Jill LaVigne has owned her 1928 bungalow on South Third Street since 1993, but until a 2006 renovation, it was hard to keep it heated and cooled.
In fact, when Will Rainey moved into the house in 2000, there was only one window-unit air conditioner. The floor had holes, and plants grew between the floor planks.
They tried to do a renovation themselves, but they still couldn’t achieve efficiency. Then, working with architect Ben Obregon, they built what LaVigne calls “a Styrofoam cooler.” Spray foam insulation between new siding and the interior walls with the original shiplap creates the cooler effect. The insulation is also beneath the pier-and-beam floors and in the attic.
The couple added a new standing-seam metal roof with solar arrays that actually make an excess of energy. Every Earth Day, Rainey compares their energy use and production. From last Earth Day to this Earth Day, the property made 1,000 kilowatt hours of excess energy, or two months’ worth of use. While they don’t have to pay for electricity, they do pay to have access to the grid during cloudy days or days of high use.
The home will be part of Austin Energy Green Building and the Texas Solar Energy Society’s Cool House Tour on Sunday. While on the tour, Rainey and LaVigne will not only show the bungalow but also the straw-bale studio they built behind it and their gardens.
The property was the 10,000th home in the Austin Energy Green Building program and received a five-star rating.
Rainey and LaVigne tried to be true to the bungalow by keeping the shiplap, adding a pressed-tin ceiling in the living room and a beadboard ceiling in the kitchen, which was an addition that predates their ownership. They also kept the remnants of the original wallpaper in the bedroom.
In addition to the solar panels, roof and insulation, the home has a mini split air-conditioning system that allows them to only use air conditioning in the places they are occupying.
The straw-bale home, which they built as a place to live during the bungalow renovation, now serves as Rainey’s office; he’s a web developer and an Austin Community College teacher. LaVigne works at the Great Outdoors garden center.
They got the idea for the straw-bale house from Obregon, who lives in one himself. The two-story building allows space for a bar, which became their makeshift kitchen, a downstairs guest bedroom/living room, a full bathroom and the upstairs loft office area. The straw-bale house also features solar panels on the roof, adding to the energy production.
The couple grow much of their food, from onions and squash to leeks and peaches, in their multiple-bed garden. They have an old-fashioned produce scale in the kitchen to keep track of their garden’s bounty.
They also have a clothesline by the straw-bale house, which they use, and LaVigne walks to work.
For Rainey, being energy conscious has made sense to him since he was in high school in Indiana during the 1970s coal strikes. He remembers taking the SAT without any heat in the school.
“It’s peace of mind,” he says. “Prices could go through the roof or we could have another coal strike, and we’d would be OK.”
The price of the energy upgrades, Rainey estimates, added about 10 percent on a $120,000 renovation. Obregon says it’s possible to make energy upgrades without spending extra. “It depends on how far you want to go,” he says.
Rainey and LaVigne will soon be onto their next project. They bought an 18-acre farm in Canada and plan to start an organic farm, growing ancient wheats and succulents in greenhouses. They’ll use some of what they learned renovating this property on that farm.
Cool House Tour
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20, free kids 12 and younger
The guidebook is your ticket and available through tour day at Zinger Hardware, 4001 N. Lamar Blvd., Treehouse: The Smart Home Improvement Store, 4477 S. Lamar Blvd., and Saturday at Barton Creek Farmers’ Market, 2901 S.Capital of Texas Highway. Tickets will not be sold at the tour houses.