Matt Dirsksen on eco-friendly ways to stay warm this winter | Home Front

Jan 12, 2012

Matt Dirksen, a partner in the Case Design team, joins Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza on the weekly Home Front chat. Together, they give advice on interior decorating, home improvement and saving energy this season.

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We haven't had time to clean our gutters and now that it's so cold, we're dreading it. Can it wait til spring?

No!!! You had better get on it. Today would be a great day to do it as it will be almost 60 degrees I hear. But get it done before the snow comes as you could have ice damming if your gutters are clogged with leaves and debris.

Our 1936 era windows are... cold. Lovely, but cold. single pane, and inches between the upper and lower sash. Can't afford new windows, so how best to weatherize? is the plastic sheeting with a hair dryer really worth it? we've stopped the gaps between sashes with foam from home depot - is this worth doing? many thanks, Tiffany Montavon, Arlington, VA

You bet! On old (beautiful) windows, use weather sealing materials which won't hurt the windows in the long run. The foam strips, removable (yes removable) caulk, and the plastic sheeting will help.

Looking to paint my dining room a bold but sophisticated color (I love Katie Ridder, as an example). I'm thinking blue or red, but on the darker side for both. My dining room furniture is cherry wood. Do you have any suggestions?

I love Katie Ridder, too. If you haven't seen her new book Rooms, you should really check it out.

As for your dining room, I like the idea of blue over red, personally. In Katie's book, she uses more of a green-blue in a dining room paired with traditional furniture and it looks amazing.

Jura, I was intrigued by the opening of the story today, Baby, It's Warm Inside. How was the Shenandoah sunrise? Did your son take photos? Are you going to share?

Haha. My son said it was absolutely amazing. He and two friends were the only people on top of the mountain and it was around 10 degrees. He said it was totally worth it.  I may have to train for this. :)

This is an eco-friendly question. My neighbor doesn't smoke in her condo, but she smokes so much that smoke she brings inside on her clothes is getting into my adjacent condo. I have asthma and my mother died of cancer and I absolutely can't be around smoke. Is there a company in the DC area that can analyze the smoke in my condo so I have evidence that it's coming from her? Then I can take the issue to our condo board. Thank you.

Wow. (My wife and I had a similar issue in our old condo many years ago.) It's sad that many old condos and townhouses have this particular problem. In fact, Greenbelt Homes, Inc. just had a lawsuit on this very issue. Here is a link to the professional that was originally hired by the plaintiff.

Good luck!

Do you have to empty your attic of everything (there is a floor and lots of boxes) to have insulation blown into it in a 1930s house?

Short answer: yup. There are alternative ways to deal with old attic floors. It really depends on the situation. Today's "code" requires around 13 inches of cellulouse or batt. Most old house collar ties (attic floor framing) are not deep enough to handle that, but there are ways to keep things in place (rigid foam over top the floor deck, for example.)

This couldn't be more timely. My husband and I sleep in the basement and it's really cold. Really cold. The down comforter just isn't cutting it this year, so we were just talking about splurging on an electric blanket or mattress pad. What do you suggest? Thanks!

If things are that cold I'd highly suggest bringing in a professional to look at your space. You'd spend more $$ on running the electric blanket in a single season than it might be worth looking at the reasons why it is so cold. Basements are typically colder, but only to a degree. If it feels "unihabitable" than you likely have infiltration issues.

I saw the new space heater in the article today. It does look more compact and safer. What are alternatives to a space heater? What else can I do - what maintain can I do - to keep a room warm?

Although space heating tends to "symptoms" more than "problems", I have used either the oil-filled electric radiators or ceramic heaters. The oil-filled radiators are very quiet as well. Keep in mind these (space heating) things typically use the same amt. of electricity as a hairdryer, so use them only when necessary.

Can I ask for suggestions for online sources for basic picture frames in a variety of sizes? I'm in need of some custom sizes, I think (such as 12"x12"), so the usual suspects (pottery barn, crate and barrel) don't have what I need. I don't want anything too elaborate or expensive - just your basic glass/acrylic and a plain, painted wood frame in standard colors (black, white). Thanks for any suggestions!

