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Back to the Future: Reduce, Reuse, Retrofit

Welcome to the third episode in our Sea Change series, Back to the Future. Green architect Betsy Pettit talks about retrofits and what older building methods can teach us about saving energy. And John Grossman of ReStore tells us about re-using salvaged building materials.

Each month, our six-part series looks at what we can learn from the past, when we used far less fossil fuels than we do today. We explore practices we can adapt as we move toward a lower carbon future. Last month, we looked at the revival of a locally based food system in western Massachusetts. This month we look at using old style Yankee frugality in building homes — and adapting existing houses — to save energy and reduce our carbon footprint.

In the U.S., buildings are responsible for between 48 and 80 percent of all carbon emissions, depending on what you include in the numbers. Single-family homes account for a significant portion today — but they used to use a lot less energy. Green architect Betsy Pettit says homes built in the early years of the last century can teach us a lot about using less energy for cooling and lighting — and even heating. She retrofitted her circa 1916 Sears Kit house to make its carbon footprint tiny — nearly zero net energy.

Pettit plies her trade with Building Science Corporation in Boston. She’ll be chairing this year’s Building Energy Conference put on by the NorthEast Sustainable Energy Association, or NESEA.

The ReStore in Springfield was founded eight years ago by the Center for Ecological Technology in Northampton, MA.. It takes salvaged materials and surplus stock from the building industry and sells them to the public at low prices, thereby keeping good used stuff out of landfills. The ReStore crew will take a house apart, piece by piece, including one from the 1700s, that used to sit in Rutland, Massachusetts.

When you go to the ReStore, you’ll find everything from claw foot tubs to spas, doors, windows, heaps of old lumber, radiators of various vintages, tub surrounds and marble countertops outside. Inside, you can find entire kitchen cabinet sets, including a cherry one on the day Sea Change host Francesca Rheannon visited that looked like it had been pulled from a 1940s mansion. There are lamps hanging from every inch of ceiling space, and everything else for the home from drawer pulls to wiring. Manager John Grossman took Sea Change on a tour.

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