Can This Home Be Greened? Big Problems, Small Budget

Even an eco-savvy homeowner can use help fixing whole-house problems such as poor insulation and room design.


This four-bedroom, three-bath Monterey house is being remodeled in stages, as budget allows. Phase One, done in 2003, involved creating higher curbs and the yellow retaining wall to keep stormwater from washing off the street into the yard and driveway.

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Healthy living isn’t just a passion for Belinda Icenhower—it’s her profession. As a naturopathic doctor, Belinda specializes in environmental medicine, so in 2003 when she bought a 2,300-square-foot home in a charming old neighborhood in Monterey, California, she recognized its flaws: old carpet, dark rooms and inefficient heating. However, the house’s location and coveted Monterey Bay views were irresistible to her and her two sons. She set about remodeling in stages, as her budget allowed.

Phase One—correcting poor drainage on the property and redesigning the landscaping—went well. Then Belinda contacted Natural Home because she wanted someone with green expertise to reinforce her decisions as she dove into Phases Two and Three of her remodel.

Belinda wants to use sustainable, healthy concepts, but her budget ($100,000—small in this wealthy area) was unattractive to most contractors. So she became her own general contractor. It took significant time to juggle work and family while also researching, planning and overseeing the project’s subcontractors—but she got the results she wanted.

Phase One: 2003

Solve the Drainage Issues

Problem: Upon moving in, Belinda discovered that stormwater from the street washed into the front yard and driveway, causing water to leach through the soil and into the crawlspace, downstairs bedroom and garage.

Solutions: Belinda’s contractor installed a paver sidewalk with a street curb that directs water down the road to the storm drain. He also built a concrete retaining wall in the front yard, a water-permeable paver driveway, a driveway drain and a French drain (essentially a complex ditch filled with gravel and rock that redirects surface water away from the house) around the entire home’s perimeter.

The work stopped the water damage, allowing the downstairs to become a family rec room and the garage to serve as the boys’ game room.

Cost: Pavers: $10 per square foot. French drains: $10,000.

Phase Two: 2006

1. Win the Cold War

Problem: The home was chilly, with little heat coming out of the forced-air furnace. A bank of bay-view windows—and other poorly insulated windows and doors throughout the house—contributed to heat loss.

Solutions: Belinda removed the old heating system and cheap, flexible ductwork, some of which was disconnected or ripped. She replaced the open, wood-burning fireplace—which lost more heat than it contributed—with a sealed- combustion gas fireplace that heats the kitchen and living room.

Belinda replaced the floor-to-ceiling, aluminum-clad windows with custom French doors and three-quarter windows made with high-performance glass and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)–certified wood. The insulated windows retain the ocean view but create a warmer, more private living area.

Throughout the house, a local sustainable company installed high-         efficiency windows and exterior doors.

Under the floors in the crawlspace,  Belinda added formaldehyde-free fiberglass insulation to help keep the bedrooms and bathroom warmer. She also intends to install a radiator (powered by a water heater or small boiler) in each room.

Cost: Fireplace and radiators: $6,500. Eleven large windows and four exterior doors: $13,000 installed.

2. Give Old Carpet the Heave-Ho 

Problem: Old, dirt-filled carpet covered the entire home.

Solutions: Belinda’s decision to remove the musty carpet and replace it with easy-to-clean hard surfaces improved the home’s indoor air quality. (Carpet can harbor mold and allergens.)

Upstairs, she installed reclaimed oak—formerly a gym floor—that her father found in Texas. She sealed the wood with nontoxic OS Hardwax Oil. Downstairs, she covered the floor with natural cork, which provides a well-insulated, resilient surface.

Cost: Wood and cork flooring (installed): $10 per square foot; approximately $23,000 for floors throughout house.

3. Cook Up a New Recipe for the Kitchen

Problem: The kitchen was small and didn’t flow well into the living room.

Solutions: To bring in more natural light and improve space flow, Belinda redesigned the kitchen and adjacent living room to be more open and added a large kitchen window above the sink. She furnished the kitchen with Energy Star appliances, and a local carpenter used FSC-certified, U.S.-sourced sustainable cherry wood to build custom cabinets.

Cost: Miele dishwasher: $1,100. Miele cooktop and oven: $4,100. Amana refrigerator: $1,400.

Phase Three: 2007 and On

Revamp the Bathrooms

Problem: The central bathrooms are dark, and the cheap interiors have been deteriorating. Belinda also wants to add a new bathroom downstairs.

Solutions:To brighten the bathrooms, Belinda can lighten the wall color with low- or zero-VOC paint and install a tubular skylight in the central bathroom.

Remodeling the bathrooms and installing dual-flush toilets will help the family conserve water. She also should replace the current bathroom floors, which have either carpet or vinyl flooring, with tile. Bathroom cabinets built with sustainable wood and nontoxic finishes would make a nice finishing touch.

To avoid having to tear out the flooring in the downstairs bathroom, a plumber can install an up-flush, or “macerating,” toilet system that pumps water and waste up instead of through ground-level pipes.

Cost: Low-VOC paint: $15 to $25 per gallon. Tubular skylights: $150 to $300 plus installation. Caroma dual-flush toilet: $175 to $700 plus installation. SaniFlo up-flush toilet system: $1,425 (installed).  

Marc Richmond is president of Practica Consulting in Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, California .

RX for Your House: Bring the Wisdom Home

1. Remodeling can be stressful. Take time to set realistic goals, understand your true needs, outline a budget and keep an overall sense of balance.

2. When planning, remember that your lifestyle habits may have greater planetary impact than green products. For instance, turning down the thermostat or switching off lights and appliances when they’re not in use saves more energy than installing new, fancy technologies.

3. Buy local to reduce transportation pollution and keep money within your regional economy.

4. Set project standards. Request that suppliers provide information on the green, healthy aspects of their offerings. Be patient, but keep asking questions.


(800) 605-4218
dual-flush, water-saving toilets

A.P.C. Cork
(866) 222-3241
cork flooring

(800) 843-0304

Forest Stewardship Council
sustainably harvested wood

(800) 843-7231
dishwasher, cooktop, oven

OS Hard Wax Oil
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nontoxic wood finish