Live from This Old NET-ZERO House – Part 1

  • Net Zero Jamestown Backyard
  • Transcript

    TOM: Coast to coast and floorboards to shingles, this is The Money Pit Home Improvement Show. I’m Tom Kraeutler.

    And today is a very exciting show for us because we are coming to you from Jamestown, Rhode Island. This is the site of the latest project for the 40th season of This Old House. And today is the final day of production. We’re right here, actually, in the garage attic – it’s a lot nicer than that sounds – surrounded by the cameras and the sawdust to bring you the story of a very cool home just completed by the spectacular team at This Old House.

    Now, if you’re not familiar with this area, it’s a very unique place with a lot of history. Jamestown, Rhode Island is a coastal town that sits just across the Narragansett Bay from Newport, which is home to many, many famous mansions. But if you didn’t happen to be named Vanderbilt or Astor or Duke, you may have decided to build a more modest cottage right here in Jamestown. And many of these houses date from the late 1800s and early 1900s when summer visitors built them to enjoy the ocean breezes and the sandy beaches. But today, many of those dwellings remain uninsulated. And since they were originally built just for the summer season, there was really no need for insulation back then. And that’s what brings us to this old house, which was rebuilt to increase energy efficiency but keep the old charm.

    Now, to kick things off, I’m joined by This Old House plumbing-and-heating contractor Richard Trethewey.

    Welcome, Richard.

    RICHARD: Thanks so much.

    TOM: So, Richard, when we say that the goal was to make this home energy-efficient, we’re talking insanely energy-efficient here. Because the plan was to make this a net-zero house.

    RICHARD: Right.

    TOM: So, for those that are not familiar with net-zero, just kind of explain that.

    RICHARD: There’s a bunch of components to it. One is to make it insulated really well, to make it incredibly tight. And so we did that with our 30 walls and our 40 ceilings. And we made it tight, tight, tight. And then on top of it, we did another thing called AeroBarrier to make sure that we controlled infiltration unbelievably. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: So, you’ve got to make the place really tight. Then, you’ve got to be able to make some electricity. So we put 18 solar panels on this brilliantly designed garage, which just is behind the building, away so nobody sees it. It’s the perfect angle. So it becomes this terrific collective for us and so we could make about 5 kilowatts of electricity. So, we can make electricity. We’re super tight, we can make electricity.

    And the last piece is to have a really efficient heating-and-cooling and ventilation system, which we did and then some. And I’ll tell you that in just a second. So, the combination of those three pieces is that when the sun is out, we make electricity and we spin the meter backwards, back to the utility.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: And then when it’s not out, at night or on cloudy days, we use electricity as we need to for heating, cooling and running the building.

    TOM: So you’re banking that electricity as you make it and then you’re taking it back. And the idea when you say net-zero is basically that: you’re not going to take any more back than you already put in.

    RICHARD: On the January 1 of the next year, we hope that we’ll be back at zero point on the meter.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: So, you know, some years you do and some years you don’t but you’re always fighting to try and get to be net-zero.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: I used to think net-zero was that you didn’t use any energy. No, no, it’s not that.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: It’s just that we design it in balance so that we spin it backwards as much as we spin it forwards, to …

    TOM: The detail on a project like this is critical. There’s really nothing that doesn’t have a lot of attention paid to it.

    RICHARD: Yeah.

    TOM: And let’s talk about that heating-and-cooling system. You were telling me earlier that this is such a sophisticated system, you could actually heat and cool at the same time to get the perfect temperature in the house.

    RICHARD: Right, right. Right. So all your listeners know that the world’s gone crazy with these really super-efficient heat pumps.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: You know the names: Mitsubishi, LG, Hitachi, Sanyo, Panasonic. And they are – reached the point now that they are – they’re so efficient that they can get you enough heat, even when it’s 0 degrees outside, to heat a building in a 0-degree New England winter. But you always had to either decide that you were going to be in heating mode or cooling mode. The whole system had to be either heating or cooling.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: Well, this – what we introduced here – for the first time in a residential application; we’ve been able to do it in commercial before – is a thing called “heat recovery.” And heat recovery is different. It has a big magic box outside and it has three refrigerant lines that go inside to the building, to these distribution boxes. And then, once we’re inside, we can have up to 12 different air handlers or different delivery methods to the building. But the key is that we can simultaneously heat and cool a building for the first time ever.

    TOM: Wow. That’s the first time ever.

    RICHARD: In residential.

    TOM: Wow.