Could you use larger standard-size frames and just have a matte custom cut to work with the size of your art/photo?  

Hi: I would be forever grateful if you could please settle this argument between me & my partner: I claim that not doing a full load of laundry is wasteful, because whether you are doing a full load or part load, you are using the same amount of electricity to run the washer. He claims that it's OK because you use less water & less electricity in the drying phase . . . Who's right?! Thanks!

It really depends on your appliances. A lot of newer washers and driers know how to respond to the clothing load accordingly. The older ones don't. One thing for sure: hand washing/drying uses less! :)

We had a small stone table made to fit a small space. It's too lovely to cover up with a metal or ceramic lamp, as we had intended, so we are looking for acrylic, glass, or crystal. It's a narrow space and needs an oval or rectangular shade; it's also where I needlepoint so it needs to be adjustable. Any source ideas beyound the usual suspects? Other lighting ideas would also be welcome. Thanks!

Have you considered a floor lamp instead? Something small like this from the Kellogg Collection sounds like it would be perfect. Kellogg is currently having a sale on all of their lighting, so the timing is perfect.

A little off topic, but has anyone been to the White Flint Bloomingdale's going out of business sale? Is it all picked over and crowded with people like the Filene's sale was? Long lines to pay?

Would LOVE to know any details about this. Has anyone been there?

I had a KrazyGlue mishap on my bathroom vanity. Does anyone know how to effectively remove the glue without damaging the surface of the vanity? I suppose it is a composite material of some sort....similar to millions of vanity tops in millions of homes. I tried fingernail poish remover in an indiscrete area, and it removed some of the glue and most of the gloss finish. Any ideas?

Just went to the KrazyGlue Web site and found this FAQ page that addresses your exact dilemma. Take a look here.

Years ago, my parents came to visit me in Chicago for Christmas. Their first day there, I had to go into work so my parents said they would stay at home and get their Christmas cards done. About noon, my mother called me at work, apologized for disturbing me, but that they were freezing and was there anything wrong with the heat. I'd forgotten that our thermostat was set to be at about 55 during the day while we weren't at home. I gave them instructions for how to override the settings and all was well. Mom said they were all wrapped up in blankets and sweaters and had drunk three pots of tea trying to keep warm.

That is funny! Many of my friends say they always have to turn up the temps when parents come to visit for the holidays. I think when you get older, you realize that your comfort is really one of the most important things about life. Being comfortable and enjoying your home is to me more important that being miserable and saving a few dollars. No, I don't mean waste energy. But do things that will make your house less drafty and dont feel you have to wear a down vest in your own dining room during dinner.

Everyone is talking about greening your house, but I really don't know what to do to make my house greener, warmer, safer. What are some quick tips?

The first, best, and least expensive things:

Know what you have in your house and how much (water/gas/oil/electricty) you use. Understand the appliances in your home. They all have instruction manuals nowadays.

Energy efficiency wise: one won't save energy unless they know what they use - (just like loosing weight). Get to know your usage. The more you are aware of it, the more you (and your family) will save.

Health wise: Most houses are filled with things which may be better stored outside of our living envelope. The things with the old "Mr. Yuck" stickers on them are probably not good things to have stored in the house anymore. Take note of what you have in there and find a better place for them.

Water: There are excellent water saving shower heads and faucet aerators out nowadays. Switch out the old stuff.

Dressing in the right materials can really help keep you warm so that you don't need to turn up the thermostat. I once heard that silk is almost 40 percent warmer than wool. This winter, I finally invested in several cashmere mix sweaters to keep warm. I have to say, they really do the trick--no more acrylic for me. Lands End has some at reasonable prices. I bought my father one for Christmas (in purple!) and he loves it.

I agree. Cashmere is really the best and it doesn't have to be super expensive. I want more cashmere throws to keep around my house. I hear sometimes they show up at Tuesday Morning at ridiculous prices.

