One year later, Eastown artist still experiencing benefits from home energy program

Rick Beerhorst in front of Carriage House Studio

Back in January 2011 Better Buildings for Michigan, a program designed to help homeowners first plan and then pay for energy-related home improvements, officially began its West Michigan push in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids. The Eastown “sweep”, as program officials call it, was the first step in a campaign which, to date, has resulted in more than 800 participants.

Counted among the program’s 800+ adopters is Rick Beerhorst, an artist, musician, husband, father of six, and something of a local expert on community issues and local culture. Though Rick was among the first to sign up, he was, in the beginning, and like many, skeptical of the program. “BetterBuildings canvassers came to our door and we actually shooed them away a couple of times,” Rick says with a laugh. “What they were offering seemed just to good to be true.”

The BetterBuildings offer included a comprehensive home energy audit, a handful of simple, immediate fixes (new high-efficiency light bulbs, for example), and the opportunity to take advantage of rebates and grants designed to help pay for more extensive work recommended by the auditors. All this in exchange for a modest initial investment (currently $100)—it’s no wonder Rick was skeptical.

What made him come around? The West Michigan Environmental Action Council was instrumental in that regard. Rick explains: “I finally went down to WMEAC—we have a good relationship with them—and they gave me the lowdown on the program. They told me it was legit and that was all I needed to hear.”

Though the program is run by the City of Grand Rapids, WMEAC plays an important support position, working to spread word about the program’s benefits, and helping adopters like Rick navigate the BetterBuildings process. This WMEAC does in addition to its other priorities, all of which are focused on affecting real and positive change, just the kind the Rick and his family were in for: “It wasn’t long after I signed up that the contractors came to our house. That’s when the real work began.”

Rick tells this story while sitting on a antique settee in his backyard studio. Heated by a wood-stove, the studio, a converted garage, is cozy and eclectic, the kind of workshop every aspiring painter dreams one day of having. It seems for Rick the studio is also his way of preserving, even reclaiming the past. He’s quick to point out the virgin pine siding on the studio walls, salvaged first from the Pike Place downtown, salvaged again (by Rick) from the builders who originally tore it out.

“We put this pine siding in the attic of the main house as well,” Rick says proudly. The attic, he explains, is a kind of hang-out for his kids, a far more comfortable one now that the BetterBuildings contractors have left their mark on it, adding insulation, hanging drywall, and weather-stripping the windows which they also re-hinged. The updates were in line with Rick’s philosophy that older homes like his, though sometimes in need of more care, have outlived neither their charm nor their usefulness.

Down the stairs from the attic the updates were also extensive. The contractor’s installed a brand new refrigerator (“Whirlpool’s biggest,” Rick says), a high-efficiency furnace and a new water heater. They also put a new lock on the front door and insulated the crawl space under the addition off the back of the house. Altogether the cost for the work and appliances came to more than $14,000, but of that bill the Beerhorsts were on the hook for none of it.

How is that possible? Rick and his family qualified for ACSET’s Weatherization Assistance Program which, last year, was available to BetterBuldings participants who met certain income requirements. Though ACSET’s program is no longer offered in conjunction with BetterBuildings for Michigan, BetterBuildings participants at any income level can still save up 20% on qualifying home improvements, which is no small amount.

Whatever the savings, the impact on a family like Rick’s is substantial. “My wife and I make our livings as artists, and as artists—like most people, in fact—we have to be careful financially. Now our heating bills are better. Our attic is insulated. The addition off the back is insulated. We have new refrigerator. It’s just a really good feeling to know that all this is taken care of. Not to overstate it, but we’re so much better positioned this year. It was a significant breakthrough for us.”

The Beerhorsts are literally saving money all the time. Not only is their heating bill down, it’s down significantly, on average, about 25% per month. This despite the fact they are keeping the furnace set to a higher temperature. “It’s been great. The house is warmer and more comfortable.”

Asked to contribute final thoughts, Rick has this to say about BetterBuildings: “We went through this program and it was so dramatically positive, if it’s something you can do for your house, by all means do it. It’s just a great opportunity.”

BetterBuildings for Michigan is supported by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and is being administered by the City of Grand Rapids with cooperation from WMEAC. To learn more, please visit www.bbmgr.com or call (616) 451-3051 ext. 40.

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