Green Remodeling – The 6 Most Important Principles to Consider

So you’re planning to remodel all or part of your home.  You want to be “green” but you don’t know where to start or are confused by all the green product hype.

First, remodeling – almost by its very definition – is “green”.  You’re taking a resource with tremendous embedded energy costs and you’re re-using it.  For most of my clients who live in Washington DC or it’s very close-in suburbs, this is especially true because of the proximity to services and transportation.  For example, I can easily walk to the grocery store, drug store and Metro (mass transit).  But you can make your remodel remarkable un-green unless you follow the following 5 steps:

Keep as much as possible out of the dumpster!
Donate or Sell reusable components: Community Forklift (in my area) or the Habitat for Humanity Re-stores (around the Country &  the world) will take all cabinets, countertops, and major appliances that are in good condition for resale – and you can take the value off your taxes as a charitable contribution.  If you want to earn a little money, use Craig’s List instead to sell the same components.
Sort construction debris into recycle streams such as concrete, metal, wood, cardboard and plastic and use a Roll-off Company that recycles.  I’m aware of 2 in our area:  Nova
and EAI.  There may be additional waste companies that actively recycle construction waste streams.

Recycle Construction Waste
Sign for Recycling Wood Construction Waste

Re- Use your own or others components.  You’ll be surprised at the quality of materials you can find at Community Forklift and the Habitat for Humanity Stores – including cabinets, countertops, plumbing fixtures, doors, windows, radiators and anything else you need to buy for your remodel.  They might not be the right style for the homeowner who donated them but they might be just right for you – or just right with some sanding and a coat of paint.

or limit your expansion to a small bump-out or limited addition.  The less room you use, the less you need to heat and cool, the less material you need, and you limit the impact on the root zone of existing trees and shrubs.  In my opinion, when you turn a 2000 sf home into a 5000 sf home for 2 people, there is no number of solar collectors or other interventions that can make the remodel “green”.  Even if you achieve net zero energy usage and don’t need to spend money to heat the space that you rarely use, you have still wasted an extraordinary amount of energy and water to build the rarely used space.

If you’re removing the interior plaster or drywall or the exterior siding or stucco, take the time to insulate the cavity.  I’m a huge proponent of spray foam insulation but trust your building contractor about what’s right in your circumstances.  If you’re not removing the interior or exterior wall cladding, but you’re still having going to have to repair and repaint walls, take the opportunity to blow in insulation through holes drilled in each wall cavity.  Also take the opportunity of having workers onsite to seal all drafts and places where air leaks into and out of your home. They are the biggest winners, while conversely if you don’t take care of them they’ll undo the effectiveness of any other improvements. Many of the biggest ones are hidden; for instance, the vertical chase of each “wet wall” (space for pipes behind your tubs and showers) is usually open to the attic.

– Major Mechanical Systems – Don’t throw away major systems that are working and working efficiently.  But if you’re replacing your furnace, look at the possibility of a geothermal system.  If that’s not feasible, definitely buy as efficient a system as you can afford.  If you need to replace your hot water heater, consider a hybrid system, a solar system, or a tankless system.  Factor in energy tax credits and incentives when you calculate the costs.
– Water Conservation – When you’re specifying the kitchen and bath plumbing fixtures, don’t forget to think about water savings features like a foot control for the faucets and low flow fixtures.  You should absolutely factor rainwater collection into the design or your roof and drainage systems.
– Energy Conservation – Think LED and Fluorescent lighting – only.  Don’t even consider incandescent fixtures and lamps.  Always buy energy star appliances and components.
The opportunities for energy and water savings systems are tremendous today and getting better with each passing day.

Actively consider the operating and maintenance costs of the materials you specify.   For example, the lower maintenance costs – in just a few years – of integrally colored fiber cement siding far exceeds the increase in initial installation.

6.  USE LOCAL RESOURCES: Recycled content in countertops is all the rage today.  But using a local craftsman to hand-craft a concrete countertop is far more environmentally friendly than having that countertop using recycled materials shipped across the country and especially shipped from overseas!.

Only after you incorporate these 6 concepts into your remodel should you consider the “green” provenance of specific materials such as countertops, flooring, and other components.

For additional information, both the cities of Seattle and Portland have produced invaluable guides about green remodeling.
Seattle’s Green Remodeling Guides
Portland Green Remodeling Guide

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