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Breathing life, energy efficiency into old homes

By by Dianna Wray
Feb. 9, 2011 at 7 p.m.
Updated Feb. 8, 2011 at 8:09 p.m.

Chip Dence, of East End Builders, points out the molding around a doorframe Wednesday in a house that he is working to remodel on U.S. Highway 77. The moldings, as well as other aspects of the construction, have all come from the original structure in an effort to reuse instead of disposing of useful material.  on U.S.Highway 77The homebuilder

wHO IS Chip Dence?Chip Dence recently returned from the National Association of Home Builders convention. He chairs the energy committee and was part of the selection committee for Solar Decathlon, which challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.For more informationm visit, www.solardecathlon.gov.

Sitting on a hill alongside U.S. Highway 77, the worn, white-sided, red-roofed ranch house looks like something out of an old picture postcard. The house is more than 100 years old, and looks it.

But on the inside, a miracle is taking place, breathing life into the old pine walls.

Chip Dence and his construction team, East End Builders, have been working on the house for the past two months.

When the six-month-long project is finished the white painted boards of the house will cover a residence as energy-efficient and as up-to-date as it can get.

This is what Dence does.

With his worn cowboy hat and grizzled beard, Dence looks like the antithesis of the environmental type. But Dence, a home builder for 27 years, is devoted to creating energy-efficient houses with as little waste as possible.

Active in building politics for almost three decades, he got interested in building energy-efficient homes as he learned how efficient they were over the years.

When working on new homes, he always encourages his customers to look at energy-efficient measures and approaches in building. But things really get interesting when he works to restore an old home.

"I love these old houses," Dence said, sliding a hand down a pine wall. "Feel that. They don't make wood like this anymore. No knot to be found."

In restoring the ranch house, Dence will install energy-efficient appliances and windows.

While they can't insulate the walls, they will insulate the floor and ceiling to keep the need for heating and cooling to a minimum, Dence said.

Dence's approach to restoration emphasizes recycling as well. In the ranch house, workers are restoring rundown wooden walls, retaining the old floors, refitting the light fixtures for electricity and even reinstalling the ancient, claw-footed bathtub.

Drills whirl and the smell of wood stain is sharp in the air as Dence tilts his head back to take in the place. Stepping to a newly installed window, he holds his hand up to the glass.

"Can you feel that? You can't feel the heat. These windows are so efficient the heat doesn't get through," he said, grinning.

Dence is devoted to energy-saving approaches, but he warns that the main thing is to make sure these approaches are actually worthwhile and save money and energy.

However, Dence said he always makes sure any energy-efficient measures he encourages customers to adopt will actually make sense for them.

"Energy efficiency doesn't come without cost. There are energy zealots out there that would have us being energy efficient at any cost, but it has to make sense. You have to make sure it will be worth it," Dence said.

Richard Marbach, the owner of the ranch house, had planned to have it restored for the past five years, he said.

However, he and his wife looked around carefully before choosing a contractor to do the work. They wanted someone who could keep the old style of the house while updating it to bring it into the 21st century.

Dence restored a house just outside of Cuero, complete with energy-efficient measures that were already saving the homeowners money. Marbach said Dence was the obvious choice.

"We looked at what Chip had done and what other people were doing, and we really liked his approach. It was just what we were looking for," Marbach said.

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