Yes, I saw the blue-green color scheme and Katie Ridder used and thought it was stunning. She is so impressive. I saw your story on Navy on it was one of the things that inspired me to take action. Do you or Jura have any favorite blues in particular? I love Farrow and Ball's Drawing Room Blue, but was hoping for something a little cheaper :-)

I have lots of personal favorite blues, but they are all much lighter shades than you appear to be looking for. I know one of Jura's favorite is Palladian Blue by Benjamin Moore, which I believe she has in her dining room; it's a green blue and also much lighter than navy. For alternatives to F&B's Drawing Room Blue, take a look at Sorcerer, Major Tom and Kauai from C2.  I think a navy dining room would be amazing. If you end up pulling the trigger, I'd love to see it. Send me pics at

I live in a ranch style home built in 1955. It has a large crawl space under the house. I know I need to upgrade the insulation in the attic. However, the hardwood floors seem very cold. Should I have insulation installed under the floors? Do people do that?

Yes, But don't stop there. Not only is it about improving insulation down there, but air-sealing. An energy auditor would be very helpful for you since they will illustrate to you the issues with air-sealing. And depending on where you live, the costs of audits are very inexpensive. (I reccommend audits to ALL my clients.)

Great tip on switching out old shower heads and faucets for more eco-friendly options. What should I look for on the packaging? What denotes a more eco-friendly option?

Boyfriend and I just switched apartments and now have a dishwasher, woo hoo! We both grew up with our parents rules about what did and did not go in the dishwasher, how to load it, etc. but we are looking for some official guidance. Any tips would be appreciated. Thanks!

Good for you! First of all see if there is a manufacturer's booklet with your dishwasher. Otherwise, look up the model number on the manufacturer's website for great tips on operating and loading. All the plates should face towards the middle so they get the best water spray. Forks and spoons should be placed upright in the basket. Avoid nesting by mixing them up in the baskets. Put things like plastic on the top rack so it doesn't get too hot.

I'm sure some of your readers are fine with a $250 wool/silk throw that probably needs to be dry cleaned. But that's not very practical for families with kids. To them, $250 can be spent elsewhere. Why not a Target alternative? Signed, the 99%

This was just something for eye candy.You can find nice wool blankets for under $100.  Of course, fleece blankets that you can toss in the washer are great too.

Hot tea! Low cost and good for you. Also recommend something four legged and furry to help keep your feet warm.

Love that idea!

Do you know how sensitive it is to movement around the house? I have my thermostats programmed to a low temperature during the day and have the heat kick in around 30 minutes before I get home. With three cats in the house, I wonder if the Nest would be inclined to crank up the heat during the day sensing their movement.

Good question (for Nest). I judge the "Nest" as a decent first step in the right direction of home automation. The bigger issue is many folk just don't learn to program what they may in-fact have on their wall. There are some more "user-friendly" t-stats on the market these days.

I have two rooms to paint and I'd like your opinion about my color choices. Our kitchen (still white from our years ago) has light maple cabinets and neutral beige granite countertops. I'm thinking something orange, not quite as bold as Tangerine Tango but  close. Also, my elementary school-aged daughter's room. I'm glad that we didn't give in during her pink phase. Now she's in a turquoise phase and I kind of like turquoise, too. I noticed Benjamin Moore's Dolphin Cove. What do you think? She has some bright pink accents and a funky rug from Ikea.  The rest of home is kind of beachy, Benjamin Moore Haystack in the living/dining space. Thoughts? 

Hard to say about the  kitchen without seeing it in person. Sometimes light beige cabinets and countertops can have pink undertones, which wouldn't be a good match with orange walls. As for your daughter's room, I think Dolphin's Cove is a great color and sounds like a perfect choice to pair with her bright pink accents. The winner of our Kid's room contest last fall used a similar palette in her daughter's room. Check it out here.

Well, we keep our house set at 70 (and the thermostat is on the main level) , but the basement is around 60. Does that sound right? Or do we really have a problem?

