Last week I journeyed north to visit Seacoast Energy Alternatives in Dover, NH.  SEA is a retail store that offers information and products geared to conserve energy, save money and improve environmental impact.

SEA is part of USA Solar Store, a cooperative group of independently owned and operated retail stores that started in Vermont and is quickly expanding across the country.  As Pamela Bingham, one of the co-owners described, being part of the cooperative gives them the benefits of:

  • the group’s extensive product research and testing
  • specialized expertise of other members
  • the ability to offer reduced prices for their products

SEA has a wonderful range of products including appliances, composters, plumbing fixtures, lamps and photovoltaic systems.  Of all their products, Pamela and her co-owner Jack Bingham love to talk about their solar water heating systems.  As described by Dave Bonta in New Green Home Solutions, “Solar hot water systems are dependable, reasonably priced, and attractive.  Clean trouble-free solar domestic hot water will let you shrink your energy consumption and give you freedom from fossil fuel-based heating sources.”  

pamela and marathon

How does it work?  A solar water heating system consists of solar collectors (roof or ground-mounted), pumps to circulate the hot water, a storage tank and a back-up heating system.  Solar water heaters need super-insulated storage tanks, so it is usually best to replace an existing water heater.  The Marathon, on display at SEA and pictured above, is super-insulated and is guaranteed for life.

At SEA, you can see the two basic styles of solar hot water collectors that make sense for our climate, flat plate and evacuated tube solar collectors.  Their costs are similar, and the styles vary some in their use and applications.

flat panel

The new Velux flat plate collector modelled to be compatible with their skylight products, and beyond, installed vertically, a flat panel collector.

evac tubes

 An evacuated tube collector – also check out the composting toilet at left!

For any solar water heating option, proper sizing and installation are critical for maximum performance.  A solar water heating system requires good southern exposure.  If you don’t have that, you might want to consider another energy-saving option, a tankless water heater.

What are the costs and expected payback?  Did you know that the average household spends 30% of their heating dollar on making hot water?  The average system offered at SEA (for a family of 2-3), included the insulated water tank, costs approximately $10,000 and is guarantted for 5-10 years, but expected to perform for 20+ .  With available federal tax credits (30% until 2016), the cost is reduced to $7,000.  The solar water heating system should heat nearly all your domestic water supply in the summer and 40%-50% in the winter.  Most households currently heating their water with oil will see a complete payback of the initial cost within 5 to 6 years.  A typical solar hot water system will last much longer (40+ years) than a conventional hot water heater (10-12 years).

If you are interested in knowing more, check out or visit – Jack and Pamela enjoy giving tours of thier shop and products. 

Additionally, Jack will be joining us for the August meeting of the Seacost Green Building Group to discuss solar water heating systems.  We’ll be meeting on Tuesday August 11th, from 7-9PM upstairs at the Grog in Newburyport.  All are welcome! 

Feel free to contact me to talk about these and other great product options for your home or business or the Seacoast Green Building Group.


This month I started the design work on a new garage in Georgetown that will have walls built from rammed-earth tires, cans and glass bottles…  keep your mind open and read on!

Methods and Results

The construction methods are not new; this type of construction is closely related to indigenous building methods that have been used for centuries.  However, an architect and builder in New Mexico, Michael Reynolds, is the visionary behind building with garbage.  He has been using old tires, cans and bottles for decades, to create homes that are entirely self-sustaining and off the grid.  His website and the documentary ‘Garbage Warrior’ are the best resources on his life and his buildings.

reynoldsA Michael Reynold’s design and built home 

Tire building is an alternative construction technique that uses discarded tires and dirt as building materials.  The tires are filled with dirt found on the site and then stacked to form walls.  The tires are then covered with a stucco-like finish.

tire construction 2








In another eco-friendly building method, glass bottles or cans are stacked like a masonry wall or within a wooden frame using mortar, and the wall is then finished with stucco.

bottle construction

These construction types have many benefits.  First, they provide an environmentally friendly way to use items that would otherwise be either in a landfill or would need to be recycled.  Second, they can be beautiful.  The tire walls can have a smooth stucco finish and will be very thick, with deeply set window sills.  When glass bottles are used (two bottoms of bottles are taped together to make an enclosed bottle), the walls bring in a beautiful dappled colored light to the interior of the building.  Third, tire or dirt-filled-can construction in a habitable, heated structure (not a garage) has an added benefit of being a solid thermal mass, which holds the sun’s heat from the day and slowly releases it’s warmth throughout cooler evenings.  And finally, these alternative construction types are examples of looking beyond status quo in construction practices to create more sustainable buildings.

glass bottlesThe Project

The genesis of this project is my client, Elizabeth Rose, who is president of Long Way Home, a community-based, nonprofit organization in Guatemala that is building homes and schools using these construction methods.  In Guatemala, these construction types are a perfect solution for very poor residents who need shelter and community buildings.  In addition to the benefits noted above, building with tires, cans and bottles is cheap; the materials are virtually free, labor costs are low, and the building techniques are easily taught to otherwise unskilled laborers.

