Practical Green Remodeling: 3 Fundamentals of Green Remodeling

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Photo Courtesy The Taunton Press
"Practical Green Remodeling" offers green remodeling guidance for those who aren't sure where to begin.

The following is an excerpt from Practical Green Remodeling: Down-to-Earth Solutions for Everyday Homes by Barry Katz (Taunton Press, 2010). The excerpt is part of Chapter 2: The Three Fundamentals of Green Remodeling.

There are literally hundreds of sustainable strategies that can be employed in green remodeling–from improving insulation to using materials with recycled content and avoiding materials that off-gas toxic fumes–but, to my mind, they all fall into three main categories. I refer to these broad classifications as the three fundamentals of green remodeling: energy efficiency, resource conservation, and healthy living environments.

Energy efficiency is pretty straightforward. It is estimated that homes in the United States are responsible for 21% of global warming, which is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels. Substantial reductions are not only possible but also surprisingly cost-effective and easy to achieve. Typically, the homeowner’s energy-cost savings will pay for the cost of energy upgrades in a short time–anywhere from a few months to a few years. Switching to energy-saving lightbulbs, adding a programmable digital thermostat, and installing low-flow showerheads all have a payback of less than a year. A new geothermal heat pump system’s payback might take four to six years, depending on what kind of system it’s replacing and on the cost of energy where you live. The payback on photovoltaic solar panels is likely to be more than 10 years unless you live in a state with a generous incentive program. Leveraging these costs by rolling them into an amortizing mortgage can improve the financial advantage considerably.

Improving your home’s energy efficiency will save you money, but for many homeowners, the environmental benefits of energy efficiency are just as important. There are more than 75 million single-family homes in the United States. If even a small percentage of those could achieve, say, a 25% reduction in energy use, that would make a big dent in our fossil fuel consumption and its contribution to the climate crisis.

Resource conservation covers a lot of territory. The building and remodeling industry is a voracious consumer of a wide array of natural resources, many of which are already becoming scarce. We are using up a lot of things that we cannot afford to run low on. Water shortages are becoming acute in many areas, causing untold problems for industry, farmers, and homeowners. Deforestation is responsible for a vast increase in atmospheric CO2, as well as soil erosion, habitat loss, and a loss of biodiversity at rates not seen since the last great extinction 65 million years ago.

More than ever before, we need to make our homes more resource efficient. We need to find ways to use less lumber, less water, less steel, fewer virgin materials of all kinds: in short, less of everything. But, as we’ll see, that doesn’t have to mean sacrificing our homes’ beauty or comfort. It just means being smarter about what materials we use and how we use them.

Healthy living environments are shaped by several factors. Many commonly used building materials contain harmful chemical compounds that off-gas into the air we breathe.

So choice of materials is critical for healthy indoor air quality. But so are moisture management, adequate ventilation, and proper air filtration. Even your choice of furnishings and cleaning supplies will impact your total indoor environmental quality. For everyone concerned with their health (isn’t that just about everybody?), and especially for families with young children, a home with healthy indoor environmental quality is one of the prime benefits of green remodeling.

What Makes a Remodel Green
Every green remodel is different, and each one requires individual solutions to its unique challenges and opportunities. But they all have three things in common: energy efficiency, resource conservation, and healthy living environments. Let’s take a quick look at a few of the features that fall into each category.

Energy Efficiency

• A tight, well-insulated building envelope
• Efficient lighting and appliances
• Efficient water heating and space heating and cooling
• Passive solar heating
• Natural ventilation
• Ample daylight

Resource Conservation

• Efficient use of construction materials to minimize waste
• Materials with recycled content
• Reclaimed materials
• Rapidly renewable materials
• Water-saving plumbing fixtures

Healthy Living Environments

• Formaldehyde-free plywood and particleboard
• Low-VOC or zero-VOC paints and finishes
• Properly vented combustion heating equipment
• Kitchen range hoods vented to the outside
• Humidity control

There are a great many things you can do in each category to make your remodeling project greener. But how many of them do you need to be able to call your remodeled home green?

You don’t have to do everything. Some things won’t be applicable to your particular project, and some may not make sense to do for other reasons. But the bottom line is this: To call a remodel green, it needs to address each of the three fundamentals in some way. If it’s not energy efficient, it’s not green. If it doesn’t conserve materials or water or reduce the strain your home places on the environment, it’s not green. And if it’s not healthy to live in, it’s not green.