Green Remodeling: Make Your Home More Energy-Efficient

You can retrofit your current home for cheaper energy bills and a more beautiful, livable space — without having to move. Five energy experts and architects explain how to make your home more energy-efficient.

| June/July 2013

  • A remodeled home is inherently sustainable because you're minimizing your use of new materials and taking advantage of existing infrastructure.
    Photo By Fotolia/Pilensphoto
  • Architect Kelly Lerner renovated this kitchen, which has a natural cork floor, recycled Douglas fir and wheat-board cabinets, and natural-pigment milk paint finishes.
    Photo By Kelly Lerner
  • Green remodeling minimizes use of new materials and takes advantage of existing infrastructure.
    Photo By Dreamstime/Wisconsinartconstr
  • Adding natural light and energy-efficient appliances to your kitchen will reduce your utility bills.
    Photo Courtesy
  • Here comes the sun! Properly installed skylights can improve the lighting and air flow in your home.
    Photo By Dreamstime/Crystal Craig
  • Prioritize your window renovations; sealing up existing windows is often a better option than installing new.
    Photo By Fotolia/GMCGILL
  • Prioritize your window renovations; sealing up existing windows is often a better option than installing new.
    Photo By Dreamstime/Lastdays1
  • You can just as easily add many renewable energy features to an old home as you can to a new one.
    Photo By Peter Arthur Weyrauch

Imagine you live in your green dream home. It’s extremely energy-efficient, but also beautiful, comfortable and perfectly suited to your needs. Are you picturing a brand new house? Think again — you can likely turn your current house into your dream home with smart green remodeling.

Plus, the amount of money you can save with energy upgrades is often more than you might think. Russ Rudy, a builder and energy-efficiency expert who has done numerous gut rehabs of homes in the Midwest, says he helps homeowners get energy savings of up to 75 percent when he’s able to rework a house from top to bottom. Even with less intensive work, significantly cheaper energy bills are possible. The nonprofit organization Historic Green, based in Kansas City, Mo., has been doing a series of energy retrofits in one of the city’s neighborhoods. The organization reports it has been able to cut some homes’ energy use in half, resulting in an average cost savings of $100 per month on energy bills.

Those are substantial energy savings, but why stop there? If you’re doing a major home overhaul, you can go one step further and add passive solar design features to optimize your home’s natural heating, cooling and daylighting. And you can just as easily add renewable energy features — such as solar electric panels or a solar water heater — to an old home as you can to a new one. Many green remodeling projects can be done on a tight budget — you just have to start thinking through what’s possible.

Big-Picture Planning

If you’re undertaking a major remodeling project, you probably have other goals in addition to energy efficiency. You might want to add square footage or reconfigure the space to work better for you — for example, by adding an extra bedroom or a bathroom. Your budget will be a major factor, and you’ll want your home to be even more comfortable and enjoyable.

Almost everyone on our panel of five energy experts — including architects and specialists in energy efficiency who together have numerous successful remodels behind them — suggested the same starting point: Get a thorough home energy rating, which will illuminate what’s possible for your home and help you set priorities.

“A certified home-energy rating is worth every penny, and it’s rarely more than $500,” says Jeremy Knoll, an architect and co-founder of Historic Green. “It gives you a priority list based not on your gut feeling, but on measured data of what’s going to make the most difference in your home in terms of energy repair work.”

You can find a certified home-energy rater in your area through RESNET, the Residential Energy Services Network. Be sure you talk to the rater before scheduling the audit, and pick someone who is good at answering your questions and explaining the details. A home energy rater should be able to recommend reliable people who can do the energy upgrade work. Getting an energy rating can also help you qualify for different financing options, such as an energy-efficient mortgage, if that interests you.

If you have a more extensive remodeling project in mind, consult with an architect early on. If you’re interested in passive solar design, you’ll want to look for an architect who has at least some experience with this type of building — the details get pretty technical, and it’s very climate-specific.

Kelly Lerner, an architect in Spokane, Wash., and co-author of the informative book Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House, says her first suggestion is to clearly define your priorities. “Are you trying primarily to lower your energy bills? Are you trying to get more space? Sometimes your priorities will be at odds with each other, and it’s good to see that from the very beginning.”

Lerner also says that green remodeling has many advantages over building new. A remodel can be accomplished on a smaller budget, and a remodeled home is also inherently sustainable because you’re minimizing your use of new materials and taking advantage of existing infrastructure. “I think one of the most wonderful things is that it’s like recycling on some huge scale. You’re not just recycling an item — you’re recycling a house,” Lerner says.

