Green Remodeling Resources Help Homeowners, Contractors
by Brittany Paris – Angie’s List
Nearly 50 percent of Angie’s List members answering our online poll plan to include green building elements in their home this year, but want to learn more first.
For several years, Ann Edminster agonized over the energy costs of her 1940s pre-fabricated kit home. Other concerns, like a consistent cough and irritated throat, prompted her to action in 2006, when she spent $120,000 renovating and adding 190 square feet to her living room using green design techniques. "The focus was on energy retrofitting," she says.
Edminster’s no stranger to green remodeling. An architect and environmental design consultant who’s worked on more than 100 home remodeling projects, she’s also a past co-chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes Committee and one of the principal authors of its certification program.
"The same passion that drove me into the green building field also drove me to do this remodel," she says.
David Johnston, founder of What’s Working Inc., a green building consultant group in Boulder, Colo., became involved with the industry studying alternative energy in the early 1970s. He discusses why he wrote a how-to book on green remodeling practices.
Edminster started by replacing her forced-air unit with a new radiant heating system, eliminating blowing dust particles that were polluting her home. She also installed Mitsubishi solar panels on her roof, but knew the extra energy they supplied would be wasted through leaky doors and uninsulated walls if she didn’t upgrade the interior.
So, she replaced old, single-paned aluminum windows with high-performance, steel-clad ones made of wood, sprayed top-performing insulation in the walls of the entire downstairs and air-sealed the space. She replaced her outdated washer, dryer, dishwasher and refrigerator with Energy Star appliances and the furnace and water heater with a multi-zoned hydronic heating system and a high-efficiency boiler.
To improve water conservation, she put in dual-flush, EPA WaterSense Toto toilets. Edminster also wanted to improve her home’s comfort and aesthetics. The added southern exposure in her new living room provides plenty of sunlight and a majestic view of the outdoors that had been sorely lacking. She also found a way to reconnect with nature by including a green roof over the addition full of herbs and native, drought-tolerant plants.
Selecting the proper finishes for her home was an added priority. The sloping portions of the roof are covered in highly durable steel; all interior wall finishes are low-VOC paints and earth plasters; and her deck’s made of Forest Stewardship Council-certified tropical wood.
Easy ways to go green
Greening your home to make it healthier, more energy-efficient and better for the environment doesn’t have to be a difficult process.
• Start with a home energy audit, sometimes offered for free by your local energy company or for a fee by a private firm, to see where your home’s performing the worst.
• Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Replacing just five incandescent bulbs with CFLs can save you $100 per year on electricity bills.
• Plug air leaks around doors, windows and other spots with weather-stripping and caulk•
• Use a programmable thermostat to keep the temperature at 78 degrees in summer and 62 degrees in winter when no one is home or everyone is sleeping.
• Buy Energy Star appliances.
• Reduce water waste by adding inexpensive aerators to your sink faucets, changing to low-flow showerheads and dual-flush or no-flush toilets. • Use no- or low-Volatile Organic Compound paints and cleaning products. VOCs can cause many short- and long-term adverse health effects.
• Use wood alternatives or sustainable wood products, such as rapidly renewable bamboo flooring or wood cabinets certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
• Plant trees to provide shade and wind protection for your home, which will reduce heating and cooling costs, and pick native plants that need less water, fertilizer and pesticides.
• Make sure your HVAC system is running efficiently. Change filters monthly during peak usage periods.
• Switch to clean and renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, geothermal heating units or even wind turbines. If that isn’t feasible, you can also sign up for green power through your local utility to help expand the development of these technologies.
Although she had to take out a second mortgage to afford the renovation, Edminster knows she’ll recoup some of the cost over time. The $14,000 solar panel system should pay for itself in 14 years at current utility rates. Already, her electric bill has dropped from as high as $100 a month down to $5, and her gas payments have decreased by 30 percent. Perhaps best of all, she no longer wakes up coughing every morning from the dust blown around by an old heating system.
"Energy improvements offer a return on investment higher than most conventional investments," Edminster says. "So if you have any money at all to invest, your home’s a great place to start."
Existing homes like Edminster’s account for 94 percent of buildings in the United States. They’re 30 years old on average. Their doors and windows are drafty. Their walls, attics and crawl spaces are poorly insulated. And they’re responsible for 21 percent of the country’s carbon emissions.
"We have the ability to effect major change through existing homes," says Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and founding chair of the USGBC.