10 degress sounds somewhat imbalanced to me. I'd look into the "sympoms" and see if they point to a "problem."

I'm surprised that your article didn't emphasize the role that humidifiers can play in making you feel more comfortable. I have a mid-sized apartment and I run three warm mist humidifiers during the winter, one in the bedroom, one in the living/dining area, and one in the den. I have no static electricity, my plants look green and happy, and I don't get colds. Even on the coldest nights, I can get the humidity up to about 40% (comfort range is in between 25% and 55%) and save on heating costs.

Thanks for this. You are so right. I could not list every idea in this article. But I did do a piece on humidifiers recently and mentioned some of those thoughts. Here it is.

You're right that solutions don't have to be really expensive. We have a 1930 home with steam radiators. We made our own reflectors to place behind the radiators (cardboard wrapped with aluminum foil) and sealed off the back door, which we never use. The door isn't permanently sealed - we just used that foam rope to put in the crack between the door and door frame. I swear that just by doing that, the room felt 5 degrees warmer.

Wow. Thanks.

I LOVE this idea. Years ago, we stayed at a very fancy hotel in London (The Park Lane Hotel--we were supposed to be at the Park Lane B&B, but there had been a mix up). Anyway, it was a really posh place (we couldn't even get off on the 5th floor because a Middle Eastern royal family was there). They had heated towel rods and underfloor heating in the bathroom, which I'd never seen. Ruined me for life for our standard-issue bathrooms.

I can see why! I would love one of these myself, although my 1937 bathroom doesn't really have a place for it. In my next life...

Matt, thanks for joining! So, I already turn my thermostat really low during the day, when I'm not home. (What's the best temp to turn it down to? I've heard below 68 degrees but the lower the better?) What other things can I be doing to reduce my impact and energy consumption this winter? And in general...I could always be greener.

Keep in mind the temp of your home while you are asleep. Most programmable t-stats have the ability to set a sleep temp. In-fact, I tend to wake up more to the furnace kicking on at 6:30 than the alarm clock!

Why is it recommended to face forks and spoons upright? I always put them downwards because otherwise you end up grabbing the eating end with your hand when pulling them out of the dishwasher.

Most experts say forks and spoons are cleaned better standing upright. People are divided about knives - I prefer to put my blades down, so I'm not stabbed unloading the dishwasher.

For homeowners who have really old furnaces and air conditioning units: it can be very cost effective to replace them. When I replaced my ancient gas furnace and central air unit ten years ago, my winter gas bill dropped by a third, and my summer electric bill was cut in half. Plus, the HVAC company that installed it, also financed it for me. A couple of years ago, I started buying a yearly service contract with this same company ($150/year which includes spring and fall checkups). On a cold Christmas morning a few years ago, my furnace stopped working, and they sent a repairman within a couple of hours, instead of a couple of days, because I had the service contract.

Very well said. Thanks for these reminders.

Neither my husband nor I are comfortable doing caulking. How can you hire someone to do it and what is a reasonable hourly rate?

In my mind, proper caulking is sort of like changing the oil in my car. I have to do it for proper maintenance, and yeah, I can do it, but a pro can usually do it much faster and better. As far as rates (just like your auto mechanic) what do you think is fair and reasonable for that service? To me; 80 to 115 bucks an hour is typical (for the pro's.)

So, are wood burning stoves green because the energy source is renewable, or bad because they pollute the neighborhood air so much?

What is, and isn't green will have a different answer every day for the rest of one's life.

As far as wood burning stoves, I'd (at least) reccommend  the ones with the catalytic converters in the exhaust. They are certainly more eff. than an open fireplace.

For the chatter with the cold basement bedroom: a couple of quick ways to narrow down the problem. Put your hands on the wall. Is it cold? Then the problem is air infiltration or lack of insulation. Next, assuming you have forced air heat: put your hand in front of the air vents when the heat is on. Is hot air coming out? If not, see if the duct is closed off someplace.