    RICHARD: Absolutely. It was always – in commercial, you could always do it.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: So, now, that means the sun could be coming in on the south side on a fall day and you need to cool that top-floor, sunny-side bedroom. Well, when you do that, you’re going to gather some of that sun’s heat into the refrigerant. And then, normally, you just would send that down to outside and to be wasted. Well, what we can do here is we can say, “No. We can use this energy to good effect and we can heat the north-side rooms.”

    Well, the final piece of this – that makes this thing such a breakthrough, in my opinion – is you’ve got one additional heat exchanger off of this system.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: And that heat exchanger has refrigerant into it and we can use that wasted heat – that heat that we would have dumped outside – to also heat the water for faucets.

    TOM: Oh, man.

    RICHARD: So this is now what everybody’s dreamt of.

    TOM: Well, all in one. Yeah, exactly.

    RICHARD: I think everybody has dreamt about this for a long time, so we’re incredibly excited. We love being on the front end of …

    TOM: You’re going to be watching this project for a while, just to see how it kind of all rolls out.

    RICHARD: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. So, yeah.

    TOM: Before I let you go, I want to ask you one more thing. Now, obviously, this building has to be very tight. And you used a technique here – I think it’s called “aerosealing” – to test for infiltration.

    RICHARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    TOM: That sounds really fascinating. Let’s talk about that just for a bit.

    RICHARD: Right, right. So, Aeroseal was the stuff that, I think, seals the ductwork.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: But the same company came out with the next generation, I think, called AeroBarrier. And this is a way that a house under construction, or an existing house that has incredible infiltration, can seal itself up to a level that you could never have dreamt before.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: So what they do is they put the building under a little negative pressure. They push – pull, yes.

    TOM: Flare out, right?

    RICHARD: So they’re putting fans to push air out through the building, against the walls.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: And then they put these little atomizing stations all around. And what happens is that this fine mist that is in the air, if it finds a crack anywhere, at the point it goes near the crack, the velocity increases when that – those aerosol beads go through.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: And it coagulates and will seal it …

    TOM: It’s like a Venturi effect with a carburetor, right? Yeah.

    RICHARD: Oh, it’s unbelievable.

    And so, we saw this thing – now this was already a tight building, incredibly tight.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: But we saw this thing go down, I think, by 80-percent less.

    TOM: Wow.

    RICHARD: And what I like is that there are houses that were done on low bid – there were houses that have no vapor barrier. There were houses that you are – would be desperate. And with this, you can actually do in a retrofit. You have to cover horizontal surfaces, you know, because – your couches and the floors with plastic.

    TOM: Right.

    RICHARD: But you can literally retrofit a house. And they have this computer gauge that you watch and it shows you what the infiltration is, 300 CFM per minute.

    TOM: So you can literally watch it seal right up before your eyes.

    RICHARD: And you can watch it just go …

    TOM: That’s fantastic.

    RICHARD: Yeah, yeah. It’s crazy. I think that’s going to be a major breakthrough for building – the building trades.

    TOM: Well, great work as usual. Really exciting project.

    RICHARD: Great. Thank you.

    TOM: Thanks so much for being a part of The Money Pit and thanks – I mean congratulations on the 40th anniversary of This Old House. Amazing.

    RICHARD: I know. I started when I was five.

    TOM: Richard Trethewey, thanks again.

    RICHARD: Great. Thanks so much.

    TOM: Hey, you’ll find This Old House and Ask This Old House on your local PBS stations. Plus, for more details and behind-the-scene photos, visit

    You’re listening to The Money Pit Home Improvement Show on air and online at coming to you today from Jamestown, Rhode Island, where we’re celebrating the completion of another amazing project by the team at This Old House. It’s a home that’s achieved net-zero status, built to create all the energy it needs to operate.

    Up next, we’re going to be joined by the guy who was tasked with organizing this entire project and making sure it came in on time and on budget. Builder Jeff Sweenor will be by. Plus, we’ll hear from two of the apprentices that were selected, after a nationwide search, to work on this project as part of the This Old House Generation NEXT initiative.

    Back with more from Jamestown, Rhode Island after this.

    Welcome back to The Money Pit Home Improvement Show where we make good homes better. I’m Tom Kraeutler coming to you today on location from Jamestown, Rhode Island, the site of the current project on this, the 40th season of America’s most popular home improvement television show, This Old House. You can follow the progress online at and catch the latest episodes on your local PBS stations.

    And if all this talk of home remodeling has you thinking about your next project, you can call in your home improvement question now to 1-888-MONEY-PIT presented by

    Well, this project involved both remodeling of a 100-year-old building and the building of a brand-new addition. Bringing those two together was the job of our next guest, Jeff Sweenor.

    Welcome, Jeff.

    JEFF: Thank you.

