Posted in Features on November 29, 2007
By Sarah Scrafford
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released its fourth and final report, and the message is clear. Global warming is real, it’s a threat to human civilization, and we must act now if we have any hope of stopping it. Considering that buildings account for almost half of all annual greenhouse-gas emissions, it seems logical to begin this work against global warming at home.In fact, the Mayors of Chicago, Seattle, Miami, and Albuquerque recently proposed Resolution No. 50 [PDF], which sets a goal for carbon neutral buildings by 2030. While this resolution applies mostly to new urban buildings, you can expect to greet a burgeoning market that demands homes that use little to no fossil fuels over the next two decades.
You can increase your home’s marketability and safety by making changes now. To save money, focus on remodeling one room at a time, and look for federal or state (even local) incentives and tax credits that may be available for certain features of your green remodeling project. These tax deductions could help shorten the payback period. Energy-efficient homes do save money - financial benefits of green design are between $50 and $70 per square foot according to Resolution No. 50. And, they may prove more beneficial to your health as you reduce toxic materials and maximize fresh air and natural light.
The following tips and tricks can help you with your green home remodeling projects. The list is broken down by various topics ranging from “Before you begin” to wall options and ventilation. Throughout the list, you’ll encounter what are known as Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. These are organic compounds that evaporates readily to the atmosphere and that are usually harmful. You want to avoid VOCs at all costs in your green remodeling.
Topics Covered in this List
Before You Begin | Hiring Help | Bathroom | Kitchen | Energy | Flooring | Roofing | Wall Options | Ventilation | Landscaping
Before You Begin
Here are a few tips to think about before you begin to tear up that carpeting or before you add solar panels…
- Buy local: Green remodeling supports buying from local businesses and using goods and services that are non-polluting and respectful of environmental resources. But, sometimes it’s impossible to find a certain green resource locally. In this case, you can reduce or offset your carbon footprint with other projects like planting trees or by purchasing carbon credits.
- Do your research before you spend a dime: Comparison shop, look for professionals with green design experience, and discuss your findings with other like-minded homeowners. Research will help you to find the right help and resources and it will also keep you from creating costly mistakes if you plan to do the work yourself. Use resources like the Oikos library and other online collections to begin your education.
- Think Universal Design: In addition to an environmentally safe home, you might consider what is known as Universal Design. This type of design, whether it’s used in a home layout or in your choice of faucet handles, strives to be a broad-spectrum solution that helps everyone, not just people with disabilities. Universal Design is a solution for many design solutions that appeal to a broader range of users.
- Identify your problems: Beyond your goals, you might take time to identify the hazards that already exist in your home and begin by eliminating those problems first. Old paints and certain plumbing types may contain lead, and you might find asbestos in the strangest places (like in your vinyl floor). The new green home will be devoid of lead-based paints (see wall options below) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in any shape or form. If you’re unfamiliar with PVC problems, read the fact sheet [PD] provided by Washington Toxics Coalition.
- Learn about the local salvage yards and recycling places: In addition to lessening your burden on landfills, reusing salvaged materials minimizes the demand for mining, tree harvesting, water, energy, and other natural resources, as well as toxic materials used to process, manufacture and transport new materials. This option works two ways - you can find many bargains at salvage yards and recycling places, and you can also offer your goods for salvage or recycling. Depending upon where you live and your resources, you may receive a small amount of cash, in-store credit, or the material may be considered a “donation,” meaning you can get rid of it for free (and some stores can offer a tax credit for those materials).
- Don’t reuse toxic materials: The only problem with using salvaged materials is the possibility that you might reuse of toxic materials…don’t use them ever again, even if they’re the best bargain. Additionally, you might need to find special local recycling for items you discover in your home (such as asbestos or lead paint).
- Keep lists of materials you need and sizes: Before you go salvage yard hopping, make sure that you have complete lists of things you’d like to purchase. Additionally, you will need the sizes of those ‘things,’ such as kitchen cabinets or decorative moldings. Keep this list with you at all times, as you never know when you’ll meet someone who has that slate you want for your roof.
- Free up that imagination: You don’t need to buy out the magazine stand for creative home decorating or remodeling ideas. You can search online for “junkyard” decorating ideas or “recycled interior designs.” For instance, you can use old bookshelves for steps, or you can use a birdcage for a new planter. Use those DIY sites to learn how to visit a junkyard, as well as to learn how to find great ’stuff’ once you arrive there.
- Try to avoid hazards during the remodel: Before you begin a remodel, you might look for recycling solutions for things like kitchen cabinets, old floor materials, sinks, and other items. Be sure to let anyone you hire know that you intend to recycle those items so they don’t destroy them.
- Keep hazardous remodeling to a minimum: No matter if you use a contractor or not, be sure to outline on the front end how you intend to contain dust and fumes and how you intend to clean up the remodeling mess. A wise remodeling project can protect your health, the health of those who work with you, and your neighbors.
- Watch those building codes: Work that violates building codes may also violate your insurance terms, which means you would be vulnerable to loss. The goal of your remodel is to comply with safety, health, and energy-efficient issues, and these goals also are part of any building code. Check with your county department of development before you lift a hammer to learn about your local codes and check to see if you need building permits as well.
