Green Home Renovation and Remodeling

The term "sustainable" or “green” is bandied about these days; so what does it mean?

“... meeting the needs of people today without destroying the resources that will be needed ... by persons in the future; based on long range planning and the recognition of the finite nature of natural resources...”

Paraphrased from a United Nations Environmental Program Document

Residential green building practices include designing and constructing homes that use energy, water, and materials efficiently; have a reduced impact on their physical environment; and promote a healthy indoor environment for you, and your family.

Home remodeling can be one of the most environmentally friendly, resource-efficient actions that a homeowner can take. Home renovation offers the opportunity to reduce home energy demands, reduce home maintenance costs, and increase comfort efficiently and cost-effectively. And when compared to new construction, home remodeling tends to use materials and natural resources more efficiently.

Green Costs

“I always ask my clients if they are interested in including green solutions in their projects, they usually say, ‘Sure, if we can afford it.”  - Larry Sauer

Selecting a "green" home does not need to cost more.  In fact, it makes economic sense.  But, a green home will directly benefit you by its energy efficiency, ease on our natural resources, high level of comfort, and better value when you sell. Yes, homes can be built and remodeled using inexpensive, available designs, materials and techniques to greatly reduce environmental impact. One day, green homes may even help to heal previous environmental damage as more is learned.

Met Home magazine’s May 2008 issue references the website’s statistics on the return on Green Investment in the chart below:

Green Update Added Cost Payback Time In Years Annual Savings
Solar Panels $13,000 10.8 $1,200
Insulated Walls $750 2.5 $300
Low-E Windows $700 2.3 $300
Rainwater Collection $120 6.0 $20
Solar Lighting $375 2.1 $176
Trees $1,200 4.0 $300

Energy Efficiency in Home Remodeling

In the energy efficiency area, the options for new and existing homes are exciting and growing every day.  In fact, it is now possible, without breaking the bank, to build a new home that is virtually energy neutral.  Here are a few highlights that apply to either new or existing homes.

Every home has appliances that need to be replaced every 8 - 15 years, and energy-saving, Energy Star appliances are a no brainer and sold in every appliance store

As an easy first step, homeowners can consider making all of their future light bulbs compact fluorescents, even for recessed lights.  While compact fluorescents are about three times more expensive than incandescents, over the life of the bulb, they save 10 to 12 times the cost.  Over a 10,000 hour bulb life, this translates to about $75 per bulb!  The next wave of energy efficient lights will be the (still expensive) LED lights, which should come down in price over the next several years.

Other great energy efficient options we have used in recent home remodeling projects include light tubes to focus and concentrate natural light (these provide dramatic illumination, even on a cloudy day), on-demand hot water (a money-saving European staple for 60 years) and the revolutionary new closed-cell spray polyurethane foam (called Icynene) which creates an actual seal for your home. 

The Environment

When it comes to the environmental advantage of green building, trees and fossil fuels figure large.   A green architect can use new framing designs to dramatically decrease the amount of framing materials used in new construction and additions (this conforms to most local codes).  In addition, new prefabricated wall systems called SIPS can maintain structural integrity while saving trees.

Secondly, proper siting and design can maximize natural light and cut down on heating and cooling.  In practice, this means concentrating the windows on the south side of the house where trees will provide shade, and minimizing windows on the east and particularly west side of the house, where you get the most heat gain (because of the angle of the sun, trees can't provide shade). 

Other options include:

Home Remodeling Health Issues

Indoor air quality is greatly affected by products in our homes that emit VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) which scientists have determined contribute to allergies, asthma and other respiratory and autoimmune diseases and possibly cancer. 

VOCs are emitted by paints, glues used in carpets and tiles; plywood used for subfloors, sheathing, cabinetry, millwork and shelving; calking; plastics in some plumbing pipes and other building materials. 

Today, non-emitting alternatives to all of these building materials are available and they are becoming more widely used by green builders and specified by green architects.  (See end of the article for helpful links). 

Those of us who don't plan on building a new home anytime soon can use low-VOC materials for remodeling, maintenance and repairs to improve the health of our homes, one room at a time.  Because of the growing green trend, it is now even possible to purchase green materials at home improvement and hardware stores, and the selection should continue to improve. 

In conclusion, any home can be designed, constructed, remodeled, or renovated -- even demolished -- in ways that have much less impact on the Earth's environment. Even if you demolish an older structure, there are ways to minimize environmental impacts and reuse or recycle the old building components and materials wisely. Green building techniques concern the whole life-cycle of a building.

For local sources of green materials, you can search online for any of the ideas from the bulleted list above, or check out the following links:

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Architectural services for additions, renovations, and new homes in the Washington, DC. Metro area.