    TOM: Now, you’ve done a lot of building in the Narragansett area and now we have a lot of summer houses here that were probably never intended to be year-round residences. And here we are, putting heating systems in them and air conditioning and insulation and just trying to make it all work.

    In this case, you had even a tougher job because you had to make this net-zero so that it basically, essentially made all the energy that it needed. Now, to do that, you needed to rely on a lot of systems but one of which was the insulation. So, talk to me about the insulation that made it possible here.

    JEFF: As you said, this was a summer cottage, designed in the 1920s or so, where you had some structural framing members that were only geared to support the roof load itself.

    TOM: Right.

    JEFF: Now, today’s standards, with the insulation and the energy codes, we’ve got to make room for insulation. Well, they didn’t think about that.

    TOM: Right. So how do you do that if it’s not deep enough?

    JEFF: So, we had to do a combination of insulate from the inside with super high-efficient stuff, like closed-cell spray foam.

    TOM: Right.

    JEFF: But then we also had to insulate on the exterior of the building. So, we added to the outside just as much as we added to the inside, because we didn’t have all the room on the inside.

    TOM: Right.

    JEFF: The advantage to the adding to the outside is that you create that thermal barrier around the framing members, which are much more conductive and transfer heat loss out.

    TOM: So that was a critical part of this project.

    Now, to the inside, the finished side, I had a chance to walk through the house earlier. Just amazing carpentry in this job. You guys did a really terrific work here with all of the detail and the trims and the ceilings and stuff. Talk about that.

    JEFF: Well, I give credit to the architect, Don Powers, who really just thought about every space in the house and took advantage of his expertise in the design world and really created a masterful depiction of what a cottage, built-in, cozy atmosphere would be.

    TOM: Right.

    JEFF: And all we did was follow his lead and execute. But I give credit to him. He took advantage of every single corner in the house.

    TOM: Well, it sounds like it was a good partnership. And unusual for you to have the architect as the homeowner here, too, and his wife as the designer.

    JEFF: Yeah, well, it was really a little bit intimidating to start with because my – held to a little bit of a higher standard there but …

    TOM: Yeah. But you stepped up to it.

    JEFF: It really turned out to be a really mutual relationship. We collaborated on a lot of things. Don wasn’t so “I’m the ultimate authority.”

    TOM: Right.

    JEFF: We were able to exchange ideas. And they were right down the road, so it eliminated a third party in the middle.

    TOM: Yeah.

    JEFF: So it really, really did work out well.

    TOM: Right. But as you say, communication really is key.

    Now, the exterior of this home had a lot of work done on the landscape. You had a landscape architect helping with that. But you had to organize that part of the construction, as well. What was the challenge?

    JEFF: Well, the challenge was it was a short period of time where we had to make a lot of things happen. And we had three different porches, which cascaded down into the hardscape. And then we had a really extensive landscape plan. You know, it caught me by – a little bit by surprise. But when they started bringing the trees and the plants in, I was amazed at how many plantings we ended up having. And then the landscape architect, Tom Ryan, did just a wonderful job at segmenting different areas around the yard, which are all meaningful and well planned. And it came together.

    TOM: We can’t wait to see it roll out. Jeff Sweenor, the builder on this project, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    JEFF: It was my pleasure.

    TOM: You can follow along with all the progress here in Jamestown, online, at or on Twitter and Facebook, #TOHJamestown.

    Well, the team at This Old House didn’t get all the work done here themselves. They had help in the form of two apprentices selected after a nationwide search: Mary Smith from Tupelo, Mississippi and Kevin Baker from right here in Rhode Island.

    Welcome, Mary and Kevin.

    MARY: Thank you.

    KEVIN: How are you?

    TOM: So, this is a pretty interesting opportunity for you guys to kind of step right in here to the This Old House School of Remodeling and help out on a really exciting project.

    How did you get picked, Mary? Let’s start with you.

    MARY: I submitted a video online and gathered some references.

    TOM: Right.

    MARY: And I showed them some work that I had done on my own house, because most of my experience prior to this has been DIY and …

    TOM: And I see that that was because you bought a house and it needed some work, so you figured out how to do it and that’s where you got started, right?

    MARY: Right, right. So, bought a 1960s ranch and learned room by room.

    TOM: That’s very cool.

    And Kevin, you’ve been in the construction trade here for a little while in Rhode Island. What kind of projects did you do?

    KEVIN: Mostly renovations, additions with my old company.

    TOM: OK. I loved that you describe yourself in your audition tape as the “balance of perfect efficiency and quality.” I said, “This guy’s got confidence.”

    KEVIN: Yeah. Figured that was a good description.