- Include the neighborhood: Future neighborhoods will provide easy walking to local shops, bike trails, and other pedestrian-friendly amenities. You can increase the value of your home - nay, the entire neighborhood - by encouraging city officials to begin with these projects now. Pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are safer and healthier than auto-friendly suburbs.
A remodel from a toxic home to a green environment will at times rival a new house purchase in price. Since you’re about to embark on a costly project, it makes sense to hire professionals when and if you need them.
- Learn patience and expect the worst: This may seem like a negative attitude, but it pays to lower your expectations - especially if you plan a job in a hurry. No matter if you use salvaged or new materials, a home remodel is a taxing proposition. Take it easy on yourself, expect problems (because if you don’t, then the problems will seem worse), and learn how to be gracious and helpful to your employed personnel. The adage, “You can attract more bees with honey,” has several implications, and they all apply to home remodeling. Sometimes problems may open the door to new solutions, so keep an open mind and try to use as many local resources as possible to remedy any given situation gone sour.
- Plan for a year: With all that said above, it might surprise you to learn that planning a remodel can take up to a year. If you plan to tackle just one room or one wall at a time, it still helps to plan your overall objectives first. No matter if you can’t meet those goals for years - the professionals you hire will appreciate your long-term foresight.
- Think of professionals as your ‘team’: Your architect, interior designer, and contractor will require special skills and experience, and hopefully they’ll display enthusiasm about a green project. Depending upon your goals, they may help you reach a more satisfying solution at a lower (or higher) cost. This is why it’s important for you to learn about the green remodeling process in advance, so you don’t get mired in a situation that’s nonreversible.
- Take advantage of consultations: Even if the professional you have in mind demands payment for a consultation, it might be worth the charge to lay out your ideas and to learn what that professional thinks about your goals. That professional might also know more about building codes and local environments than you, so you could stand to learn much from a consultation.
- Help your help: If you’ve conducted research on remodeling plans and materials, don’t hide your expertise or resources. If your contractor loses a roofing shipment, you might be able to point him to another resource pronto, saving time and money.
- Hire local: Not only will you save money, but you’ll also be able to tap local reviews about your choice. Most professionals maintain Web sites, so you can look at their portfolios online before you make a call. Ask around about local resources - friends, family, and coworkers can share their experiences with you so that your choice will save you time and money.
- Hire appropriately: A construction crew cannot help you with your landscaping, and an interior designer most likely won’t know how to install your solar panels. Check out the city of Seattle’s brochure [PDF] on how to hire professionals for your green remodeling project. Although this area is well ahead most of the country on establishing green building practices, you might use their leads to find local professionals in your city or town.
- Consider your health: In some cases, you may need to hire a professional to remove toxic materials. The cost of doing business with a professional in this situation may save your health in the long run. One advantage to this situation is that if you have lead paint on your walls or asbestos, then your neighbors probably do as well. Ask them if they’ve ever had to tackle those problems and ask about the professionals they used to take care of those problems.
- Be considerate to your neighbors: If you plan a huge project that will take time and that will be noisy, be sure to talk to your neighbors about your goals. Keep them in the loop about any elements in your project that may impact them directly. Will your new project cut off their views? Will they lose privacy thanks to workers who are swarming over your yard? We know of one person spent several thousand dollars for an eight-foot fence after his neighbor neglected to remove the garbage that remained from his remodeling project. Needless to say, those two neighbors aren’t on speaking terms anymore.
A bathroom remodel is second only to the kitchen in expense. Before you invest a sizable amount, be sure to do your research and plan well before you dive in.
- Replace the toilet: If your model was installed before 1992, you’ll save water by replacing it with a new efficient toilet. Older toilets can use as much as five gallons per flush (GPF), while newer models are required to use 1.6 GPF or less. Dual-flush models save even more by giving the user the option between a full or half-flush.
- Study the water heater: The simplest way to reduce energy use in a bathroom (and to minimize the risk of a scalding burn) is to keep your water heater set at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And, the easiest way to reduce costs even further is to place a shower or bath close to that water heater to minimize the distance hot water needs to travel (see more about hot water heaters below under energy).
- Install a heat recovery system: A waste-water heat recovery system captures the leftover heat that would otherwise escape down the shower drain and works well with all types of water heaters. That water is then transferred to the cold water entering the water heater. By preheating cold water, drain-water heat recovery systems help increase water heating capacity. This increased capacity really helps if you have an undersized water heater, and cost recovery usually is better if the installation is in new home construction by a professional.
- Use hot water circulation: Hot water re-circulating systems use a pump to circulate cold water sitting in the hot water pipe back to the water heater. This action eliminates the need to run a tap until the water heats. One unit installed at the point of use farthest from the hot water heater will serve an entire home. This is an easy system to install, so you might want to do this yourself.
