Whether you’re finishing a basement, making over your kitchen or building an addition, there can be an overwhelming amount to think about, from layout to fixtures to finishes. Builders are often focused on timelines, subcontractors, and building codes, and don’t always have “green” at the forefront of their minds. It’s likely going to be up to you to ensure that your project is as energy-efficient and non-toxic as possible.
In the last decade or so, options for green building have expanded dramatically, and it’s gotten far easier to research techniques and source materials. As you plan your new space, use some of these strategies to make it more eco-friendly.
1. Look for a Green-Friendly Builder
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a builder who specializes in green building design, but you can remodel ecologically with a conventional builder as well. You’ll just need to do more legwork, as most builders don’t have much (if any) experience with green building supplies and practices.
Before you hire a contractor, make it clear that you’re looking to employ eco-friendly practices and materials. Find out what they already know, and what they’re willing to work with. Some builders, for instance, will only have experience with standard insulation materials or sealers, and may not want to try some of the newer, greener options. In many cases, such as insulation, you can arrange to hire appropriate subcontractors yourself. Some contractors may want you to promise to pay for additional time and materials if a product doesn’t perform as expected. However, even in our relatively small town I’ve found contractors willing to try the non-toxic alternatives we’ve provided.
If you find a builder seems unwilling to use supplies or techniques you would like to incorporate, you might save yourself a lot of headache by looking elsewhere for someone more in sync with your vision for the project.
2. Pay Close Attention to Materials
Traditional building materials may have all sorts of chemicals you’d rather not bring into your house, from formaldehyde to VOCs in paints, cabinetry, and adhesives, as well as many popular insulations. Finding non-toxic alternatives can be challenging, and you may have to special order your materials.
Some materials you may want to source from specialty suppliers:
- Paints, stains, sealers, and finishes
Angela Foertsch, an Eco Designer at Minneapolis-based Natural Built Home works primarily with chemically-sensitive homeowners looking to avoid bringing potential triggers into their homes. She advises testing fresh samples of products, even those labeled nontoxic, as some clients have discovered too late that they have a reaction to something like lanolin in the eco-friendly wool carpet they selected.
For things like counters and flooring, where it’s practical seek out recycled content, but watch out for ‘greenwashing’. Pay attention to how much recycled content and whether it’s post-consumer. A tiny amount of recycled content doesn’t do much for the eco-footprint of your project.
When possible, look for FSC certification on lumber. For flooring, skip the carpet (made with petrochemicals), vinyl (containing PVC), and hardwood (we need our trees!), and consider quick-growing bamboo or cork, or wood reclaimed from an old building. Linoleum is another fine option in place of vinyl.
If you don’t have a natural home supply store near you, many of these materials may be purchased through Natural Built Home or Green Building Supply, which stock a range of well-known brands of everything from paint and caulk to flooring and countertops. Both companies send samples through the mail and have advisors to help customers make informed selections.
Be prepared to pay more for many, though not all, of these products. The knowledge that you’ve kept some really nasty stuff out of your home (and your air, and your family’s bodies) should more than make up for any added cost. In the grand scheme of the overall budget, likely these green upgrades won’t add much.
Other considerations to bear in mind:
When possible, re-use or repurpose materials that you’re removing as part of your project. Bricks from a chimney you’re taking out can become garden pavers and old flooring can take on new life as a window seat or table.
Don’t throw the rest of your demo in the dumpster. Someone else might have a good use for materials that you don’t reuse yourself, so bring those unneeded doors and metal scraps to a salvage yard, post them on your local Freecycle, or even leave them by the curb. It never ceases to amaze me what other people will take off our hands — old sinks, shelving, scrap lumber and bits of mirror have all been “recycled” in some way by people in my neighborhood rather than getting sent to the landfill. Things like carpets and carpet pads can be taken to many recycling centers.
Also take precautions with demolition, which can create dust containing chemicals from the materials used in past construction. Be sure air vents are covered, and seal off the area being demoed from other living spaces. See that dust gets vacuumed up thoroughly so contractors don’t track it through your house as they come and go.
3. Focus on Energy Efficiency
If you haven’t done one recently, start with an energy audit. Many utility companies offer deeply discounted audits, and even full-price ones pay for themselves quickly when you implement your auditor’s suggestions. A blower-door test can help you find leaks to seal, and an infrared test can let you know whether more insulation is needed.
Most builders build according to local building codes, but you can exceed code with things like insulation if you work it into the design. Choose the most effective, least toxic insulation for the job, and insulate as much as is practical for your situation and climate.
Likewise, choose equipment with an eye to efficiency, from your furnace and refrigerator to your showerheads and lightbulbs. Though you have to pay a little more upfront for the more efficient appliance, you’ll probably find that the extra cost is easily made up in energy savings over the life of the product.
Before you make any additions to your home, or if you’re building new, be sure to evaluate your needs realistically. The smaller the space you have to heat and cool, the better for the climate (and your bank account). Consider whether less space would suffice, or if a room can be designed to serve more than one purpose.
4. Consider Alternative Energy
The price of solar has plummeted in recent years, and payback for solar panels with current rebates can be under ten years. Planning for solar in your remodel is an excellent way to make a cost-effective green upgrade. Even if you don’t install solar panels as part of your current project, leave yourself the option for later by considering solar orientation when deciding about roof slope or designing your landscaping. You may want to leave space for this emerging technology.
Consider alternative heating and cooling sources as well. While your builder might be most familiar with a traditional forced-air furnace, for example, you may find that an air-source heat pumpmakes more sense for you.
Give some thought to how you can make the most of passive heating and cooling, with things like overhangs, whole-house fans, and strategically-placed windows which can also provide natural light.
5. Incorporate Smart Landscape Design
Don’t forget to keep in mind low-impact landscaping around your project. When considering new plantings, take into account water conservation, rain retention, wind breaks, and shade to lessen the impact of your newly-remodeled home. Consider incorporating plants that serve multiple purposes, like shading that comes from grape vines or fruit trees, so you’re lessening your foodprint as you reduce your home’s cooling load.
In time, most builders will be knowledgeable and experienced with green building options since these materials and techniques are practical as well as environmentally responsible. But for now, the best way to ensure a healthy, efficient remodel is to do some of the materials research ourselves before the project begins and present these to a contractor with experience and an open mind to new practices.
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