Can This Home Be Greened? Staying Put in New Jersey

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Try to reuse the existing attic wood floor by patching and refinishing it. If a new floor is necessary, use bamboo, cork, natural linoleum, or reclaimed wood. Increase attic floor and ceiling insulation with a formaldehyde-free product.

Monica Hennessy and Bruce Pedretti live in Haddonfield, New Jersey, which I understand from Monica has an excellent school district. These days, any house situated in a lovely New Jersey town with good schools is bound to be stratospherically expensive. And so, rather than move from their 1,200-square-foot house with a converted garage/recreation room, Monica, Bruce, and their two young children have decided to stay put and renovate.

Their goals include building a new driveway and addressing the stormwater drainage problem; renovating the old roof; creating a study in the attic; and some painting and floor refinishing. Consistent with the Toyota Prius they drive, the couple is committed to going green with their renovation. As always, this should also mean saving some of that green paper that most of us work so hard to earn.

Going with the flow

Problem: Addressing water problems in a house before they become disastrous and show up as wood rot, structural impairment, and/or mold growth is of paramount importance. On Monica and Bruce’s property, a driveway adjacent to the house diverts stormwater into the basement. Fortunately, there’s no drywall in the basement to become infested with mold. However, the water infiltration has and will continue to degrade the structural integrity of the foundation wall, which currently leaks after it rains.

Solultion: The existing hardened driveway material needs to be dug up. In its place should be a porous material that lets stormwater percolate into the ground where it falls along with landscaping that directs surface water away from the home. If the budget allows, it also would be advisable to dig up the dirt next to the leaking foundation wall and apply new waterproofing.

Invisible Structures makes a product called Grasspave, which is placed in the ground underneath new sod and grass–its interlocking structure contains up to 50 percent post-consumer, recycled, high-impact polypropylene plastic. This structure provides load-bearing strength while protecting vegetation root systems from deadly compaction. It makes a driveway literally look like a lawn. Another alternative is StoneyCrete, a pervious concrete pavement from Stoney Creek Materials.

A tired old roof

Problem: The existing roof shows signs of decay, is clad with dark asphalt shingles, and is completely uninsulated. Fortunately, the roof joists and associated structure appear to be in good condition. A green renovation of the roof would address not only replacement of the roof cladding with a more sustainable material, but also would improve the energy performance of the entire home while enhancing comfort, especially in the attic that is to become a study.

Solution: Environmentally friendly roof options include any or all of four categories: recycled-content shingles, reflective coatings, solar hot water and/or solar-electric panels, and garden roofs. Monica was interested in a garden, but the high, angled pitch of her roofs won’t allow for such an installation. With the northern and western orientation of the roofs that aren’t obstructed by tall trees, solar hot-water and solar-electric panels probably wouldn’t be a good investment. (This is unfortunate given New Jersey’s fantastic incentive program that pays for up to 70 percent of these systems installed.)

Instead, I suggest EcoStar/Carlisle Recycled Premium Steep-Slope Roofing Products, which contain 100 percent recycled rubber and look almost identical to natural slate or cedar shakes. Bruce and Monica definitely should have the roof structure between the roof joists insulated. Formaldehyde-free batt insulation from Johns Manville would be a smart choice.

An attic floor not befitting the new decor

Problem: The attic was never built out as a finished space, but Bruce and Monica want to convert it to a study. Currently there’s an old, unfinished, pine-plank floor that’s open to the floor joists below in several places. The insulation between the pine flooring and ceiling below is fiberglass batt that shows several large gaps and openings. Clearly, the problem with the floor offers an opportunity to greatly enhance the insulation of the subfloor space.

Solution: I once had prospective clients who wanted to do a “green renovation” of their existing oak wood floors by tearing out 1,500 square feet of perfectly good flooring (albeit in need of refinishing) and replacing it with bamboo flooring imported from China. Green construction should look at the whole picture, which includes energy use during manufacture and transportation of a new product and disposal of the old. Frankly, the greenest approach is almost always to reuse existing materials whenever possible.

For the new study floor, patching and repairing the existing wood-plank floor and refinishing with a low-VOC polyurethane would be the greenest option. However, consideration has to be given to the reinsulation of the subfloor space that will improve the home’s overall energy performance. Dense-packed cellulose insulation could be blown into the subfloor space through the current gaps in the plank flooring, but given the expense of hauling heavy floor-refinishing equipment into the attic and the extra expense of insulating through an existing floor rather than a fully exposed subfloor, it may on balance make sense and be less costly to remove the existing flooring and replace it with a green alternative, such as bamboo or FSC-certified oak planks.

VOCs and your friendly neighborhood contractor

Problem: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are industrial chemicals found in most conventional building materials (especially in paints, polyurethanes, caulks, and adhesives) that outgas at standard room temperature and pressure. Many VOCs are toxic or at least very unhealthy. Historically, these conventional products performed better and were cheaper than low-VOC alternatives, so most contractors only have experience with the familiar products readily available at neighborhood supply houses. What many contractors and suppliers don’t yet know is that there are many high-performing, reasonably priced alternatives now on the market.

Unfortunately, the current supply chain is fragmented and exceedingly inconvenient. When Home Depot, Lowe’s, and the other big material suppliers offer low-VOC products, it will make our job as green builders much easier.

Solution: The best and most trusted source for researching certified low- or zero-VOC products is through the Green Seal website. However, Green Seal is not a distributor, so I called my colleague Paul Novak at Environmental Construction Outfitters (ECO) in New York for recommendations. For “true zero-VOC” paint, Novak recommends either AFM Safecoat or Best Paints. (At my company, GreenStreet, we typically use Benjamin Moore Eco-Spec paint for clients who aren’t as sensitive to paint odors.) For polyurethane, AFM Safecoat Polyureseal is ECO’s bestseller. For ceramic tile adhesive, Novak recommends #901 by Envirotech and for low-VOC caulks, he recommends products from Titebond, AFM Safecoat, or QSL.

To ensure that your contractor actually uses zero- or low-VOC products, I strongly recommend that you or your architect provide a set of written specifications to the contractor and that these specifications be referenced in the contract.