Holistic Approach

With home energy, you can’t tackle any one project in isolation. Anything you do will affect the rest of the house.

“One of the things people don’t understand very well is the concept of a holistic approach,” Rudy says. “The house is an interconnected collection of systems.” In some ways, that’s great: By looking at the house as a whole system, you can greatly increase your energy efficiency. But you can also create unanticipated problems for yourself if you’re not careful.

When doing a retrofit, the major tasks are usually air sealing, adding insulation, and upgrading your heating and cooling systems, Rudy says, and what you do first matters. Air sealing has to come before insulating, because you’re going to have to install insulation on top of things you want to seal up. And there’s not much point to adding a new heating system without tightening up the building first so all that added heat stays in the house instead of leaking right back outside.

Fortunately, many of these projects are fairly inexpensive. Air sealing is especially affordable — a homeowner can do a lot with caulking and weatherstripping for $100. Adding attic insulation is also frequently recommended by home energy raters. In many cases, homeowners can install their own insulation in the attic for about $300. To learn more about your options for adding insulation to your home — and which pieces of the job you can do yourself — check out Adding Insulation Can Save You Money!.

While energy efficiency is terrific, you don’t want retrofits to accidentally create major problems. One of those potential problems is an issue with air quality — especially carbon monoxide, which is not uncommon in houses with older heating equipment. A carbon monoxide alarm is a good idea for any home that uses a vented heating system.

Sealing up your home can also create problems with moisture. Ken Riead, an experienced home energy rater and board member of Historic Green, puts it bluntly: “If you’re not careful, you will trap moisture and it will rot your walls.” Interior moisture issues — such as moisture accumulating in the kitchen and bathroom — are usually taken care of through ventilation, Riead says, and mechanical ventilation is best.

Knoll says that issues also frequently crop up when adding wall insulation, or when adding a radiant barrier to an attic or a roof. Be aware that trapping moisture is a big issue, and ask questions, because even energy experts can make mistakes. For some homes in humid climates, he says, the safest decision is to skip the wall insulation to avoid creating moisture problems, and concentrate instead on air tightness and equipment efficiency. To learn more about moisture issues, check out the Builder’s Guide books recommended in "Home Energy Resources" later in this article.

If you’re tackling DIY projects, you’ll need to be alert for pitfalls, such as anything that can potentially create a fire hazard. In the process of doing home retrofits, unexpected things come up all the time, Knoll says. For example, at one home he worked on, the homeowners were ready to add insulation to the attic when a quick visual inspection revealed dangerous wiring that needed to be dealt with first. You can also get into trouble adding insulation around heat sources. Just be cautious, Knoll says. If you’re a beginning DIYer, seek advice from experts on how to make your home more energy-efficient, and be especially cautious when you’re dealing with electricity.

Don’t Rush to Replace Windows

When retrofitting or replacing your windows, you shouldn’t get your advice from anyone selling windows. Be guided by your energy audit, and if you’re adding passive solar design features, get guidance from an architect.

“It’s rarely cost-effective to replace windows,” Lerner says, explaining that while new windows do help increase energy efficiency, they simply take too long to pay for themselves in lower energy bills, compared with other upgrades. “With older windows I would suggest adding some sort of storm windows rather than replacing the windows themselves, unless the windows are failing, such as if the wood’s rotting out,” Lerner says.

Plus, new windows tend to be less durable. Vinyl and aluminum window frames simply don’t hold up as well as older wood-framed windows, Knoll says. And if you do have original wood windows in an older home, you can do a lot to make those wood windows more efficient rather than replacing them. In particular, Knoll recommends focusing on air sealing weight pockets. For easy and inexpensive air-sealing methods, see Save Loads of Energy With Caulking and Weatherstripping.

In some situations, however, putting in new windows makes sense. David Wright, a California-based architect and author of The Passive Solar Primer, puts a high value on windows as part of a passive solar home. He suggests homeowners consider installing new or larger windows on the south side of the home to gain valuable heat in the winter.

Many Options for Heating and Cooling

The last major type of energy retrofit to consider is improving your home’s heating and cooling. In many cases, there’s not only one right choice — you’ll find a range of options and will have to spend some time figuring out which works best for your climate, budget and preferences.

One way to help heat and cool your home is by incorporating passive solar design principles. For example, Wright suggests you can bring both pleasant living space and heat to your home by adding a sunroom. This strategy neatly packages many passive solar features into one addition. Read more at Plan the Perfection Sunroom Addition.

