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.

  • 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.”

7/15/2016 5:13:36 PM

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.

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