- Get a hard-working faucet: Think durability for your bathroom faucet, since it probably is the most used faucet in the house. A lifetime warranty and ceramic disc valves (longwearing and easy to replace when damaged or worn) are key for replacements. If you want to sell your house, look for faucets that comply with the American Disabilities Act (ADA approved), as these faucets will work across a wide variety of users.
- Use a water-conserving aerator: If you can’t or don’t want to replace your faucet, see if the current faucet can be outfitted with an aerator. This device will screw onto the end of the faucet to reduce flow, and it’s easy enough for a DIY project
- Don’t lose sleep over the tub: A tub is a tub is a tub; however, if that tub needs some ‘oomph,’ it would be better and less expensive if you refinish it rather than replace it. Despite the less expensive option, tub refinishing uses toxic materials. Therefore, persons with chemical sensitivities should conduct thorough research about this option before going this route.
- Salvage yards can be useful: If your heart is set on replacing that tub (or a sink), visit the local salvage yard to find something that will match your home’s decor at a reduced price. If you opt for a totally new tub, consider cast iron or heavy steel tubs with a porcelain finish. These can last 50 years or more, although they don’t hold heat like acrylic tubs (which scratch easier). Other options are available as well, so do your homework before you buy.
- Use latex caulk when possible: Latex caulk is the least toxic of all caulks (both in manufacture and in use), and cleans up with soap and water. However, it tends to be less durable in bathrooms and in kitchens. If you plan to use something other than latex, ask a retailer for the Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the brands you are considering. If the retailer cannot provide an MSDS, you might be able to find the information online.
- Save the sink: As you’ll learn below in the kitchen remodel, sometimes it’s best to recycle the sink and refinish it. If you plan to replace it anyway, learn more about how much counter space you might need. The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) recommends at least 30 inches of counter space between two bowls, measured from centerline to centerline; otherwise you’ll bump elbows with your significant other.
A kitchen remodel can be as complicated as a bathroom remodel and twice as expensive. But, if you do things right the first time, you’ll save money in the long run. And, there are ways to reduce both the cost and complexity of a kitchen renovation as you increase that room’s environmental efficiency.
- Plan for disability and aging: If you don’t plan to sell your home, how will you fit into this home in ten to thirty years from now? Universal Design reexamines basic assumptions about designing areas like kitchens and baths, and the result is a more flexible, adaptable design that’s useful to a wider range of ages, sizes, or physical abilities. The National Kitchen and Bath Association maintains a list of kitchen and bath guidelines with access standards that are easy to follow.
- Reduce utility bills: If your refrigerator and dishwasher are more than 10 years old, you can most likely reduce your utility bills by replacing these appliances with newer high-efficiency models. Start shopping at the Energy Star® website and look for the Energy Star label at a local retailer.
- About that freezer - location, location, location! In general, models with the freezer on the top use up to 25% less energy than comparable side-by-side refrigerator/freezer models.
- Remove the refrigerant before you recycle the fridge: If you want to recycle your old refrigerator, select a service that will remove the refrigerant before recycling. If you leave the refrigerant, you’re releasing ozone-depleting CFCs into the atmosphere to join the estimated foiur million pounds of other CFCs released this way every year. You may be charged a small fee, depending upon the services in your area.
- Do you really need a new stove? Ovens and ranges are not included in the Energy Star program. Given the inefficiency of these appliances (it’s estimated only six percent of the energy used to power an oven is actually absorbed by the food) it makes sense to choose wisely and decide on the appliance based upon your cooking needs. Part of the energy efficiency in this case is dependent upon how you cook.
- Get the most out of your gas stove: To get the most out of your gas stove, select one with an electric ignition so the pilot light isn’t always on. An electronic ignition uses fourty percent less energy than a standard pilot light. Also, make sure the burners on your stove are burning with blue cone-shaped flame. A yellow flames means air inlets or burners need repair. Finally, check the seal on your oven door regularly for gaps or tears that let heat escape.
- Countertop magic: A countertop that’s durable and easy to clean is a wise investment. But, before you decide that your counter needs to be replaced, you might consider a less expensive repair or renewal. Tile countertops can be re-grouted and wood countertops can be refinished. Even a laminate surface can be re-glued if it’s come loose. If you want to replace the countertop, remind yourself that fabrication and installation costs can equal up to 80% of the total price. So, if you can do the work yourself, you’ll save tons of money.
- Recycled backsplash: Since the backsplash doesn’t need to stand up to the abuse that your countertop experiences, you can get creative about your choice of materials that will make the wall behind the counter easy to clean and protect it from moisture damage. Think chalkboard slate, surplus or salvaged tempered glass, or a mosaic of salvaged tile or stone - anything that can withstand grease, scrubbing, and water.
- Recycled sink: If you’re replacing a sink, think about using enameled cast iron. Cast iron not only is durable, it’s recyclable. The downfall is that the enamel may chip and the cast iron could rust. The other choice could be stainless steel, which also is recyclable. Additionally, both types of sinks are commonly found at building salvage and industrial surplus yards, which could cut your cost tremendously.
