Mother Earth Living

Small Steps to a Green Remodel: The Green Remodeler's Guide

From planning to hiring contractors and shopping for materials, our guide will help you customize the perfect remodel for your home and lifestyle.
By Carol Venolia
May/June 2011

This 1921 home in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood was renovated by architect Jim Burton of Blip Design. The original structure had a cramped, dark first floor and a cavelike, unlivable basement. Burton raised the original first floor 12 inches to transform the cramped basement into a comfortable living space with ample daylight from new windows and a glass door. He reconfigured the new, raised ground level, tearing out walls to open up the space. Burton also added a second floor, doubling the living space while remaining within the home’s original footprint. Though now twice its former size, the home’s many efficiency upgrades reduced its energy bills by $500 a year.
Photo By Art Grice
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Though green remodeling sometimes involves big-ticket items like solar panels, new double-pane windows, and revamped heating and cooling systems, remodeling wisely requires tapping into our desires and
creativity as much as our bank accounts. An abundance of good information about green building strategies and materials exists, but prioritizing renovations and determining which investments will pay off in the end can be overwhelming.

The key is to take your time in the planning stage. Sometimes the simplest moves make the biggest impact—and they’re much more affordable. By learning about your options and setting goals for your home, you can customize a green remodel that fits your budget and life.

Step One: Clarify Your Goals 

Why do you want to remodel? Do you want to use less energy, feel more engaged in natural cycles, improve indoor air quality, gain space for new activities or family members, or figure out how to use all of that extra space now that the kids are gone? Write it all down, whether it’s a personal desire, a family need, or a response to environmental concerns. Use colors, diagrams and pictures to help you express and organize your thoughts. Refer to these goal statements when making decisions.

Step Two: Take In Your Surroundings 

To make the best use of your energy and dollars, study your current situation before you start redesigning or picking out materials. Sit still in your living room, in your kitchen, in your bedroom and all around your house, tuning in to all of your senses. You might be surprised.

Notice where the sun shines—and doesn’t. Notice which rooms you love and which ones you avoid. Notice how your family members spend time in the house and yard. Notice where the air smells fresh and where it’s stale, which areas are warm and which are cool, which way the wind blows and how strongly. How do these things change with the time of day and year? Mark your observations on a floor plan of your house.

Study your activities, too. How and where do you like to spend your time? What would you like to do that isn’t easily supported by your current home? How do you like to entertain? What are your personal and group goals for this remodeling project? Sum up what works well in your house and yard now, and what you’d like to improve.

Step Three: Think About Space 

When we’re feeling cramped, our instinct is often to add more space. But keep in mind the more house you build, the more materials you consume and the more energy you’ll use for heating and cooling. It’s important to thoughtfully consider how much space you need and how it could be configured to best suit your needs. First, think about ways you can alter your current floor plan—by moving or opening a wall, dividing a space, adding more storage or popping out a window seat—to solve your problems. Maybe an outdoor room would meet your needs, while requiring less money and other resources than a home addition. If you are planning a major overhaul, determine exactly which spaces you need and how big they need to be. Measure rooms you like in other homes. Think about your home needs now and in the future.

Step Four: Get an Energy Audit 

An energy audit will tell you things that aren’t apparent to the naked eye. You’ll learn where heat is sneaking in or out and how to get the most bang for your buck. Many people think they should replace their old windows—then do nothing because they can’t afford the high price tag. But an energy audit may show how to save more energy for less money by sealing leaks and improving insulation. A professional trained in building science can also advise you on achieving good ventilation while balancing air pressure and creating an air barrier that saves energy and avoids mold growth.

Step Five: Design with Nature 

Before upgrading to more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, take advantage of the freebies from Mother Nature. Need more heat and light? Look first to the sun. Take advantage of shade and breezes for natural cooling. If your house wasn’t designed to make the most of sunshine, a window here, a skylight there, or a sunspace addition could make a big difference. In hot summers, shade your house and windows with overhangs, trellises, plantings and awnings. Use plantings, landscape walls and windows to guide cooling breezes where you’ll feel them. You may still want heating or air-conditioning equipment, but you’ll need a smaller unit, saving money and energy.

You can predict where the sun will shine at any time of day or year, allowing you to place windows and design summer shading that doesn’t block winter sun. Most window glass is now designed to reject solar heat, so look for windows with a high Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) if you want to welcome it.

