Sustainable mission: Northampton man dives full on into home renovation project to showcase sustainability

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  • Rick Colson installs a windowsill on the first floor of a Northampton house he’s renovating. The flooring in this room, as well as on the entire second floor, is Douglas fir reclaimed from a razed motel in Bernardston. The door is one of several reclaimed or resourced items procured from the EcoBuilding Bargains store in Springfield, or through the Center for EcoTechnology in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • One of two high-efficiency heat pumps at the Northampton house. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • In addition to the high pressure dense pack cellulose behind the interior walls, inside the house's exterior are two inches of Gutex Multitherm wood fiber insulation. Photographed at 7 Rust Avenue in Northampton on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The kitchen and living room are floored with a hodge podge of surplus maple tongue-and-groove pieces that an installer had left from previous jobs. The floor will be sanded to remove the different colors. Photographed on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Colson reclaimed enough Douglas fir flooring from a razed motel in Bernardston to cover the entire second floor of the house he’s renovating. Left, the floor before it was sanded; right, the same section of flooring after it was sanded. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING


  • Rick Colson added a second story to the 1,000-square-foot home he’s been renovating on Rust Avenue in Northampton with a goal of maximum sustainability — employing solar panels, high-efficiency heat pumps and a host of reclaimed building materials. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This is the unfinished second floor bathroom with a shower and tub. Colson is furnishing the Northampton house using a mix of reclaimed and new-but-unused fixtures. Photographed on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A moisture permeable membrane, the white mesh grid at right, can be seen through a rough opening in the ceiling of the second floor. Photographed on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rick Colson stands in the master bedroom of a house he’s sustainably renovating on Rust Avenue in Northampton. The room features a reclaimed solid wood door and reclaimed Douglas fir flooring, and is heated by a high-efficiency minisplit (above). STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/5/2021 10:48:35 AM

Rick Colson’s life took an unexpected twist more than a decade ago when he left a long career as a businessman to care for his ailing wife.

When she died from an environmentally related cancer in 2010, Colson embraced sustainability. He launched a sustainable photo lab business and later explored sustainability in the building trades.

Then last fall, while he was looking for a new project to showcase sustainable ways to build, the Northampton resident noticed a house for sale near his home.

He bought the 1,000-square-foot home at 7 Rust Ave. and embarked on a mission: “My primary goal was to produce the most sustainable possible rehab and let people know what’s possible,” he said.

Colson, the developer and project manager, started a renovation last fall and hopes to finish this spring.

The home was heated by oil and now has solar panels and heat pump systems. He also added layers of insulation and added a second floor to the house, making it around 1,600 square feet.

There may be a small electric bill, but “ultimately, hopefully, there will be no net energy consumption by the house,” Colson said.

Some materials, including doors and two bathtubs, came from EcoBuilding Bargains, a Springfield store that sells used and surplus building materials and is run by the Center for EcoTechnology, based in Florence.

“We also have, on the second floor, 150-year-old Douglas fir floors,” Colson said. “Those were taken from a hotel that was torn down in Bernardston, Massachusetts.”

Mark Newey, senior building scientist at the Center for EcoTechnology, will be doing an energy rating of the house, which will be used to secure financial incentives through the Mass Save program.

“He’s doing several things that are very uncommon,” Newey said. “One of them is putting minerals on the outside of the house before putting siding on, which creates a layer of continuous insulation like a blanket.”

Colson opted for the mineral wool insulation rather than foam board insulation, Newey sad. Foam board insulation, he said, can “potentially save greenhouse gas emissions over time by saving energy, but you take a hit when you first manufacture it. It’s not as big a win as it should be,” he explained.

On renovating a home rather than demolishing it, Newey said, “I think that’s really a great move from an environmental standpoint. A lot of energy and materials went into that original home — if you can keep using those materials ... it really reduced the overall impact on the environment a lot.”

Colson, in his late 60s, worked in business for most of his career. Then, in 2007, his wife was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. “She grew up with this massive exposure to DDT and as a result developed breast cancer,” he said. Studies have linked DDT, a pesticide, with breast and other cancers.

He left work to become her primary caregiver, and she died in 2010.

Colson was a hobbyist photographer and had worked in the business side for Polaroid, but after his wife’s battle with cancer, he didn’t want to go into a darkroom. “I just couldn’t do anything that was toxic,” he said.

He started Eco Visual Lab, a printing business that focuses on sustainability and doesn’t use volatile organic compounds.

“I still run that business, but over the years, became interested in building and construction as well,” he said.

He remarried and moved to western Massachusetts about five years ago.

“I came across this house around the corner. I was looking for a project,” he said.

Previously, he built a home in Wayland and rehabbed a home in Watertown, complete with solar panels. But, he said, “this was the first project that I did that the purpose of this was to do it in as a sustainable way as possible.”

When it’s done, he’s hoping to sell the house and at least break even on the project. “It’s very unlikely that any builder who was interested in this for profit would build something this way,” he said.

When asked how much he put into the house, he said, “I’m not sure I want to go there, but many hundreds of thousands of dollars. This was not an inexpensive rehab.” He bought the house for $135,000, according to property records, and Colson plans to sell it for around $400,000.

Colson wants to take what he’s learned and turn it into a business, Eco Visual LLC, that would provide people “a much more affordable way of obtaining sustainable information and sourcing sustainable materials.”

“My goal is to create a sustainable consulting business that can serve consumers, small builders, architects, and small businesses,” he said.

 Greta Jochem can be reached at
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