Elizabeth saw her family’s need for a garage as an opportunity to showcase alternative environmentally sustainable building practices and to help potential supporters understand the important work that Long Way Home is doing.




From the Long Way Home website:

“Long Way Home’s mission is to collaborate with community members, drawing together knowledge, experience, and creativity into the design and implementation of development projects.  For example, by utilizing alternative building methods and community collaboration, Long Way Home has completed Parque Chimiya, a sustainable community park.  In addition to the new soccer field, basketball court, and community kitchen, alternative building methods promote the collection and reuse of local garbage which help to combat environmental and health issues caused by trash burning.  A healthy environment, Long Way Home believes, is integral in sustaining a healthy and empowered community.”

Making It Happengarage elevations

The garage design is a simple gable form and incorporates elements (roof lines, window style and details) from the main house.  In the craftsman-style wood detailing above the garage doors, we’re planning to use the glass-bottle construction.  From a design perspective, we’ll be working on which of the building techniques make sense around the building and on the details with our Guatemalan experts, our structural consultant and the builder.

For the project to be feasible in Georgetown, we will be relying on structural demonstrations by our engineering consultant and on the open-minded building inspector in Georgetown.  The construction itself will be a combination of local builders and a visiting team from Guatemala.  We’re incredibly excited to see the project and the process take shape.  I can’t wait to share the work of filling one tire with Elizabeth!  Stay tuned and see the sites below for more information.

Long Way Home

Michael Reynold’s website

 A great post on alternative building materials:

springcleaning-main_FullSpring is the perfect time for us to air out the house, throw open the windows and closets, and assess what we’ve got.  It’s a wonderful time to start thinking about changes to your home – adding that extra bedroom or family room you’ve been dreaming of, remodeling your circa 1950’s kitchen, creating a better connection between your house and garden…Beginning the planning process in the spring is perfect for summer construction.

Renovation and addition projects make more sense than ever this year.  Many homeowners have put aside thoughts of relocating and have decided to stay in their homes and work with what they have.  Making thoughtful improvements to an existing home, so it will work better for your family and remain useful for decades, is one of the greenest steps you can take.  Enormous savings in energy and material resources are found by renovating instead of building new, since building new not only includes the construction materials, but often also includes demolition or disturbing a previously undeveloped site.  Savvy homeowners are learning how even small changes, such as adding cabinetry, enlarging an opening between rooms, or even painting can make a world of difference in their enjoyment of their homes.

In our projects, our evaluation and design process includes giving our clients options for additional home improvements they may not have considered to be part of their project: insulation, window and door repair, mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades.  These not-so-glamorous changes enhance comfort and enjoyment of the home, bring substantial energy cost savings and reduce the home’s negative impact on the environment.

hm dulley 1 c764-1.jpg

This year and next, we have large rebate, loan and tax incentives available from National Grid and the Federal government for weatherization improvements to existing homes.  The following are summaries of what is available.  See the websites for more information. 


Utility Rebates and Loans:

Through the MassSAVE program, National Grid will fund 75% of the cost (up to $2,000) of insulation, air sealing, windows and caulking/weather-stripping for work completed through July 31st of this year.

Through their Appliance Mangement program, National Grid offers rebates for equipment insulation, energy-efficient water heaters, refrigerators, furnaces and boilers, programmable thermostats, lighting and duct/air sealing.  These rebates vary depending on the equipment purchased.

Through MassSAVE’s statewide HEAT loan program, 0%(!!!) loans for energy-efficiency technologies up to $15,000 with terms up to 7 years are available.  The technologies covered include water heaters, furnaces, boilers, heat pumps, programmable thermostats, duct/air sealing, building insulation and windows.

Federal Tax Credits

A 30% tax credit (up to $1,500) is available for water heaters, furnaces, boilers, heat pumps, air conditioners, building insulation, doors, windows and biomass stoves.  This credit is available for items placed in service in 2009 and 2010. insulation

What do these incentives mean for the average homeowner? 

A client of ours decided to include the installation of attic soy-based foam insulation to the other construction items underway in his home.  The insulator helped with the rebate paperwork.  With the 75% rebate from National Grid, coupled with the 30% tax credit from the Federal government (Yes, it adds up to 105%!), they will get money back for adding insulation!  Of course, the increased comfort and energy cost reduction will benefit them for years to come. 

mikeEnergy Audit

Each home is different.  Having an energy audit done by a non-affiliated auditor is the best way to prioritize which projects will make sense for your home.  Although the costs vary depending on the size of the house, you can expect to pay around $1200 for their full services.  The auditors that we work with use blower-door tests to test the air-tightness of the home and an infrared camera test to see where leaks and gaps are in the walls and roof.  They use this data with a year of the homeowner’s energy bills to create a written report that includes recommendations for energy efficiency improvements and associated expected cost-savings.  They will also perform a follow-up test after the work is complete to verify the system upgrades are working as expected.  With the auditor’s information and knowing the incentives available, you are equipped to make the right decision for improvements to your home.

