Can This Home Be Greened? A Florida Fixer-Upper Gets a Green Remodel

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Homeowner Tim Dyer lives in a country setting and wants to make his home more eco-friendly.
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The home still has a fw inefficient windows.
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Tim and Phyllis want to protect their lake.
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The Dyers hope to replace dated tiles and carpet.
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Narrow doorways aren't wheelchair-accessible.
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Phyllis and Tim Dyer hope to improve their home's accessibility, efficiency and sustainability for around $50,000.

Phyllis and Tim Dyer live in a single-story home in Eustis, Florida, a cozy town nestled in central Florida’s Lake County, about 50 miles southeast of Daytona Beach. The couple purchased their 1959 lakefront home in 2000 to escape increasing urban sprawl in Orlando, and they began considering renovations about three years ago. They don’t want to expand the 1,950-square-foot home, and they are determined that their renovations create “sustainable value” for about $50,000.

The Dyers started renovating the home last year, and their efficiency improvements have already halved their electric bill. They replaced most of their home’s windows with efficient, low-emissivity (low-E), double-glazed aluminum windows and sliding glass doors. They also replaced the 25-year-old HVAC unit with a 5-ton, 13-SEER heat pump with a variable speed air handler.

The Dyers have clearly defined goals for the remainder of their renovation budget: to further improve efficiency; to renovate their kitchen; to replace floors throughout the home; to accommodate the needs of their son, who sometimes uses a wheelchair; and to plant native, water-conserving landscaping.

Longtime subscribers to Natural Home, Tim and Phyllis turned to us for help in determining a way to accomplish these goals while staying “as green as possible.”

Replacing and redesigning

Finishing their efficiency improvements and reworking the kitchen to be more pleasurable and functional will make Tim and Phyllis’ home less expensive to operate and more fun to live in.

1. Improve energy efficiency

Though the Dyers have already made some strides, taking a few more steps will maximize their home’s efficiency.

Solutions: I recommend replacing the windows in the back porch and master bath with energy-efficient windows that meet the same specifications as the new windows in the rest of the house. 

The Dyers also should replace their attic insulation. In a 50-year-old home, the original insulation is likely inadequate and worn out. In Florida, ceiling and attic insulation levels should be at least R-30, which is about 8 inches of cellulose. I recommend completely removing the existing insulation and installing new cellulose.

After improving the thermal envelope, one of my favorite energy-conservation components for Florida homes is a solar-thermal water heater. This house has great southern exposure, a significant factor in choosing solar. The Dyers should also make sure any new appliances meet Energy Star requirements, and replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents or LEDs.

Cost: New insulation: $1 a square foot for removal, 50 cents a square foot for new cellulose; solar-thermal water heater: $3,800 (installed) before federal, state and local tax incentives.

2. Increase kitchen functionality

During my visit, Tim explained that the kitchen layout is so awkward that none of the standard-size appliances would fit. He had to purchase a smaller refrigerator than he would have liked and was lucky to find an odd-size replacement oven that would fit in the corner. The Dyers would like to remodel the room to improve its aesthetics and functionality.

Solutions: Tim and Phyllis should hire a professional kitchen designer to assist with a new layout. A full-service kitchen and bath store will usually provide design services as part of the overall cost of new cabinets and installation. Good design maximizes functionality while optimizing the use of raw materials. Best of all, a better design minimizes the chance they will want to redesign their kitchen again in a few years.

The Dyers should ensure that exhaust hoods are ventilating outside, not recirculating hot, polluted air (the byproduct of cooking) within the home or into the attic. The ventilation should be matched and properly sized to the specific hood assembly and vented outside of the home’s air barrier. 

Finally, the Dyers want to replace their cabinets and countertops. If they can find a local supplier/fabricator (within a few hundred miles) to build and install the cabinetry, the overall project will require significantly less embodied energy. If a local provider isn’t available, Tim and Phyllis should choose cabinetry certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The Dyers’ laminated, butcher-block style countertop is heavily stained, partially delaminated and most likely harboring bacteria and other germs. Wood countertops require diligent maintenance to remain clean and stain-resistant. I recommend a durable, low-maintenance, easy-to-clean replacement such as a natural quartz product called Cambria. Greenguard-certified Cambria is manufactured in the United States and, because it’s not porous, is very resistant to stains.

Cost: About $12,000 for cabinetry, countertops and installation; independent design consultation $800 to $1,000 (design consultation often included with cabinet purchase and installation)

A home for today and tomorrow

A few aesthetic changes, improved accessibility for their son and their future, and native landscaping will make the Dyers happy in their home for years to come.

