your house will have an impact on what SHGC value you shoot for on your southern windows. In our case our primary daytime room (the home office) will be on the north side of the building. Solar heat gain is not going to affect our air conditioning bills too much on weekdays because we’re not in sunny rooms during the day – just maybe a bit on weekends when we use more rooms in the house during peak cooling hours. On the other hand Julia Angwin is spending time during peak cooling hours in a south facing room. A low SHGC value is far more important to her than it is to us.

In addition, unlike Julia and her husband, we’ll be providing heat for our ground floor tenants. On top of that, since we’re going with a mini-split system for cooling every room will be a zone for cooling and we can just cool the room(s) we’re in. But heating will be more general. While we can turn off the rads in rooms, there’s a certain level of heat we have to maintain throughout the house.

As a result, I’m expecting heating to be a bigger expense than cooling. That means we’ll benefit by having somewhat higher SHGC values on the south facing windows… If you look at the graphic above you’ll see the two scenarios where the heating cost was below $800 had very different SHGC values – 0.40 in one case and 0.56 in the other. Lower isn’t necessarily better when it comes to SHGC. If you’re in Miami it is, but not NYC.

The other issue that’s important to us when it comes to windows is how much UV is blocked. I remember visiting my sister’s friend’s apartment when I was in college. They had an incredible place in San Francisco with water views. Problem was their windows let through too much UV and it ruined a Matisse color block collage they had bought. We’re a bit paranoid about UV affecting our art and furniture. That means that UV protection will be a huge issue for us on south facing windows (and somewhat on north facing windows).

And to make things even more complicated, I think we’ll be getting Gaulhofer windows (from Austria) and Europeans measure a lot of these values differently (especially SHGC) so I’ve been struggling to convert European values into US values. But Gaulhofers are just incredible windows – their standard window is tilt-n-turn (an inswing casement that can also open a little at the top to allow ventilation), and they’re made with furniture grade wood – not the cheap crappy pine Marvin and Andersen use.

The bottom line is there are a lot of factors you should consider when picking windows and it gets a bit confusing to balance all the different criteria. But if you give it some thought it starts to make sense…