By Sydney Ashby
Just like the character Two-Face in Batman, Josh Somes’ fate was decided by the toss of a coin. When he returned to Memphis after living in Kansas City, he and his wife, Deidre, had to decide which one of them was going to work on their rental properties and which one was going to get a “9-to-5” job. Josh lost – or many would say won – the toss, and as a result he began improving their rentals and scouting out new properties to purchase. That next purchase was 2053 Oliver, and along with it, they decided to not just restore the property but to pursue third party verification through Energy Star to ensure that the house would be as energy-efficient as possible.
Surprisingly, what led Josh to the CY neighborhood was an article about the Smallest User competition. “I’d read the online version of the Lamplighter while in Kansas City and was impressed by Cooper-Young’s desire to lower their energy consumption,” Josh said. “I knew this was the neighborhood to attempt this project.” So, he and Deidre began sustainSTUDIO and have labeled their first attempt “Project Ginkgo” after the ginkgo tree in the front yard. Josh hopes to have Project Ginkgo completed by 2012, the centennial of 2053 Oliver.
Josh and Deidre have faced many challenges in the process to restore 2053 Oliver. But in order to stay focused and make decisions easier, they are always asking themselves, “How sustainable can we make it?” Specifically, they want to ensure that the house is as energy efficient as possible, and as a result, are seeking third party verification to make the house Energy Star qualified.
But Josh and Deidre are also intent on making sure the house retains as much of its original character as possible. For example, deciding whether or not to replace the windows or simply add on storm windows was extensively discussed. While replacement windows would be energy efficient, the trade off of getting rid of the originals was not worth it. Storm windows will still ensure proper insulation and energy conservation without compromising the uniqueness of the house. And although none of the four fireplaces will be functional as that would not allow the house to be Energy Star certified, Josh still decided to keep them for the sake of their aesthetic.
Converting the house from a duplex to a single-family design was another challenge. The question of energy efficiency had to be coupled with a design that reflected a 21st century lifestyle. They decided on the 2-bedroom plan that mirrored the original plan of the house but made a big change with the design of the kitchen. Josh and Deidre decided to open it up quite a bit to reflect the tendency now for the kitchen to be more of a gathering place than it was when the house was originally built.
Perhaps the biggest challenge and the starting point for most major energy-conservation home projects came with the ‘envelope.’ The envelope includes the walls, crawl space, roof, and attic – anything that separates the interior of the house from the exterior environment. Josh had the plaster removed off the walls and sprayed in a layer of foam, then insulation covered by new drywall. This is a technique known as ‘flash and batt.’ The roof was completely stripped and re-laid, with roof vents and reflective sheathing added (you can learn more about this at their website: sustainstudio.com). According to Josh, “Once the envelope is determined, you have to look at all the different components that you will put back into the house, and you have to make sure you right size according to the improvements to the envelope including the addition of central heating and air.”
In an effort to use as much reclaimed and/or recycled material as possible, Josh has traveled as far as Holly Springs, MS an as close as across the street. Almost 40% of the hardwood floors are reclaimed from wood used in a home in Holly Springs. The guest bathroom sink was reclaimed from another homeowner in Cooper-Young who didn’t want scrappers to get it. The back eave tongue and groove on the newly re-build back wall of the house is repurposed paneling from inside the home. They have also taken several metal cabinets and doors from the home and dispersed them to neighbors in the Midtown area. In addition, all the woodwork, stains, and paint are chemical-free.
Josh has no idea if he’ll recoup the investment he has put into the house, especially considering the state of the current housing market. However, that hasn’t been his main concern. He says, “How can we really improve the house to a point where it is an asset to the neighborhood as opposed to just leaving it as is?” Josh considers this a litmus test to determine if he will continue restoring houses in this manner. He continues, “At what point do you say, I’m not going to tear down the exterior wall or I’m not going to use an Energy Star hot water heater that might come at a premium? So it comes down to what you are going to do to separate yourself to make your house appealing beyond just the aesthetic.”
Utility mortgage is a phrase Josh coined to describe the state of many non-energy-efficient homes. He explains that someone could be paying a $500 utility bill, which could be almost as much as the mortgage. The Energy Star certification should have a positive impact in lowering the utility bill and is typically part of Josh and Deidre’s decision-making process in determining what features to install in the house. This is how they decide which components to install and which ones, while they might be appealing, will truly have an impact. Josh and Deidre have tried to help out future tenants making a conscience effort to bundle the hard decisions into the whole project, so that they’re not just selling one component, but instead an entire system.
Project History and Future
Josh loves to talk to anyone about what he’s doing. He is very open and has gotten to know his neighbors well as many will now come up to the house and ask him questions about what he is doing. While he and his wife are happy to speak informally to anyone with questions, they are planning on holding a showcase for people who are interested in learning more about updating their homes to be more energy efficient. Check their website in the coming weeks for the day and time (sustainstudio.com).
When asked how Josh got started doing this, he said, “I was in my mid-twenties and got tired of going through the motions, so I bought a fixer upper, along with a hammer and a Home Depot ‘How To’ book.” Josh and Deidre, who has a degree in interior design from UM, had just started dating, and Josh told her it would take him three months and $3,000 to restore the house and they could move in. “It didn’t quite work out that way,” he said, laughing. “It took quite a bit longer and quite a bit more money.” Adding to that, their neighbor was pressuring them to buy his house, which had failed inspection. Just to get him to quit asking, Josh offered a very low number. The neighbor cussed him and told him no. But then a week later, the neighbor called and said he’d take it. So, Josh and Deidre started work on a second house. Their third house was also a bit of an accident, but the trend led to Josh pursuing and obtaining a degree in architecture from the University of Kansas. After Josh’s father passed away, he and Deidre moved back to Memphis and as you already know, flipped a coin.
They feel good about what they’re doing now, as the houses they restore become true assets to neighborhoods they are in, and in the process, they are also able to employ people in an industry that has taken a sustained hard hit. They sincerely want to fix up houses to a point where they are truly desirable. They see it as a way to not only improve the neighborhood, but also to improve the city.