Renovate your house the green way

Renovate your house the green way

By on 03/16/2006

Many building materials are shipped 4,000 miles or more before use. The green route to go is simply to reuse the materials that are already here.

We all know that natural resources are not unlimited. We also know that everything we consume takes energy to extract, process and transport. This is sometimes referred to as a product’s embodied energy. This is especially relevant when it comes to building materials. Many building materials are being shipped 4,000 miles or more to the final-end user. So when looking at green building, one route to go is simply to reuse the materials that are already here. For me, green renovation of an existing home is the best way to achieve this. My current home is the third house my wife and I have renovated, and we’re getting greener each time as we learn about different products and discover new opportunities.

First, here’s a little background on the house. It was built in 1920, and the same family had lived here since it was built. It is about 1,100 square feet with a full, unfinished basement. The house had vinyl siding put on over the original wood. It is heated with radiators supplied by a steam boiler.

One of our goals was to try different products to see how much we could do affordably. Since I get hundreds of calls a year about green building products, I thought it would be nice to actually have hands-on experience with as many as possible.

We were fortunate enough to have a month to work on the house before we moved in. Our first step was to blow cellulose insulation into the walls, which we had done at our previous house. Many people do this from the outside by removing siding. When done from the inside, holes have to be made about every 16 inches, so I encourage this to be done from the outside if possible to decrease the mess and repair work necessary. We, however, had planned on doing it from the inside.

We bought 25 bags of cellulose insulation at $7 each. (Lowe’s will give you the blower machine if you buy more than 20 bags.) As I drilled the first three-inch hole in our wall, I was pleased to find that apparently when the siding was put on they had blown fiberglass insulation in all the walls. It’s worth checking in older homes by making a half-inch hole somewhere inconspicuous and easily repairable. We blew all 25 bags up in the attic. It is one of the cheapest ways to save energy with an almost guaranteed payback in the first year.

The next step was to work on the simple issues that can make a big difference in the long run. We installed a programmable thermostat, which cost $30, so our heat would automatically be set back at night. Then we bought enough compact fluorescent lightbulbs, or CFLs, for all our light fixtures, in bulk packs at about $2 each. I tried different brands and light colors to see how they performed. The CFLs with a color of 3,000-k (or Kelvin, a temperature scale used to measure the color of fluorescent lights) provide a much whiter light than the 2,700-k bulbs. CFLs also are available in a natural-daylight color. I saw no difference in quality between the $2 bulbs and the $4 bulbs although it may be reflected in the longevity of the bulbs. Either way, CFLs are easy energy-savers that pay themselves back in less than a year. There is only one energy-saving technique that pays itself back in about a week or less. We installed a solar clothes dryer, also known as a clothesline, for $4, including clothespins. While not preferred by everyone, this is one of our most successful energy-saving technologies.

Our total, average electric bill each month is about $30 for 300 kilowatt-hours for two adults and a child with everything except heat provided by electricity. We offset our environmental impact by paying $12 a month for three blocks of NC Green Power that goes toward putting renewable energy on the grid.

Replacing doors and windows is not always the most economical way to save energy.  However, in a house with 18 single-pane windows that are very leaky, it certainly can make a difference in air leakage and noise reduction. I also believe, as is true with many green upgrades, that the money spent will be regained in the selling price of the home. The replacement windows we chose after my research were the Lincoln Windows double-hung replacement kits. The ones we ordered from a local building supplier are solid wood, aluminum clad on the outside and pre-primed with low-emissivity glass (which blocks heat). The windows take 30 minutes to put in once your old windows are out and cost $170 to $200 each, depending on size and style. I highly recommend them. For the stationary windows, I had thermo-pane windows made with low-e glass at Wholesale Glass in Asheville.

We installed a storm door on the front door for $220. For the existing fireplace, we had a Loc-Top damper installed to almost completely prevent heat loss through the chimney. I also caulked, foamed and weather-stripped anywhere there was additional air leakage, at a cost of $20.

For the interior, aesthetic renovations we wanted to do, we tried to be creative with materials and reduce the amount of new materials we bought. We removed a chimney to open up the kitchen to the dining room, but instead of taking it completely down, we stopped at countertop level. We used the bricks we took out to line our garden beds. Then we found someone who was selling pieces of a bowling alley that had been torn out. At only $10 a linear foot, I now have 2-inch-thick, solid maple countertops decorated with bowling-lane arrows and dots. We also got several light fixtures and other building supplies at the Habitat for Humanity store. It feels great to reuse and support a good cause.

Our experimentation with interior finishes was a lot of fun, and we certainly learned a lot from it. This was to be the third time we refinished our floors, one of my least favorite renovations. The other times we used conventional polyurethane, and the last time we hired out the job. Since I can no longer stand the smell of the stuff and didn’t want to make someone else suffer, I looked for an alternative. After hearing about the poor durability of water-based urethanes, I decided to use a linseed oil-based floor finish from Bioshield at $66 a gallon. While the manufacturer told me it must be brush-applied, a two-day job, I didn’t feel sick once, and there was no residual odor after the 72-hour curing time. So far, it has held up as well as conventional polyurethane and has a unique look.

For most of the house, we used Glidden’s Lifemaster zero-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint, mainly because it was the least expensive, at $18 a gallon, less than some conventional paints. It performed very well, and the only limitation, as with all low-VOC paint, is that you can only tint it to light colors. The real fun came in our bedrooms, where we used all-natural, milk protein-based paint at $26 a gallon and clay paint at $40 a gallon, also from Bioshield. The milk casein paint came as a powder and was mixed in batches. It was somewhat difficult to get on evenly, but it’s great if you’re interested in doing a pattern or texture (it helped to mix in about a cup of latex paint). The paint smells like milk. The clay paint was fantastic, with a pudding consistency that adds texture. It smells like mud until it dries.

One of the main reasons we bought the house was for the opportunity to install solar collectors. That’s possible because of a south-facing portion of roof and the accessible underneath of the floor where radiant floor heat could be installed. When we do that, we will choose a 95 percent-plus-efficient boiler that will also heat our water for domestic use.

We plan to build a fence around some of our yard for our dog and do not want to use pressure-treated lumber. After some research, we found a source for locust 4-by-4 posts and local hemlock to use as the vertical fencing. We also plan to make rain barrels to capture water for our vegetable garden.

Our choices make a difference in home renovation. When you use zero-VOC paint, you are making a choice not to use high-VOC paint. Consumers have the opportunity each time they buy something to make a statement to retailers, manufacturers, builders and others about their priorities. Green-built homes and materials will become more available if each of us decides to build or renovate in a green way. You can make your home a place you’re proud of that reflects your values and even educates people who enter it. I encourage you to experiment with different products and compare prices and options for your situation.

[Matt Siegel is director of the WNC Green Building Council. He can be reached at 232-5080]