Can This Home Be Greened: An Eco Coming of Age

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Illustration By Nate Skow
Our projection shows how the living room might look if the Stukels implement some of the prescribed eco-friendly upgrades, including new low-e windows, bamboo flooring (carried through the kitchen) and an efficient fireplace insert.

Realtor Laura Reedy Stukel has a keen eye for a property’s hidden value. Years of experience in the local real estate market helped Laura and her husband, Ray, recognize opportunity when they found an affordable home in the increasingly affluent Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Illinois. The modest house, a vintage 1966 structure, is in a desirable neighborhood, but it’s clearly showing its age. With some environmentally sensitive enhancements, the Stukels can have the home of their dreams.

The Stukels’ first concern is safeguarding their family’s health. Because Laura battles mold allergies and 4-year-old Kate suffers from eczema (a persistent skin irritation), the family is committed to improving indoor air quality and eliminating chemicals and mold. A number of problem areas contribute to indoor pollution; chief among these is the carpeted kitchen floor. Removing this carpet will play a key role in improving overall indoor air quality and updating the kitchen.

Modernizing the home’s outdated aesthetics–particularly the drab kitchen and bathrooms–is another major issue. The Stukels also plan to convert an office adjacent to the garage into a mudroom to help keep the family’s outdoor gear organized. 

A few months into their residency, the Stukels have already implemented valuable improvements. These include installing a new radon vent at the basement perimeter; sealing and insulating the previously exposed dirt crawl space under the living and dining areas; and removing a curious dryer “heat exchanger,” which was intended to use electric dryer waste heat but, because it was connected to a gas dryer, was dumping carbon monoxide into the basement.

Bag the Carpet

Problem: Outdated brown carpet dominates the kitchen, an unwise flooring choice for a high-traffic and messy environment. Carpet fibers trap allergens and absorb liquids, which can harbor mold.

Solution: Replace carpet with durable, easy-to-clean flooring such as bamboo,
natural linoleum, cork or natural stone.

Cost: Installed, flooring ranges from $5 to $7 a square foot for linoleum; about $8 a square foot for bamboo; $7 to $12 for stone; and $7 to $15 for cork.

Retrofit the Fireplace

Problem: Most fireplaces are highly inefficient and actually make your house colder. A conventional fireplace’s combustion process draws warm air out of the living space and pulls outdoor air through any gaps in perimeter walls, causing cold drafts.

Solution: Modify the existing fireplace with a high-efficiency fireplace insert that draws combustion air from outside while radiantly heating the space. Depending on the model, these units also can throw heat into the home’s interior using small fans.

Cost: A high-quality insert will cost approximately $3,000 to $3,500, installed. The existing flue may require a stainless steel flue liner, depending on its condition. The price for this should be $750 to $1,000.

Increase Insulation

Problem: Like many homeowners, the Stukels don’t know how much insulation is in their walls or ceiling. Given the vintage construction (a gallon of gas in 1966 was 32 cents!), it is probably inadequate. The basement interior is not insulated.The home’s original single-glazed windows are a major source of heat loss. The house does have storm windows, but those are difficult to change seasonally.

Solution: Contact a professional home energy rater to find locations of heat loss and air infiltration. Many home raters use infrared cameras to assess heat loss and target interventions. The existing windows should be replaced with double-glazed, low-emissivity (low-E), argon-filled windows, preferably not made from vinyl. 

The type and quantity of insulation should be based on the home rater’s findings. Possible insulation types to consider include low-expanding Icynene foam, blown-in rock wool or blown-in cellulose. Adding insulation to the attic or basement is much more straightforward because they’re easily accessible. 

Cost: The cost for a home rater depends on your home’s size but is typically between $200 and $400. Icynene insulation costs around $1.75 to $2.25 a square foot installed; cellulose and rock wool are both about $1.25 to $1.75 a square foot. Expect additional costs associated with patching and repainting the perimeter walls.

Overhaul the Bathroom

Problem: Leaky faucets and inefficient, 5-gallon-flush toilets waste water. Inadequate ventilation provides opportunity for mold growth. Visible mold in the shower indicates more may be lurking.

Solution: Replace fixtures with new, water-saving hardware such as dual-flush toilets. Install bathroom fans with direct ventilation to the exterior. Gut bathroom walls and ceilings to track down and remove mold-harboring materials. Provide updated solid-surface counters.

Cost: The Toto Aquia dual-flush is about $400. A bathroom fan is about $350 installed. Composite solid-surface countertops are typically $100 a square foot.

Exterior Foundation

Problem: Poor drainage presents an easily overlooked, but potentially dangerous, problem. Grading on the north side of the house is above the top of the foundation, which pulls water from exterior soil into the wall construction. Absorbed water is causing efflorescence–unsightly, white discoloration–on the brick veneer and can also damage the building’s frame structure. 

Solution: Re-grade the ground, making the soil begin below and slope away from the foundation. Additionally, use a French drain (essentially, a ditch filled with gravel) to direct water away from the house and to a water garden.

Cost: The cost to install a French drain and re-grade soil is highly site-specific. The estimated cost is $1,500 to $2,000.

RX At Your House: 4 Steps to a Greener Home

1. Understand your home’s age. The level of building technology and energy efficiency in your home can vary greatly depending on the era in which your home was built. Homes built when energy was cheap frequently skimped on insulation, among other things. Researching how your home was constructed will help you improve its energy efficiency and comfort level.

2. Get an energy audit. An energy audit offers a penetrating view into your home’s thermal performance, highlighting specific areas of your house that are negatively affecting efficiency and costing you money. Some utilities will even assess your home for free or a small charge. Typically, energy inspectors offer onsite visits for $200 to $400.

3. Imagine your home as a system. While composed of many distinct components, the building envelope and mechanical systems operate as an integrated system. When modifying one element, take into account the impact that change will have on adjacent components. For example, adding insulation in the perimeter walls and attic will help reduce air leakage and thereby reduce energy use, but it may also require outside ventilation to ensure proper indoor air quality.

4. Use a pro. With so many factors to consider, greening your home can be a daunting task. Hiring an experienced green building professional can help you make informed decisions. Many firms claim to understand green building, but check previous work for verification.

NATHAN KIPNIS, AIA, LEED AP is principal of Nathan Kipnis Architects, an award-winning green architectural design firm based in Evanston, Illinois