The Willows Cottage, a humble Tudor-style gatehouse at the Willows Park in Radnor Township, is celebrating its 100th birthday by going green. The rundown building, once slated for demolition, has received a much-needed, eco-friendly makeover that includes energy-efficient windows, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and (eventually) a green roof.
But perhaps the greenest thing of all is the fact that the Willows Cottage is still standing. “Historic preservation may be the most important green building practice,” says Beverlee Barnes, manager of Delaware County’s Historic Preservation Department.
Over the past century, the structure has been home to horses, carriages, cars, chickens, turkeys and farm equipment. At one point, the Radnor Township manager lived there. For the past few years, it’s been filled with junk. Things had gotten so bad, Radnor Township had all but decided to tear it down. That’s when an ad hoc group of preservation-minded residents, calling themselves Friends of the Willows Cottage, swung into action.
“This is one of the only estates left on the Main Line that has the main house and all of the original outbuildings intact,” says Barnes, a member of the Friends of the Willows Cottage. “This helps tell the story of how people lived in the early 20th century.”
The group successfully persuaded Radnor Township to save the cottage, but the decision came with strings attached. First, the renovation had to be done at no cost to the township. Secondly, a year-round use for the building had to be found. “Doubly interesting and exciting to us was the opportunity to save this building in a green way,” says Barnes.
To lead the project, the group chose Mark Janiczek, a Wayne resident and custom homebuilder who specializes in green building practices. For him, the project dovetailed nicely with his skills and offered a chance to showcase his expertise to a wider audience. “This was something I could do to give something back to the community,” says Janiczek.
Janiczek defines green building as the practice of increasing a structure’s efficiency while reducing its use of energy, water and materials. Site, design and construction should benefit both the environment and the occupants’ health.
With help from volunteers, Janiczek conducted mold and radon tests, identifying water damage, rot and anything else that could impact the building’s structural integrity. While the structure showed its age, it was tough and sturdy, withstanding the ravages of time fairly well. “The only real problem was the mold, but we could deal with that pretty easily,” says Janiczek.
To resolve the issue, water was pumped out of the basement, and the ground around the building was reshaped to steer drainage into a nearby stream. Rainwater is also collected in wooden barrels strategically placed around the building.
While volunteers cleared out debris, scraped and painted walls, and swept out years of dust, local electricians and plumbers pitched in to rewire the building and put in new systems. To keep utility bills as low as possible, walls were padded with thick insulation and energy-efficient windows installed throughout.
“Many of the things we’re doing here are practices that would’ve been used in a cottage like this when it was initially built,” Janiczek says.
As part of the geothermal heating and cooling system, water is kept at a steady 55 degrees by circulating it through a pipe driven deep underground. By using the earth’s natural insulating properties, the system limits the energy it takes to heat and cool the building, thus saving money over time.
“A geothermal system costs between 25 and 35 percent more than a conventional heating and cooling system, but it can reduce utility costs up to 75 percent,” says Janiczek. “It pays for itself over time and continues to produce savings.”
The use of repurposed and recycled materials is high on Janiczek’s list of environmentally friendly building practices. For one thing, it keeps materials out of the landfill and saves a few trees in the process. “Green building principles and practices have been around for hundreds of years,” he says. “It’s nothing new. Reusing and recycling materials is a logical, holistic way to approach how we live and build.”
Janiczek certainly practices what he preaches. He had a fallen oak tree hauled to a small side yard next to the cottage rather than to the dump. Now, it’s a source of lumber for building. In addition, local businesses have donated everything from appliances to tree work.
“Money is tight all around,” says Janiczek. “But local businesses are happy to give in-kind donations.”
With the help of those in-kind donations and plenty of volunteer labor, things are looking pretty good at the cottage. Most of the interior has been cleaned up and rewired; office space for the Friends of the Willow Cottage has been carved out of the second floor; a small kitchen in the living area has been outfitted with fine wood cabinets recycled from a local design showroom; and sample paint colors dot the walls. But plenty remains to be done, and the group still has to figure out a long-term use for the building.
Currently, a barn attached to the cottage is being used as a pickup point for organic produce grown at Skunk Hollow Community Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture initiative located in the nature preserve adjacent to the Willows. The building is also used a few hours a week during a day camp for kids, who visit the garden to learn how to grow vegetables and keep bees, among other farming activities. “It’s a big success already,” says Janiczek.
With the CSA in place as an anchor tenant, Janiczek hopes to turn the rest of the building into an environmental center complete with exhibits on green building practices and workshops on things like installing rain barrels for water collection and composting. The group introduced the concept of an environmental center at a recent Radnor Township Commissioners meeting. Although it’s too early to tell whether the plan will be approved, Janiczek says there appears to be support for the idea.
Whatever happens in the future, the present looks bright. The entire Willows estate has been approved for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Now that the junk is gone (replaced by bins of brightly colored vegetables) and the cottage cleaned up, it’s possible to imagine how things might have looked 100 years ago. Not so different—and just a little greener.
1. Build a clothesline. Next to your refrigerator, your clothes dryer is the biggest energy guzzler in your home. For a few bucks and a trip to your local hardware store, you can create a “solar dryer.” (See, that’s a much nicer way to think of it.)
2. Insulate hot water pipes. Cover pipes (wherever you can reach them) with rubber or polyethylene foam tubes. They come with an adhesive-coated slit down the middle, so you just ease them over the pipe and press the ends closed. Seal the seams with duct tape.
3. Plant a deciduous tree. Plant trees on the south, east and west sides of your house, and you can picnic under them in a couple of years. In five years, they may provide enough shade to let you run your air conditioner less frequently. When the trees mature, they could save you as much as 40 percent on cooling costs
4. Install a rain garden. Instead of diverting your gutter water into a storm drain, where it picks up motor oil and other urban crud, channel it into a low spot with bushes, grasses or trees that like getting their feet wet. Your reward: something beautiful to look at, plus the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping to provide natural flood control and water conservation.
5. Install a programmable thermostat. With an estimated annual savings of $100 and an initial outlay of only about $50, few upgrades pay for themselves as quickly as this one can. With a programmable thermostat, you can automatically adjust your heating and air-conditioning systems to match your family’s seven-day schedule.