The Chutes & Ladders House

They were passionate about old houses and the importance of being green, but when Clint and Kelly Clemens bought Hose 8, they had no idea what they were getting into.

It was supposed to be a straightforward home renovation, a chance for the couple to spruce up a triplex and convert it into a single family home.

But before darkness fell on their first night at Redwoods Hose Station 8, Clint and Kelly Clemens realized that the road to restoration wouldn’t be easy. At all.

The Newport couple spent $1 million for the nineteenth-century brick structure that dominated its 3,700-square-foot lot. They planned to live in it a few months, even without a functioning kitchen, before they did an overhaul. They moved in on a dreary May day. That night it rained. “Water poured down the interior walls,” Kelly says. “It should have been a clue for us. Run!”

Caught off guard, the Clemenses began to sketch remodeling plans that week. That was 2006. They didn’t know the renovation would become a rebuild; that it would take on epic proportions. They didn’t know their home would become a model of sustainable, green building and energy efficiency. And they didn’t know it would take three years before they could move back in.

Clint and Kelly have been married for nineteen years. They are well known among friends for their love of unique houses. Their first residence was an 800-square-foot converted chicken coop at the former home of John Quincy Adams, Red Rail Farm, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. “We had to walk through the barn and paddock to get to the chicken coop,” Kelly says. “We must have been crazy in love or just crazy.”

For more than ten years they lived on a bluff near Fogland Beach in Tiverton, in a house they had built that was modeled after a lighthouse. For them, living in architecturally unique houses had become common. So when Hose 8, which dates back to 1887, appeared on the real estate market, they immediately pictured themselves living there.

inside the firehouse It’s March, and the three-year restoration is almost complete. The Clemenses plan to move back into their home on Prospect Hill Street this month, their vision and fortitude rewarded. The former Redwoods Station 8 served as a fire-hose-cart barn for only twenty-five years before it became an upholstery shop and then apartments, a cheek-and-jowl warren of rooms and hallways. The rebuilt Hose 8 is now a private family residence that pays homage to the lofty qualities of the original firehouse. It has become one of Newport’s first historic and luxurious green renovations with an almost entirely off-the-grid energy supply and energy-efficient design.

But the road leading the Clemens family to their green home has been taxing. To succeed, they had to cast aside visions of an easy renovation. They had to be super sensitive to the concerns of their neighbors. They needed to deal with building officials, preservationists and the historic district commission, and attend weekly meetings at Town Hall for months. And, after spending five months gutting the building and re-pointing the twelve-inch-thick exterior walls, they had to tear the house down brick by brick and start over when the building inspector decided it was unstable and had to be razed.

Hose 8 was uncommon, indeed. And, by far, it was their biggest, riskiest undertaking. Clint announces the fateful day the building was reduced to rubble. “July 17, 2007,” he says without hesitation. It rolls off his tongue, the moment he stood on scaffolding at the roofline, looked down into the interior of the brick walls, and saw hell. “The mortar was crumbling.” Before he knew it, the three-story structure with walls made of three layers of brick, a foot thick, was being dismantled.

“At the end of the day, the question is, should we have even bought a house that should have been condemned?” says Clint, shrugging his shoulders. “Well, we bought it and own it. Now it is our inspiration. I have a great deal of respect for architecture. This firehouse is a masterpiece like an oil painting of a master painter.” He wants to return the masterpiece to its glory and then some.

Clint is at once cerebral and expressive. In casual conversation he tends to be a listener, but let him venture onto a subject that truly engages him, such as green building design and sustainable energy, and he becomes Al Gore. At times, he is excited and dreamy, thinking of the future when friends and family will visit. He imagines watching Red Sox games on a large screen TV and playing pool with his sons in the game room. At other times he is rattling off figures such as the BTUs of energy his geothermal heating system provides, convincing listeners of its merits. He will run to the cellar to show you the green-tech bowels of his house. He clearly likes knowing the advantages of his uber-energy-efficient set-up, and he has obviously done his research.

Clint stretches a few inches beyond six feet. He possesses equal amounts of leonine self-assurance and laid-back aplomb. He has broad shoulders, and in his flip flops and khaki cargo pants, shaggy hair flopping in the breeze, he has the casual confidence of a surfer hoofing it to the beach with his board. As a boy, his family never owned a house. His father was a Methodist minister and home was the parsonage du jour. He eventually moved to Rhode Island, where his father headed up Mathewson Street United Methodist church.