- Think twice before replacing cabinets: If your current cabinets are from the 1950s or earlier there’s a good chance they’re built better than most on the market today. If you’re truly tired of them, consider a refacing at a fraction of the monetary and environmental cost. You can find eco-friend veneers that don’t require glue for this job. Finally, the least expensive alteration would be painting and/or staining the cabinets, but be aware that this option may also require some hazardous materials, depending upon your choices.
- Downsize: A dishwasher and refrigerator run most efficiently when full. If you find that the only thing you keep in your fridge is that proverbial Chinese take-out box and if you rarely use your dishwasher, you might consider downsizing on both items.
- Keep the faucet: Unless that faucet is so damaged that you can’t use it anymore, consider reusing it. Kitchen faucets must meet minimum standards for water efficiency and use no more than 21.2 gallons per minute (GPM). You can find the GPM marked on the aerator (nozzle) in most cases. Kitchen aerators should use no more than 2.0 GPM. You can replace an aerator, and if you want a new look, replace the handles. If you really need a new faucet, look for lifetime warranties that include the finish, replacement parts, or a full replacement. Check for ceramic disc valves, as they last longer and are less prone to drips.
An energy-efficient home is more cost-effective, and it’s also more comfortable.
- Learn about financial options: Lenders are beginning to recognize the value of ongoing savings to the homeowner through green remodeling. Mortgage Options for Resource Efficiency (MORE™) is a new program that lets you add up to $4,000 to your mortgage for home improvements that save energy or water, and HUD also has resources to help with remodeling. Learn about these programs and more at the Energy Efficient Rehab Advisor.
- Install a programmable thermostat: This tool will help to minimize unnecessary heating and cooling when not at home.
- Service your heating and cooling: Both heating and cooling systems should be serviced prior to peak seasons.
- Think propane: Propane water heaters can cost one-third less to operate than electric water heaters, and they recover hot water twice as fast as electric water heaters. You can increase your water heater’s efficiency by draining it every six months to remove lime deposits and sediment.
- On the other hand…: When buying a hot water heater or furnace, avoid naturally-vented models to avoid air leakage. Instead choose models with power venting or a combustion path that’s sealed off from the indoor air. Of course, electric water heaters eliminate the problem entirely, but you might find a propane model with power venting. Take your time, do your research, and purchase the heater that’s best for the home’s needs.
- Go photovoltaic: Cost remains the main deterrent to installing a photovoltaic (PV) system. Check local incentives from your city or county, and don’t forget to ask your utility company about their ideas. Additionally, you might ask your banker about rolling the cost of a solar system into your mortgage with a home improvement loan. One further way to cut costs is to choose a system that doubles as roofing material. If you’re ready for a roof replacement, you may see your cost returned more quickly with this option. Current products are varied, so do your homework well before you talk with your banker.
- Install a solar hot water system: These systems provide hot water for all domestic needs. The usual configuration includes panels containing fluid-filled tubes that capture the sun’s energy and uses it to preheat your water heater’s input. Solar hot water systems have a much faster payback than solar electric systems and work even on cloudy days.
- Get passive about your green activities: Passive cooling requires correct placement of windows, proper shading of windows by trees or constructed shade (see landscaping below), light-colored roofs and walls that reflect heat, nighttime ventilation, and thermal mass to prevent overheating in hot, sunny weather. Large west-facing glass areas usually present a risk of unwanted summer afternoon heat gains. If the house is designed properly, you can avoid many cooling costs. In some areas of the country, you might avoid air-conditioning altogether.
- Learn about thermal mass: Thermal mass inside a building moderates temperature swings by storing heat when the sun is shining and releasing heat back into the building when it begins to cool off. Materials commonly used for mass include water, concrete, masonry, and earth. Mass and glazing (also a component) may vary depending upon where you live.
- Spend time observing your location: You may have lived in that house for ten years, but you may not know how the sun travels across your yard during different seasons. Time spent observing sun, wind, rain, and ground water processes on your property pays off when you begin to plan for passive or active solar energy. You’ll learn where to place windows, perhaps where to plant that tree. And, you’ll learn more about the materials you need to reach your goals successfully.
- Go underground: Earth-sheltered homes reduce heat loss and thermal swings. You already may have a basement, so you can take advantage of this feature by expanding use of the lower floor and limiting use to the upper areas of your home.
- Plan for the future: Even if you cannot afford solar or passive energy now, plan for the inclusion of this green option in the future. Leave room for solar/mechanical equipment, for extra pipe and conduit runs, and for materials that might be needed to expand structural support.
- Downsize: Smaller homes mean fewer emissions, less expensive heating and cooling costs, and a cozier environment (with no room for overt consumerism!). Instead of remodeling all those bedrooms, you might consider removing them totally. Then, concentrate on that large yard and its fantastic possibilities for curb appeal.