    TOM: Yeah, it was a good description. Did you get that from the Marine Corps, the balance of efficiency and quality?

    KEVIN: Yeah, it was definitely something I probably picked up, some good trades in the Marine Corps to help out with.

    TOM: Mm-hmm. What kinds of experience did you gather here working on this project?

    KEVIN: I got thrown into a lot of different projects that I haven’t ever touched before, like doing the Western red-cedar roof.

    TOM: Right.

    KEVIN: I’ve never weaved a wrench cap before. That was a new experience for me. The whole insulation – layers of insulation – and zip panels for this house were something that I had never touched before. So, there are a few different new experiences.

    TOM: And Mary, you grew up in lumberyards. I understand your father and your grandfather were in the lumber business?

    MARY: Yeah. So, my grandfather and my father were both lumber brokers. So, feel very at home in that environment.

    TOM: When you were working on your own house, what kinds of projects were you tackling? And did that work translate to some of the stuff that you saw here?

    MARY: Yes. So we did a bathroom renovation in my own house. I did a fireplace and built it in my living room and just – a lot of the carpentry skills I was able to carry with me here.

    TOM: Yeah. And you also had a cake business I heard.

    MARY: I did. I did.

    TOM: Yeah. You still baking?

    MARY: Yeah, I actually brought some cookies with me for the crew.

    TOM: Yep. Well, alright. And that’s the way to get to the crew’s heart, that’s for sure. Yeah.

    Now, Kevin, I understand that you have an assistant that follows you around: your dog, Sophie?

    KEVIN: I do, yeah. She’s the best worksite dog I’ve ever seen. So, she’s been coming with me more or less after I got done filming. When I stayed with Sweenor, she’s been back at the jobsite day in and day out.

    TOM: Now, you guys – you answered the call for apprentices to kind of get on here on the site and get the experience that these guys had to offer you. There were probably hundreds, at least, of those tapes that came in. What was it like to get the call or the email? What was that moment like for you guys?

    Why don’t you start, Kevin?

    KEVIN: Took a minute for it to sink in. Yeah. I actually thought that I didn’t get it because they contacted us about a week after when they told us they were going to give us notification.

    TOM: Oh, OK. Right.

    KEVIN: And then Sarah called me and told me that we got it and I was kind of taken back by it.

    TOM: Wow. Yeah.

    KEVIN: It was a good experience and rode that high for a couple months.

    TOM: Yeah.

    And Mary, in 30 seconds, what was it like for you?

    MARY: I might have cried a little. It’s surreal.

    TOM: Yeah. Never imagined it, right?

    MARY: Absolutely.

    TOM: Well, you’re representing a lot of young people that are interested in the building trades. And I know that you’ve been a great example for those and inspired those that are thinking about getting into this themselves. So, thanks for your efforts. I’m really happy with you guys. And now you guys have a degree from This Old House University to brag about.

    KEVIN: Yeah. It was a great experience.

    MARY: Thank you.

    TOM: Alright. Mary Smith and Kevin Barker, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.

    KEVIN: Appreciate it. Thank you.

    TOM: This is The Money Pit Home Improvement Show broadcasting today from the beautiful coastal community of Jamestown, Rhode Island. And it’s where the team at This Old House has transformed a 100-year-old summer house into a year-round beauty that defines energy efficiency. And I say that because this is now a net-zero house, meaning it creates all the energy it needs to function.

    If you’d like to explore ways to make your own home more energy-efficient, give us a call, right now, at 1-888-MONEY-PIT presented by

    Just ahead, living through a major renovation is a big event for any homeowner. But for the owners of this house, it’s been a dream that combined both personal and professional goals. We’ll meet homeowners Don and Dana Powers, who were also the architect and designers on their very own house.

    Back with more from This Old House in Jamestown, Rhode Island, after this.

    Making good homes better, this is The Money Pit Home Improvement Show. I’m Tom Kraeutler on air and online at and coming to you today from Jamestown, Rhode Island where we’re enjoying the rare pleasure of watching the master craftsmen of This Old House finish up another beautiful project. It’s a 100-year-old home that’s been updated and made so efficient it needs virtually no outside energy sources.

    Plus, we also want to congratulate This Old House because today wraps their 40th season, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment. You’ll find This Old House and Ask This Old House on your local PBS stations. Plus, for more details and behind-the-scene photos, visit or follow @ThisOldHouse on Twitter and Facebook, #TOHJamestown.

    And if you’ve got questions about your own home improvement projects, call us, right now, on The Money Pit’s listener line at 1-888-MONEY-PIT presented by, the fast and easy way to find the right pro for any kind of home project.

