Erica Brigham standing on her front porch.

A small cottage remodel becomes a big Green Building project

By Curt Preisser and Erika Bingham
Special for UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County
Photos of the gut/rehabilitation project on the home.

Photos of the gut/rehabilitation project

Sarasota County resident Erika Brigham began promoting renewable energy in the early 1970’s. She trained to become an architect at the Boston Architectural Center, a training that was well suited to her visions of sustainable design and development. We caught up with Erika to talk about her life-long mission to promote sustainability, but she never sits for long! Fortunately, we were able to write and walk at the same time as she showed us around her LEED Platinum 1925 vernacular bungalow in downtown Sarasota.

How did you become interested in sustainability?

“I’ve always been environmentally conscious. Early in my architectural career, in the 1970’s, I was designing super-insulated buildings in New England. At that time the concept of sustainability was not in the public eye other than recycling bottles and cans, but it was starting to pick up steam.

 Were you the only one designing from a sustainability perspective?

“I was in an expanding movement to design buildings to be more energy efficient. It was an exciting time with lots of articles, publications and conferences nationwide and in Canada. Then, just as quickly as the renewable energy movement was growing, it ended in 1981. President Reagan removed President Carter’s solar panels from the White House, the gas crisis was over, the economy improved, political attitudes changed. Support for renewable energy just dried up and lots of companies went out of business.”

Erica inspecting the Solar Power inverter.

Erica inspecting the solar power inverter.

 Your house is certified LEED Platinum. Did you expect to achieve the highest status possible?

“Well, my goal is always to be as energy efficient as possible. The project started out a lot smaller, but as we got into it and stripped off the lath and plaster, we discovered the house had a lot of issues, particularly extensive termite damage of all structural members. So, what started as a renovation turned into a total gut rehab inside and outside, including elevating the house 3’ on a new foundation. Since I had been talking about renewable energy, efficiency, and recycling for decades I decided to put my money where my mouth was and walked the walk. In the end it was an exciting project and I know it was worth it to me.”

What is your favorite sustainable feature of the house?

Photo of kitchen cabinets sheathed in pecan tree wood from a fallen tree from her daughters home.

Kitchen cabinets with wood sheathing from a fallen a pecan tree at her daughter’s home

“Well, this entire project is about renewable energy and green technology so it’s really impossible for me to highlight any one feature. From the thin film flexible laminate solar system adhered to the standing seam metal roof that powers virtually everything in the house, to the cisterns that catch rainwater for landscaping, to the insulation that creates a thermal envelope and all the attention to continuous sheathing and tie downs to create durability and fortification, to the conservation and reuse of exterior siding and other recycled materials and components, it all contributes to a goal of using less and saving more. The wood sheathing on my kitchen cabinets is from a pecan tree that came down in my daughter’s yard. Instead of just getting rid of it, she had it milled. It holds a special place in my heart, not only because we recycled, but because it’s from her”.

Two cisterns connected by a hose to spigots at the bottom. The cistern is covered by a fence of Bamboo. The water collected is used for irrigation.

Two daisy chained cisterns. The water is used to irrigate the property.

What are some of the other sustainable features of the house?

“The front, back and side yards are almost all Florida native or friendly landscaping which require minimal fertilizer or irrigation and there is no irrigation system other than the rainwater cisterns. The floors are bamboo, a fast growing resource that does not lead to deforestation.

What advice would give to someone that wants to take on this type of green renovation project?

“If it’s an older home like mine, learn all you can about the structural integrity of the house before you start the project. Make sure you are starting on a solid foundation and raise it up because sea levels are rising. Once you plan all that out, you can begin talking about energy efficiency efficient and sustainable improvements. The bottom line is, do your homework before you start swinging hammers.”

Florida Friendly Landscaping, Staghorn Fern

Florida Friendly Landscaping – Staghorn Fern

Walkway on the property with Florida Friendly Landscaping

Walkway w/ Florida Friendly Landscaping

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