Transforming Housing

How going green can help you and the earth.

In an average year, more than 800,000 room additions are constructed in the United States, most by professional remodeling contractors, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. Let’s assume that each of those 800,000 projects has an average life of 30 years before being remodeled again. If every project were remodeled green, each homeowner would experience 30 years of reduced energy bills, improved comfort, healthier air and lower home maintenance costs.

Green remodeling provides long-term benefits to homeowners, contractors, local economies and the environment. Every remodeling project that’s not green deprives homeowners— and subsequent home purchasers— of these benefits.

Why remodel green?

Green remodeling is a local and global issue.

There will always be more old homes than new homes. Older homes are typically inefficient and emit unhealthy indoor air. Such inefficient homes require more power than new homes to run. Electricity generation creates air pollution and increases water usage. By making homes more efficient, however, we reduce the demand for power and water, and the associated pollution from power plants. Though no single house makes a difference, each of those 800,000 homes remodeled each year could halve its energy usage by employing currently available green materials and methods, significantly reducing the impact on the environment.

Another aspect of green remodeling— one in many ways more important than energy efficiency— is indoor health. The air inside most homes is less healthy than the air outside. Yet, most people spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors. Ever-increasing allergies and asthma are a direct result of unhealthy indoor air. We are literally poisoning ourselves and our children by the way we build our houses.

The knowledge exists to make homes healthier, and it is not rocket science. It is building science. Occupants of green homes continue to report that they feel healthier and have reduced allergies and asthma. Green remodeling provides the ability to make almost any home a healthier place to live.

Don’t get overwhelmed

As a homeowner or professional considering undertaking green remodeling, you may feel paralyzed with indecision. Decisions are best made using the low-hanging fruit theory: Choose materials and techniques that provide the most bang for the buck. For example, to improve an older house that is inefficient and uncomfortable, focus primarily on the areas of conserving, renewing and efficiently using energy— all of which fall into the category of high performance. If your family is prone to respiratory illness, you may want to first improve the indoor air quality of your home, which involves clean air, fresh air and proper humidity. You may also want to use renewable and sustainably produced materials for your project. The key is to make the right decisions for each particular project.

Homeowners benefit from living in a more efficient, durable and healthy house because of lower energy bills, fewer allergies, and higher comfort and cleanliness in their homes. Our environment benefits from green houses that reduce pollutants due to lower energy usage and less impact on natural resources such as water, wood and landfill space.

The science behind green remodeling

Green remodeling can be divided into two major categories: building science and material selection. Building science, also known as home performance, studies how each system in the house interacts to create an efficient, healthy and sustainable structure. Material selection is carefully considered in green projects so that healthy, durable and environmentally friendly products are chosen. Both categories provide the tools to make homes green.

While one home project may focus almost exclusively on home performance, another may emphasize material selection. A third project may involve both. Building science and material selection are then subdivided to get increasingly specific and make tangible items in your home more efficient.

Building science can be broken down into high performance, indoor air quality, durability and resource efficiency. These concepts directly affect each other in a building. Understanding the interactions is critical in creating high-quality green homes. High performance in a home can be viewed as a three-legged stool of energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Indoor air quality, commonly called IAQ, refers to clean air, fresh air and proper humidity. Durability involves techniques in constructing long-lasting buildings. Resource efficiency is accomplished by using sustainably produced materials and reducing the amount of materials used in a building.

Material selection involves identifying products that reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals diminishing the air quality in our homes and the environment as a whole. In reviewing a specific material’s effect on IAQ, the main consideration is the quantity of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that any product produces. VOCs are the toxic chemicals that are present in most manufactured products. These chemicals are responsible for that “new car smell” we get from vinyl flooring, carpet, paint and other home products. Many products are now available with low or zero VOC content, and they are usually labeled as green or environmentally friendly.

The remodeling industry is as vast as new home construction in the United States. New home builders are steadily embracing green construction practices, proving that an alternative to unhealthy and inefficient houses does in fact exist.

The remodeling industry has the opportunity and responsibility to improve our existing housing stock, allowing residents to lead healthier and more prosperous lives.