    Well, completing a major home remodel is a life-changing event for most homeowners. But for Don and Dana Powers, it’s an even more special event because they are not only the owners of this newly renovated and now net-zero home, they were not only able to see this home remodeled by the talented crew of This Old House but you are also the architect and designers.

    Welcome, Don and Dana.

    DANA: Thank you.

    DON: Thank you.

    TOM: That’s a really unusual set of circumstances. How exciting.

    DON: Not that unusual for us. This is the fourth one we’ve done.

    TOM: Oh, is that right? Yeah.

    DON: We’ve sort of serial-remodeled over our marriage.

    TOM: Oh, that’s right. That’s great. As soon as it gets done, you’re ready to start another one, right?

    DANA: Not this time. We just love this place. We’re not leaving.

    DON: We left it all on the [field this time] (ph).

    TOM: So you must be very excited today and proud of seeing this completed. It’s kind of like maybe watching one of your babies all grown up and get married.

    DON: Yeah. You know, as an architect, I’ve done a lot of building over 25 years. And so, some of that magic has worn off in my normal practice. But this was kind of returning to why I wanted to be an architect to begin with. And to have this much control over it, with a team that all cared about the detail as much as I did, has been a really renewing experience.

    TOM: Right. Yeah. And let’s talk about this area. This is an area that had a lot of summer homes in it. What was the condition of the building like, Dana, when you guys first bought it?

    DANA: It was a year-round residence but it was really tired.

    TOM: Yeah.

    DANA: It was just not in great shape. Nothing had been done to it in many, many years. And it was kind of awkwardly carved up and it was dark and …

    TOM: Right.

    DON: They say – people say, “Well, they just don’t build them like they used to.” Well, thank God they don’t build them like they used to.

    TOM: Yeah, exactly.

    DON: Because this thing, you could put your shoulder into the corner and the whole house would shudder and …

    TOM: Now, as an architect, I would imagine it’s probably easier to build a net-zero home from scratch. What was it like to start with a 100-year-old home and have to convert it to become a net-zero home?

    DON: It’s possible to do either. But when you’re combining the systems and trying to get the whole thing to work together as one unit, it’s a series of different techniques in different parts of the house.

    TOM: Right.

    DON: So, for the old part of the house, we had to pack off the walls to make them deeper for more insulation and straighten out the framing and add insulation on the exterior.

    TOM: Right.

    DON: For the new part of the house, we could start from scratch and bury all that insulation into a clean 2×6 wall with insulation on the outside. So, in general, there are just a lot of techniques that you have to marry and then measure the effects of all those if you’re really going to engineer the house to be net-zero.

    TOM: Right, right.

    DON: A lot of it is the mathematical calculation, which I didn’t do.

    TOM: Right.

    DON: I had help to figure out how much energy it’s going to consume and how much it needs.

    TOM: Had you done net-zero projects in your practice before?

    DON: Yeah. My firm is sort of – has a minor specialty in sustainable neighborhoods.

    TOM: Ah. Oh, that’s great.

    DON: And we have several going up right now where we’re building new construction for net-zero. But this was the first home that we had mixed the techniques.

    TOM: Together.

    DON: Yeah.

    TOM: Yeah, yeah. Now, I know you guys worked on some projects. Dana, I want to ask you about the challenges that you had finding efficient lighting. I mean everything about this house is based on efficiency. Were you able to combine style and décor with finding efficiency in lighting?

    DANA: I feel like we had great selections to choose from. And I think that fixtures have gone a really long way.

    TOM: Yeah.

    DANA: So I didn’t feel any challenges from finding …

    TOM: So no trade-offs?

    DANA: None.

    TOM: Yeah.

    DON: Almost all of the good companies are now offering their models in LED format, which is obviously a much more efficient format than the old incandescent bulb.

    TOM: Right.

    DON: So everything in the house is LED of one form or another or otherwise highly-efficient, ENERGY STAR-rated.

    TOM: You also worked on the kitchen design, which is more than just finding beautiful cabinetry. There’s a lot of design that goes into the layouts of the kitchen and how it joins with other rooms and how it joins with the outside. What was that process like pulling that together?

    DANA: I think that what was really helpful was the experience of the other projects that we’ve done together and that we’ve lived in, and taking the pieces of projects that we really loved and wanted to recreate in this house. So, I feel like it was pretty easy to arrive at the layout that we have now.

    TOM: Right.

    DANA: And I’m just – I’m thrilled. I think it looks great.

    TOM: That’s fantastic. It’s such a beautiful space.

