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Alex Wilson points out features of the net-metered solar array that is installed on his barn.

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Green building expert Alex Wilson practices what he preaches

DUMMERSTON—Alex Wilson’s version of a “This Old House” episode might include net-metered solar panels, cork insulation, and high-tech quadruple-glazed windows.

He also might hire a construction crane to set the house aside during foundation work.

Wilson, a pioneer and prominent advocate in the green-building movement, brought all of that and more to the recent renovation of a historic farmhouse in Dummerston. The result is a home that’s producing more electricity than it uses, with enough surplus energy to power his family’s hybrid car for thousands of miles this year.

Additionally, Wilson and his wife Jerelyn — also a green-building leader — are erasing as much of their carbon footprint as possible by finding solutions for home heating, driving, and even air travel.

As Vermont strives toward obtaining 90 percent of its energy via renewable sources by 2050, Wilson said he hopes his efforts at Leonard Farm will serve as a model both for green-building enthusiasts and for those who have doubts about conservation and renewables.

“That’s a big priority of what we’ve done here,” Wilson said. “We want to show what’s possible.”

Wilson is a nationally recognized expert in energy conservation, renewable generation, and environmentally friendly construction. He started BuildingGreen Inc. in 1985 and founded Environmental Building News in 1992.

Four years ago, Wilson started the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute. Like BuildingGreen, the institute is based on Birge Street in Brattleboro.

The Wilsons have lived for decades in Dummerston. About five years ago, they bought an old farmhouse down the road from their home; before moving in, they decided to completely transform the property using the green-building principles Alex Wilson has based his career on.

“I’ve been writing about energy for 30-plus years, so I used the house as an opportunity to practice what I’ve been preaching for a long time and also try out new ideas — sort of use ourselves as guinea pigs,” Wilson said.

The Wilsons preserved the basic structure of the home, which dates to the early 1800s. But after “a lot of planning and thinking,” they undertook something more akin to a rebuild than a renovation.

One major, early decision was to create a new foundation. “Then the decision was, do we jack up the house and work underneath it, or something more dramatic?” Alex recalled while sitting at his kitchen table on a recent morning. “And we ended up having a crane come in and pick up the house and put it over there in the yard.”

Builders followed a principle in the new basement that would extend throughout the house — insulate as much as possible. In addition to conventional fiberglass insulation, Wilson also did some experimenting by wrapping the entire home in six inches of cork insulation.

Some of the home’s windows were enlarged to let in more daylight. But Wilson also opted for triple- and even quadruple-glazed windows that further the insulation theme.

Leading the Leonard Farm project was Eli Gould, who has a trio of Brattleboro-based green-building ventures — Ironwood Brand LLC, PreCraft, and STIX L3C. Gould said he was honored to work with Alex and Jerelyn Wilson, but he acknowledged that the project stretched his abilities.

“This was the biggest challenge of my career because of the overlay of historic features, the depth of thought and care they put into their decisions, and the outreach to companies to participate and innovate with us,” Gould said.

The Wilsons’ project, Gould said, has spurred further innovation by encouraging development of “more-affordable and factory-built versions of each system — from foundation insulation to walls, roofs, and advanced mechanical.”

In addition to using conservation as a guiding principle, Wilson’s interest in resiliency also drove the project. “I wanted to demonstrate some issues with that — to get a house well-enough insulated that, if there’s an ice storm that knocks out power for two weeks in the winter, we’d be able to be totally comfortable here,” Wilson said.

Near the kitchen table is a small wood stove; Wilson proudly proclaims that it’s “the only combustion in the house ... and we don’t use it much at all.” The 1,500-square-foot home’s main source of warmth also is in the kitchen — a single air-source heat pump.

Hot water also comes via a heat-pump system. So aside from the wood stove, the home is all-electric, and Wilson says a solar array on a nearby barn roof is making all the power he needs.

The net-metered system’s output is shared with a neighbor, but Wilson calculates that his share still came out to 12,457 kilowatt hours of electricity for the 12-month period from November 2014 to October 2015. That’s about 3,700 kilowatt hours more than he used.

The Wilsons bought a Chevy Volt last year, and they can charge the hybrid car in their garage. The excess electricity produced on site “will power about 9,000 hours of driving, which will be all of our local driving,” Wilson said.

He believes he’ll also have enough excess power for a planned cold-storage room on the property.

There are, however, still some tradeoffs and concessions to a busy life. There’s an older Subaru Forester alongside the Volt in the garage; while the Wilsons try to drive it as little as possible, winter road conditions and hectic schedules sometimes make the second car a necessity.

A larger issue is work-related long-distance travel. Wilson calls that “the big nut still to crack,” though he is planning to begin purchasing carbon offsets to balance the impact of flying. He also is asking those who host his appearances in other cities to take similar measures.

“You send money to an organization or company that pledges to take that money and invest it in improvements that will reduce carbon emissions,” he said. “It could be planting trees, it could be retrofitting buildings, it could be paying to weatherize affordable housing.”

While he says carbon offsets are relatively inexpensive, Wilson knows that not everyone can afford the energy measures he and his wife have taken. Their home renovations alone, he estimated, ended up costing about $275 per square foot.

That’s why he’s offering green-building and conservation tips on a smaller scale:

• Getting a home energy audit is an important first step, “then dealing with air leakage, which is often the biggest culprit,” Wilson said.

Even if a homeowner simply seals a few windows, “there are always things that can be done, on any budget,” he added.

• Sometimes, Wilson says, it makes sense to borrow in order to fund energy-saving improvements. “There are programs around to borrow money at affordable rates,” he said. “We’re actually working on some financing options that will hopefully make it possible to do a deep energy retrofit for a homeowner.”

• When building new, it costs more to go green. “But my argument is, think harder about how much space you need,” Wilson said. “The money you’ll save in an overall smaller footprint, you can put into better materials, higher insulation levels, better windows.”

• Hybrid vehicles come at a premium: Chevy says the Volt, without a tax credit figured in, costs more than $30,000. But Wilson argues that “there are huge differences in the vehicles out there. Often, the fairly efficient vehicles are the lower-cost vehicles anyway.”

“The other argument is to drive less — bicycle, walk, get exercise,” he added.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #356 (Wednesday, May 11, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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