Similarly, cooling issues can be addressed by using passive solar design principles to improve natural ventilation. Wright suggests careful placement of windows and operable skylights as one option. Skylights are terrific because they’re located at a high point in the room, which allows warm air to rise out while drawing in cooler outdoor air through an open window. Ceiling fans are another low-tech solution.

You could also heat with solar energy, which can be done by heating the air with solar collectors, or by heating water and then running it through your house using radiant floor heat. To learn more, see Solar Heating Plan for Any Home.

Rudy also spells out the options that are available for more conventional heating systems. “The lowest-efficiency gas-burning furnace that’s legally allowed right now is an 80 percent efficient unit,” he says. “You can get a 90 percent efficient furnace that takes so much heat out of the combustion gases that you can vent it through a PVC plastic pipe to the side of the house.” From there, the next step up is an air-source heat pump, and from there, a ground-source heat pump. “So there are some ideas about efficiency. We’re talking about an 80 percent efficient furnace, a 90 percent efficient PVC-vented furnace, a 250 percent efficient air-source heat pump, and a 450 percent efficient ground-source heat pump.”

But don’t fixate on the efficiency numbers, because the most efficient option isn’t necessarily the right one for your home. Rudy says that if you can make your home efficient enough, even a relatively inefficient heating option — such as electric baseboard heating — could make sense for your home.

Rudy says green remodeling for extremely efficient homes is the wave of the future. “I believe that within the next three or four decades we will no longer be able to do combustion inside our houses, simply because we’re going to be running out of cost-effective or environmentally safe ways of attaining those fuels. Realistically, we need to be planning for that now.”

Indeed, if green remodeling can make our homes work better, lower our energy bills and help us achieve a higher level of comfort, what are we waiting for?

Home Energy Resources


American Institute of Architects: Get advice on how to choose and work with an architect.

Build It Green’s Home Remodeling Green Building Guidelines: Includes extensive information on green remodeling, including a handy checklist.

RESNET: Find certified home-energy raters and learn about energy-efficient mortgages.

Retrofit Techniques & Technologies: Air Sealing, A Guide: Full of information on air sealing, and written for consumers working with contractors.


Builder’s Guide Series by Joseph Lstiburek: Includes The Builder’s Guide to Cold ClimatesThe Builder’s Guide to Hot-Humid Climates and more editions of specific, practical information for builders in different climates. The series is available at EEBA.

Green Home Improvement by Dan Chiras: Outlines 65 projects, big and small, with projected costs and savings.

Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time by David Johnston: A comprehensive guide to green remodeling that contains information on how to avoid unintended consequences when renovating for efficiency.

The Sun-Inspired House by Debra Rucker Coleman: Find more information about passive solar building, including specific design ideas.

Energy Experts

Jeremy Knoll, LEED AP BD+C, project manager with BNIM Architects, Kansas City, Mo., and chair of the board of Historic Greena nonprofit organization that has been active in post-Katrina New Orleans. Historic Green hosts service learning events, which bring skilled labor, volunteers and community partners together to restore and retrofit local historic buildings.

Kelly Lerner, principal of One World Design Architecture in Spokane, Wa. and co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not So Green Home. Read what Lerner has to say about natural cooling in Forget AC! Cool Your Home Naturally.

Ken Riead, Senior CEM/CDSM, senior consultant at Hathmore Technologies, Kansas City, Mo. and board member of Historic Green. Read more on what Riead has to say on home energy audits in Energy Audits: What Homeowners Need to Know and Home Energy Audits: Measure Your Energy Costs and Add Up the Savings!.

Russ Rudy, building science consultant. Rudy’s long career in energy efficiency has included founding and directing the Kansas Energy Raters Association, serving as training director for the Kansas Weatherization Assistance Program, and serving as buildings team manager of the Kansas State Energy Office.

David Wright, AIA, David Wright Architecture Group in Grass Valley, Calif. and author of The Passive Solar Primer. Wright was first featured in MOTHER EARTH NEWS back in 1977, and has written for the magazine ever since. Read a few related articles written by Wright: Passive Solar Design BasicsPlan the Perfect Sunroom Addition, and Build With SIPs.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on Google+.