    And Don, I understand you enjoy woodworking and you were able to build a sink console from reclaimed lumber. For those that are unfamiliar with that term, what does that mean?

    DON: These were oak door jambs from a barn that was built 150 years ago.

    TOM: Ah. Wow.

    DON: Man, I found those in a shop up in Cambridge and took those down to Jeff’s shop. And with Tommy Silva, we milled them clean and straight and true and joined them together and then cut the console out of that.

    TOM: Well, congratulations. It’s an amazing project. You two must be thrilled and very, very happy today that it’s complete.

    DANA: We are. We really are.

    TOM: Don and Dana Powers, thank you so much for being a part of The Money Pit.

    DON: Thanks for having us.

    DANA: Thank you.

    TOM: Well, we’re just talking about how important energy-efficient wiring is in a home. And one improvement that can help you do just that is a dimmer. And there’s a very new smart dimmer just out from Lutron called the Caseta Wireless Smart Lighting Dimmer Switch Starter Kit. This kit’s hardwired for lights and it gives you smart lighting control in one room. It’s easy to use, it’s very simple to set up and gives you a very smart system that you can expand at your own pace. Lutron gives you everything you need in the box. It includes a smart bridge, a free app. There’s an in-wall light dimmer. You get the wall plate and even a remote control.

    Caseta by Lutron is nicely designed. It’s a smart lighting control that gives you the ability to set your lights to come on at dusk so your family will always come back to a well-lit home. The kit starts at around 100 bucks and you’ll find it at Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Best Buy or through your electrician. Or learn more at

    This is The Money Pit Home Improvement Show on air and online at I’m Tom Kraeutler coming to you today from Jamestown, Rhode Island, the site of the 40th-season project for This Old House.

    Up next, you might think that the term “factory-built” wouldn’t apply to a home. Well, you’d be wrong. Just ahead, we’ll talk to This Old House general contractor Tommy Silva about the factory-built components of this home, including the foundation, which was actually made over 300 miles away. That’s all coming up, after this.

    You are listening to The Money Pit Home Improvement Show coming to you today on location from Jamestown, Rhode Island, the site of the current project on this, the 40th season of America’s most popular home improvement show, This Old House.

    And one of the guys who’s been part of the fabric of This Old House for over 25 years is general contractor Tommy Silva.

    You just keep getting younger, don’t you, Tommy?

    TOM SILVA: Yeah, yeah. It’s, well, almost 35 years – 35, 36 years – for me.

    TOM: Yeah, wow. Man, that’s amazing. Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: I turned them down the first few years.

    TOM: Well, you played hard to get.

    TOM SILVA: Well, maybe that’s it. I never thought of it that way. Well, I turned it down because I worked for my dad and we were just two – my dad, he didn’t want any part of the TV thing anyway.

    TOM: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: But he said, “Nah, we’re too busy to do it.”

    TOM: Yeah, right. Exactly. The TV stuff.

    So, I want to talk with you first about the fact that a lot of the construction here was prefabricated. And I think when people think prefab or factory-built, they think, “Well, maybe it’s not as good as what you could do by hand.” But that’s not really the case here.

    TOM SILVA: Not today.

    TOM: And specifically – right. Specifically, you had two things that you did here that were fascinating to me. The foundation first. You think, “Oh, you can make everything in the house but you can’t make the foundation”? No.

    TOM SILVA: No.

    TOM: You guys actually got a foundation 300 miles away and brought it here.

    TOM SILVA: They bring it in on a truck.

    TOM: Wow.

    TOM SILVA: It’s precast foundation. It’s insulated. It has a concrete-reinforced, steel-reinforced stud in it that’s insulated, so there’s no thermal break in that position.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: And the studs are predrilled for the electrician to run his wires through. And it’s a fast, efficient way to put a foundation in that’s basically waterproof at the same time.

    TOM: Wow. And the building that we’re in right now, this is actually the garage attic. Probably the nicest garage attic you’ve ever seen, right? But this was factory-built, as well. This whole building, right?

    TOM SILVA: This is – it’s a precut building.

    TOM: Wow.

    TOM SILVA: You put it together. Everything’s cut on a CNC saw, so you know it’s going to fit exactly right.

    TOM: Yep. Yep.

    TOM SILVA: And you put the puzzle together and you’ve got a beautiful barn that looks like it was built on site.

    TOM: Now, the challenge on this property was building it to net-zero, which means it basically has to be so tight, so well insulated and so perfectly heated that it essentially makes all the energy it needs to operate. That involved a lot of different types of insulation. I want to ask you about that because I think it’s unusual to see spray foam. You used two different types of spray foam: open and closed.

    TOM SILVA: Open- and closed-cell.