Eliminate or cover up that toxic old vinyl floor and mix it up throughout the house when it comes to floors. Some of the least expensive and most environmentally ideal options include salvaged wood and concrete. Carpet would be ideal for bedrooms, and recycled rubber might be the ticket for that kitchen. Learn more about your options below, and remember that you’ll always save money if you choose an environmentally friendly do-it-yourself option:
- Bamboo: If you ever get the chance to visit a bamboo stand, you’ll be amazed - you can actually hear bamboo grow! This plant is a fast-growing, rapidly renewable member of the grass family that is cut into strips and assembled into planks for flooring. But, while this type of floor often is touted as more durable than hardwood, some users would beg to differ with that opinion. Plus, if you read the Treehugger article in that previous link, you may discover that the demand for bamboo has placed it in a precarious position ecologically. Plus, most bamboo is imported from Asia, so you’re working against the environment through transportation issues. If you do decide to use this flooring, it doesn’t need to be stained or painted, but it must be sealed. You also need to watch for low VOC content and try to avoid bamboo planks that have a wood core, especially if you’re going to use this flooring in an area that might get damp (kitchen, bathroom, etc.). Bamboo will expand at different rates than wood, and this composite might fall apart under these demands. Shop around and use that Treehugger article as a guide.
- Carpets and rugs: The carpet and rug industry now uses a labeling system to identify materials with fewer VOCs in carpet fiber or in installation adhesives. Such carpeting improves indoor air quality, a major consideration of green building. The Green Label Plus program, directed by the Carpet and Rug Institute, certifies environmentally friendly carpeting products (Cushions, currently tested under the Green Label program, will soon undergo more rigorous testing standards under the Green Label Plus program as well). Learn more about these carpets and how to limit health hazards from a fact sheet [PDF] produced by Washington Toxics Coalition.
- Certified sustainable wood: Sustainable forest management makes it possible to harvest wood without any serious impact on the environment, because trees are a renewable resource that can be replaced time and time again, according to the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA). But, you might consider using reclaimed or salvaged wood for floors. This wood comes from either re-sawn salvaged lumber, logs reclaimed from river bottoms, or urban salvage - trees that are removed from properties because they’re storm damaged or a safety hazard. Both certified and salvaged wood have the advantage of being locally available in most cases. Finish wood with water- or plant-based products like linseed oil or beeswax, or order it factory finished for convenience.
- Concrete: For homes with a concrete slab foundation, consider a finish layer of concrete using various types of decorative concrete techniques. Concrete is durable, although it can produce cracks and stains over time. Concrete also is hard on the feet, even when layered with carpet. But, a concrete floor is an ideal candidate for radiant in-floor heating. Finally, a concrete floor, if used wisely, can contribute to a home’s energy efficiency as part of a passive solar system. It absorbs heat during the day and releases it as temperatures drop at night. Take a look around the Internet to see the possibilities, as you can color concrete with natural nontoxic pigments that will last the life of the floor, or treat the concrete with other design applications.
- Cork: The bark from the cork tree is removed every nine years to create bottle corks, and the scrap from this process is used for other products, including floors. You can order these materials unfinished or pre-finished, and natural finishes are available from manufacturers. Cork has great resilience, which makes it very comfortable for standing for long periods such as in the kitchen. Since cork is imported from Europe, you face the environmental downside of not buying local. Additionally, you need to keep your eye peeled for products sealed with low-toxic, low-VOC, or plant-based wax sealer. Cork is long-lasting, but heavy furniture can dent the floor. Additionally, cork will fade in direct sunlight, it may yellow with age, and cork reacts to changes in relative humidity and heat.Wet mopping, for instance, may cause the seams to swell.
- Laminates: Laminates usually consist of a thin layer of color or pattern over a tongue-in-groove base of wood or wood fiber that’s glued together, but not to the subfloor. This creates a single piece of flooring that floats above the subfloor with edges covered by molding (which is why this type of floor also is called “floating floor”). While durability and environmental benefits are uncertain, you can find laminates with recycled content, and some versions are made with bamboo and cork layers. Some floating floors snap together, rather than use glue, and a floating floor is an ideal do-it-yourself project.
- Natural linoleum: Natural linoleum is made primarily from linseed oil, pine resin, sawdust, cork dust, limestone and jute. It is an all-natural alternative to resilient flooring, including sheet vinyl and vinyl composition tile, which are made from polyvinyl chloride. Available in tiles and sheets, natural linoleum is naturally anti-static and antibacterial. It also has ‘give,’ making it more comfortable for a standing surface. The environmental drawback is that this material currently is transported from Europe, which results in transport issues and high cost (about twice as much as vinyl, but it lasts twice as long). Linoleum tiles are a good do-it-yourself project, but professional installation is recommended for linoleum sheet.
- Recycled rubber: Recycled rubber flooring gives you the option of rolls or tiles that can be cut, shaped and customized to any length needed for easy installation. Usually made from rubber reclaimed from salvage and landfills, this flooring is ideal for standing for long periods as it’s even more resilient than cork - in fact, recycled rubber floors are now being used in fitness centers and as sidewalks. The industry has become creative, so you can find various textures, thickness, and colors to choose from, both for indoor and outdoor flooring projects. Recycled rubber resists buckling and cracking, and is said to last three times longer than concrete in outdoor projects. Hopefully, a new factory will open near you, as the rubber is heavy, and the main cost is in the shipping.
