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Green Remodeling for the Real World™
A NEW Series of Articles by Andy Ault
Green Remodeling for the Real World™ - Part 1
Everywhere you look, you read about "green" this and "eco" that. You see pictures of solar panels and wind generators, and hear terms like "passive" and "back-to-the-grid." But, what does any of that really mean to you when you're just redoing a bathroom or updating your kitchen? In this series of articles, you can look forward to learning about every-day, real-world tips, techniques, and strategies that you can implement right away in your next home remodeling project. From simple products like timer switches to technical concepts like advanced framing layout, we'll review the four primary planning areas to focus on when sustainably remodeling an existing home. Then we'll drill down into each of those for detailed tips and strategies.
First, it would be helpful to explain my definition of "green remodeling" and how that directly influences what you'll read in the coming months. For starters, I don't actually like the term "green!" I think that it's way over used (green washing), too vague, and largely misses where the focus should be. When I talk about remodeling and construction, I prefer to talk about "sustainable" best practices and methods. It's one thing to call a household cleaner or an automobile "green." Those are limited-lifespan consumables that have a defined period of use. However, when done correctly, construction is something that should be in use for centuries. Add to that the fact that our built environment has one of the greatest impacts on the quality of our lives of any man made creation we encounter. For example, if your home isn't built correctly and it collapses in a natural disaster or has to be gutted due to extensive mold, that's far more important to you than the type of car you drive or which water bottle you carry. So accordingly, I believe that truly responsible, and thus environmentally friendly, construction should have sustainability as its primary goal before all else.
A great term I heard recently is "green by design, not by device." I think that is about the most concise explanation I've encountered to date. All too often, both homeowners and media outlets get too wrapped up in the "what" (aka devices) and completely miss the "how" (design). If you think about most of the articles you've seen recently, they all talk about rebates and incentive programs, windows, insulation, solar and wind power, etc., etc., etc. Outside of the construction-specific press, how many stories have you seen that have actually talked about strategic design and planning months before the project? Or about advanced framing plans and methods which can actually be stronger while using less lumber? You don't see these because they don't have that "news at 11" sizzle to them. But when it comes to products … oh boy, there's no shortage of those being flashed in front of us.
The problem is that there are plenty of trendy, theoretically "green" materials in today's marketplace that will have to be ripped-out, sent to a landfill, and replaced 5 or 10 years from now. For example, some of the cheaper bamboo flooring products have very poor finishes on them, dent very easily, and will look terrible in just a few years under normal family use, but they get LOTS of great press and marketing. Conversely, there are other materials that don't necessarily have great "green" pedigrees due to their contents or their manufacturing points-of-origin, but if installed correctly they will still be going strong 50 years from now. A good example is cementitious siding (i.e. Hardi Plank). This sometimes gets a bad rap because of the embodied energy involved in manufacturing cement. However, with the factory pre-painted finish and professional installation it won't need to be maintained or replaced for 2 to 3 decades. And even then, it should only need a fresh coat of paint and be able to keep going strong for another decade or more. But if you've already spent a significant portion of your budget on "sizzle" items, either because the advanced planning wasn't done or because you just simply didn't know any different, then what opportunities for great, sustainable solutions will you miss because you were distracted by short-term "green?"
So, now that we've established that "sustainable" seems to be a better description than "green" what next? Isn't all of this is too complicated or involved just for your "small" project? When I explain sustainable remodeling to my clients, I use the old adage about eating an elephant one bite at a time. And no, I'm not advocating eating any elephants, I just mean that when something seems huge and overwhelming, reduce it to small, easy-to-grasp parts and start at the beginning. For the built environment, I do this by starting with four overall categories; Geographic, Structure, Systems, and Aesthetics. With these four, you can cover any and everything involved in building or remodeling. This makes it pretty easy to begin planning your project because you follow them in the same order that I've listed them. (This will also be the same order that future installments of this series of articles will follow.) In addition to being in an order which is logical from a project planning flow, they are also in the order of most-to-least importance relevant to the level of impact they have on a project. This means that you will be making the most important decisions first and not getting distracted by lesser items.
Then within each of these planning areas, I further break it down into specific strategy considerations. You can simply move through them one-by-one and come out at the end with a highly sustainable, well designed, properly budgeted project. And, with some basic research and a big dose of common-sense practicality you can do this yourself, without expensive consultants or verified rating programs (more on those another time).
When you start with Geographic, this will determine many critical planning decisions for you. This is important to pay attention to because many of the "tips" you might find on the internet could sound great, but could be disastrous if they're implemented in the wrong climate zone. Case in point, depending on where your project is located, the vapor barrier that covers your walls might go on the outside, it might go on the inside or you might not need to use one at all. So the next time you read a story or a case study on a great sounding project and they talk about what type of wall assembly they used, remember that it may not even apply to you.