3. Replace all flooring

Wisely, Tim and Phyllis want to remove the old carpet and replace it with solid-surface flooring.

Solutions: If the Dyers want wood floors, they should choose from the variety of resource-efficient wood flooring products. Shaw Floors EnviroCore line uses otherwise-discarded tree parts and sawmill waste as its core. If installing with glue, choose adhesive with low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

When selecting tile, the Dyers should choose a product made from recycled content such as recycled granite or glass. When installing tile, minimize grout lines to a quarter-inch or less. Porous grout tends to harbor bacteria and other indoor pollutants.

Cork flooring is also a great sustainable option. It has many benefits over other types of flooring: It’s affordable; pest-, termite- and moisture-resistant; antimicrobial and hypoallergenic; renewable; and has relatively low embodied energy. It’s also as durable as many hardwoods and provides thermal and sound insulation properties.

Cost: $6 to $10 a square foot for flooring and installation

4. Increase accessibility

The Dyers’ son occasionally uses a wheelchair, and remodeling the guest bathroom and bedroom can improve his accessibility. The Dyers also plan to retire in the home and want to plan for their needs as they grow older.

Solutions: The Dyers should increase the door sizes to the guest bedroom and hall bath. The existing door openings of only 26 inches should be increased to 32 inches (current Florida building codes require at least one bathroom to be ADA accessible, and 32 inches is the minimum).

To accommodate their future needs, the Dyers should choose easier-to-grasp handles instead of knobs for door and drawer hardware throughout the home. They also should replace the door hardware throughout the home with levers, rather than single knobs.

During the guest bath renovation, the Dyers should strategically place framing behind the wall around the toilet and shower before finishing with drywall or tile. This will support future installation of grab bars that can hold a person’s weight. 

Cost: $2,200

5. Water conservation, lake protection

The Dyers’ irrigation pump pulls water  from the lake, and Tim wants to minimize or eliminate this. The couple also wants to protect the lake from runoff contamination. 

Solutions: Tim and Phyllis should remove all invasive or exotic plants and replant with native species. Florida Waterstar offers a comprehensive, online list organized by location, sun exposure, soil and plant type. Because native plants have evolved to Florida’s climate, they survive with rainfall rather than irrigation, and are naturally pest-resistant.

Next, the Dyers should have an efficient irrigation system designed for their yard. Many systems overwater by many inches, meaning water ends up in the street, not on plants. A custom irrigation system uses minimal water in targeted locations. To protect the lake, Tim can plant a 3-foot buffer of native aquatic plants along the shoreline. Unfortunately, on many lakefront properties, sod extends to the waterline, eliminating any natural filter for silt/soil, pesticides and fertilizers.

Cost: Costs depend on plant selection. Water-efficient landscaping doesn’t cost more than regular landscaping. The irrigation system, assuming total replacement, should cost $2,500 to $3,000.

A too-big AC

The Dyers’ new air conditioner is at risk of becoming too big. As we improve the efficiency of the thermal envelope, we will also reduce the tonnage required to heat and cool the home. The house has a 5-ton unit now, which is big for an efficient 1,950-square-foot home. Additional efficiency improvements may actually start to cause problems inside the house and reduce any benefits associated with the new AC unit. In Florida, oversize units can create internal moisture problems because the system does not run long enough to remove indoor humidity. After the next phase of improvements, the Dyers should hire an AC technician to slow down the fan speed on the variable speed handler, which will help mitigate this problem.

Make an energy plan

Before beginning any improvements to your home, develop a comprehensive strategy or goal. Make sure smaller projects phased in over time work toward achieving the overall objective. Avoid implementing one item at a time based on existing conditions because you could short-circuit the benefits of one item (a new $10,000 AC system) with other improvements. 


All Solar Service Company
(888) 676-5271
Central Florida solar thermal and solar electricity

Andersen Windows
(800) 426-4261
efficient windows

APC Cork
(866) 222-3241
cork flooring

Cambria Natural Quartz Surfaces
(866) 226-2742
Greenguard-certified countertops

(800) 325-5320
cellulose insulation

(931) 484-2110
EcoCycle tile made from 40 percent recycled content

Dura Supreme Cabinetry
(320) 543-3872
KCMA Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP) cabinets

Shaw Floors
(800) 441-7429
EnviroCore wood floors


Florida Green Building Coalition (FGBC)
(850) 894-3422

Florida Water Star
(800) 451-7106

NAHB National Green Building Program
(877) 624-2476

U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes
(800) 795-1747

Greg Hardwick owns Hardwick General Contracting in Maitland, Florida, and builds durable, efficient homes. He is a Certified Green Professional with the National Association of Home Builders.