Boomers, decarbonize your retirement as you ‘age in place’

Boomers, decarbonize your retirement as you ‘age in place’

After waiting decades for governments to act, it is becoming clear that we are not going to fix climate change without individual, personal action. And there’s very little as personal and individual as a person’s house.

That’s what my spouse and I were thinking five years ago, when we renovated a 110-year-old house in Minneapolis. We set out to create a home that is “net zero” in its energy use — that is, a home that produces as much energy as it consumes or more.

As boomers, we were getting older. We needed a house that would be comfortable and have all the features needed for living independently, indefinitely. The National Association of Homebuilders has come up with a helpful list of features for “aging in place.” Our rear entryway easily can accommodate a ramp. The interior doorways are extra-wide. The cabinets have soft-close pullouts and drawers. Grab bars and other refinements should enable us to stay in the house through our golden years.

Net zero has provided yet more benefits. Superinsulation and windows with three panes of glass eliminate cold spots and drafts — and outside noise. Our geothermal system uses only $550 of electricity to keep us effortlessly warm in winter and cool in summer in our 3,500-square-foot house. And that electricity comes from the sun. We cut the gas line, and our solar panels are offsetting carbon at the rate of 12 tons per year; the average U.S. household produces 7.5 tons per year. We are making a tiny but real contribution on the right side of the atmospheric ledger.

The renovation to net-zero aging-in-place wasn’t easy or cheap. But in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, it is a realistic alternative. More than half the housing stock is half a century old or older — and not getting replaced anytime soon. Many of us have spent much of our lives in old houses. We may not want to move. That is why my wife and I renovated rather than building new. We wanted to demonstrate that a typical old house on a typical urban lot could achieve net zero without sacrificing attractiveness, comfort or convenience.

Net zero renovation need not touch what you love about your house. Tear off the siding and superinsulate. Put in triple-glazed windows. Dig geothermal wells in your backyard. Put on as many solar collectors as you can. You just might make it all the way to net zero, and certainly to a house of great comfort.

Here baby boomers are needed. We have made our money and are about to pass it on in the largest transfer of wealth in human history. Our challenge is to age in a way that enhances the survival of the place — to connect continuing independence in living arrangements with ultimate dependence upon the planet. Net zero, aging in place and the survival of the planet are all connected.

Many retiring boomers will have time as well as money on their hands and may relish the challenge of net-zero renovation. The process took us three years, start to finish, but it proved to be the most satisfying way for me to jump-start my retirement.

Baby boomers are the most privileged — some would say spoiled — generation in U.S. history. Our actions and inactions have contributed mightily to the climate crisis. We can’t solve it by ourselves, but we should do what we can to stop making it worse.

Stewart W. Herman, of Minneapolis, is a retired college professor. He’s at [email protected]

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