At its best, green remodeling can be viewed as a way to evolve. Our persona is more than just our body, mind, and soul. It includes everything that we manifest into the world.

Green Remodeling: Redefining The Way We Live

Sara Gutterman | Green Builder

Green Remodeling

At its best, green remodeling can be viewed as a way to evolve. Our persona is more than just our body, mind, and soul. It includes everything that we manifest into the world.

by Sara Gutterman, Green Builder

When most people think about remodeling, visions of new countertops, additional square footage, and voluminous piles of dust come to mind. Individuals attuned to green building issues may also think about improving indoor air quality by getting rid of noxious mold or reducing energy bills by installing windows with high R-values and low-emissivity coatings. However, while these issues are important to consider, the process of green remodeling is so much more than new carpet, a bigger pantry, or better energy efficiency. It is a process through which we can redefine the way we live, a clean slate upon which we can express our visions, dreams, and principles.

In this way, remodeling is nothing less than a renaissance, a rebirth. Individuals get the opportunity to move walls that exist not only within their home, but in their hearts as well. The process offers a vehicle through which people can manifest and integrate their core values into their sacred space.

Begin with the end in mind

In order to accomplish the most desirable sustainable outcome, it is important to begin the process of remodeling with the end result in mind. Before you start designing your new space, think about your objectives. Rather than jumping straight to images of radiant heat to keep your feet warm under grainy wood floors or the sumptuous vegetables from the backyard organic garden that you can't wait to prepare in your newly renovated kitchen, take a step back and ask yourself a few fundamental questions.

The first layer of questions relates to personal issues. What are you really trying to accomplish? Are you updating an antiquated home? Have you outlived the functionality of your current design? Are you adding more space because of a change in lifestyle? Are you simply tired of your interiors and want something new?

Understanding the personal impetus behind your desire to remodel is paramount so that you can optimize your new design. Think about how you live in your home. Consider which spaces you use and which ones sit dark and lonely for most of the year, waiting those few special evenings when partygoers enter and infuse them momentarily with life. Many modern designs do not actually fit the needs of the typical homeowner. They often contain formal living spaces that remain unused because of their size and lack of intimacy. When we can understand that interior space is a precious resource just like clean water, air, and soil, we can begin to think more sustainably about it.

There is not one simple solution to our needs. Appropriate building solutions differ based on things like climate, geography, and natural systems. For example, while mold-resistant products are desirable in all climates, they are essential in regions of high humidity. And while passive solar strategies, such as shadings with overhangs and vegetation, are important in all areas of the country, they are particularly important in the sunbelt region. It is important to research appropriate materials, technologies, and systems for your location.

The second layer of questions pertains to our collective footprint on our precious planet. Will your new design be environmentally appropriate, sensitive, and responsible? Will it respond appropriately to the landform upon which it sits and compliment the surrounding neighborhood? Will your house be durable and long-lasting, so that you are not creating problems for yourself or future owners of the home? Will the new design be adaptable for future uses once it has outlived your specific current needs?

By asking yourself questions about the environmental impact that your remodeling project will have, you have the ability to affect what you can't see with what you can see, thereby addressing important global issues such as water and energy efficiency, waste minimization, recycling and reuse scenarios, pollution control, local resource and labor use, global warming, and old growth forest protection.

Bigger is not necessarily better

Many people think that when a house isn't working for them, it is because they need more space. This misconception costs people a significant amount of money and energy, and it contributes to environmental degradation. As Sarah Susanka, architect and author of The Not So Big House (Taunton Press, 2001) says, "typically, when people are unsatisfied with their homes, it is not because they need more space, but because existing spaces are underutilized. Most people need to rethink the ways in which they use their existing space. Remodeling allows individuals to alter the way they live in their space so that their homes fit better."

More square footage does not necessarily translate into more home. Instead of adding more space, try to think about how you can transform the space that you have into more functional areas. Consider multiple uses for rooms and think carefully about how you furnish them so that they actually lend themselves to their preconceived use.

In order to better understand the functionality of spaces within a home, Sarah Susanka suggests making a list of all of the rooms in the house, measuring their square footage, and counting how many times per year they are used. She recommends that if a room is used less than four times per year, you probably don't need it and should transform it into a space that will be used more regularly.