7/15/2016 12:13:36 PM

Does MotherEarth monitor commenters for relevance? Once fake, non-related posters get started, they escalate, making real comments harder to find for real readers. Thank you for this real article about upgrading a house efficiency. It's the 1st one that mentioned that in some cases, replacing windows is not the best idea, that sometimes, it's better to add storm windows! I'd had so many people telling us storm windows were a waste of time and never really helped! Worse, that idea has caused many areas along western states, to stop carrying storm windows at all! Our old track house was sub standardly built [some sub-code things even then], and further compromised by questionable Flipper-jobs the old lender hired when they repo'd it. But, we're working on fixing some things, using lower-tech, DIY projects. I did put two recycled storm windows on, in the face of advice to replace the windows; but the third took other solution: 1. House down the street got rid of their old windows, 2 of which matched our livingroom windows exactly [and one could fake it on the garage window]. We refurbished those [had to clean and recaulk the glass in place], furred out the external frames to add a 3" air gap, and set those in place. Had to Rube Goldberg the fiddly bits, but it's working great! We were even able to recycle crate wood from the roof metal shipment, to make the additions. 2. Unable to locate a used matching window for the 3rd large window, I bought panels of Twinwall Polycarbonate greenhouse panels at a big box store. It took 3 panels + 4 spring-rod curtain rods, tape. Cut panels to fit height of window inside. cleaned it up [blew sawdust out of channels], and taped the ends to prevent posture or dust getting inside. set 2 spring rods at top of interior window case, and 2 rods at bottom, then installed the Twinwall panels as overlapping sliders. They press tight between the spring rods, preventing much air or temp transference. It's been at least as effective as adding a storm window, gives some bit of privacy, and plenty of light. Fixing these windows that way, has saved us both thousands of dollars in window replacements, and slightly lower heating bills in winter. Still get reasonable solar gain. WIN! We've also just finished the 1st section of a crawlspace "heat exchanger" system. We'd been monitoring the temp of the crawlspace for over a year; all year around, that temp stayed an average of 10 degrees warmer in winter; average 10 degrees cooler in summer. That involved putting an air intake from the house, that can accommodate whatever level of filtration you need [we need really good filtration, due to location], connected to ducting in crawlspace and vented back into the house. We placed necessary boots through the floor to bring house air into the crawlspace, through a long run of ducting that lays on the ground of the crawlspace, pull air through system using good duct fan [ours started as a cheap 125 cfm, is getting replaced by one that will move about 600+ cfm and inserted an adjustable rheostat control for that blower. We ran smaller duct splits to 2 [soon to be 4] locations, to gently blow that somewhat tempered air back into the house. NOTES: ==Industrial 24/7 running duct fans that pull meaningful amounts of air through system, and the insulated ducting needed in some parts of it, can be gotten through indoor growing suppliers locally or online. ==Basic metal ducting [metal transfers temp best] was gotten at local big box stores...hunt-and-peck between several branches to get it all. ==Ducting must be properly sized to feed the number of outlet vents. ==All duct seams must be perma-taped to seal them against any dirt from crawlspace entering that system. ==We will be adding a Reflectix "blanket" over top of the ducting, once finished, to insulate ducts from the ambient air in the crawlspace: goal is to harvest the earth's temperature, not the air temperature. ==In humid climates, one might also insert a dehumidifier into that system...we might need that, later, but cannot afford it at this time. RESULTS even now, are promising: lower need for using the window A/C. Now it only kicks in if the outdoor temps go over about 85 outside, and that starts baking back into the house. Future attic insulation should remedy that "bake-back" effect that makes summer temps' heat so miserable in late afternoons here, as well as reduce heating in winter. This house has thin walls. There is one long wall that will need external insulation, but, the south wall should be fine once we can afford to add a 4-season + greenhouse patio all across that south side. That wall won't need more insulation , because of the warmth gained by the windows in winter. We will need to make that roof more of a solid roof, not glass, to avoid over-heating in summer--that can be insulated, and can have passive solar air heaters to boost winter heating to the house. Cost of adding our storm windows or panels: only the cost of the 3 Twinwall panels and the 4 spring rods, since the windows and wood for framing were recycled freebies. Cost of crawlspace "heat exchanger/air filter": between $600 to $800. BUT, that's vastly lower-cost air-tempering than adding a several thousand dollar Minisplit system, or anything else. Cost of passive/active solar air heater panels: Depends on how much of the material is recycled. [2] 4'x8' panels we made for another location, were eventually able to achieve saving about 300 kWh's per month, off the heating season electric bills. The top savings was when I sealed those panels some better, and, added a 4" duct fan to push the air through the panels better. Those were connected in series, and booted through the only south window we had there: a tiny bathroom window. I look forward to seeing articles where people have been thinking "outside the box" to do creative, constructive, low-tech, low-cost, effective, problem solving, AND hearing from those who post real comments, real solutions to article-pertinent material.

6/30/2013 8:33:36 AM

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