Take It From Me: Green Remodeling Advice

Sage advice from architects, builders and homeowners about ecological remodeling.


Architect Rick Harlan Schneider, owner of Inscape Studio, and his wife, Julie, did a green renovation on their Washington, D.C., townhome—built in 1929—that included enclosing the back porch and making it into a sunroom. They used the U.S. Green Building Council’s national standards for energy use, materials, and water as guidelines.

Photo by Dan Redmond

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Remodeling your home may be one of the most satisfying things you ever do—and one of the most challenging. If you add the “green” element to the project, both the joys and frustrations can be intensified. Fortunately, you can learn from those who’ve gone before, minimizing your trials and maximizing the pleasures.

Why should I consider eco-remodeling in the first place?

“We wanted to honor the roots of our traditional 1909 house while integrating it with the lifestyle and technology of today—in the greenest way that’s affordable. We spent half our home-purchase budget on the renovation because it was a mess and nobody had lived in it for years. However, we found remodeling easier than new construction because we weren’t working with a blank slate. We could look beyond the bad paneling, crummy carpet, and cheap fixtures, and see that the basic bones of the house were pretty good.”

homeowner Charles Kingsley, Portland, Oregon

How is eco-remodeling different?

“Ecological remodeling requires forethought. Sourcing most green materials takes longer than just going down to the local building-supply store.

You need to be really clear about what your goals are. If you clarify your priorities at the outset, it will be easier to make good decisions in a timely manner.”

architect Kelly Lerner (see “From Ugly Duckling to Sustainable Swan")

Where should I begin?

“The difference between a green remodel and a conventional remodel starts from the get-go. It’s crucial to look at the energy picture of the entire house, not just an addition or some new finish materials. When I was a builder, we always preferred to improve the energy efficiency of the existing home, not just whatever addition we were building. We were usually able to add to a house without having to increase the size of the heating and cooling equipment. The cost of energy-efficiency upgrades was usually covered by not having to buy a new furnace or air conditioner.”

David Johnston, green building educator and author of Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time (New Society, 2004)

Does it matter whom I hire to do the work?

“As early as possible, bring a designer and a contractor into your project who are experienced with green building. If you have to drag your designer or your builder through an unfamiliar process, you’ve got guaranteed problems. A builder who doesn’t take your environmental goals seriously is likely to do the same old things in familiar ways. Furthermore, a resistant contractor is more likely to inflate the bid to cover unknowns.”

Mike O’Brien, green building specialist for the Office of Sustainable Development, Portland, Oregon

How can I keep costs down?

“It’s important to figure out your budget and estimate construction costs early on. If something is going to cost more, you’ll know that early and accommodate it in your decision-making process. What you want to avoid is last-minute changes; they’re expensive, and you may have to substitute something you didn’t really want. That’s doubly disappointing.”

Mike O’Brien, green-building specialist

“If the owner, the contractor, and I are all talking about green building from day one, I can come up with a design that works with their budget and meets their goals. Problems and cost overruns result from bringing in ecological values so late in the game that I end up just trying to exchange a green thing for a non-green thing. That’s not the way to keep the cost down and have the parts of the house working together.”

architect Rick Harlan Schneider, Inscape Studio, Washington, D.C.

Are there any dangers involved?

“If no one’s been in the attic for thirty years and a contractor goes up there and moves things around, it can kick up dust, rodent feces, and mold. In a worst-case scenario, somebody in the family might develop allergies, asthma, or immune-system problems. A trained contractor will wear protective gear, inspect the area, remove damaged insulation, address any mold problems, and vacuum out the attic or wall cavities. The cost of doing that is low compared with the potential damage to one’s health.”

David Johnston, green-building educator

How can I have a great relationship with my contractor?

“Be really, really clear with your builder ahead of time about your aims and requirements. If you work with a builder who isn’t experienced with ecological construction, you especially need to clearly state your expectations ahead of time about ordering unusual materials, using salvaged materials, and setting up job-site waste recycling systems. You can put your intentions in the drawings, and you can discuss them with the contractor, but you’ll also need to talk with the foreman and the workers—over and over. You have to say, ‘Don’t just go out and buy any caulk or any paint, follow these specifications; don’t use a new stud when a reclaimed one will do the job better.’ Otherwise, they’ll just do what they’ve always done.”

architect Kelly Lerner, One World Design, Spokane, Washington

“On any project there will be communication issues. And if you’re doing something out of the ordinary, such as modern design or green design, there will be even more things to coordinate and account for. It’s important to make sure the lines of communication are open. From the start, I meet with the builder and say ‘we’re going to be doing things a little differently here.’ Contractors tend to resist anything new, but I try to minimize misunderstandings.”

architect Rick Harlan Schneider

Should I use salvaged materials?

“People really like using salvaged materials because it opens the door for historic plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, old ranges, wainscoting—wonderful things that have been saved from old houses. If you’re using salvaged wood it’s a real plus, because the quality is generally better than that of new wood.”

Mike O’Brien, green building specialist

What about the materials I’m getting rid of?

“If you’re interested in maintaining the architectural style of your house, think carefully as you dismantle things about where you might want to reuse them. And stay alert for hidden opportunities. When I tore the old basement stairs out of my house, I noticed that underneath the paint the narrow treads were made of beautiful vertical-grain Douglas fir. I ran them through a planer and used them as the risers for the new staircase.”

architect Kelly Lerner

“In Georgia, it’s virtually impossible to recycle building products from remodeling projects at this time. Dump fees are low, and nobody recycles drywall, roofing, or lumber at this scale. So we donate our salvage to nonprofits whenever possible. We just gave a whole house full of cabinets and windows to a nonprofit; they pick it up for free, and we don’t have to dump it.”

contractor Carl Seville, Sawhorse Incorporated, Atlanta

Whom can I turn to for help?

“I often get the information I need by being dialed into a network of other green architects, designers, and contractors. Being involved with the local AIA Committee on the Environment and the U.S. Green Building Council has been really helpful. I can just call up a buddy and say, ‘Have you got a construction waste management group that does salvage?’ and he’ll tell me who to call.”

architect Rick Harlan Schneider

“We asked lots of people for their input. We asked builders, other homeowners, craftspeople—there’s a great community of helpful, knowledgeable people in Portland. We’ve been amazed by the power of holding an intention and being brave enough or dumb enough to talk to people about it and assume that we can do an elegant, affordable, ecological restoration. In the beginning, we had no idea how things would turn out. We didn’t know what the floor plan would look like or where the windows would come from. But we’ve found that if you get really clear about the qualities you want, something magical comes in to support you. The power of intention is unbelievable. We are continually awed and grateful.”

homeowner Charles Kingsley