Going Green Around The House
Whether you opt for reclaimed materials from the local reuse center or new supplies, look for the closest source. Shipping sucks the green out of building materials. “The biggest environmental impact in construction is transportation of the materials,” says Brad Guy, president of the Building Materials Reuse Association. “It’s not even the manufacture; it’s moving stuff around.” Bamboo may be the trendy wood substitute, but if it’s shipped from China, you’re greener going to a nearby sawmill or finding a local source for reclaimed wood.
“Where there is water inside the house, there is danger, because that’s where we have the most mold,” says David Johnston, co-author of Green from the Ground Up (Taunton, April 2008). The vast majority of water in the basement comes from the perimeter of the house, so get outside, make sure downspouts direct rain away from the foundation, and toss dirt on any low-lying areas where rainwater might collect. Inside, if you’re redoing a bathroom, Johnston recommends a sprayed-in insulation, whether it’s foam or cellulose. Then, once it’s sealed tight, be sure the bathroom is properly ventilated.
Skip the carpet
Old carpeting, asserts Johnston, can be four times heavier than when it’s installed. That’s how much dirt and dust accumulate when you lay a giant dust mop on your floor. Moreover, conventional wall-to-wall can contain as many as 100 chemicals that are released over a three- to five-year period. Worse still, carpeting soaks up other nearby chemicals (arsenic from a pressure-treated deck, formaldehyde from cheap cabinets, pesticide from the neighbor’s lawn) and slowly re-releases them back into the air. “Conventional carpeting in a green home is an oxymoron,” Johnston says. Stick to area rugs that you can easily clean.
Going Green In The Kitchen
Most kitchen appliances and fixtures are designed to last 20 to 30 years, says Kurt Gough, a partner in the Minneapolis firm Shelter Architecture. The average lifespan of a kitchen remodel, however, is 10 years. “Something’s wrong there,” says Gough. So the first question in a kitchen remodeling project is, “Can I get by with fresh paint?” If not, consider the following.
Keep your appliances
If you’ve got a good-enough stove and fridge, keep them running; the time to replace appliances with greener models is when they’re broken beyond repair. Otherwise, the energy savings are offset by the waste of throwing the old ones in the landfill (see “Salvage Beauty,” page 46). If you can’t live without a new stove, go for high efficiency—many consumers are eligible for tax incentives and rebates for energy-efficient appliances—and make sure your old model finds its way into someone else’s kitchen.
Plan for the future
What will you need in your kitchen when you’re 80? You probably won’t want to totter up that stepstool to reach the cereal every morning. “Look at your long-term needs and plan for that,” says Jackie Millea, a partner at Shelter Architecture. That way, you won’t have to retrofit later, and your kitchen will last its intended 30 years.
Beyond using compact fluorescent lightbulbs, careful planning can minimize electricity load. For ambient light, use ultraefficient bulbs like LEDs, which are “plenty good enough when you stumble in at night for a midnight snack,” says Gough.
Going Green In The Master Bedroom
After a new kitchen, one of the most coveted home improvement projects is a spacious bedroom suite, complete with a private bathroom. In most cases, building one involves moving walls and even adding on to the house. Go ahead and build the dream, say our green-building experts—just don’t dream too big.
- Think small
The single greenest choice you can make in building an addition is to keep things small, says Kurt Gough, a partner in the Minneapolis firm Shelter Architecture. “It costs less, you’re using fewer materials, and you’re throwing away less,” he says. Avoid becoming what green builder Todd Osman calls a “space pirate.” “Reduce is the first point on the green compass,” he says, “and everything else falls in line after that.”
- Watch where you’re walking
In thinking through an addition design, most people treat traffic flow as an afterthought, says Gough. “If we can find an elegant way to move through the house, we can save space,” he says. The other bottom-line design consideration, especially in an addition, is passive solar energy, which captures sunlight in cool weather and takes advantage of shade in warm seasons.
Going Green In The Basement
Many people who own older homes look to their basements for a little breathing space, and it’s a good call: After all, the basement usually represents a sizable chunk of square footage, real estate that’s often wasted on old moving boxes or broken toys. Bear in mind these factors as you proceed.
Insulate the rim joist
Think of your house as a chimney, says contractor Jeffrey Swainhart: Warm air rises up through the house, and as it does so, it pulls in cold air from the basement. “The space at the top of the foundation is typically not sealed well, so that’s often where the cold gets in,” he says. If it’s insulated at all, the rim joist, which runs around the perimeter of the building at the foundation top, is probably stuffed with fiberglass. Take a look at it: If it’s black, air is leaking in from outside. Before you seal up the walls of your basement, have spray-foam insulation applied to the rim joist. “It’s a huge energy savings for a pretty small cost, and it probably pays for itself in the first couple of years,” says Swainhart.
Manage your mechanicals
If your furnace and water heater have life left in them, leave them be. If they’re on their last legs, look for high-efficiency replacements; you may be eligible for tax credits and rebates to offset the costs. On-demand water heaters, which heat water only when you flip the tap, have improved to the point that they’ll work in most households. Check into solar-ready equipment; even if you don’t spring for the cost of solar today, it might make economic sense to do so during the life of your new equipment. Whether you replace mechanicals or not, insulate both hot and cold water pipes and seal the ductwork from your furnace; both tasks are relatively cheap and will improve efficiency.
Want more? Read the rest of Utne Reader 's November/December package on the Green Building:
Green Building for the Rest of Us
How a good idea can make it into the mainstream
By Hannah Lobel
Reused building materials take a load off the environment
By Joseph Hart
Low Rent, High Tech
Affordable housing advocates build green and inspire innovation
By Hannah Lobel
Online Exclusive: Green Homes on the Range
Affordable, environmentally friendly starter homes come to the heartland
By Catherine Prewitt, from the Next American City
Online Exclusive: Green Building Resource Guide
Utne Reader’s guide to resources on green building
By Hannah Lobel