Next we move into the Structure planning area. This is where "the bones" of the whole project come together to form what's to come. But when I say structure, I'm not simply referring to 2-by-4's or steel beams. Here we're looking at everything from the foundation, to the walls, to the building envelope. (And if you didn't know that your house was delivered to you in an envelope, then this series will definitely be for you!) The decisions made at this stage will impact significant items like how much insulation you can install later, what type of heating and cooling loads you'll need to plan for, and how healthy your indoor air is for you and your family. These decisions will also BE impacted by future decisions not yet made, so you have to be fluid and thinking on multiple levels at all times. For example, the type of water heating or distribution you select during the Systems planning may determine whether or not you need to incorporate mechanical chases into the Structure plan.
Then as you move into the Systems planning, followed closely by the Aesthetics items, this is where you get back into the more familiar territory that we're used to reading about or seeing on the TV shows. Basically, these have a tendency to be the "things" that we see in front of the walls as opposed to the less glamorous (but more important) considerations which we never see again behind the walls. Often times, my experience has been that you can have as positive of an impact with the things you intentionally don't include in these beofre final two categories as those you do; the builder's version of the "less is more" philosophy. That's not to say that these areas deserve any less planning and consideration. I'm just saying that it should definitely not be greater than the first two. Unfortunately though, that is exactly what tends to happen. As humans, we are all creatures of habit, and this includes our comfort zones. Unless you're a builder or an engineer, most homeowners tend to feel like what's "behind the walls" is way outside of their knowledge base and so they just ignore those items completely. But if you do the right reading (for the smaller projects) or partner with the right contractor (for the big projects) you would be amazed at what you can learn and how simple the logic is for many of the most important concepts within the Geographic and Structure groups.
Finally I should mention again, that although it may not seem like it, all of this DOES apply even to those "small" DIY projects. One of my key tenets of sustainability is thinking five and ten years down-the-road before you ever pick up the first tool. So when you're just rehabbing your powder room, you should also be thinking about those dream projects from your "someday" files. If you already know that you'd love to move that powder room across the house when you take down a wall to redo the kitchen (after you hit the lottery) then don't use products which can't be relocated (i.e. custom tile) or which can't be recycled when that future project happens. Better yet, if that project is something that might happen in five years or less, then don't rehab that powder room at all. Take that same money and put it towards a more efficient water heater or intelligent lighting controls which will start working for you (and the environment) right away. It doesn't make sense to me to put money into temporary aesthetics when more important systems could be improved instead. In the meantime, you'd be amazed at how much a fresh coat of paint, some new towel hardware (from Community Forklift, of course), and a few family photos can liven it up without gutting everything until you're finally ready to do it once and do it right.
In the next article, we'll break down the sub-categories within the Geographic area and look at some strategies for the mid-Atlantic region which you should consider. Some examples include solar heat gain, daylighting, shading, drainage, natural surroundings, and future systems upgrades.
And, if you just can't stand waiting for future installments, or you happen to have a project happening in the very near future, you may want to consider coming to the Green Remodeling class that I teach for the Green Building Institute. This is a super-compact session where I cover all four areas and their sub-categories and strategies in 90 chocked-full minutes with time for Q&A in the end. The next class will be in Anne Arundel on June 8th, in the evening. You can get all the registration and location info by visiting the Green Building Institute's web calendar at:
They also offer discounted rates for students, seniors, and GBI members. This class tends to be quite popular within their schedule and the location for this date isn't as big as some, so if you're interested, you should register sooner than later. It will be time very well spent if you've got a project you're thinking about.
About the Author: Andy Ault is the owner of Maryland based Little River Carpentry, LLC which specializes in sustainable, residential design/build remodeling projects spanning from targeted energy retro-fits to multi-story additions. Their work has been recognized locally and nationally with multiple remodeling & design awards, as well as featured in over a dozen publications including Green Building + Design, Better Homes & Gardens Remodel Magazine, and Home & Design. He is trained as a Certified Lead Carpenter (CLC), a Universal Design Certified Remodeler (UDCR), and an OSHA Construction-Industry Safety instructor. In 2009 Andy was part of a select group of 25 design and construction professionals chosen from across the country to help the U.S. Green Building Council develop their new REGREEN Residential Remodeling training program. He is passionate about implementing common-sense sustainable building practices and enjoys helping others learn how they can do the same. To that end, he volunteers his time as an Instructor for the Green Building Institute and a longtime Red Hat crew leader for Habitat for Humanity. He also speaks regularly to community groups and travels as a trainer for businesses and non-profits looking to implement sustainable building programs. He can be reached via phone at 301-775-4276 or via e-mail at Andy@LittleRiverCarpentry.com
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