Design for Life: Love the Home You’re In

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Don’t wait until you can build that dream home to live green—eco-remodeling the home you’re in now can be a more sustainable (and affordable) choice.
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Don’t wait until you can build that dream home to live green—eco-remodeling the home you’re in now can be a more sustainable (and affordable) choice.

A friend recently told me about the house she hopes to build some day. Her expression was blissful as she described a place in the country, built of straw and earth, kissed by solar panels on the roof, surrounded by organic gardens fed by collected rainwater. Then she sighed, looked wistful, and said, “… if I can ever save up the money and figure out how to make a living in the country.” Meanwhile, she’s living in a house that’s crying out for her attention.

What’s wrong with this picture? We need to understand that ecological remodeling isn’t the poor cousin of brand-new eco-homes. It isn’t just something you do to appease yourself while waiting to build your dream house. Ecological remodeling can be every bit as good as building a new eco-home–and in some ways better. I’ve loved my share of earth and straw homes, and I understand the appeal of creating one from scratch. Unfortunately, we rarely factor in the destruction and consumption that accompany new building, no matter how green. And we often don’t realize how luscious and environmentally responsible our current homes can become.

Why should you eco-remodel?

Think of it this way: If you don’t improve the home you’re in, who will? Without some loving eco-attention, it will either sit there consuming resources or it will be torn down–a highly resource-consuming activity even if you recycle every piece. Consider the following reasons for staying where you are and uplifting your home:

• You’re recycling a whole building–in place. A lot of energy and materials have already been invested in your house; capitalize on that. You can use fewer resources to make your home more eco-friendly than you probably would if you started from scratch somewhere else.

• You aren’t destroying more open land. That bucolic image of the eco-homestead in the country comes with a not-so-lovely price tag: topsoil torn up and compacted; drainage patterns disturbed; plant and animal communities uprooted; vast material and energy resources consumed in construction; new roads, wells, and septic systems–and, all too often, greenhouse gases produced by driving to town for work and shopping.

• You can deepen your awareness of nature right where you are. Ecological building is all about working with natural energies and cycles. Wherever you live, the sun shines, the wind blows, the rain falls, plants grow, and animals feed, build nests, and mate. Work with these elements to transform your home.

• You can save money. For starters, making your home more energy efficient reduces your utility bills. You can also make changes step by step, at an affordable pace. If you pay as you go, you’ll avoid paying interest on a home-improvement loan. And with good planning, you’ll spend less remodeling your home than you would spend building a new one.

• The infrastructure is in place. With an existing home, the roads, driveway, water, and power are already there. The civic investment in generating and distributing power and treating water and waste has been made, and you don’t need to tear up the landscape or your budget to create them.

• You’re in an existing neighborhood. You are already knit into a community and its history; if you stay there, you don’t have to start over in another place and run the risk of isolation. Eco-remodeling your home improves your neighborhood and may inspire your neighbors to do the same. You can even join forces with others to turn your neighborhood into an eco-village.

• You can increase density in town. By adding a second dwelling or a home office to your property, you can increase the sense of community and the density of dwellers in your neighborhood. This lessens the pressure to push city boundaries outward, requiring more roads and other infrastructure to service that sprawl.

In short, ecological remodeling stands on its own as a wise, resource-conserving, community-building, accessible, enjoyable way to improve life.

Start with nature’s gifts

Whether you rent or own, and no matter what your budget, you can massage your home into eco-friendliness.

The first step is counterintuitive in this rush-everywhere culture: Sit still. Sit still in your living room, your bedroom, your kitchen, your bathroom. Sit still in your front yard, your backyard, and your side yards. Notice the sun, the wind, the rain, the earth, and the critters.

Notice what path the sun traverses across the sky. What parts of your house and yard are sunniest? What parts are shadiest? Does the way in which you inhabit your home and yard interact well with the gifts of light and heat from the sun?

Here’s a no-budget next step: Move your furniture to make better use of the free solar light and warmth. Could you work without electric light if you put your desk near a window? Would you enjoy breakfast more in the morning sun? Would you get fewer headaches if you moved your computer out of the glare?

For a satisfying, low-budget project, look at how your landscaping might help you let in desired sunlight and block excess solar heat. Prune to admit light, or plant deciduous trees and vines to shade your house in summer instead of relying on an air conditioner. If you plant local natives that provide food and shelter for wildlife, you’ll get multiple benefits.

In winter, do cold winds buffet your house? Consider putting dense plantings upwind to help lower your utility bills. In summer, welcome the breezes by removing plantings and opening windows. (Fortunately winter storms usually come from a different direction than pleasant summer breezes; I’m not suggesting changing your landscaping every season.) You might even build a pond upwind to cool the air before it enters your home.

With more money and time, you can increase your home’s insulation levels, seal air leaks, create outdoor rooms, water your garden with rainwater, add windows and thermal mass for passive solar heating, reconfigure rooms, and upgrade finishes with eco-friendly materials.

Above all, remember that every step you take makes a difference. You can decrease your contribution to greenhouse gases, increase wildlife habitat in your neighborhood, recharge the water table, improve your health, and inspire your friends and neighbors to do the same. “Greening up” your home is good for you and good for the planet. Best of all, you can start right where you are with whatever resources you’ve got. What could be more eco-logical?

Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature newsletter.