Getting messy

Once you have thought about how you will utilize your house and created with a design that will fit your personal and ecological needs, then the real fun of demolition and construction begins. Many older homes are actually structurally superior to modern ones, due to the fact that higher quality lumber was used (lumber quality has dropped significantly over the years), more masonry materials (such as natural stone, bricks, and tile) were used, and more time was taken for construction and detail. However, the energy and water efficiency of older homes are typically vastly inferior to their modern counterparts because of major advances in insulation products and strategies, window and door technology, heating and cooling systems, appliances, and wiring and piping systems.

The first step to take when remodeling a home is to look at the existing structural form, which includes the foundation, below-grade walls, floor structure, roof frame, and bearing walls. If any of these items are not structurally sound, make it your top priority to upgrade them.

Next, examine existing mechanical and wiring systems. This is particularly important in homes built prior to the 1970's when U.S. regulations relating to energy efficiency were created due to the energy crises, (most notably through the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1987, and the Energy Policy Act of 1992) requiring manufacturing companies to meet codes and divulge information about ratings and efficiency levels of their products. If there are any code violations or health or safety issues pertaining to the mechanical system in your home, replace appropriate components immediately. If the various elements of the mechanical system are safe and replacement boils down to a financial decision, do an equation for long-term savings relative to the amount of money you will save in energy and water bills.

Many older homes do not have adequate distribution of wiring or electrical capacity to properly serve the large demand placed on the system by modern appliances and devices. Be prepared to make upgrades to assure code compliance (which is important for resale considerations), safety, and proper capacity. Replace any aluminum wiring, which has been well documented as a fire hazard. Older mechanical systems furnaces, boilers, and water heaters have the potential to create unsafe levels of carbon dioxide if they aren't properly vented or have defects. These devices should be inspected by a professional or a local gas company to assure safety.

Also, when demolishing walls or existing infrastructure, watch for dangerous materials such as asbestos and lead paint. These materials were commonly used in older houses and need to be removed or sealed by a professional who practices accepted techniques for encasing toxins. There may also be lead solder in pipes, which can lead to corruption of drinking and washing water, in which case you should consider replacing the water line.

Other health and safety considerations include:

  • Checking bedrooms for adequate egresses-many older homes have windows that are too small for modern requirements relative to fire rescue, and they often do not have smoke detectors or fire suppression systems.
  • Inspecting fireplaces to make sure that they are functioning properly and do not have leaks or cracks in the chimney flue. Many older homes have fireplaces that would not pass modern building codes because they have combustible materials (such as newspaper) in contact with the firebox or flue.
  • Measuring stairs to make sure that they are not too steep-older homes often contained stairs that had taller risers and narrower treads than modern code allows, as well as railings that are of inadequate height or ballusters that are too widely spaced.

Another consideration when remodeling is indoor environment quality, which encompasses issues such as air quality, sound attenuation, temperature and humidity control, mold and mildew, lighting, and proper ventilation. Poor indoor air quality can contribute to asthma and ADD in children, as well as other maladies such as heart and lung problems, headaches, and blurred vision. Unhealthy indoor air can often be linked to materials, coverings, and surfaces that 'off-gas', letting off toxic particles and volatile compounds into the air. Inadequate ventilation also contributes to poor indoor air quality by trapping pollutants inside the home and not flushing them out with outdoor air. High temperature and humidity levels increase concentrations of pollutants, mold, and mildew within a living space.

In order to improve indoor air quality:

  • Repair leaks, penetrations, or weather infiltration in the building envelope, windows, doors, drains, or water pipes that may invite mold and mildew into the building envelope (you can do a meter test to see if you have leaks: shut off your water, benchmark the water meter level, leave the water off for 24 hours, then check your meter-if you have movement in the meter level, you know you have a leak) • Choose materials that do not off-gas, such as formaldehyde-free cabinets, paints with low volatile organic compound (VOC) counts, and fabrics and rugs made from natural fibers such as cotton or wool.
  • Utilize alternative heating and cooling systems, such as radiant under-floor heat, that do not blow dust particles from ducts into the air.
  • Implement appropriate ventilation and filtration strategies by installing systems that control indoor air climate, thereby mitigating mold, mildew, and the buildup of other toxins.
  • Create a blend of natural and energy efficient, artificial lighting (such as florescent lighting) for optimum effect. Lighting has a significant impact on health, productivity, and quality of life. Consider appropriate aesthetic designs and illumination qualities for specific lighting purposes.

