One of the outcomes of the recession is that more homeowners have delayed the new home purchase for sustainable remodeling of their existing home.
A few upgrades following the basic tenants of sustainability – reduce, reuse and recycle – often can produce durable solutions that don’t deplete the earth’s natural resources. And that’s good for the environment as well as the pocketbook.
The buzzword among those in the green industry these days seems to be holistic, a whole-house approach to remodeling and saving energy. Viewing your home as a complete system with inter-dependent parts is the first step to saving energy and ensuring your renovation dollars are spent wisely, says Lori Tugman, sustainable design coordinator for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).
Where to get started
“You might start on one section and it affects something else in the house,” Tugman says.
For example, you want to re-tile a bathroom, but when you start removing the old material, you discover an electrical issue and a leaky pipe, she says. “Sometimes it starts to snowball.”
A comprehensive home assessment is a better way to begin any informed sustainable remodeling project, according to REGREEN, a training program and resource for residential remodeling co-sponsored by ASID and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
REGREEN’s home assessment form, available online, evaluates a home’s existing conditions including performance, structural integrity, hazards, interior finishes and space usage, www.regreenprogram.org.
In some cases, better space planning can make the difference between “reconfiguring the existing footprint and an expensive addition,” Tugman says. Instead of adding say 500 square foot onto a home, consider taking a few feet from an adjoining closet or bedroom. Perhaps, opening a doorway or closing a wall could improve traffic flow, she says.
“People want to live in and enjoy their homes. If it’s not functional, for me, it’s not livable.”
Practicing what she preaches, Tugman recently upgraded her kitchen appliances to more energy-efficient models and relocated some of the kitchen cabinets to her utility room, donating the rest to a family in need.
A few non-profit organizations accept donations of gently used appliances and Habitat for Humanity will also take reusable building materials. Not only are you freeing up space in the landfills, you reap the tax benefits from the charitable donations.
Finding additional incentives
Those aren’t the only incentives for sustainable remodeling. Homeowners can still apply for tax credits and rebates for energy-efficient improvements. Most of the federal credits for 2010 purchases have expired and should be filed by tax day. But Congress extended a few of the credits for appliances and retrofits, now offered at a reduced rate.
Other federal incentives, for such items as heat pumps, solar systems and high-efficiency gas furnaces, are available through 2016. Depending on where you live, you may also be eligible for state, local and utility incentives. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency website for more information.
Not enough of a reward for helping Mother Nature? How about saving money on your utility bills by reducing your home’s energy drain? The U.S. Department of Energy recommends a home energy audit to pinpoint problem areas, help you set priorities, and find effective remedies, www.energysavers.gov. You can conduct the audit yourself, check whether your local utility company offers one or hire an independent third-party for a more complete exam at the Residential Energy Services Network website.
Being an educated consumer guards against inefficient purchases. “Even a top-of-the-line, energy-efficient furnace will waste lots of fuel if the ducts, walls, attic, windows and doors are not properly sealed and insulated,” the DOE reports in its Energy Savers Booklet, accessible online.
And you may be able to guide your contractors if you know which paints and products release toxins, Tugman says. “Most painters have a favorite brand. You might say: ‘I know the effects of VOC [Volatile Organic Compound] paints and I want you to use this low VOC paint.’” Many of the major paint companies have their own version, she says.
As with all of your sustainable remodeling decisions and expenses, be wary of “greenwashing,” a popular marketing ploy touting the environmental sensitivity of a certain product, vendor or service, Tugman cautions. REGREEN offers a variety of resources for homeowners, and you can confirm a vendor’s green certification through USGBC, www.usgbc.org, the National Association of Home Builders (www.nahb.green.org) or Build it Green, www.builditgreen.org.