    TOM: And then you had stone-wool insulation.

    TOM SILVA: Stone wool or ROCKWOOL insulation which – actually, I love that insulation.

    TOM: Yep. Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: Think of it: it’s basically rock spun into a fiber.

    TOM: Right. Yeah, molten rock, right?

    TOM SILVA: Yeah. And it’s a great insulation for sound-deadening, for insulation. And it’s water-resistant.

    TOM: Yeah. Wow. Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: So if it gets wet, it’s going to dry out.

    TOM: Now, you guys used a technique called “warm blanket” on the exterior walls. What does that mean?

    TOM SILVA: Well, that’s where you take the insulation – the stone-wool insulation or you can also use rigid foam – and you apply it to the exterior surface of the building.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: So, you frame the building. In this case, we had the old building. We had to deal with the conventional walls.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: Those were spray-foamed on the outside of the sheathing. You have to put a thermal barrier, because you have to worry about the thermal bridging of the structure when it meets that different insulation. So, in other words, it could be some transfer of different temperature from the actual stud.

    And so you’ve got to worry about condensation forming on the inside of the outside insulation, if that makes sense.

    TOM: And no, it does. Yeah. Right.

    TOM SILVA: It’s the center of that sandwich. So, in other words, you’re putting something like a – it’s called like a “house wrap” that you put on before you put your insulation on. It’s like a rain screen.

    TOM: Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: So if any condensation should occur in between that insulation, it will run down and not damage the sheathing.

    TOM: But essentially, it has to be completely thermally separated from one side to the other.

    TOM SILVA: Correct. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    TOM: Yeah, it’s almost like when you’re building sound-deadening buildings, you put separate walls that never touch. The same idea here but you’re thermally separating everything so you can achieve that insulation.

    TOM SILVA: Right. Exactly right. Yeah, that’s the trick.

    TOM: Now, you also had to install the solar array, which is on this building. And you also have a beautiful, wood-shingle roof here. Now, wood-shingle roofs, if they’re not done right – and I’ve seen an awful lot of them; I know you have, too – they rot like crazy. So …

    TOM SILVA: They rot fast if they’re not – you have to think of that. A wood shingle today is not like a wood shingle was, say, 50 to 100 years ago.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: The wood that you get from lumber is really farmed trees, younger trees.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: Because all the big, old, tight-grain trees are gone.

    TOM: Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: So, now, the wood will absorb moisture and so on down the line. So what you would do years ago, you would have what is called “skip sheathing.”

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: And basically, it’s like strapping the roof with spacing between it so the air could get underneath the roof shingle and dry them from underneath and from the sun up top. A wood roof is like a wooden boat: it has to get saturated with water, swell tight to the joints and then it becomes waterproof.

    TOM: Yep.

    TOM SILVA: The shingle itself is actually wet. And if it’s laying on sheathing without any under it, it rots from the underside out.

    TOM: Yep. Yep. Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: So you have to put some type of a breather underneath it.

    TOM: Right.

    TOM SILVA: And there’s all kinds of systems, like a cedar breather and so on down the line.

    TOM: Right. Yeah.

    TOM SILVA: Benjamin Obdyke makes on.

    TOM: Yep.

    TOM SILVA: You roll it out on the roof. It creates a bed of air for that shingle to set on and actually adds more life to the shingle.

    TOM: And if you do it right, then you can get 20, 30, 40 years out of it.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah, hopefully you can get 40 years out of it. Yeah.

    TOM: Yeah. Yeah. That’s impressive.

    TOM SILVA: The key is if you do it right.

    TOM: Alright. Tom Silva, another amazing job here with this net-zero house.

    TOM SILVA: Yeah.

    TOM: Yeah, I can’t wait to see what happens for the next 35 years of the show, huh?

    TOM SILVA: Yeah. Make me feel …

    TOM: Celebrating the 40th anniversary – 40th-season anniversary.

    TOM SILVA: Forty big years.

    TOM: On the show for over 35 years. Congratulations.

    TOM SILVA: Thanks, Tom. Always good to be here.

    TOM: Alright.

    This is The Money Pit Home Improvement Show coming to you from the set of the 40th season of TV’s This Old House. You can watch the progress, as it happens, on your local PBS station or follow along, online, at, #TOHJamestown.

    And for the answer to your home improvement questions, call us now at 888-MONEY-PIT presented by, the fast and easy way to find a home service pro you can trust. You can read reviews, compare prices and book appointments online, all for free.

    I’m Tom Kraeutler. I’ll be back with more from Jamestown, Rhode Island, after this.