- Salvaged stone: Like concrete, stone is extremely durable, and just as hard on the feet. So, you might want to avoid using this material in rooms where you stand for a long period of time (like the kitchen). But, on the plus side, stone floors also are candidates for in-floor heating. If you use salvaged stone - especially if you find that stone on your own - you can save more than half the cost of new stone. If you plan to seal the stone, use low-toxic water-based sealers.
- Tile: Walls present a great reason to use tile, especially glass tile that contains recycled materials. Learn about tile flooring in the wall options section below.
- Vinyl: Vinyl flooring has been a popular flooring choice for decades, especially in kitchens and bathrooms. However, vinyl sheet flooring manufactured before the mid-1980s may contain high levels of asbestos in its backing material. Additionally, vinyl tiles - especially the 9″ x 9″ tiles - from this era also may contain asbestos. The asbestos in the tiles is usually much less likely to be released into the air than from the sheet vinyl backing. In either case, if your home contains this type of flooring you might want to replace it. But, you also might be required to use professionals [PDF] for this removal job, depending upon your local laws. Sometimes it might be safer to lay a new floor over the vinyl rather than remove it.
Here are some tips about whether you should or shouldn’t replace that roof. Plus, we’ve included information about your many roofing options, and the end result of a very environmentally friendly roof - rainwater collection! You do want to save on that water bill and have a great looking yard, right?
- Use quality the first time: You can choose high-quality recycled materials or your roof and escape the landfill altogether with this option. Plus, since rainwater carries toxins from roofing tiles to groundwater, you help to protect water quality when you choose nontoxic materials. So go with quality the first time around to avoid another roofing expense too soon down the road.
- Do you need a new roof? If you inspect your roof annually for deterioration or damage, you’ll stay on top of any repairs that need to be made. Inspections can be coordinated with gutter cleaning. Use binoculars when possible, as some roof surfaces damage easily with foot traffic, especially asphalt shingle in hot or cold weather. Look for curling shingles, broken tiles, asphalt shingles that lose their granular layer, and excessive moss (the latter sign may mean your roof needs cleaning, rather than replacing).
- Check the attic: Sometimes a leak or other problem will originate in the attic rather than outside on the roof. Often, the culprit is failed or improperly installed flashing
in especially vulnerable areas.
- Research the contractor: You can buy the best roof in the world with the longest known warranty and still have a lousy installation. Don’t always go with the lowest bid, as those low bids often smell of desperation. Instead, get bids, ask around about the professional, check the local Better Business Bureau, and talk with the contractor to find out if he/she has used recycled materials before. A well-done job on the front end will save you many years of repairs and grief.
- Not all recyclable materials are equal: Inquire about the roofing products’ suitability for rainwater harvest, because not all have been tested for water-quality impact. Different products vary in recycled content as well, but you can discover the specifics from the manufacturer or the retailer. No matter what you do, use high-quality stainless steel fasteners. Stainless steel products are water-friendly and often have warranties for up to 75 years. In fact, you might consider a stainless steel roof, but you need to watch for scratches, as that scratch will produce rust.
- Avoid asphalt: Asphalt is, after all, a crude oil product. And, asphalt tiles that contain built-in moss inhibitors may contain zinc, copper and other toxins that harm aquatic life, and may render water unusable for landscape or other rainwater harvest applications.
- Aluminum: You can find 100% recycled content aluminum shingles along with baked-on resin finishes that meet National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) standards for rainwater harvest. Look for anodized finishes.
- Clay: Also known as terracotta, you often can find used tiles as the tiles tend to outlast the buildings that they shelter. Like concrete, however, you may need to install reinforcing structures because clay weighs in at 600-900 lbs. per square. This roof often is considered the best choice from a water quality perspective.
- Concrete: Concrete roofs last a long time, and this is a good thing because the manufacture of concrete tile requires a large amount of energy to produce. Plus, you may need extra structural support, as the weight of concrete may strain your existing supports. Finally, your concrete roof may need to be waterproofed to ensure a long-lasting roof.
- Recycled or certified wood shake: Wood shake roofs are environmentally friendly, especially if they’re made from responsible harvests, including FSC-certified products. Storm-damaged trees and older wood left over from previous harvests resists rot, but some wood still may not fare well in areas with heavy rain and/or snowfall.
- Slate: Outside of clay, this is one of the most water-quality-friendly choices for your roof. Although expensive, 100-year warranties aren’t uncommon. Additionally, slate goes from quarry to roof with minimal processing. But, since most of the slate quarries are located in the northeast U.S., transportation would prove non-friendly to the environment for west coast residents. Additionally, some slate is produced abroad; before you purchase, you might want to learn about the slate’s origins. Like clay and cement, slate may require extra structural support, as it weighs as much as terracotta. Slate roofing has been in use in this country since before the Revolutionary War, so search for used or recycled slate tiles to save money.
- Go totally green: Ecoroofs have captured the minds of city officials as well as organic hippies. Ecoroofs are vegetated roof systems used in place of a conventional roof. Cost estimates come in at approximately twice per square foot of a quality metal roof, but this cost can vary depending upon roof design and your willingness to participate in labor. Over the long term, however, the extended life span of a green roof makes this option extremely competitive. Plus, some homeowners may find city incentives to ‘grow’ a green roof, an option that provides great insulation, treats rainwater with respect, and may extend the space for your garden!
