Green Blocks Initiative: Home


Personal Action

We set out to demonstrate that it was possible to retrofit a leaky hundred-year-old house to net zero… and in our case to derive 100% of the power from solar panels. After one and a half years of research, and another eighteen months of demo and construction, the goal has been met. Ours is also the first net zero example in Canada of insulating on top of the existing stucco façade. The city believes what we are doing is scalable. For our efforts, the city of Victoria has named us climate champions.

Community Event

“By switching away from an old fossil fuel heating system and by putting great effort into whole home energy efficiency upgrades, the Fernwood Net Zero retrofit project contributes to meeting our ambitious climate targets. The project has gone above and beyond and has redefined what the “home of the future” looks like. We hope it will inspire others in the community to take action and make their homes more climate-friendly.”

– John Ho, Community Energy Specialist, City of Victoria

We aren’t engineers, architects or builders – just well-intentioned generalists. We developed a website to chronicle the journey to net zero to help others use what we have learned and build upon it with their own homes. Now that the house is complete, our aim is to network with municipal agencies, environmental interest groups and other influencers on Vancouver Island and across BC to hasten the pace of adoption of deep energy retrofits as an affordable alternative to demolition. We are working with allies to have them tell the story of the house. Two examples are:

Viridian Solar Coop

Viridian Energy

Local Furniture Maker Part & Whole

I am a new member of Yale Blue Green having been introduced to the initiative by my classmate and friend, Becky Bunnell.  I’m excited to be launching a Green Block here in Victoria and when in Chicago to support Margot and Judith in their efforts.

Global Vision

With a NetZero home we reduce our carbon footprint to reverse greenhouse effect and allow the earth to heal.

Personal Action

In Georgetown, one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods, Peter Reiquam has a combined storm and sanitary sewer as he describes, This project is scheduled for completion in May, 2021.”

“[Here] are a few pictures of my rain barrel collection,” writes Peter. “This is not a gray water system, we only use this water for irrigation of garden and potted plants and as a backup supply of water in the event of an earthquake or other disaster that might interrupt the supply of municipal water. As you can see, the barrels are elevated on galvanized steel pipe racks to improve head pressure, but we also use an electric pump to improve the flow when necessary.

Community Events

Peter lives just blocks from the Duwamish River which feeds directly into Elliott Bay and Puget Sound a few miles to the north. King County is currently building a CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) facility between us and the river which will hold and treat excess runoff during major rain events and discharge clean water into the river.” 

Global Vision

What flows from the land affects ocean life.  Each home has an impact and everyone’s consideration of our waste effects the global water cycles, improves ocean life, weather, and our sustainability.

NYC has an infrastructure problem but it’s not likely to make headlines. Chicago has it, too. So do Philadelphia and Atlanta as well as thousands of smaller cities. It goes by the decidedly unsexy and somewhat gross title of a Combined Sewer System or CSS.

Diagram of CSS system

Other cities have separate pipes for sewage and for storm water. In a CSS, they both go down one set of pipes. So when it rains, the pipes and treatment plants can’t handle the combined flow of sewage and storm water, and raw sewage ends up getting dumped into the nearest waterway.

The issue is exacerbated by the fact that stormwater in cities often has no place to go because so much surface area is covered in impermeable streets, sidewalks, parking lots and buildings. It’d cost way too much to rip up every street and rebuild the CSS system. So what’s a city – or its residents – to do?

Fortunately, there are a few ways to at least partially address the problem. And they tend to have multiple benefits.

One embraces trees. Their multiple benefits include global warming mitigation by absorbing CO2 and diminishing of the urban heat island effect (in which cities tend to be several degree armer than surrounding areas (Urban Heat Islands). Plus they’re just, well, nice to have in less green urban areas. But they also help with stormwater and runoff issues both by absorbing water themselves and being planted in soil, taking the place of paved areas so the water can be absorbed.

Among other plans to plant massive numbers of trees, NYC has its Million Trees program, which reached its goal a couple of years ago. Scotland has a 22 million tree plan. The Nature Conservancy has its Plant a Billion Trees campaign.

As an individual or small group, In NYC, you can request a street tree in front of your building. Or you can help maintain them. You can join a community garden.

Another approach replaces impermeable or impervious surfaces along streets and sidewalks with planted bioswales. Those are usually constructed by local governments, but on your own property, you can replace paved areas such as driveways or urban back yards with porous surfaces such as pervious paving. You can even plant an “edible estate”: a front yard (as unusual as they may be in dense cities) with fruits and vegetables.

Bioswell in New York City allows water run off to water trees and plants.

Yet another way to address stormwater runoff is with greenroofs. As with trees, greenroofs have multiple benefits such as relieving the urban heat island. But the one that’s relevant here is their ability to act like sponges. Both the plants and the soil absorb the rain and release it slowly so as to delay the runoff and spread out the flow in the pipes. As an amenity (another benefit), you can have an “extensive” roof which is covered by a shallow layer of soil for growing sedums and grasses, or, if your roof is strong enough, an ”intensive” version with deeper soil that allows planting of gardens, bushes and even, sometimes, trees.