    Making good homes better, welcome back to The Money Pit Home Improvement Show. I’m Tom Kraeutler coming to you today from Jamestown, Rhode Island, where I’m pleased to be on site with the entire cast of This Old House as they wrap production on this, their 40th season. And if all this talk of home remodeling has you thinking about your next project, you can call in your home improvement question now to 888-MONEY-PIT presented by

    Well, the heart of every home is the kitchen and that’s where meals get prepared and homework gets done and guests always love to hang out. And the cabinetry in this kitchen was made by the craftsmen at Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry.

    And Brian Yahn, I was looking at your website and I found it pretty interesting that you guys make every single cabinet by hand. Is that true?

    BRIAN: That is absolutely true. Yes, in the heart of Pennsylvania.

    TOM: Yeah, it’s – the work here is just spectacular.

    BRIAN: Thank you.

    TOM: So, what’s the process like? I mean obviously, cabinets come in standard sizes. But you guys basically cut the parts and put them all together by hand and are kind of supervising that process the whole way?

    BRIAN: Yes, absolutely. We make cabinets at Plain & Fancy to the 1/16-inch, so there is no real standard size for us. We make our own doors and drawers. We make all of our cabinetry, whether it be European frameless cabinets or traditional, framed, inset cabinets.

    TOM: I think a lot of folks don’t realize how mass-produced most kitchen cabinets are.

    BRIAN: Exactly.

    TOM: And there are a lot of trade-offs in that process, huh?

    BRIAN: That is true. We are what I like to call a “local custom-cabinet shop” on steroids. We do some production-minded work but we are also very custom, a lot of hands-on work. We do a lot of custom cabinetry for any room of the house that a lot of other companies really don’t want to touch.

    TOM: Alright. So let’s say you’re hearing this program, you’re thinking about redoing your kitchen. Blank slate. How do you tell folks to get started with that process?

    BRIAN: Basically, we have a network of professional kitchen-and-bath designers across the United States of America. They can go to our designers and they will talk to them about colors, woods, style, contemporary, traditional, whatever it is and try to narrow down what their goal is for their project.

    TOM: Right. Right.

    BRIAN: So that’s really the place to start. Once that’s done, we’re the manufacturer. We take those plans and create an order and build it exactly to their specifications.

    TOM: What’s unique about the kitchen that you built here in the Jamestown house?

    BRIAN: Well, it’s quite unique. We’re using a transitional door style. That’s actually the name of it. And it’s done in very precise, equal-size panels. That would be the maple, white-painted part of the kitchen. A lot of the rest of the cabinetry in the house is a rift-cut white oak, which is one of the hottest woods going right now in the custom market.

    TOM: Right.

    BRIAN: We have done some blue mud-room cabinetry and we also did all the vanities in the house. So, it was very good design, very easy for us to make it to fit and make it look like the customer wanted.

    TOM: Right.

    BRIAN: So, we’re very proud of it. It looks fantastic.

    TOM: Yeah, it looks really great.

    So, what are some of the mistakes that folks make, do you think, when they start to plan a kitchen? Where do people go wrong and then live to regret it for many years in that kitchen?

    BRIAN: Well, yeah, I think a lot of times people tend to get caught up in trends. So they will pick something trendy and then they’ll find themselves 5, 10 years down the road still living in the same house with no plans to move, thinking about doing it again.

    TOM: Ah, yeah. Yeah.

    BRIAN: I think a lot of times people tend to get wrapped up in countertops and appliances and that takes a lot of their budget.

    TOM: Right.

    BRIAN: And they end up spending not the money they should for the quality of cabinet they need to last them a lifetime.

    TOM: Right.

    BRIAN: And a lot of times, they do have buyer’s regret in that case.

    TOM: So, careful planning, working with designers is going to give you a kitchen you can be proud of for many, many years.

    BRIAN: Absolutely.

    TOM: Brian Yahn from Plain & Fancy Cabinets, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit. Great advice.

    BRIAN: Thank you for having me.

    TOM: You’ve been listening to The Money Pit Home Improvement Show coming to you from Jamestown, Rhode Island and the set of the 40th season of TV’s This Old House.

    I’m Tom Kraeutler and I want to extend a very special thank you for the entire This Old House team for welcoming us here today.

    If you’d like to learn more about the Jamestown House project or the Generation NEXT initiative, visit or follow @ThisOldHouse on Twitter and Facebook, #TOHJamestown.

    I’m Tom Kraeutler. Remember, you can do it yourself but you don’t have to do it alone.


    (Copyright 2018 Squeaky Door Productions, Inc. No portion of this transcript or audio file may be reproduced in any format without the express written permission of Squeaky Door Productions, Inc.)

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