Energy efficiency is another important consideration when remodeling. In his book, New Ecological Home (Chelsea Green, 2004), Dan Chiras makes a compelling argument that, although energy-efficient homes may initially cost more to create, they are worth the cost outlay due to savings on utility bills, increased comfort, and reduced environmental impact. They may even allow homeowners to take advantage of energy efficient mortgage products that reward lower energy costs. Many older homes weren't insulated properly and did not utilize passive solar design strategies, such as appropriate siting and building form; orientation; properly sized thermal mass; shading and overhangs; glass positioning and material selection; ventilation; and appropriate room placement. According to the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council, buildings that are planned with passive design strategies can reduce energy demand by 30-50%. Also, when possible, incorporate renewable energy systems, high-efficiency appliances, and building components that reduce heating and cooling loads.

Water is another important issue to consider. Low-flow plumbing devices and landscaping irrigation systems can significantly reduce water demand. Pervious materials and storm water harvesting systems can retain water on a site. Harvested storm water can be used for landscaping and other non-potable applications, moderating demand for water from municipal systems, decreasing the amount of energy that is required for the treatment process, and mitigating costs. Furthermore, by retaining water at a building site, the amount of water that is channeled away from the site via costly, environmentally destructive drainage systems is reduced. Typically, these drainage systems are made of impervious materials (concrete, asphalt, etc.) and transport water through a maze of conduits, where the water picks up waste and toxic materials (pet feces, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) and dumps them into far away rivers, lakes, and oceans.

When you remodel you will, invariably, contribute to the waste stream. What will become of that old, warn-out water heater, the chipped, stained cast-iron bath, or the leaky windows? According to the environmental department of the state of New Mexico, approximately 40% of the volume of material that goes into a landfill is from demolition and construction. By making choices that decrease the amount of waste that you generate, you can not only positively affect the environment by minimizing the amount of material that you send to the landfill, but also save yourself time, effort and money. The responsibility of waste falls on the homeowner and the contractor, so establishing a partnership with your contractor to minimize waste and finding ways to recycle existing materials (rather than exporting them to the landfill) can be an important step towards reducing your ecological imprint. Whenever possible, reuse or recycle products that you already have in your home. Refinishing furniture or fixtures can often be a cost-effective, sustainable may to create change within your interior environment. When getting rid of used products and materials, research local programs that will pick-up and refurbish old products. Your community may have programs that accept used building materials and products for reuse or resale.

If you are purchasing new materials:

  • Choose organic, low-impact, and healthy products such as bamboo flooring, natural fiber carpeting, natural plasters, and low VOC paints and stains, as well as non-synthetic, natural furnishings and accessories, such as bedding, linens, and cleaning products.
  • Whenever possible, use products made with high levels of salvaged (natural stone, lumber), recycled (fly ash in concrete), or agricultural byproduct (wheatboard and linoleum) content. These types of products reduce resource demand and keep waste out of landfills.
  • Choose products that are durable and low-maintenance, which are desirable because they need to be refinished and replaced less often, saving money and energy in the long-term.
  • Try to use products that are locally or regionally produced. Local products support the local economy and may have lower levels of embodied energy, meaning that they require less energy and fewer resources during the production process (including the acquisition of primary material, manufacturing and handling), and especially in transportation.

For more information on green building materials, refer to Green Building Products: The GreenSpec® Guide to Residential Building Materials edited by Alex Wilson and Mark Piepkorn (New Society Publishers, 2004). A comprehensive directory of environmentally appropriate products and materials, GreenSpec, complied by BuildingGreen, Inc. (which also puts out Environmental Building News), is the leading national directory of green building products. Manufacturers do not pay to be listed in GreenSpec, and BuildingGreen does not carry advertising in any of its publications, which allows the company to be nonbiased in its coverage of green building products.

Another useful resource is the Real Goods Solar Living Sourcebook - 12th Edition The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Technologies and Sustainable Living edited by John Schaeffer (New Society Publishers, 2004), a resource guide for renewable energy, sustainable living, alternative construction, green building, homesteading, off-the-grid living, and alternative transportation.

Express your inner self

As arduous as it may seem, moving walls and fixing pipes is actually the easy part of remodeling. The real challenge is in blending the charm of older residences with the updated designs, efficiencies, and conveniences of modern construction, and then infusing it all with a statement about who you are and how you want to live.

If sustainability is part of your core value system, remodeling is a good option. As my partner, esteemed green builder Ron Jones, says, "in its essence, remodeling is the greenest type of development because it does not require a greenfield site (an undisturbed area) and does not necessarily cause additional environmental damage. By not adding to sprawl and utilizing existing infrastructure, people who remodel help to improve the economic value of a neighborhood while minimizing their ecological footprint."

