How to Go Green: Home Renovation

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[by Rebecca Silver]

Maybe its the tile falling off the bathroom wall, the kitchen drawers that won't close tight, or not having enough space in your living room for yourself, your kids and your stuff! As much as we wish our homes would magically grow and change with our needs and priorities, many of us have or will tackle a dreaded home makeover. And what's not to fear? Between the cost, the hassle, not having the knowhow, and the many potential problems that are bound to come up along the way (lead paint anyone?), few of us relish in the renovation process. So while the Planet Green team can't promise to take all of your woes away, we are here to equip you with some tricks of the green trade, and perhaps save you some green in the process.

Key to the home renovation challenge is understanding your own limits and abilities. While you may be Mr./Ms. fix-it at home, have you tackled a gut renovation? You can fix a cabinet or a clogged drain, but can you install an HVAC system? How about the challenges of attaining the proper building permits, or understanding which tax breaks you're eligible for by building an energy efficient home? All of this and you want to take a green approach? The best way to start any new project of this scope is to consult an expert! This doesn't mean you won't have to dirty your hands in this process - those of us who have dealt with architects and contractors know that this is the farthest thing from the truth. With this input comes the opportunity to express both your needs in terms of a living space, and your commitment to rebuilding with respect to the environment.

Just remember not to get bogged down in the details. Although the green building process can involve energy efficient lighting, recycled counter tops and low-VOC paints, taking a holistic approach to your rebuild is a must! While your top priority may be 'that tiny bathroom that has to go', if your longer-term plans involve redoing the rest of the castle, allow yourself to think about the end result - an energy efficient home, tuned to its natural environs, durable, comfortable, and eco-friendly from the inside out. The right builder can help you stage your project in a way that helps you accomplish both small and grand ideas -- starting with the bigger picture, and working your way back into the details.

Now its your turn to be the expert. Whether you decide to tackle your renovation on your own, or to hire outside professionals, this guide will help tprepare you with questions for your builder and answers for yourself as you go through this tricky process. Good luck!

Special Thanks to Bart Bettencourt from Bettencourt Green Building Supplies for his thoughts and contributions to this article.

Top Green Home Renovation Tips

  1. List your Needs and Goals
    Before you lay hammer to nail, make sure you have thoroughly worked through your renovation needs and wants. Start by amassing a list of bigger goals and questions to determine what results you want from your renovation: What do you like about your house? Are your utility bills absorbently high (and not solely due to your bad behavior)? Do you want to bring natural light to otherwise dark and dank areas? Use this list as the basis of your renovation, rather than focusing first on the details, and remember to focus on long-term goals, rather than short-term solutions. Then take this list to your contractor...
  2. Go Go Green Contractor
    Locating an expert who shares your ideals; green builders are not only skilled in traditional building trades, but understand how to design projects to be energy, water, and resource-efficient. Although you may not have many of these experts in your area, there are several criteria and organizations that can help you find the right match. Go with someone who has been designated a Master Builder by the Energy and Environmental Building Association, or has been certified by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry as a Certified Remodeler. Alternatively search for those who have done 'historic renovations' and/or someone who wants to share in your green dream and give them the Green Building: A Primer for Builders, Consumers, and Realtors, and the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Green Home Guide, to get them going on their way.
  3. Make a Master Plan
    Work with your builder on a Master Plan for your project, keeping a systems perspective in mind. By doing so you may discover that your initial plans for an 'addition', will require you to tear down walls and break the thermal and air barriers between your home and the outdoors, or to install a new HVAC system (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning). Think instead about downsizing your home, reconfiguring your current space to better suit your needs. Remember, the larger the physical footprint of your home, the larger the environmental footprint as well, in terms of material, and energy use. Using natural light to make spaces feel bigger by opening up a wall between a dark and light-filled room, and removing unused objects and fixtures (such as cabinets etc.) that take up needed space, can go a long way to solving space issues.
  4. Avoid Hot and Cold Flashes
    Renovating your home provides the unique opportunity to address your heating, and cooling needs -- via upgrading mechanical systems, using natural heat and light to your advantage, and installing new insulation and other energy saving measures. There are bountiful ways to both save energy and stay comfortable, but as always keep in mind a systems perspective when deciding which strategies to implement. Start by using a modeling tool to do a home energy audit, and explore how different approaches can effect energy savings.

