Green Home Remodeling Washington DC
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Falls Church, VA
Takoma Park, MD
Takoma Park, MD
So you've decided to remodel your home for whatever reason - more space for a growing family, updating old mechanical systems, changing an outdated floor plan or just trying to increase its value for resale. You've considered using energy-efficient and eco-friendly techniques and technologies, but you're concerned they will be too difficult and too expensive to implement.
The truth is, there are some difficulties and expenses unique to green and energy-efficient remodeling, but no more so than with conventional construction.
"A lot of green remodeling techniques are as simple as adding extra or better insulation, properly installing high-quality windows and sealing all cracks and crevices against air leakage," says Carl Seville, an independent consultant in the Atlanta area working on environmental construction issues. "That's all stuff we should be doing anyway."
Most experts estimate that during an extensive remodel, a home can be made more green and energy efficient with little to no extra expense, while many smaller jobs can cost an additional 5 to 10 percent. However, the extra energy efficiency, durability of the materials (meaning less maintenance and longer service), and a healthier, more comfortable home will more than make up for any added expense.
The best news is that, big job or small, many green and energy-efficient techniques are so relatively easy to implement and effective, there's no reason not to use them.
Probably the single most important factor determining the success of your remodel is whom you choose to design and/or build it. Look for an architect or contractor who can fully explain what green and energy-efficient elements he or she will incorporate into the remodel, and what benefits those elements will provide.
You should be comfortable with what the designer or contractor proposes to do, and that person should be open to your suggestions and preferences, even if you want to use a new product or technology that's unfamiliar to the designer/contractor. Most importantly, you and your designer/contractor should be prepared to spend extra time on design and specification.
"Contractors need to pay attention to detail," says Larry Byrnes, owner of Environmental Home Improvement in North Hollywood, Calif. "The entire crew has to be on the same page. If a worker runs out of a certain type of low-VOC [volatile organic compound] adhesive, for instance, he can't just run to the truck and finish up with whatever he has on hand. Even though he's trying to help, that can negate the benefits of the adhesive already used. The contractor has to be on top of that, and both he and the homeowners should understand that you may have to shut the job down for a few days or even longer until more of the right product is delivered."
If you're planning to use an architect, the American Institute of Architects website (see Remodeling Resources on page xx) has an Architect Finder feature, so you can search for those who list greenbuilding as one of their areas of expertise. Many green architects work regularly with certain contractors, so they should be able to recommend several from which you can choose.
If you're hiring only a contractor or possibly a design/build firm (architecture and construction from one company), one of the best places to start is your local or state homebuilders' association. In addition, many states and regions, such as Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colo., have greenbuilding programs that can provide a list of qualified professionals. And many of the websites listed on page xx have contractor locator features, so you can find the right fit.
One of the questions you should ask your architect or contractor is what sort of testing and evaluation is going to be performed before the renovation begins. At the very least, you'll want them to test the amount and location of air leaking into and out of the house and through the ducts. You also might want them to test for substances such as mold, asbestos and radon, and check the humidity level in the home. This will provide a baseline of home performance and could identify unseen problem areas. In addition, as with any other remodel, you should have your electrical, plumbing, mechanical and structural systems evaluated for code compliance and safety.
Then it's time to target specific areas for improvement. Some green improvements are easy to implement (upgrading insulation in open walls, using Energy Star appliances) while others can be tricky (sealing ductwork in enclosed walls). Essentially, improvements during the remodel will fall into three categories: indoor air quality, energy efficiency and the conservation of natural resources.
1. Improving Indoor Air Quality
Start by sealing the house to prevent leaks and drafts. This means lots of caulking and weather stripping, especially between the sill plate and the top of the foundation, and around doors, windows and other wall penetrations. A remodel is an ideal time to perform these tasks, since you may have to remove and replace some finishes to get behind them and seal any leaks.
Seal the ductwork for your HVAC system as well. You'll want to install high-efficiency filters, and make sure the HVAC equipment is sized properly. "Right-sizing your HVAC system is key," Seville says. "You have to first build it tight, but then vent it right."
Seville explains that homeowners used to oversize the HVAC system in draftier homes to make sure they could be heated and cooled even with the leaks. However, this is inefficient and could result in poor indoor air quality.
If an AC system is oversized, it will cycle on and off frequently, which will cool the air but won't remove humidity. That can lead to mold, mildew and bacteria growth inside your ducts, making them a pollutant distribution system.
"The single most effective technique we've used for improving indoor air quality is sealing and conditioning the attic space," Seville says. "After the whole house is sealed and we've performed the heat-loss calculations, we're often able to drop a full ton from the old HVAC system."
Another source of irritants is furniture and cabinetry built with particleboard, which contains formaldehyde. A healthy alternative is formaldehyde-free wheat board. Solid-wood cabinets are another healthy alternative, but they're expensive. Metal and stainless-steel cabinets are an option, but they usually look good only in homes of certain architectural styles. If you can't replace cabinets made with particleboard, one option is to seal and encapsulate them, but it can be tricky to seal all the necessary spots.
There is a number of other ways homeowners can improve indoor air quality during a remodel:
Instead of laying down carpet, which can trap dust and other irritants, use hard flooring materials such as bamboo, cork, tile, linoleum or wood with water-based finishes (but not vinyl).
Consider installing a central vacuum system, which will be effective at reducing airborne irritants, especially when paired with hard flooring.
Instead of drywall, Byrnes often uses plaster. "Drywall itself is fine, but many of the joint compounds contain chemicals that can off-gas," he explains. "Plus, plaster is harder and more impact-resistant, and it can be textured and pigmented, eliminating the need to paint."