Step Six: Get Specific 

Once you’re clear about your goals for the whole project and its parts, you can begin prioritizing remodeling jobs. Take a look at the various options’ costs and payoffs (see “Price Check” on page 61), determine which tasks require a professional (see “Qualified or DIY” on page 62), then dive into the hunt for specific materials and strategies (start with “Shrewd Shopping” on page 61). Once you’ve got a good grasp on which projects you want to take on and how much each will cost, allocate your budget to cover the must-do items. As you go, always ask: How can I make the least change for the most positive effect? Sometimes the simplest moves are the most effective.

Price Check 

When prioritizing remodeling projects, consider the cost and payoff.

Energy Audit and Sealing Gaps
• Expense: $300 to $600
• Benefit: You’ll eliminate areas where your home is leaking energy.
• Payback: Expect to save 5 to 30 percent on your energy bill.

Replacing an Outdated Fridge
• Expense: $500 to $1,500 for an Energy Star refrigerator
• Benefit: You’ll save energy.  
• Payback: Energy Star refrigerators are required to use 20 percent less energy than conventional models. If you have a fridge from the ’80s, expect to save more than $100 a year on utility bills. Replacing a model from the ’70s? Save more than $200 a year on utility bills.

Install a Tankless (On-Demand) Water Heater
• Expense: $600 to $1,500, compared with about $200 for a conventional storage-type model
• Benefit: You only heat water you use, thereby eliminating standby energy losses.
• Payback: If your household uses 41 or fewer gallons of hot water daily, a tankless model will save you 24 to 34 percent on energy expenses; if you use a lot of hot water—86 gallons a day or more—you save 8 to 14 percent. Tankless water heaters last 20 years or more, as compared with 10 to 15 years for storage water heaters.

Low-Flow Toilet
• Expense: $200 to $500
• Benefit: You’ll flush less clean water (and money) down the toilet.
• Payback: A typical four-person household will save 10,000 gallons of water a year by replacing a 3.5 gallon-per-flush model with an efficient 1.28 gallon-per-flush model.

Low-Flow Showerheads
• Expense: Typically $8 to $35
• Benefit: You’ll save both water and the energy you spend heating water.
• Payback: An average family of four can save about $50 a year in water savings and nearly $400 a year in energy savings.

New Windows
• Expense: $300 to $1,000 per window
• Benefit: You will waste less energy, and your home will be more comfortable.
• Payback: If you replace typical windows with highly efficient ones (R-5 or greater), expect to save 25 to 40 percent on energy costs.

Qualified or DIY? 

Consider this advice when deciding whether to call in a professional or go it alone. Not all professionals are experienced with sustainable remodeling. Thoroughly check professionals’ qualifications via interview, work examples, references and licensing boards. Use a contract that details the work, each party’s responsibilities and payment.

Pro Usually Necessary 

When making structural changes (changing walls, headers or beams; adding up or out; etc.)
• Kind of Pro: Structural or civil engineer

To evaluate mold, pests, electromagnetic fields (EMFs), and/or indoor air quality problems and what to do about them
• Kind of Pro: House doctor, indoor air quality (IAQ) specialist, industrial hygienist, least-toxic pest-/termite-control operator, EMF specialist, baubiologist (building health experts) or building science expert

To perform an energy audit of your house and recommend options
• Kind of Pro: Certified home energy analyst

For advice about using building materials and systems with which you are unfamiliar
• Kind of Pro: Qualified architect, consultant, contractor or building science expert

Not Neccesary, But Helpful 

To draft up your site plan (including topographical contours), floor plans and other drawings
• Kind of Pro: Architect, drafter and/or surveyor

For help with your design
• Kind of Pro: Architect or designer

To fine-tune your passive solar and natural cooling schemes
• Kind of Pro: Qualified consultant, architect or designer

To help you comply with zoning, fire codes, building codes and energy regulations
• Kind of Pro: Architect, contractor, code consultant or energy consultant

For help with landscape/garden design
• Kind of Pro: Garden designer, permaculture designer or landscape architect

Resources 

Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time by David R. Johnston and Kim Master

Leading Home Network
community where homeowners and professionals share greenbuilding experiences

Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House: Bringing Your Home into Harmony with Nature by Carol Venolia and Kelly Lerner

Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo

Practical Green Remodeling: Down-to-Earth Solutions for Everyday Homes by Barry Katz

U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide
connect with resources, advice and professionals


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