With these incentives in place, this year is the time to take on these projects.  It is important to start with an energy audit, to understand the requirements of the incentives and to have a qualifed and informed installation contractor.  These contractors have a good handle on the incentives available and usually will help you with the paperwork. 

If you need any assistance with your Spring planning or connecting you with an auditor, contractor or installers, let me know.  As always, feel free to contact me with any other questions.

Happy Spring!!

For more information see: DSIRE USA and National Grid

panel-flyerIt should be a great discussion with input from varied professional perspectives.  Looking forward to it!

chicagoalley_1One of my fondest memories of living in Chicago was ‘shopping’ in the alleys.  My quickest walk to the train was down our 3 block alley: on one side were condo buildings and the on the other were single-family homes.  It worked this way – if  you didn’t want something anymore, you left it in the alley, NEXT to the garbage, sometimes with a note, and it was usually gone in a few hours.  Through the years I collected a great variety of treasures.  Among them: lamps, a desk, many many chairs, my now favorite cookbook.  My goal wasn’t to be green, but it really was an efficient (cheap!) and practical system.

Now I use  If you haven’t checked them out, give them a try – it is basically a local list-serve where members post items they want to give away or items they’d like to receive.  It works similarly to shopping in the Chicago alley, but is a bit more civilized.

 In construction, the act of restoring or remodeling a home is a form of reuse and salvage.  Preservation instead of demolition and new construction saves in energy and materials consumption and reduces demolition landfill.  There is a great opportunity in salvaging and reusing materials for remodeling and even new construction projects, if you are aware and know where to look.  I was at a friend’s home the other day who found an incredible farmer’s sink in the basement at an open house, asked about it, and got it for a steal. 

hardwareIn addition to the somewhat familiar architectural salvage companies, who generally offer antique architectural elements (light fixtures, mantels, doors, decorative windows, hardware) there are also deconstruction stores that offer even basic construction items (flooring, plumbing, cabinetry).  Both types of companies also offer an alternative to demolition and waste of unwanted but usable items, either by donation or in some cases buying the item.  See below for some local architectural salvage and deconstruction stores.  Many have searchable websites that make browsing easier.

Architectural Salvage:

Restoration Resources:  1946 Washington Street, Boston, MA 02118     617.542.3033

Old House Parts:  1 Trackside Drive, Kennebunk, ME 04043     207.985.1999

Architectural Salvage Warehouse:  11 Maple St, Fiver Corners, Essex Junction, VT 05452     802.879.4221

Nor’east Architectural Antiques:  16 Exeter Road, South Hampton, NH 03827     603.394.0006

Vermont Salvage:  Gates Street, White River Junction, VT 05001     802.295.7616


ReStore:  250 Albany Street, Springfield, MA 01105     413.788.6900


NEXUS, located at 38 Chauncy Street, 7th Floor in Boston, is offering  free seminars for homeowners as part of the “Second Saturdays for Homeowners at Nexus” series : “Green Your Home.  Green Your Life.”

NEXUS, exhibiting an extensive sample library of green products and materials for residential and commercial products, is a valuable resource for designers, builders, and the general public.  In a market where ‘green-washing’ is a growing concern, their diligence in screening the products is refreshing.  It is also a big help to be able to see, touch and smell products the products, a big step from reviewing data on a web site or browsing ‘green’ products at a retail store. 

The NEXUS Second Saturday program offers an introduction to the free green building resources NEXUS offers and to green building strategies you can implement in your home.  The seminars are from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm and are free and open to the public.

March 14:  Low Impact Landscaping for the Home

Who should come:  Homeowners, community groups and others interested in minimizing impact of landscape maintenance routines and design choices; this may include residential landscaping contractors, landscape architects and managers of small residential facilities.

April  11:  The Green Remodel

Who should come:  Homeowners, builders, designers and community members interested in understanding the opportunity an existing home’s remodeling presents to minimize the home’s energy use and negative environmental impact while maximizing healthful environments for occupants.

RSVPs are appreciated but walk-ins are welcome.  RSVP by the Friday before the even to Aaron Desatnik at with “NEXUS Second Saturday “ in the subject line or call 617-374-3740 x127.

For more information, see the NEXUS website:


Since launching GreenBridge two years ago, I’ve enjoyed building relationships with local talented carpenters and builders.  Having good relationships with the best builders, which leads to smoother and better projects, is one way I can serve my clients well. 

NOW I am so excited to be able to refer another builder, one whose work I have appreciated and learned from over the course of thirteen years….

Owned and operated by my husband, Steven MacDonald, Riverview Builders offers the topmost in remodeling, restoration and custom cabinetry.  Steven is dedicated to serving his clients by always exceeding expectations.  He  brings 25 years of experience and knowledge in the craft of building to each project, and is always learning more.  As Steven says, he is honored to play his part in extending the life of some of our region’s historic structures.  I’m so excited to see Riverview Builders in action in the Newburyport area!

You can find out more about Steven and Riverview by visiting