From Energy Hog to Efficient Micro Farm
Using lessons learned from a career in sustainable building, architect Stace McGee transformed a leaky out-of-date barn into a haven for his family.
Stace McGee found an idyllic place to raise his family: a micro farm in Fort Collins, Colo., with a creek running through it and a bike trail behind it. But the barn where he lives with his wife and their two teenage kids wasn’t so charming when they bought it.
“The old pole barn was used as a home for 16 years, but it was illegal because it wasn’t built to code,” says McGee, co-founder and principal of Equiterra Regenerative Design, a sustainable residential and commercial architecture firm headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M. “The plumbing and electrical systems were illegal, and there were lots of thermal bypass issues.”
For example, the house had an air change per hour (ACH) of 11 when McGee bought it. "A building needs an ACH of six just to meet code requirements for habitable space," McGee says. "We got to just under 4 ACH after the remodel was complete."
The property, which cost $1 million, includes a main home that the McGees rent to tenants; their renovated barn house; and 2.75 acres with space for chickens, extensive gardens, and a 40-foot hoop house that can be converted to a temporary greenhouse. About 70 percent of the food the McGees grow on their farm is donated to a local food bank, and the rest feeds their family and is shared with their neighbors. McGee estimates that the renovations on the barn house cost more than $275,000, far less than is typical since he did much of the work himself.
Setting Priorities With a HERS Rater
McGee was eager to renovate his house to demonstrate that such a project could support local climate change initiatives. The City of Fort Collins has set a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2030 and to be carbon neutral by 2050.
“Existing residential buildings are the elephant in the room that is possibly holding our city back from meeting that goal,” says McGee. “Bringing existing housing up to the current code to meet the 2030 challenge is a big issue, because most homeowners don’t want to take on the burden.”
McGee hired Fort Collins-based Green Insights to perform a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) analysis, including a blower door test to define the leaks, test the ducts, and check the insulation and thermal envelope. The initial HERS rating was 115, well above the ideal total for achieving net zero energy use. After renovations, the HERS rating was 41.
“After inspecting the home, a HERS rater can assist a homeowner to define the options to improve energy efficiency and inform them about incentives opportunities,” says McGee.
For example, replacing the home’s outdated HVAC system will be repaid within five years because of utility savings and a rebate, not to mention the increased comfort of the new system, he notes.
“The HERS rater and I identified the most important elements to fix to reduce the energy use in the house,” says McGee. “We also wanted to save and reuse everything we could, such as roof insulation and wall insulation. We took off the leaky metal roof and added two inches of insulation and a half-inch of additional roof sheathing, and then put the metal roof back on.”
Ductwork that was previously in unconditioned space is now in conditioned space. McGee removed the exterior metal siding, added 1.5-inch-thick ZIP System R-sheathing rigid wrap, insulation between the studs, and reclaimed wood siding.
“We removed all the electric baseboard heat and packaged terminal air conditioning (PTAC) units, and installed a Mitsubishi mini-split system with a Panasonic ERV system for balanced fresh air,” says McGee. “We also installed a 7-kilowatt photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof to offset a lot of the electricity we use.”
McGee plans to add a battery system and electric vehicle (EV) charging station in the garage during the next phase of renovations, along with another solar array.
In addition to energy-related improvements, including installing energy-efficient appliances, McGee refinished the floors, renovated the bathrooms and the kitchen, and added a new laundry room. The appraised value of the property rose from $1.2 million to $1.7 million in just four years, partly as a result of the renovations and curb appeal, along with market demand in Colorado, McGee says.
Rebates and Tax Credits
McGee received about $1,775 in local rebates for energy improvements such as moving the ducts into conditioned space, replacing the outdated HVAC system, and adding low-flow toilets and faucets. He was ineligible for some rebates because he did the work himself rather than hire a third-party contractor. He received approximately $5,600 in rebates on the solar panels between the City of Fort Collins and federal programs.
If this project was done today, McGee would have been able to apply for the IRA 45L DOE Energy Ready home rebate of $5,000.
“I advise anyone considering this type of project to go first to the city utility to explore their rebates and incentives,” says McGee. “The solar installers also helped me figure out rebates. The utility company provided a free energy audit and recommended the HERS rater, too.”
The result of McGee’s commitment to reducing his carbon footprint and to supporting local climate change goals is a sustainable place to raise his family and become an essential part of his community.
Moving the needle from a HERS rating of 115 to 41 took several steps, including adding a 7-kilowatt solar array.
Old double- and single-pane windows were replaced with new energy-efficient units.
The old metal siding on the back section of the barn was replaced with reclaimed wood.
The remodeled living room includes reclaimed walnut veneer from True Reclaimed Lumber in Wellington, Colo., and a Montigo gas fireplace.
New and reused insulation were placed between the studs of the house to provide better sealing.
Exterior walls were removed, all accessible gaps were sealed, and Huber ZIP System R-sheathing rigid wrap was installed during the renovation of the barn, which had numerous gaps and cracks that contributed to an excessive ACH of 11.
Leaky windows were replaced with energy-efficient units. Insulation from elsewhere in the house was reused wherever possible.
An overhang was added above the front door for aesthetics and as a durability measure to keep snow and rain from the main entrance.
Plumbing and electrical systems for the barn, which has been inhabited for 16 years, did not meet code and had to be replaced. 2" of rigid insulation was added around the perimeter of the barn.
The kitchen renovation included replacing all appliances with energy-efficient electric models.
The original metal siding on the barn was removed so that rigid wrap insulation could be installed, and the siding replaced with reclaimed wood.
Builder: Eric Harrington, Blue Rooster Construction, Fort Collins, Colo.
Architect/Designer: Equiterra Regenerative Design, Albuquerque, N.M.
HERS Rater: Green Insight, Fort Collins, Colo.
Photos: Patrick Coulie Architectural Photography, Albuquerque, N.M.
Reclaimed walnut siding and exterior Wyoming snow fence: True Reclaimed Lumber, Wellington, Colo.
Rigid wrap insulation: Huber Engineered Woods ZIP System R-Sheathing
Low-flow toilets and faucets: Kohler