You could call it an "Extreme Makeover: Energy-Efficient Edition."

In Arlington, Mass., Alex Cheimets and Cynthia Page live in a duplex that used to consume about 1,400 gallons of heating oil a year. Now their building will soon be one of the most energy-efficient in its New England neighborhood, thanks to a pilot project that retrofitted the structure with almost $100,000 worth of insulation and other products to increase energy efficiency and decrease utility costs.

The so-called Massachusetts Super Insulation Project seeks to determine the benefits and cost effectiveness of retrofitting old energy-wasting houses with insulation upgrades in key areas. Though the cost for the upgrades in the home were substantial, some of the techniques used—such as proper air-sealing and adequate moisture barriers—could easily be applied to new construction and for not much more money.

Massachusetts officials are keenly interested in the results of the project, which dovetails with the state’s efforts to become more energy-efficient. “Our governor, the state House and Senate, and the executive branch are aware that the nation’s energy strategy is not acceptable, and a big part of it is the existing housing stock,” says Philip Giudice, commissioner of the state's Department of Energy Resources.

Nationally, buildings account for 40 percent of all energy consumption and one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions,” says Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles, who chairs Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s Zero Net Energy Buildings Task Force. “This super-insulation project in Arlington promises to be a model for the type of innovation in the building industry that the Patrick administration hopes will soon be widespread across Massachusetts.”

The public/private effort includes the state Department of Energy Resources, the local utility NStar Electric & Gas, and a number of building product sponsors.

Bowles is right, of course. As green building practices spread through the new construction market, America’s existing housing stock remains an energy-use problem. Millions of these old structures lose large amounts of energy through leaky windows, inefficient heating and cooling units, and poorly insulated walls, all of which contribute to higher-than-necessary utility bills. The 3,200-square-foot Cheimets/Page building—divided into one condo for Cheimets and his family and one for Page—was one of these structures.

At one point when home heating oil in the Massachusetts area hit $4.69 a gallon, Cheimets says, the homeowners were paying a combined total of almost $6,500 a year for heating and hot water. “We needed to replace our siding and our roof soon anyway,” Cheimets says. “As a duplex, we could simply do the minimum or we could invest now to save later. Super-insulation was the better financial investment."

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Boston, MA.