- Collect rainwater: You probably wondered about the “water-quality” notes in the roofing materials above. This is the deal - not only does excessive amounts of rainwater get wasted as it’s diverted into storm or sewer systems, it also damages local natural water resources. However, if you collect that rainwater, you can store it for later use. Yes, you can use rain barrels; but a better option might be a cistern that can hold from several hundred to thousands of gallons of water. This amount of water is enough to reduce or even eliminate the need to use municipal water for landscaping, especially if you landscape wisely. Learn more from the Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting [PDF].
Wall decoration and protection choices are extensive, but many of your choices could be based upon whether you plan to stay in that home or if you plan to sell sometime soon. In the latter instance, staging is important, and good staging advice includes the use of neutral paints. But, if you plan to pass that house on to the grandkids, you can use many options, including recycled wallpaper and tiles and more.
- Get the lead out: If you own an older home (built before 1978, for instance), it almost certainly will contain some lead-based paint. The presence of this paint makes renovation and repainting hazardous. Before you begin to paint, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) information site and download their fact sheet [PDF] on “Remodeling or renovating a home with lead-based paint.” You can also order it by calling (800) 424-LEAD (5323). Additionally, The Washington Toxics Coalition also offers an excellent fact sheet [PDF], “Reducing Exposure to Lead in Older Homes,” which has a specific section on remodeling and paint removal.
- Indoor paint: Some people are especially sensitive to various compounds found in paints, such as formaldehyde, chemical preservatives and fungicides. It’s best for your green remodel that you avoid any paints with the words, “poison” and “warning” on the labels. Instead, use eco-friendly paints that contain low or no levels of VOCs that can cause eye or skin damage. The advantage is that they’re odorless, and these paints may actually improve the overall air quality since they’re safe for the environment. You can find these paints in a variety of colors, and they’re cost efficient.
- Do it right the first time: Learn more about the types of paint available and what to use indoors and outdoors. Then, choose your brushes and rollers accordingly. Choose colors carefully, so you don’t waste time, money, and the environment with extra purchases. You can find great tips on painting and the tools you’ll need through an online brochure [PDF] produced by Seattle, Washington’s Department of Planning and Development.
- Paint first: Before you plan a carpet-elimination party, paint your walls. You should still use tarps and/or drop clothes, but you won’t damage the floor under that carpet if you paint after you remove it.
- Avoid sprayers: It’s human nature these days to want to finish a project yesterday. So, sprayers seem to make sense since they appear to get a painting job done quickly and easily. However, Paint sprayers can also be dangerous, injecting paint under the skin and into the bloodstream. Because of these potential hazards, the use of paint spray equipment is best left to professionals.
- Tile: Tile usually is considered an environmental choice because it’s durable and it’s made from natural materials (primarily clays and talc combined with water, pressed or poured into forms, then fired in a kiln). Look for locally produced designs to avoid shipping and transportation costs when possible. Also, you can find tiles with recycled contest, such as waste glass, feldspar tailings, or reprocessed porcelain. Note, however, that 100% recycled glass time makes for a slippery surface, so it’s best suited for walls or accents. While most professionals suggest hand-applied mortar and galvanized reinforcing mesh for a tile base, cement board applied to a sufficiently rigid subfloor is adequate for tile flooring. Cost of tile will soar dramatically depending upon materials used, quality, size of tile, and complexity of tile design or the installed design. Remember to avoid sealers free of formaldehyde and low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when you finish installing your tile.
- Use recycled wallboard and insulation when possible: More companies are jumping on the recycling bandwagon as they realize the potential in reusing materials rather than producing them new. Recycled wallboard represents one of those options, and if you hunt around you also can find recycled insulation. Remember that your wallboard and insulation may be recyclable as well, and some companies may pay to haul it away for you. Use the GreenHomeGuide and other resources to help decide what type of insulation you might need for your home.
- Wallpapers: Just because that wallpaper’s graphics detail endangered species, it doesn’t mean that product is environmentally sound in its manufacturing. The problem with wallpapers is that they take time to install; so if you plan to resell that home the new owners might not take to your taste. For reselling, it’s best to stick to paint in neutral colors. But, if you need to remove wallpaper, do your research. Older wallpaper often can be removed with steamers. Newer wallpaper pastes, however, were made to resist moisture, so you may need to find a professional wallpaper removal service for this situation. If you can’t avoid using wallpapers, try to look at some recycled options and kits, or choose papers made from sustainable wood pulp, formaldehyde-free, and printed with water-based inks.
- Visit online sites for ideas: Sites like Apartment Therapy aren’t just for apartments. You can glean great tips from this site, such as this idea for recycled aluminum tiles for your walls.
Levels of indoor air pollution can be two to five times higher than outdoor levels, thanks to toxic building materials, molds, allergens, and poor ventilation. The following tips will help you bring fresh air indoors and circulate that air more efficiently:
- Replace inefficient windows: Replacing windows can make a big difference to your utility bills. Because it’s a fairly challenging job for the average homeowner, most folks will want to bring in a contractor for this job.