At its best, green remodeling can be viewed as a way to evolve. Our persona is more than just our body, mind, and soul. It includes everything that we manifest into the world. Our home, our most sacred space, should reflect our core values. If we choose to surround ourselves with synthetic materials and toxic products, we are choosing a particular reality that may result in sickness, lack of productivity, and a low quality of life. If, instead, we choose to surround ourselves with sustainably harvested products, materials that do not off-gas, and environmentally appropriate technologies and designs, we create an enhanced life that is healthier, safer, and, ultimately, more conscious.

Ron Jones and Sara Gutterman are Co- Founders of Green Builder®, a leading development and consulting firm in the green building space. Green Builder® is entirely dedicated to sustainable development, bringing environmental, economic, and spiritual health to people and projects. For more information on green building and remodeling, visit or email Sara at

Green remodeling: a case in point

Stace McGee, architect and Founder of Environmental Dynamics, a green architecture firm in Albuquerque, recently remodeled his 1,745 square foot house. In addition to significant changes made to the existing space, he added 1,600 square feet due to lifestyle changes and a growing family.

Stace redesigned his house not only to respond to the local Pueblo style of the vibrant 1930's community in which it is located, but also to regenerate the landform upon which it sits. "We wanted to design a house that would give something back to the land and the community by having minimal impact on the local ecosystem and global economy," Stace said. "In order to meet these requirements, we designed the house using a whole systems approach, looking at all of the natural and mechanical systems as a whole so that each could be designed for maximum efficiency and integration."

Incorporating passive solar design into the existing building envelope was one of Stace's primary concerns. He used strategies such as orientation, correctly sized overhangs, thermal mass, and proper ventilation to reduce heating and cooling demand by approximately 50 percent. Fenestrations in exterior elevations allowed Stace to take maximum advantage of the views, solar access in the winter, and cooling winds in summer. Stace did not place any windows on the northern side of the house, which serves as a deflective barrier to harsh winter winds.

To mitigate heating and cooling demand, Stace added inch thick reflective rigid insulation over the existing penitentiary block that comprised the building envelope. The rigid insulation separates the mass of the penitentiary block from the outside air temperatures, allowing interior temperature to remain consistent throughout the day and seasons. He also placed an insulating membrane over the roof to reflect unwanted heat gain. The R-values for the exterior wall system and roof system are 32 and 44 respectively (compared to a typical insulation package of R-13 and R-19).

Instead of replacing the existing forced-air system within the home, Stace created an innovative way to optimize its performance and improve air quality. In the winter, hot air is drawn from the first and second floor ceiling planes into a central domed plenum space, where it is mixed with pre-heated fresh air and returned to the furnace. A heat exchanger panel on the roof also draws cool air from upstairs closets into the same plenum space, heating it along the way in roof panels. Because of these heating systems innovations, Stace spends an average of $150 a month in the winter for gas and electric, which is the same amount that he spent heating the original 1,745 square foot space.

In the summer, the same natural convective loop draws hot air into the plenum space and flushes it out with a whole-house exhaust fan. The ventilation system is so effective that all Stace has to do to cool the house is open the windows on the ground floor and turn on the exhaust fan.

Almost all of the material used in the house has a high recycled content and is non-toxic, including recycled red oak and bamboo floors (both with a water base finish), recycled tile floors, recycled exterior doors, natural plaster with integrated color, Sherwin Williams non-toxic paints, Silestone countertops (which has a high recycled content and is anti-microbial), and formaldehyde-free cabinets. He also recycled as much material as he could from his existing house demolition, and he incorporated daylighting throughout the entire house by installing dome windows and solatube skylights.

For greater water efficiency, Stace installed an extremely efficient low-flow toilet (Cimarron by Kohler), which utilizes 1.4 gallons per flush (typical low-flow toilets use 1.6 gallons per flush), as well as low-flow bath and kitchen fixtures and efficient kitchen appliances. He also created a water harvesting system, which diverts water from his roof to a holding cistern. Harvested water is used for exterior courtyard convective cooling and landscape watering.

Stace was able to recycle 75 percent of waste from the job site, minimizing the need for large roll-off dumpsters and saving himself a significant amount of money.

The end result of Stace's efforts is an authentic, environmentally sensitive home that effectively embodies not only the character of its community, but also the elements of green building. Through this project, Stace was able to express his core values and tangibly manifest his desire for greater stewardship.

For more information on this project or Environmental Dynamics, visit

Green Remodeling Resources

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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