To ensure proper ventilation in the bathroom, both Byrnes and Seville install simple timers on vent fans. "People often don't use the fans long enough," Byrnes says. "It can take up to 60 minutes to vent all the moist air from a bathroom after a shower."
2. Improving Energy Efficiency
Air sealing and HVAC improvements will help you breathe easier and reduce your energy bills. Adding insulation is another great way to cut energy bills, and it's easily done during an extensive remodel, when many walls are opened up.
Spray-in foam insulations, such as Icynene, will provide high R-values and effective air sealing. Other options include low-chemical insulation - such as soybean-based BioBase 501 spray-in foam - blown-in insulation using recycled denim fibers, formaldehyde-free fiberglass batting, or blown-in cellulose, which is a good option if you won't be opening existing walls, according to Seville.
Sometimes, though, Seville says, homeowners get too hung up on adding insulation, to the point where it ceases to become cost-effective. "Here in the south, where we have mild temperature fluctuations, insulation is less important than sealing a house tight," he notes. The Department of Energy has created an online tool that uses your Zip code to help you calculate the amount of insulation appropriate for your home. You can access the tool by visiting http://www.ornl.gov/sci/roofs+walls/insulation/ins_05.html.
Upgrading single-glazed or deteriorated windows is another way to realize big energy savings. Look for the Energy Star label on your new windows, or at least make sure they are insulated (IG) units with warm-edge spacers. "You have to get quality windows," Seville says, "but they also have to be installed properly to seal against drafts and moisture intrusion."
Other tips for improving your home's energy efficiency during a remodel:
Install Energy Star appliances, building components and lighting fixtures.
Install ceiling fans where improved air circulation will benefit heating/cooling.
Take advantage of passive solar design by orienting windows properly to reduce solar heat gain in the summer while increasing it in the winter. Make sure shade trees and roof overhangs are optimized for this as well.
More intensive passive solar design, such as using a masonry wall made of concrete block, brick or stone veneer for thermal massing, may be an option if no drastic changes are required to the floor plan or site orientation. Installing a double layer of drywall also can be effective.
3. Conserving Natural Resources
You can easily save some of the planet's fresh-water supply, and reduce your water bill, by installing low-flow fixtures in the kitchen and bath. These may be the simple shower and faucet heads you see at any home supply store, or you may want to look into other options, such as automatic faucets with infrared sensors (like those used in commercial and public washrooms) and dual-flush toilets (with two buttons on the top of the tank - one for a 0.8-gallon flush and the other for a more powerful 1.6-gallon flush).
Tankless water heaters and on-demand hot-water pumps also can reduce water use and save you money. Tankless water heaters produce hot water as you need it, eliminating standby heat loss of tank-style heaters. On-demand hot water pumps can be operated by motion detector, where the pump starts to bring hot water to the tap as soon as a person enters the room, or by push-button, which the user presses before turning on the hot-water tap. Instead of letting water run down the drain until it heats up, the pump circulates water in the pipes, sending cold water back to the water heater and hot water to the tap faster. This prevents thousands of gallons of water from being wasted every year and saves hundreds of dollars per year for a typical family. "I have them in my own home, and they work very well," Seville says.
You and your contractor also can reduce the environmental impact of your renovation by choosing products made with recycled content (engineered lumber, certain brands of vinyl siding, composite decking, etc.) and/or natural and abundant materials, such as cork, bamboo or locally quarried stone.
You also can choose lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which is harvested in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. "FSC-certified lumber is more available than it used to be," Byrnes says, "but you still need to plan ahead and might have to order it from multiple lumberyards in order to get what you need when you need it."
Finally, check with your contractor to see what type of waste reduction program he or she has implemented for job-site waste. With even minimal effort, you can reduce by thousands of pounds the amount of construction waste hauled from your home to landfills. You can take the following steps to reduce construction waste:
Make sure designed dimensions correspond to standard building component sizes - wall lengths in multiples of 4 or 8, for example, so there's no waste of sheathing panels or wallboard.
Order carefully. For instance, you can order drywall in a mixture of 8- and 12-foot lengths to cover an area efficiently, as opposed to ordering all of one or the other.
Donate large scraps to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
Send old carpet, cardboard, vinyl siding, asphalt shingles and other waste to recycling centers (which may not be available in all areas).
Salvage old lumber and components, and send them to a salvage yard for reconditioning and re-sale.
Once your remodel is complete, your contractor should perform another home performance evaluation. This will demonstrate just how effective your extra time, effort and money have been. "It can be a long road and process," Byrnes says, "but it's getting easier and more rewarding to go green all the time."
Rob Fanjoy wrote about kitchen ventilation in the Sept./Oct. 2005 issue. He's based in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Seven Principles to Building a Better Home
1. Start with the end in mind: A house provides shelter and securty, but a home can be much more.
2. The more time you put in on the front end, the better the end result: Start reading magazines and brouchures and visting showrooms to learn about everything important for your home before construction starts.
3. Do it right the first time: Planning not to complete the basement and to get the ipgraded amenities later is a plan that will never be completed.
4. Hire the best and expect the best reults: Nobody wants a cheap and nonstructural and mechanical problems after the home is completed.
5. Take care of the people building your home and they will take care of you: Not only will they go the extra mile, but when you need a favor they will be glad to oblige.
6. Maintain the bar: Expect what you asked for and don’t settle for ‘good enough’.
7. Change your mind: Everything looks good on paper, but you may need to change your mind.
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