- Stop drafts: Use caulk or weather stripping to seal doors and windows and close vents and doors to unused rooms. Random leakage isn’t effective ventilation, because it’s not reliable, regulated or distributed.
- But you still need to vent: A tight home is fine, as long as it comes with a controlled ventilation system. The controlled ventilation described in this article is intended to maintain overall indoor air quality as ventilation systems should expel toxic air and increase the flow of fresh air.
- Check filters: Change cooling and heating filters monthly to allow for better air flow.
- Keep that range hood small: The hankering for commercial stoves has created a ventilation problem. Larger hoods can suck exhaust gases out of a fireplace, wood stove, water heater or furnace, adding to toxic fumes in the home with backdrafts. The Home Ventilating Institute (HVI), a fan manufacturers’ trade association, recommends range hood capacity of 40 to 50 CFM per linear foot of range, or about 120 to 150 CFM for the standard 30-in. range. Keep it small, or no larger than what you absolutely need.
- Test for carbon monoxide: If you insist on that large range hood, it might be wise to test for Carbon Monoxide in your home. There are many hundreds of fatalities every year from Carbon Monoxide (CO) and just a small amount of CO in your living area can cause major problems over time. If you outfit your new green abode with a CO detector, it will provide you and future owners with peace of mind, especially if you own a fireplace.
- Replace attic vents with soffit and ridge vents: If you own an older home, you may discover that you need more ventilation in your attic (your county building codes will be instructive in this case). If so, you might want to adopt the soffit and ridge vent combination, which seems to work well to distribute fresh air, to lower energy costs, and to keep your attic dry. Search for this combination on the Internet, and you’ll find various ‘how to’ articles that can shed light on how to install this type of ventilation.
- Avoid ceiling fans: It’s long been held that ceiling fans reduce energy use because users can raise thermostat setting point two or three degrees. However, a field study by the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) revealed that there was no correlation between using ceiling fans and saving energy. Instead, a computer simulation showed a potential energy use increase of ten percent, as the energy used to run the fans exceeded the potential savings. Additionally, waste heat from the fan motos added to the building’s cooling load.monitored energy use and surveyed the occupants of 400 new homes in central Florida. They also collected indoor temperature readings for 63 homes. The average home had four or five ceiling fans that operated 13 to 14 hours per day.
Learning how to landscape with an environmental objective may seem foreign to you at first. But, the links and tips below will help to guide you along the way as you begin to restore your landscape to its natural ecological functions, and reduce your need for water, fertilizer, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals.
- Rethink your attitude: The EPA estimates that the average American spends more than 90% of his or her life indoors. Considering that indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air, you might look at your yard in a new light. Consider that yard as a healthy extension to your home, an investment in your health, and as added value to your home.
- Head back to the local planning department: Before you decide to build shelters or outbuildings, check with the county planning and development department for codes that you might need to abide by and for permits that you may need to build.
- Consider taking a course: Local colleges might have what is known as a “Master Gardener” course that residents can take. These courses are worth their weight in gold, as they look at local resources and environments and teach you what plants and grasses you might use to help conserve that environment.
- Plan long and hard: Taking a course is well within your time frame, as a landscaping revamp is a time-consuming project. Doing it right the first time around will save you time and money in the long run. Search online for “landscape symbols” and print some out. Play around with graph paper and these images as you learn about local environments and you’ll discover the landscape plan suited for your home.
- Study Xeriscaping: Xeriscape began in Colorado as a means to promote creative approaches to water conserving. These environmentally specific landscape techniques help people to conserve water, maintenance, and other resources by using techniques, plants, and grasses that are indigenous to a given area. In other words, you wouldn’t want to grow plants from the northeast U.S. in the southwest, as you’ll need to use too much water to keep that plant alive. Nor would you want to try to grow cactus in Seattle, as the amount of rainwater in that city would kill the effort. Some cities have adopted local Xeriscape centers, so conduct some research to see what you have available locally.
- Learn about construction options: Once again, the city of Seattle pulls through with a great brochure [PDF] that provides information about various landscape construction materials and mulches. They also offer information on decks, fences, raised rockbeds, irrigation, and ‘found objects’ as yard art. The only disappointment is that they don’t include recycled rubber as a choice for walkways (see Flooring above).
- Watch HGTV: Although the Home and Garden television station isn’t always about greening your home (although they now maintain a new green mission), they have some great ideas for curb appeal. If you threw out your TV along with your meat-eating habits, then visit the HGTV site online for ideas. Other green landscaping sites also carry some creative thoughts that might fit with your ideals and with your home.
Without a doubt, the green movement is on, it’s real, and you’ll be left behind if you don’t begin making changes now. But, don’t feel as though you need to complete a total remodel within the next year. Take your time, learn as much as possible about your choices, and have fun with the process. You are, after all, improving your health along the way, and - as a result - you might live longer to enjoy the changes that you’ve wrought.
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