You've had just about enough of taping plastic wrap over your windows each winter. Your gutter overflow creates rivers in your front yard. So, inspired by great tax incentives, you’ve decided to renovate your home (finally!) with Mother Nature in mind. Where to start? If funds are limited, what are the most important remodels to tackle? Here are 10 things to consider before you pick up the sledgehammer:
1. Ask an expert
Even if you are planning a DIY-remodel, you should consult with the folks at your local green homebuilders association or HBA. These organizations, like Atlanta’s EarthCraft House, are educational nonprofits that set criteria for the most up-to-date environmental homebuilding processes and practices. They also help you, the consumer, understand what’s going on and why, and they can point you in the right direction when it comes to supplies and starter projects.
2. Energy efficiency
Georgia Pacific’s Barry Reid can’t emphasize energy efficiency enough in a green renovation. And it doesn’t have to drain your 401(k), either. “You can cut your energy bill 30 percent by making smart, small changes,” he says. He advises renovators to get their green HBA to conduct an energy audit to see where the house is leaking air. Small changes such as adding/updating insulation, caulking windows and sealing ductwork can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint without breaking the bank. Add updated, efficient appliances and you’ve made a big difference already.
3. Windows to your soul
If you have an old home, you might have noticed a chilly draft coming in from old windows — possibly the biggest source of heat loss in your home. It might not, however, be necessary to replace your entire window to make an Earth-conscious renovation decision. Consult your green HBA to see if you can replace just the sash around your window, add storm windows, shade screens, or simply reseal and caulk the edges. According to Carl Seville of Seville Consulting, an Atlanta-based green building consulting firm, "replacement windows are generally not worth the investment" in all but the most extreme climate zones. Take care to seal the windows and make a world of difference.
According to EarthCraft’s renovation guide, “In many homes, basements are major heat sinks due to poor insulation and air leaks. In addition, radon, mold, dust, and other contaminants can collect in the basement and enter the house.” If you’re already insulating the house, you should definitely include the basement and foundation in your renovation plans. If insulation wasn’t on your checklist, you should consider having your basement treated and/or waterproofed to make your home more Earth-friendly. While you’re down there, make sure your pipes are insulated, your doors are sealed, and, if necessary, the basement airflow is sealed off from the rest of your house.
5. Nice ducts
Speaking of airflow, Seville says HVAC upgrades are some of the most efficient, sustainable changes you can make to your home. “Spend more money on sealing your home and install a smaller, more efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning unit that is designed properly for your home,” he says. Seville bristles at the notion that bigger is better and also emphasizes that location is just as important. “Where your HVAC system goes matters,” he says, “Putting ducts in the attic means using more energy to cool your house … which is why you can put a smaller unit in the basement to achieve the same effect with less!” Seville’s motto, “Build it tight; ventilate right!” is more than just a catchphrase. He says this philosophy is “key to making a house comfortable and efficient year round.”
6. When it rains, it pours
Better water management can be an inexpensive and fantastically effective upgrade to any home. Internal improvements such as blanketing your hot water heater and installing low-flush toilets will help you consume less water and energy, but outdoor fixes can be extremely important, too. You might consider reshaping your landscaping to draw water away from your foundation or “planting” a grass parking spot to help control storm runoff.
Keeping this water away from your home can only mean good things for the longevity of the building. Reid says, “People are often surprised by how leaky houses are, by how much water is actually getting into houses through vents or windows or the tops of doors.” Small details like the flashing around your chimney can mean the difference between water cascading off your roof and flowing into your ceiling plaster.
7. Repurpose your old materials
Seville insists that, “Remodeling is inherently a sustainable business,” and a huge part of this equation is the way in which your contractor repurposes your old materials. Seville advises clients that lumber is easily ground into landscaping wood chips or donated to furniture makers, bricks and stone can be used on other construction sites. The best part about finding new homes for appliances or construction supplies? Many of the organizations accepting the donations are nonprofits, which means you get a tax benefit to boot!
8. Interior details
One of the easiest ways to improve air quality in your house is to rip out the carpet and stop wearing shoes indoors. According to Seville, “You should use hard surface flooring wherever possible and put down some rugs that you can easily move and clean.” If you feel compelled to put down carpet, make sure you are choosing a sustainably produced carpet (pay attention to the pad and adhesives, too!).
Other interior details such as energy-efficient appliances, motion-sensor lighting, and low-VOC paint on the walls make it easy to finish off a green renovation.
9. Materials matter
If you’re spending the money for a green renovation, you’re definitely concerned with the materials supporting and finishing your home. While your first instinct might be to use materials that are entirely organic or made from recycled materials, Reid says this isn’t always the best overall choice. “A rapidly renewable product might put you at risk for water damage because it’s slower to dry and more absorbent.
Sometimes the most forgiving materials with the best longevity are not the most obviously green,” he says. Reid encourages homeowners to consider durability and, based on your specific climate, “choose materials that support the long-term viability of the home.” What does this mean? Reid says you need to consider what parts of your home are most vulnerable to moisture — generally the basement, kitchen and bathroom. “Non-paper faced wallboards in these critical areas can lower your risk for moisture and potential mold,” he says. “It’s all about choosing a material that’s in line with what you want to accomplish with the space.”
10. Maximize your space
Many people feel they need to expand their home and approach renovation to get more space. Seville urges homeowners to really maximize their current living space — you might be surprised how cozy and comfortable your house could become. “People have rooms they just don’t use,” he says, citing easy changes like opening up doorways or switching the use of a room as ways to “add” living space to a home.
If you've got an unfinished attic and are looking to convert it into a living space, Seville emphasizes taking care of business while you are up there (insulating, sealing, properly ventilating) to make your house “bigger” and come out with a lower energy footprint. The same holds true for a basement — seal it from moisture, and it will become a useful space that no longer takes away from the comfort and air quality of your home.
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