I just wanted to point out that sometimes looking for the cheap alternatives isn't always eco-friendly. For example, if you're buying a throw for $30 at Target that was made in China and shipped thousands of miles, that's not really eco-friendly (never mind the labor issues that come with producing goods so cheaply). It just shows that being a good steward of the earth's resources is really difficult!

It is difficult! Thanks for your thoughts.

I live in a townhouse built in the 1990s. I have always wondered if I should add an extra layer of insulation into the attic. I haven't looked to see how much is there, but know that builders like to put in the minimum amounts. Can I just add another layer of insulation over whatever is already there? I have heard that if the insulation has the paper side up, you can't pile anything on top of that. Is there an amount that would be too much?

As far as considering adding insulation. I highly reccommend an energy audit first. Most of us home owners tend to jump to the island of conclusions before we properly understand the problems and their subsequent "symptoms". The money for an audit is very worth it, esp. for the education you will glean from it.

By the way, I'm working on an upcoming story about getting organized for the new year and I'm looking for solutions from readers to include in the story. Please send me your best organizing tips at  (Be sure to include your name, where you live and your contact info.) Thanks! 

Really enjoyed today's column on winter heating! I'm interested in getting a space heater or two, but I have children. I know you say that they have been upgraded to higher safety standards, but I'm a nervous mom. Are they really safe options for families?

Thanks that is a great question. Here is a useful link from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers on portable electric heater safety tips.

I think this may qualify as a "stupid question"; however, I really want to get a gas fireplace installed in my living room. I already have a wood burning FP in my family room but the living room area has 2-story ceiling and has a "cold" feeling to it in the winter. I think a gas FP would warm it up and perhaps help me keep the thermastat down. What do you think about this idea?

Gas FP's are great aesthetic solutions to solving part of a problem. The short answer is: yes. A gas FP will likely warm up the space, but you will also inherit a larger gas bill which is not being offset, since you are replacing your wood fp (unless you pay a whole lot  for your wood).

I love my Biederlack Blankets. I know they sell at Bon Ton. They are not too expensive and are super durable, machine washable, and nearly child proof. Come in a million patterns and colors.

Great. Thanks for this suggestion.

What's the most efficient way to program my thermostat? Thankfully it's just two of us in the house and we are both on the same schedule, 9-5 jobs.

First, both of you must learn how to use it.

Second, write down times you know you are out, and asleep every day.

Third, set the work day times: 60-65 degrees is probably fine. Night times: try 65 -68. You may want to adjust this.

Don't forget about weekends. A lot of newer t-stats have a "vacation" button, too. It's worth using that.

My friend lives in Ireland where utilities are really expensive. I visited last November and it was so cold in her house you could see your breath. Anyway, in Europe they commonly fill those hot water bottles at night and put them in the bed before going to sleep. I'd just put it under the covers a half hour before going to bed. It makes it SO warm and the bottle stays warm all night long. Much cheaper than the electric mattress pad... and more engery efficient!

Wow. What a fabulous selection of hot water bottles and covers. A great hostess gift in the winter months. Thanks.

We put our forks in upright or else the tines fall though the bottom of the basket and interfere with the bottom spray arm. Seems easier to unload with forks and spoons upright, knives down -- easier to grab like-items for transfer to the drawer.

You are right.

You might be able to get a free one from your local utility company. Our gas company offered it because our bill is higher than the average household (we have a 2,200 sq foot 1929 home). The guy seemed to have some good ideas - which did not include ripping out our beautiful old windows!


I generally load my knives upright in the same utensil compartment in the dishwasher, then mix up the forks and spoons in the other compartments so they don't "spoon" together. This way the knives are cleaner and I know exactly where they are before I reach into the area so I'm less likely to stab myself with them.

Stab-free living tip.

