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Green Remodel Project

Green Remodeling Is Different than Building New, but the Goals Are the Same

This section addresses the unique challenges of remodeling a home

Old or existing homes can be made more energy efficient, by using the best building and design practices, and by incorporating materials that are the least harmful to the environment.

Regardless of the project you undertake, think about green remodeling in a larger sense―how each change relates to the house as a whole and how each project can make the house greener.

About Green Remodeling

Remodeling an existing house is inherently greener than building a new one.
Americans spend roughly $200 billion a year remodeling their homes. The scope of these projects varies from simply repainting a kitchen to gutting a house down to the studs. What all remodels have in common is that they are upgrading rather than replacing, rebuilding rather than building new. And from an energy resources point of view, remodeling a house, rather than building a brand new one with all new materials on a previously undeveloped site, is a green thing to do.

What makes a remodel green? In a nutshell, it means seeking the same objectives with a remodel as we would in new construction: energy efficiency, resource conservation, and a healthy indoor environment. You get there the same way as new construction: planning and design. Begin with a home energy audit to see where the biggest greening opportunities are, and then look for ways to roll improvements into the scope of future remodeling plans.

More About Green Remodeling

Rebuilding green requires looking back while thinking ahead.
In many ways, builders who specialize in new construction have an easier time of it than green remodelers. Integrated design gets everyone on the project thinking about the same goals; building materials can be chosen with care; and all of the features that go into a durable and energy efficient house can be added in their turn.

But in a green remodel, you are starting with an existing building that may be a leaky, energy wasting, toxic dinosaur that requires remediation before you can even start updating or adding on.

You can't start at the beginning
At its core, green building is a systems approach, meaning that the building is considered as a whole, not a sum of individual and unrelated parts. In remodeling an existing building, this is a little more difficult because old and new must somehow be woven together into a functional whole.

Fix what exists
An existing building may have structural or functional problems that must be remedied before a remodel can really get underway. Basic repairs are not really part of the scope of a remodel and yet they must come first. Leaks in the roof, a failing foundation wall or rotten sills must be corrected before anything more rewarding can happen. There’s no point in buying the best boiler on the market when it will be under water the next time it rains. Keep in mind how changes effect an existing house's preformance.

Green remodeling is more than adding new things to an older house. It considers how those changes will affect what’s there, and it also anticipates problems and takes steps to avoid them.

Remodeling can change the dynamics of how the house functions and lead to problems that weren’t there in the first place. For example, an old house might very well have minor water leaks around windows or doors. When the house was drafty, air movement dried everything out. When walls are insulated and sealed, that process stops and mold or decay could result. Or, suppose a new addition abuts the house near a roof valley that already has problems draining. Will the addition make the problem worse? Maybe.

You have to consider the people who live there
Builders working on a new house no doubt see the owners once in a while, but not for a full working day. Every day. Remodelers have to consider how the project is going to affect people who stay in the house during the project. Every interaction between the building crew and the homeowners becomes important. Is the job site cleaned up at the end of the day so homeowners aren’t wading through sawdust and construction debris? Are their young children in the house who may wander into danger? Does a thoughtless sub park behind the owner’s car when he’s trying to leave for work?

Homeowners may move out for the duration of a major project but that, too, raises issues of its own. Their length of stay at a hotel or relative’s house has to be figured into the schedule; the consequences of a missed construction deadline might be more serious than they seem. Remodeling can be an emotional as well as financial trial for many homeowners.

Content By GBA

Step 1: Get an energy audit

Making a remodeled house more energy efficient should be a top priority, and coming up with a plan begins with an energy audit. The beauty of this relatively inexpensive battery of scientific tests is that it will pinpoint and measure a house's energy deficiencies. A detailed inspection will uncover air leaks, equipment inefficiencies, inadequate insulation and other structural shortcomings that together add up to a drafty, uncomfortable and ultimately wasteful house.

Energy audits range from unscientific walk-throughs taking a few hours to more detailed examinations aided by diagnostic equipment. Utilities may provide them for free.

An energy audit becomes a roadmap for smart repairs and helps organize improvements into sensible order. When renovations are to take place in stages, as the budget allows, an energy audit ensures the most pressing problems are taken care of first.

Step 2: Draw up a plan

Remodels range from simple to complex, but none should begin without a plan that outlines the scope and timing of the project along with a budget. When nothing more than fresh paint and new weather-stripping is in the cards, a plan might amount to no more than a punch list jotted on the back of an envelope. But substantial changes need more substantial planning.

Among the many considerations is how different parts of a project relate to each other. Green building is a systems approach, meaning that mechanical and structural parts of the house are considered together. If, for example, a remodeling project includes changes to heating ducts or wiring, is there an impact on the air barrier? A plan anticipates these questions.

Step by step. Planning is even more important when a remodeling project is to take place in stages: some this year, a little bit the next and completion well into the future. Money and convenience usually drive these decisions, and there's nothing wrong with tackling big jobs incrementally. But the object should be an orderly progression from start to finish, and no backing up to fix work that had been done out of order or, in hindsight, incorrectly. Good planning begets good results.

Step 3: Setting priorities

Focusing on obvious problems is understandable, even when they are cosmetic. There are only so many times anyone could look at 30-year-old vinyl flooring or a pink bathroom vanity without wanting to tear it out. Setting priorities is one way of making sure genuinely important issues are dealt with first, and lesser problems given the attention they really deserve.

First in line should be repairs to the basic structure of the house, especially those related to weather-tightness and structural stability. Roof leaks, cracked and bulging foundation walls, and rotten framing are the kinds of problems that should be corrected before anything else happens. Taking care of these repairs may not pack the same psychic thrill as, say, laying a new hardwood floor or buying new kitchen cabinets. Even so, structure comes first.

Now consider energy use. Next are improvements that make the house more energy efficient. Starting with simple improvements that don't take much time or money can pay off immediately. Those would include tightening up with caulk, expanding foam sealant, and weather-stripping. Adding more insulation to an open attic is relatively inexpensive and can be done quickly. More extensive changes, such as a new boiler or a wholesale window replacement, cost more and take longer. Setting priorities with the help of an energy consultant and builder helps put remodeling money and energy where it will do the most good.

Step 4: Dig in

With an energy audit, a strategic plan and a set of priorities in place it's time to start. Well, almost. Two things to consider before reaching for the wrecking bar are what to do with job site waste, and keeping the work area safe.

Construction generates waste, but much of it can be recycled. With some advance planning, recycling receptacles or staging areas can be arranged for the glass, plastic, cardboard, drywall and wood debris that inevitably accompany a major house overhaul. Some materials will have to be discarded, but keeping that to a minimum will help lower disposal costs while making the project less disruptive to the environment.

Think about safety. In addition to the usual hazards of a construction site, a remodel may expose people to a variety of irritants and toxins. If the remodel involves only a portion of a house, keeping dust and debris out of the rest of the building should be a priority.

More serious are asbestos, lead paint and other building materials that cause sickness and, potentially, death. These are problems affecting mainly older houses, and in some cases they may require hiring special contractors. Removing asbestos, for example, is not a DIY job.

  • USGBC
  • ASID