However, remodeling is typically an ongoing process and encompasses such a wide range of projects, from painting a few walls to completely renovating several rooms, that the USGBC concluded a uniform rating system comparable to LEED would not work. Only "gut" rehabs, which entail stripping walls down to the framing, are eligible to participate in the LEED for Homes program.
The National Association of Home Builders disagrees that older homes cannot be certified. It plans to roll out the first and only national ratings standard for remodeled homes this spring.
"The NAHB’s National Green Building Standard addresses the question of scale and existing conditions," says Calli Schmidt, NAHB director of environmental communications.
Each section of its rating system lists specific criteria or point modifications applicable to additions and renovations. For instance, new homes must have sealed air ducts throughout. A renovated home earns one point if duct leakage is reduced by 25 percent and four points if 100 percent of the leaks are eliminated.
Green building expert David Johnston sides with the USGBC, calling the NAHB’s plan a pipe dream.
"A remodeler’s job is much more complex than a homebuilder’s because they inherit whatever is behind the walls," Johnston says. "There are a lot of factors to consider."
He explains that the component systems of a home are interrelated, so changing one part without consideration of the others can create a domino effect with negative outcomes. For example, making a building airtight without also improving ventilation can lead to poor air quality.
In lieu of a points system, the USGBC partnered with The American Society of Interior Designers Foundation and dozens of building experts to create the first nationwide green residential remodeling manual for existing homes called REGREEN, which can be accessed online at regreenprogram.org.
The REGREEN guidelines and NAHB certification program follow many of the same principles recommended for new construction, but they also had to tackle some very new challenges, such as always factoring the homeowner into the equation and addressing different kinds of products that affect air quality like furniture, mattresses and drapes.
"It’s an entirely different audience," says Linda Sorrento, USGBC director of education and research partnerships and ASID member. "LEED for Homes doesn’t involve a person already living in a space. It’s a great way for us to communicate the impact that homes have on a family."
Sorrento says the USGBC and ASID felt it was time to address green remodeling: "Both organizations were faced with tons of questions and pressure from consumers." Remodeling is a $230 billion business, according to the NAHB, and research shows homeowners hunger for more information on sustainable renovations.
Nearly 50 of Angie’s List members polled say they plan to remodel green this year but want to learn more first.
Cincinnati residents Patrick McKelvey and Marjorie McKelvey Isaacs wish they could have gotten more guidance when they began fixing up their 1950s tract house to make it more energy efficient. "It was hard to find professionals to assist me," Patrick says. "I was talking to my HVAC repairman this morning, and I have the distinct feeling I’m being humored about my green interests. He probably thought I was off my medications."
REGREEN, NAHB and other programs hope to change that by educating not only the consumer, but also building professionals. The NAHB began certifying builders and remodelers in February, a designation called the Certified Green Professional that requires two years of building experience, completion of an educational course and ongoing training; and the ASID and USGBC will soon launch educational programs for interior designers, contractors and product manufacturers to support the use of their manual, plus additional resources for professionals and consumers.
Homeowners, for example, can find renovation tips at the USGBC’s website GreenHomeGuide.org.
"The more resources we have to support people in their efforts to employ green practices, the better," Edminster says. "While there is no substitute for having experienced green building professionals to help you, don’t be deterred if you don’t find them — a willingness to learn is almost as good."
Virginia-based Green Advantage launched the first national certification program in 2003. GA officials have certified 1,800 building professionals and hope to double that number in 2008. So far, 31 states have GA programs. Peter Brown, president of Artista Builders in Reston, Va., passed the exam to become GA certified in November. "While I’ve been doing this type of building and renovation for years, Green Advantage allows me to further my education and demonstrate my commitment to green practices," he says.
The National Association of the Remodeling Industry developed a green remodeling education program in February 2007 and launched its Green Certified Professional Program six months later. NARI requires five years remodeling experience — three of those years must involve green projects to become certified. As of press time, only two contractors have achieved certification, while hundreds have taken the 12-week training course.
"The challenge for remodelers is that most are very new to the green market," says Dan Taddei, NARI director of education. "We teach them how and then they have to go out and implement those green components before getting certified." Johnston, who helped create the NARI program, says that although these various initiatives are a step in the right direction, they have a long way to go.
"All of these organizations are still just limping into the marketplace, although with good intentions," he says. As contractors begin to catch up with consumer demand, green remodeling is sure to explode. With that growth will come many changes.
McKelvey hopes so. He still has green goals he’d like to achieve, such as a no-mow, low-water lawn — that’s if he can find the right resources and contractors to make it happen. The architects of REGREEN also sees many changes on the horizon. "This is only the beginning," Sorrento says. "We have a lot more to learn."
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