Consider the climate you reside in, which can guide you to the optimal balance between natural sources of temperature regulation, and HVAC systems. And reinforce your home's thermal envelope, by installing high-performance double or triple pained glass for windows, using window glazings and solar screens, and placing weather stripping and caulk around leaky windows and doors.

Keep Water and Moisture at Bay
As with heating and cooling your home, there's no one way to use your rebuild to mitigate future water use. Instead, a variety of strategies, from installing on demand hot water recirculation devices to harvesting rain water, may be possible. The goal is twofold: to minimize water use and maximize water distribution efficiency. Cut your H2O consumption by installing a grey water recovery system and water saving fixtures (dual flush toilets, low-flow showerheads, and water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines to name a few). To improve efficiency, create a plumbing core by 'backing or stacking' wet rooms (laundry, kitchen, and bathrooms) in the home, installing an efficient hot water heater, and insulating both the heater and your environmentally preferable hot water pipes. Prevent mold and mildew by installing proper ventilation in wet areas and using mold mitigating materials.

Energy Efficient Lighting and Fixtures
Take the time to plan for future wiring and cabling needs when considering the lighting, electronics and appliances which will draw energy from your home. You may be able to eliminate the need for much of this lighting by strategically placing walls and windows to optimize natural light. For the lighting you do install, avoid recessed lighting in ceilings which may break the thermal envelope of your home, go with energy-efficient lamps which accept LEDs and compact fluorescent light bulbs, and install motion sensors and timers in rooms to keep lights turned off when they're not needed.

Be the Foreman of Destruction
Think of your home as a treasure trove of materials, from piping, to lighting fixtures, to wood beams. Reuse these old materials in your new build, or take them to a company that accepts well preserved demolition waste and in tact building materials. So with this in mind, why demolish such a rich resource? Instead avoid hard-core demolition and disassemble with care -- surgically take walls apart (unscrew screws to take sheetrock off the walls for example), look at pre-existing architectural documents of your home for clues as to what unique design features or materials might be lurking behind your walls, and preserve original pieces of home which add historic integrity. Pay special attention to hazardous materials, you may discover along the way, such as lead, mold, and asbestos, and remove or isolate them with care and professional expertise. There are many more tips on how to properly dispose of hazardous demolition waste.


Be aware that some construction waste may contain hazardous materials. Contact your local waste management organization to find out how to dispose of hazardous waste properly.

Buy Reclaimed
Don't get caught up in new materials; instead consider options like using reclaimed pine timbers for flooring and installing salvaged doors and cabinets. Reclaimed pieces and materials are not only more affordable (on the whole), but they save the energy, material, and resources it would take to produce a new similar product. Follow our salvaging tips, or take a trip to an antique store, or to reclamation repositories such as Build It Green, which accept and sell demolition waste.


When selecting reclaimed materials, avoid products that may contain hazardous materials, such as formaldehyde or creosote from railroad ties and other wood-based goods.

Select New Materials Wisely
Using new materials in your home renovation project is inevitable: from caulk and sealers, to paint, countertops, flooring materials, insulation, and drywall. While there are no hard and fast rules to selecting green materials, you should know a few of the basics. Buy: products which are durable, are easy to maintain, and will age gracefully; products which contain a high percentage of recycled content; are those that are local to your region (saving energy in transport). Avoid: disposable products, which will only serve your needs in the short term; products that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), commonly found in paints, finishes and a myriad other products; PVC in products such as sheathing and pipes. Some green product certifications to keep an eye out for include: Green Seal, for paints coatings and doors; Energy Star, for appliances, windows, and heating and cooling products; Forest Stewardship Council, for wood-based products; and Cradle to Cradle, for carpet, sheet goods, and other products. Visit the "Where to Get Green Home Renovation Products" and "Getting Techie" sections of this guide for more ideas on new green materials.

Maintain Your Green Renovations
Commit to maintaining your brand new and new to you products -- ensuring they will last for decades (rather than years) to come, and allowing you to take some additional green considerations during the material selection process. For example, while the clean lines and wipe clean surface of a solid surface Corian counter top may be appealing, a recycled paper based product such as Richlite or Paperstone absorbs scratches, and can easily be repaired by the home owner, rather than by an expert. Similarly, use natural oils to condition bamboo or wood surfaces and floors, rather than urethane finishes, which are difficult to spot fix, without relaying the entire coat. Maintenance is key not only for surface materials, but for electric and mechanically based products, which like cars need to be cleaned and fine tuned on a regular basis.