We have owned our home for several years, but were not particularly diligent about maintenance nor did we know much about the infrastructure of the house. Now that we are a a few years older and much more aware, we're learning how important both of those things are. While repairing some damaged drywall, we noticed that there is very little between us and the great outdoors. Starting from the inside, there is: Drywall Insulation and Green styrofoam-like material Vinyl siding. My husband joked that he could break into our house using a box cutter. Our home was built in 1952, was renovated in 1993 and we bought it in 1996. We assume the styrofoam was introduced during the renovation. Is this how houses are built now?? Or do we need to address it in some way? Many thanks, Pam.

Hi Pam,

I guess it really depends on what you are wanting to achieve. "Comfort" is a relative thing, and if you are comfortable, there may not be much you need to do to achieve that. (Fwiw, I just found similar foam board behind the vinyl siding on the outside of my early 60's home.) Most homes now use specific types of wood sheathing, or may even use structural insulated sheathing. Problem with the old foam sheathing in it's structural stability more than it's increased r-value.

I have a long list of little things that I need to get done around the house. I'm sure some would help to keep my house warm. Is there one company to call to do small home repairs?

Sure. is a good start!




I am thinking of installing silk panels on either side of a bay window (not a walk in bay window) in my dining room, just to give the room a more finished look (the window looks out onto forest so no need for privacy). My room is Willamsburg traditional and my ceilings are only 8 feet tall. Should the curtains go to the ceiling, and should they just skim the floor or puddle onto the floor. Thanks for your help.

Hang them high and skim the floor.

I live in a 110-year old farmhouse with all of the windows facing south. So the house really warms up during the day, and I keep the heat at 60, because I am not home. I also lived in the UK, where we had no central heating, so am used to cold and damp. Before I go to bed, I make up a hot water bottle and stick it at the foot of the bed, under the duvet, so when I get in bed, the area where my feet are is nice and toasty.

Another vote for hot water bottles.

For the person with the cold basement: she might want to check the furnace dampers. They are adjustable, and often are set to get maximum warmth to the living areas of the house and less to the basement. If she wants her whole house the same temperature, I would start there first, as a very simple fix.


Hi! What are some ways that we can be environmentally friendly during the winter months? Our hurdle is that we live in an old apartment building that is, well, not so green. Everything from the toilet plumbing to the heating system is loud and overdone. We're starting to feel like bad people!

Please don't feel "bad" :(

Everything has it's own "shade" of green. You should likely get together with your parter and decide what your priorities are: both short term and long term. There is only so much one can do in a rented apartment. Low-flow showerheads might be a good start. But first, create a "wish list".

Thanks all of you for the great questions. And thanks to Matt for joining us with lots of good ideas for keeping warm this winter and other house tips. Hope you all have a good week and please join us again next week.  Again, Terri is looking for organizing tips for a story she is doing. Send your best ideas, no idea is too small, to

Hi Matt, can you suggest a company that does energy audits in the area? Thanks!

I've recently been using a bunch. They do some pretty decent audits. One thing about audits: they are slanted toward the energy efficient side of improvement (duh!) What this means is they will offer reccommendations based upon economical payoff. So replacing windows comes out toward the bottom of the list. Some items on their list may have more "personal" value to you, so don't feel guilty if you see a difference in your values vs. theirs. I'd be happy to be a "translator" for you if you were ever interested.

Our old water heater is about to go and I'm interested in going tankless, but the up front cost is tough to swallow. Is there a rule of thumb for payback on these units? Any hints?

I've put in several, but they may only save $$ for small househols where there is less draw during the day...


Heat pump hw heater is a good option nowadays.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Terri Sapienza
Terri Sapienza is a staff writer for The Washington Post's Local Living section.
Matt Dirksen
Matt Dirksen developed a passion for architecture and the outdoors at a very young age. In the late 1990's, after many years in residential design and commercial construction, he got a master's degree from the San Francisco Institute of Architecture with an emphasis on ecological design. He returned to the Washington area in 2001 to work as an architect at A.R. Meyers, Inc., and in the fall of 2003, joined the Case Design team. Dirksen lives in Greenbelt with his wife and three children and is featured in this week's Local Living cover story about eco-friendly ways to stay warm this winter.
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