Today, his office is the world: an ocean, the grounds of a Newport mansion, or a plaza in Spain. In these places he works as a director of commercial photography for print and film. His clients range from Mercedes and Land Rover to Prada and Mount Gay Rum. His other office, a home set-up, is a paperless affair. On a digital screen he edits his creations, sharing his work with his clients via the Internet in a virtual world.

If one word could describe Clint it is speed. He’s constantly moving. When he’s not biking, he’s boating. When he’s not flying to distant lands for work, he’s windsurfing. When he’s not photographing the newest prototype sports car, he’s creating films of cars moving lightning fast with his proprietary, computer-generated imagery. And when he’s not doing anything special, he’s hatching his next plan.

Kelly is the serene and structured one in the partnership. She’ll tell you that Clint’s feverish pace in work and life is astonishing. “I think our marriage works because I know how to hold on and go along for the ride,” she says, laughing. She is petite, with a halo of blond hair, but her size belies her power. She commands a room. She has worked as a producer for print and film production, which is how she met Clint. She is a mother and an artist, and in her free time volunteers at a group home of Child and Family Services of Newport County. She laughs a lot and often at herself.

With Clint and Kelly’s shared passion for artistic ventures achieved at a quick pace, as any commercial production requires, both admit the strain of this renovation-tested eternal optimism. The Hose 8 project began as a simple home renovation where they hoped to welcome extended family from far-flung places to enjoy all that Newport offers. It turned out to be an exercise in fortitude.

It was a warm evening in late summer of 2006 when Sam, Clint’s son from a previous marriage, posed an ethical question to his father. The two were walking home from seeing An Inconvenient Truth at the Jane Pickens Theater. As they crossed over the threshold of old Hose 8, still in its pre-renovated state, they debated Gore’s message in the movie: “I don’t really consider this a political issue; I consider it to be a moral issue.” That’s when Sam challenged his father: What are you and your generation going to do about carbon emissions and the energy crisis?

The ensuing conversation awakened Clint’s eco-conscience and set him and Kelly on a path to a sustainable renovation. They hadn’t yet hired the architect, but Clint’s research turned up an attractive energy solution: homegrown, clean energy from geothermal heating and cooling.

Using heat from down in the earth, deep geothermal is not new. Literally, geo refers to Earth and thermal means heat. It has been used in commercial and residential buildings dating back to World War II. Water is pumped down into the hot rock and then brought to the surface to generate heat. About 5 percent of United States power consumption could come from geo-thermal by 2050, according to government estimates. Today there has been a resurgence in ground-source heating and cooling technology as sustainable energy comes back into focus.

From the start, Clint and Kelly were sold on the pollution-free side benefit of geo-thermal energy. It produces no emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that causes climate change. Geothermal energy is available year round, day or night. They laid down $32,000 for their geothermal system. It is more expensive than a traditional furnace, but the cost was worth it, Clint says. “It is our moral responsibility to do this,” he adds. “Over the last eight years, our future was sold to oil companies. In my book, that is high treason. You can stick your head in the sand, but we have to do something.” And so he did. Big time.

They hired a local company to drill 800 feet below their home — about three times the height of the Newport Bridge — to access hot water and install a network of pipes six feet underground, where the temperature is a constant fifty-five degrees. The pipes are attached to a heat exchanger that sends hot air into the home in winter and cool air in summer. The system will last at least thirty years, and the payback period is about eight years.

The installation of the geothermal system was like drilling for oil. For two and a half days, metal rammed the earth, boring down to reach water. “I owe a thousand apologies to my neighbors. It was really noisy. Really, really noisy,” says Clint. Finally, a geyser shot from the ground at 150 gallons per minute. “We were happy to see the water. It was shooting everywhere, and we realized it works!”

At the crown of Hose 8 are solar panels that primarily heat the home’s water. In summer, when long days of sunshine supply additional energy to the system (you can’t turn solar panels off), the solar energy will heat the basement and stave off mold and condensation. Propane tanks outside provide fuel for the kitchen stove. And wind power purchased from a Rhode Island nonprofit energy consumer’s alliance, People’s Power and Light, supplies the balance of electricity needs.

David Hacin is the mastermind of Hose 8. The Boston architect has successfully fused preservationist sensibilities with modern design. Hacin, principal of Hacin and Associates, was originally hired to remodel the house, but it soon became clear that the structure needed to be taken down. The mortar barely adhered to the bricks. “The only thing keeping the bricks in place was gravity,” he says.