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Green Home Renovation: By the Numbers

  • 50 tons: Amount of CO2 generated by the construction of a new house.
  • 15 tons: Amount of CO2 emitted by renovating an existing house.
  • 10-40: Percentage of increased efficiency from using water-heater blanket.
  • $15: Average cost of a water-heater blanket.
  • 15-20 years: The average lifetime of a furnace.
  • $50-$100: Amount that upgrading a single-pane window to energy-efficient window can save you per year.
  • 1,700 pounds: Amount of CO2 that can be saved per house per year by caulking and weather-stripping doorways and windows.
  • 2,000 pounds: Amount of CO2 that can be saved per house per year by insulating walls and ceilings.
  • 1,000 square feet.: Average size of the American home three decades ago.
  • 2,400 square feet: Average size of the American home today.

Sources: Home Energy Saver Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living

Green Home Renovation: Getting Techie

Green Flooring Options:
Linoleum is traditionally made from materials like linseed oil (where the "lin" comes from; it's also known as flax seed oil), cork or wood powder, and a burlap or canvas backing. As such, it can be a very eco-friendly flooring material, but beware: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is often used these days and the product is still called "linoleum." Be sure to steer clear of the PVC version -- remember, PVC is a toxic material to both produce and use in your home. The only knock against linoleum: it takes a lot of energy to "bake" it.
Marmoleum is similar to linoleum -- it often uses materials like limestone and jute instead of burlap and canvas -- but is hypoallergenic (it has earned the British Allergy Foundation's Seal of Approval) and also a good choice for eco-friendly flooring.
Cork is another good option, especially for kitchens and baths. It is water resistant, sound and vibration dampening, and great for high traffic areas. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak, which can be sustainably harvested from the living trees about every nine years.

When wood flooring is your material of choice, opt for character grade or common grade of wood, rather than "clear grade." Character grade wood uses both heart and sapwood, using more parts of the tree, and thus creating less waste in manufacturing. And, of course, look for the Forest Stewardship Council certification with anything you choose.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are carbon-based molecules that vaporize (or "volatilize") at room temperate, where they combine with other airborne compounds to form ozone, which isn't good to breathe. VOCs are often present in paint pigment, and are one of the leading causes of the dizzying odor in fresh paint.

Low-VOC latex paints must have fewer than 250 grams of VOCs per liter (380 grams/liter for alkyd paints).
No-VOC paints must have fewer than 5 grams of VOCs per liter. However, adding pigment typically adds VOCs, and, since testing is typically completed before color is added, VOC levels can vary widely from these parameters.
Natural clay or "earth plaster" is made from pure clays and aggregates with coloring agents that come from natural, non-toxic oxides and mineral pigments, so they won't off-gas anything you don't want to breathe. Be sure to get a demonstration (companies like American Clay often offer classes) on how to properly apply the stuff to the walls; it isn't quite as simple as paint.

REGREEN is a set of guidelines for green home and interior renovation. The joint program between the American Society of Interior Designers and the U.S. Green Building Council is designed to give homeowners and interior design and buildings professionals the background and resources to evaluate green products and energy systems in the systems-based context of how an entire home operates. The online document (pdf) includes the guidelines and 10 case studies covering different project types, from kitchen, bathroom, and finished basement remodels to gut rehabs and more.
Tax credits are often available for energy-efficiency upgrades and other green building initiatives. Be sure to check with Energy Star before purchasing windows, appliances, or other green home renovation products.

Where to Get Green Home Renovation Products

Green Building Product Directories:
Energy Star
Good to Be Green
Green Building Pages
Building Green
McGraw Hill Construction
Green Building Material Retailers:
Northeast: Bettencourt Green Building Supply
Green Depot
Environmental Home Store
Eco-Green Living
Maine Green Building Supply
Eco Supply Center
Common Ground
Natural Built Home
Green Home Chicago
West Coast:
EcoHome Improvement
BRILLIANT environmental building products
Healthy Homes Products and Services
Alternative Building Center
Green Sacramento
The Green Building Center
a.k.a. Green
Natural Territory
Material Good

Further Reading on Green Home Renovation

Green Renovation Resources: