Julie Tung, a history major turned software executive, wanted a historic house to restore. Ed Schwartz, her boyfriend (now husband), wanted a house he could make energy-efficient. And it had to be near Glen Rock, where his son lives.
They found the answer in a 240-year-old Ridgewood house in such woeful shape that it was at risk of being torn down. In 2006, the couple paid $843,000 for the house, which was built by members of the Westervelt family, early Dutch settlers who also left historic houses in Tenafly, Hillsdale and Woodcliff Lake.
Five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the couple has a house that mixes old and new to make it sustainable. The chandeliers are antique, but their bulbs are energy-efficient LED or compact fluorescent. There are solar panels on the roof and the original pine on the floors.
The main lesson Schwartz took from the experience: "No matter how bad a shape it's in, with the right people, it's fixable," he said. "Take it step by step; don't be overwhelmed."
The oldest part of the five-bedroom house is stone, which was favored by the Dutch settlers of the 1700s. In the 1800s, it was expanded and renovated in a Victorian style. Tung and Schwartz added 1,300 square feet, including a kitchen, family room and master bedroom, staying true to the Victorian flavor.
The couple faced the usual nightmares and unpleasant surprises of old-house renovation. Walls were coated in layers of wallpaper, the floors in vinyl and asbestos tile. The wiring turned out to be obsolete knob-and-tube, chimneys were unusable and part of the foundation was missing — leaving a section of the house in a precarious state.
Where to begin?
"The worst, first," Schwartz said. "It was supposed to be a one- or two-year project." As with most renovations, it stretched out much longer.
One of the first steps was to get rid of environmental problems like asbestos, lead pipes, a buried oil tank and basement mold.
"The first thing you do, before energy efficiency, is remove contaminants," Schwartz said. "The last thing you want to do is to seal in those contaminants."
Finding the right contractors was a challenge.
"Old houses have a lot of nuances, and a contractor who doesn't understand them can do more harm than good," Schwartz said.
For example, the first contractor they hired to refinish the original wide-plank pine floors showed up with a giant sander, which Schwartz thought would destroy the ancient wood.
He fired that sander and instead found "an old guy from Rhode Island," who moved in with his dog for a week and hand-scraped the floors.
Some of the flooring could not be salvaged. Instead of ripping up all the floors, they took up boards in an upstairs room and hall and used them to patch up the other floors. They then used sustainably harvested wood to replace the boards they had recycled.
The house now includes some unexpected features — old and new. Drop a coffee cup or Vodka bottle on the kitchen floor? No problem — the floor is cork, along with the floor in the foyer. Cork is more sustainable than wood because it is harvested by stripping bark from a tree, not cutting the tree down.
And lots of old houses have pocket doors, but this one also has tall pocket windows, which roll up into the wall to let you step out onto the porch. "They were painted shut with 10 layers of paint," Schwartz recalled.
Environmentally conscious design is everywhere. The kitchen has Energy Star appliances and an island counter made of lyptus, which is sustainably harvested wood. Upstairs, solar tubes in the ceilings let light pour in, lessening the need for electric lights.
And on the roof, solar panels facing south turn sunlight into energy.
But Schwartz said the biggest energy saver was among the least glamorous — sealing up air leaks and insulating the walls by blowing in cellulose insulation. Old houses don't have to be drafty, he said.
"A lot of times people rip out the old windows first. That's step 20," he said, because windows take up only 20 percent of the wall area.
"You want to tackle the 80 percent — insulating the walls — before you go after the 20 percent that's windows," he said.
Adding insulation and plugging air leaks should always be the top priorities with an older home, agreed Brian Castelli, executive vice president of the Alliance to Save Energy.
"Older homes weren't built with an eye toward energy conservation, because fuel was cheap," he said. And insulation and caulk are relatively inexpensive fixes.
Castelli also said that it's important to focus on older homes, because there are so many of them in the U.S., compared to new construction.
"The energy savings are really going to be in looking at older homes and starting to get them retrofitted," he said.
Overall, Schwartz and Tung say they reduced energy use by 80 percent. Schwartz said the previous owner spent $8,000 a year on utilities; he and Tung instead come out $2,000 ahead because they sell solar power back to the utility.
The renovation also focused "on air quality, which to me is always number one, because the health of you and your family is the most important thing you can enjoy," Schwartz said. That meant getting rid of mold in the basement and using paints and floor finishes that had little or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In addition, the heating and air conditioning system includes humidity controls and a high-tech filtration system.
The interiors are painted in rich, soothing tones, including creamy yellow, sage green, robin's-egg blue and burgundy. The couple spent years scouring salvage yards and antique stores for old chandeliers, fixtures and even a set of giant wood double doors, imported from Poland and awaiting installation in the game room.
These details don't just add period charm. Reusing old items is environmentally sound because it keeps them out of landfills, Schwartz said.
Outside, the three-quarters acre property includes a underground system to return rainwater to the garden and the aquifer. It also features a large green Victorian gazebo and a horse-drawn buggy.
The Amish family who sold the buggy to Schwartz apologized that the yoke was broken.
"I said, 'That's OK — we don't have a horse,' " Schwartz recalled. "They thought we were crazy, and we got it cheap."
Ridgewood village historian Peggy Norris praised the renovation.
"It's a house with a long evolution, and I think what Julie and Ed have done is terrific," Norris said.
"They've really highlighted the historic and beautiful aspects of the home." And doing that while making the home green, she added, is "pretty incredible."
A former resident of the house agreed. John Desmarais' parents bought the home in the late 1940s, and he remembers when it was heated with coal and surrounded by woods. His heart sank when he drove past a few years ago and saw its "terrible" condition. Later, after Schwartz and Tung began renovations, he connected with them and even stayed overnight recently.
"I think they're doing a marvelous job," said Desmarais, a retired health care chief executive in Kentucky.
The couple won't say how much they spent on the renovations and the environmental upgrades, though Schwartz acknowledges it's in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would have been much higher, he added, but they sought out bargains aggressively.
For example, some of the wood moldings came from Canada, at a time when the exchange rate was more favorable. They got kitchen appliances at a steep discount because they had been returned to the store by other customers. They re-used whatever they could — for example, keeping the circa-1860 windows, though the hardware had to be replaced.
A new career
And tax credits and incentives for the energy investments returned $60,000.
At 5,000 square feet, the house is bigger than the two of them need, but Schwartz said they are preparing for a time when their aging parents may want to live with them.
Schwartz's experience with the house led him to change careers. He formerly worked in sales for a technology company, investing in real estate on the side.
Since working on the house, he has started a new business, Green Living Solutions, which does energy audits and advises on energy-efficient renovations.
He said he wants people to understand that it's possible to save money while reducing carbon emissions and pollution.
"With this house, we set out to prove it can be done," he said, "and there's no reason not to."