Tink. Tink. Tink. Tink. When workers dismantled the house, brick by brick, masonry tools clinked as they chipped away at mortar. Buckets full of bricks were lowered to the ground; 25,000 in all, each one carefully cleaned and numbered. It took three months. Hacin drove to the site from Boston, parked his car, and walked up Prospect Hill. As Kelly remembers it, his mouth was wide open. He was grabbing his head, holding his palms against his skull as if his lid was about to burst. He had anticipated destruction but he could not believe the void.

“When you see a hole in the ground and a pile of bricks, there is anxiety that the craftsmen might not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But they did. I think the building looks better than ever,” he says. Rehabbing a building is in itself green building, he adds. Additionally, the structure meets hurricane and earthquake codes. “It has the sustainability, efficiency and modern conveniences of a new home that would have been impossible in renovating the existing building.”

The home’s new interior has a modern touch yet harkens back to the days when the firehouse was an open, Spartan space, with the horse-drawn cart housed in the first floor and hay stored on the second. Hacin says that Clint and Kelly have successfully rehabilitated Hose 8 to rekindle the light, lofty spirit of the firehouse.

Clint Clemens in front of the new windowsPerhaps more important than the details of the home’s tree-hugger qualities is its sustainable design. The interior is laid out in a way that makes the best use of the space but allows room configurations to change over time. “It is designed for a lifetime of multiple uses,” says Hacin. An elevator is installed to accommodate the Clemenses as they age. A bedroom could become a home office or a living room. The lower level could serve as a rental if the pair decides three floors is too much space.

Hacin has been lauded for his knack for residential design that pays homage to preservation while taking a modernist approach. Hose 8 is yet another example of his work. Enter the first floor and your eyes are drawn to the room’s broad interior. It has the feel of a publishing house, with broad bead-board wainscoting, wide hallways, and a grand staircase climbing to the second floor and the kitchen and living room.

Close the thick mahogany doors and what do you hear? Nothing. Twelve inches of insulation from recycled newspaper fill the walls. “It’s so quiet here, it’s like you have pillows over your ears,” says Clint. Also absent is the hum of a furnace.

Because of its fun features, the first floor is affectionately called the club floor. There are plans for a pool table in the main room, where a fire pole is installed in one corner. The twenty-four-foot length of brass was reclaimed from a former Maryland firehouse and it’s a novel way to get from the second to the first floor, especially for Clint and Kelly’s seventeen-year-old son, Tripp. In a lounge area, a print of one of Clint’s favorite photographs hides a TV. His office is in the rear of the house, with an area that doubles as a guest room.

The main living area and the expansive kitchen take up part of the second floor. Finished with Carrera marble and dove gray walls, the kitchen is functional but also a study in beauty. Dark-stained sustainable wood covers the floors, which are fitted with a radiant heating system.

If the greenest kilowatt is one that isn’t consumed, then the greenest decor is one that isn’t purchased. Such is the mantra of Kelly and Clint; furnishings throughout the house are minimalist. For instance, a settee is built into the kitchen area, eliminating the need for chairs and tables. Televisions are recessed into the walls. “I love the just-been-robbed look,” says Kelly, laughing. “Good thing, because we don’t have any money left for furniture.”

Beyond the kitchen, to the rear of the house, is a bedroom and bathroom. Overlooking Prospect Hill on the south side of the house on the second floor are two open rooms: a living room and Kelly’s office, also called the “control room.” A half wall allows sunlight to pass through directly into the kitchen, reducing the need for artificial lighting.

On the top floor, French doors to a deck frame a view of the steeple of Channing Memorial Church. Wood shutters form a wall to the master bedroom. The panels open or close, depending on privacy needs or airflow. The master bedroom suite comprises the entire third floor. A king-size bed sits on top of a platform made from sustainable wood. The floor also contains a full bathroom and freestanding bathtub.

If Hose 8 has the feel of a luxury inn or a public building in New York City, it is no accident. Kelly took note of the robust interiors of everywhere she has traveled in the past two years, recording details of restaurants, stores, museums, hotels and even a spa. She realized that moldings and other architectural features of residential spaces would seem miniscule when incorporated into the firm firehouse structure.

Kelly likes games and it is no surprise that she has another term for Hose 8: the “Chutes and Ladders house,” she says. “There’s an elevator up, a pole down, stairs up.” But the configuration is perfect for this fast-moving pair. “How we live, we’re always coming and going, packing up things to go boating, going bicycling and then working at home. We like to be together. When we have a lot of people, we can retreat. We like privacy, too.”

The passage of time sharpened Clint and Kelly’s understanding of what they really needed and wanted for Hose 8. Their passion for restoration lives on in the firehouse they now call home.