When Matt Shmigelsky found the foreclosure sale up the Crystal in 2014, the property was in rough shape. The previous owner — a real-life junkyard owner — had left his calling cards all over the three-acre lot. “RVs, trash, a lot to clean up,” said Matt. But beneath the debris, he could sense potential on this rare piece of accessibly priced raw land where he could park the low-carbon tiny home he had just built with the support of CORE rebates.
Among the castaways on the parcel were an energy-sucking modular home and a Quonset hut with a “Swiss cheese” roof and bolts that had failed over its four-plus decades. At best, the Quonset could serve as a shed — and a leaky one at that.
The less hardy might have called in a landfill hauler to scrape the site and been done with it. But Matt, owner of Arcos Mobility, an electric-vehicle charging company that develops turnkey infrastructure solutions, is guided by a core belief that by using resources wisely it’s possible to live sustainably on a budget, even in Pitkin County. And that starts with working with what you’ve got, rather than accepting the tear-down mentality so pervasive in our valley and beyond.
Fast forward five years and Matt found a vision for the Quonset in an unexpected location. On a river trip in Cataract Canyon he met Claire Wright, owner of Cosecha Textiles, an upholstery start-up in San Juan Island, WA. Like him, she had been invited by mutual friends to join the flotilla. Sparks flew between the two entrepreneurs who shared a propensity for the reclaim-and-renew mentality (at the heart of re-upholstery) and within two months they were engaged. This year, Claire moved to Carbondale — and, you might say, to the Quonset hut.
When the two met, Matt was mostly complete on a retrofit on the modular that could be a blueprint for CORE’s Path to Zero strategy. By removing the propane furnace, replacing it with an all-electric heat pump, insulating the roof (bumping it to an R-value of 60 from about 20), converting a gas water heater to electric, and putting eight kilowatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) on the roof that offset 80% of the entire property’s electricity usage, he had done a 180 on the energy performance and carbon footprint of the space. (Note: Matt’s energy-saving work earned him $6,000 in CORE rebates, adding to the nearly $1,500 he received for the energy-efficient design of his tiny home.)
With Claire’s arrival on the scene, he now had a creative purpose for the Quonset. Afterall, he had lured her west with the promise of “a studio 30 feet from your front door.”
So the pair set about on Matt’s third sustainable build, this time together. The goal was to shore up the Quonset’s failing roof; insulate the space for warmth, comfort and efficiency; and build an inner box within the inverted-U shape structure that would be a studio for Claire’s business with a loft for Matt’s office on top.
This was no small task. Replacing the bolts alone — all 3,600 of them, by hand — took some 10 weeks in a summer of nearly 100° temps. Then came cutting down polystyrene foam which Matt had salvaged over the years, into 3” thick slabs for the floor. Again, the pair got creative: rigging up a DIY cutting system that enabled them to resize the foraged foam, which, if new, would have cost them $40 a sheet. By being resourceful, they could save money and the environment.
After the subfloor went in, the structure got spray foam on the interior roof and end walls, while the studio box was treated with fiberglass and drywall. The end result was almost continuous insulation in the 30’ x 40’ x 16’ form. When the results came back from the blower-door test, their efforts had reduced drafts by 59%, a stunning improvement.
The ability to tackle three net-zero builds on a maker’s budget in six years — just down the road from Carbondale, where the average house of a home was recently announced at $1.3M — is the product of not only creativity and grit, but also of community. Friends and family — including one key carpenter/neighbor — are swinging hammers and providing construction materials as wedding presents (toward the couple’s COVID-postponed 2021 wedding). And CORE stepped in with a third rebate. For the Quonset, Claire and Matt’s work on air sealing and insulation got them $2,500, which sheared 25% off their project costs.
“We’re grateful that CORE exists,” says Claire. “The rebate we got has made it possible for us to complete the project — and not just for us, but for the community too.”
Amidst their dream of self-sustainability, is a vision for creating a communal space for workshops, gatherings and meals. The community table is already in; heat pumps and more PV are on the drawing boards. The dream is to create a 100% net-zero property, for the whole kit and kaboodle: residence, tiny-home guest house, business, and electric vehicle.
“We want to demystify the feeling that it’s unattainable to be able to make sustainable choices,” says textile professional Claire, “and [we want to] weave it into the community.”