By Ann Robinson and Annie Vernon
It seems only a few years ago that the only one who thought it was cool to be green was Kermit the Frog — and even then it wasn’t always easy.
Today, everyone has jumped on the green bandwagon, and it is gaining speed. As architects, we are bombarded with information on “green,” “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” building issues. Every professional magazine, conference and seminar abounds with discussions and studies about how the “built environment” impacts our global environment.
All of this, of course, is a good thing. This Earth is all we have, so being a wise steward of our resources only makes sense and is long overdue.
Obviously new construction — starting a project from scratch on a vacant piece of property — is most conducive to taking advantage of all we have learned about eco-friendly building. Of course, it is easier to build a home with the proper solar orientation, insulation and moisture and air barriers as opposed to rearranging and updating an older home. But remodeling in itself is inherently green. By merely keeping your home in existence and in use, you are saving valuable resources. Though you need to try to make that old home less drafty and more energy efficient, every year you live in that “first-growth” wood or masonry made decades ago, you are making good use of the embodied energy in your home.
The exterior walls of older homes may lack sufficient insulation. Upgrading insulation can be part of a “green” remodeling project for your older home.
Part of making your remodeling project green is making sure the basic standards of design and construction are met. Where possible, walls should have a minimum of R-19 insulation and roofs a minimum of R-38. (Insulation effectiveness is noted by an R factor, with high numbers being the best.)
Contractors should be diligent to install building wrap carefully, taping all seams and making sure no tears or gaps are present. Homeowners can choose low volatile organic compound paint over traditional paint without incurring a big financial hit. Most windows today are insulated and, if properly installed, are a huge improvement over the older windows you may want to replace.
Doing an addition gives you a little more leeway to focus on more sustainable construction. With an addition, you can consider the location and massing (shape) to capture solar energy or to shade openings appropriate for your location. Also, you can consciously pick materials and finishes made from renewable resources. Sometimes you may not be able to upgrade the existing part of your house to current sustainability standards; however, energy saved in the construction and operation of your new addition can still help slow the carbon leak or minimize the carbon footprint.
Along with considering the more technical aspects of sustainability, decisions made from the very beginning of your project can lead you into more green territory.
For instance, you can make sure that you make use of all the square footage you have before you add on; you can consider if there are any ways in which a space can be made to multitask (such as creating dining room/library or office/guest combinations); or you can ponder whether every child truly needs a bedroom and bathroom of his or her own.
Even after following these tips, your home may not earn an award for energy efficiency, but every little bit helps. Remember that remodeling in and of itself is a green option. Fix up what you can and preserve the rest and you, too, are doing your part for conservation. As always, we welcome your home architect design questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.