(In the 100+ year old building I live in, the old wood joists weren’t strong enough to support either type. We looked into building a deck floating above the roof, but the cost for our small former tenement building was prohibitive. An alternative called “sistering” the joists – bolting new joists alongside the existing ones – might have been possible, but we’ve had had to rip up the roof first to get to the joists.)

NYC, by the way, also requires holding tanks, usually underground, for new buildings. A smaller scale version, more suitable for homes and more DIY, is a rainwater barrel connected to the roof gutters. The water is typically used for irrigation. Of course, there are few homes in NYC that can take that approach. But even something as low-tech as that can help alleviate the stormwater runoff problem. And for those of you where water supply is an issue, it makes more sense to use that water than using good potable water for your plants. (Or for that matter, flushing toilets, but that’s another story.)

After your sapling is planted, it needs 2 inches of watering each week. Please compost and mulch annually.

Personal Action

One Drop at A Time, the award-winning work of Marcus de la Fleur a demonstration of the use of green roofs, porous pavement, rain barrels, swales, and controlled burn to mitigate runoff and properly value rainwater,” said Wendy Littlefield.  “There is some arresting side by side footage which shows how much more effective his solution is than conventional yard and sidewalk treatment. DelaFleur did this work more than a decade ago.

Global Vision

The goal is to turn the building into a net zero home with a sustainable and resource-efficient landscape. He is chronicling this transformation – deeply nerdy and great.” 

Community events

Marcus de la Fluer came  to Chicago from Kew Gardens to build the green roof on the Betty Notebaert Museum in Lincoln Park. Now he is at work on a deep energy retrofit on a 100 plus year old masonry two flat house in the city.

Gutters send water into a container that is used to water nearby gardens. Collecting water slows runoff during storms.

Solar tax credits are available in 2021 for solar panels with a back up battery with free installation. 26% tax credit for next year’s IRS.

Margot’s family had twenty-five years in an 1890’s home with a new studio. Some of their energy saving projects coincided with the Obama-Biden administration’s home improvements that included tax credit incentives. The McMahon-Burke family followed the U.S. government program:

1. Insulate walls
2. install New Windows
3. Community purchase of Solar Panels
4. Collect Runoff Water in barrels with a neighborhood group buy
5. subsidized Energy Audit
6. subsidized Electric Cars
7. Rooftop Gardens

Twenty Solar World panels (Chicago area group purchase) were installed on the studio rooftop (each panel coverts to 120 on the panel) feeds through a smart meter to farm energy for the Com Ed community. The smart meter measures our farmed energy output and incoming household electrical needs. With SREC Trade our farmed solar energy is sold to offset our installation costs. Government subsidized programs like these encourage community solar purchases, insulation, social event energy audits, tax incentives by reducing upfront costs to farm and reduce energy use. 

Personal Action

By reducing our electrical needs with Insulation, Environmentally Efficient Windows, retaining water-run off, reflective white roof tiles, electric car, rooftop garden and vertical vines, Energy Star hot-

water heater, furnace, refrigerator and electric washer-dryer, LED lightbulbs and removing carpeting our energy bills dropped from $130/month to less than $10.  The farmed solar energy contributes more to Com Ed customers while we consume less in our home.

Chicago-area Energy Star appliance and contractors:

Solar Installation: Ailey Solar: Jack Ailey 312.802.9004

Peerless MI-07 Boiler  Goodberlet Electrical  866.355.7710

LED lightbulbs and fixtures  Hortons of LaGrange 708.352.2110

Hot water heater (heat as you use) Navien NPE condensing heaters

Miele All-Electric clothes washer and dryer Appliance Connection 800.299.9470 

Community Events

“Nearly annually our home invited neighbors and the community for Garden Walks, Art Studio Tours, Block Party Visits, and Food Co-op Tours to view Espaliered Fruit Trees, Vines on pergolas, Maple Tree Sap Tapping, ,” Margot said. “Tours not only shared these installations, visitors taught me about policies and governmental structures.”

Global Vison:
One Home at a Time

Energy used and dissipated around homes burns more carbon, heats the immediate environment and reduces the comfort within our four-season home.  By retaining heat and air conditioning, LED lighting and heat as you go hot water heaters, we burn less carbon -one home at a time.

Wisteria vines grows on wooden framework on top of a roof for a lightweight rooftop garden. Heat from the room below keeps the greenhouse warmer throughout the winter for cold weather vegetables.
The rooftop pergola structure is lifted off the roof shingles for drainage and allows vines to cover a screened porch and a sunroom roof.  This lightweight version of a green roof garden protects the shingles and avoids extensive structural support. A deck allows a sitting area and is painted bright white to reflect the sun’s rays back to the atmosphere
While the snow is still on the ground a 3/8” hole is drilled in the yard’s Maple bark and a spigot is tapped with a hammer into the hole.  Gallons of sap drip continuously from this tiny hole from the upwelling of sugar water that fuels the tree buds. The sap is boiled down to a wee bit of syrup used for cooking and pancakes with no shipping costs.
Solar panels over white reflective roof shingles fuel an electric car, the studio, and home. Vertical berry plants along the south wall save space.