Create The Good Life - Simple and Slow Living by Design

When A Green Remodel May Not Be So Green

You want to make changes to your home in ways that are healthy for your family and the planet. You've decided that you will remodel using green materials and methods. Good idea? Surprisingly the answer is not always yes. Sometimes there are alternatives to doing a green remodel that cost less and are far greener overall.

Why Are You Remodeling?

Often clients will begin by telling us they need another bedroom, a bathroom, a bigger kitchen, etc., essentially seeking an architectural solution to a problem they have.

To determine if this is in fact the best and greenest solution, we start by asking clients what isn't working for them in their home. Frequently there is an initial answer, and if we dig a bit more, there is another answer and sometimes even another answer after that. Frequently the problem does not really have to do with space, but is related to a shortage of time or energy. Sometimes the situation is the result of previous decisions that are no longer relevant and what is needed is a fresh look at the issues. More often than not, there are behavioral and furniture solutions that will significantly address the problem. These solutions are generally much less expensive and easier to implement than architectural solutions. We look for these behavioral and furniture solutions first because they are ultimately greener strategies than even the greenest remodel.

Here is a conversation we had recently with a client:

    Client: We need a bigger master bedroom.
    Designer: What isn't working for you?
    Client: There isn't a place to sit down to relax because my clothes are all over the place.
    Designer: Do you have enough storage for your clothes?
    Client: Mostly. Generally I just don't have time to put them away.
    Designer: Do you have time to relax?
    Client: No, not really.
    Designer: When you do relax now, where is that?
    Client: In bed, before I go to sleep.
    Designer: Does that work for you?
    Client: Yes.

At that point in the conversation it became clear to the client and us that there might be solutions that did not require a bigger bedroom. It was decided that another dresser would allow for clothes to be put away more quickly and easily. Better bedside storage for books would make relaxation easier given that bedtime was the only time this young parent currently had time to relax. Finally we all concluded that the time and energy she was planning on directing toward a remodel would probably be best directed towards finding more time and places to relax, including places outside her busy home.

The Green Solution Continuum

The fact is that the greenest solution is one that involves the least building possible. Changing behavior, attitudes, stuff, and furniture are almost inevitably greener strategies in terms of the impact on the environment, not to mention your pocket book. While there are times when a green remodel does make sense, there are a number of circumstances when it is best to determine if a green remodel really is the best overall strategy.

We Need More Space

Today people in the U.S. live in about three times as much space per capita as they did in the 1950s. Older homes that housed a family of four are now seen as inadequate for two people. One reason for this is that we now bring into our houses many of the activities that once took place outside the home. In addition to sleeping, eating and socializing, many people now expect to have separate places for a media center, home spa, children's play space, home office, work-out space, party space, laundry facilities, guest room, plus storage for even more options.

The fact is that bigger homes, even very green ones, use significantly more resources than smaller conventional homes. In other words, living well within a smaller space is one of the greenest things you can do.

Strategies for Finding Space in Your Home

One way to find more space in the home is to let go of all of the unused and unloved things. Generally we find uncluttered spaces more beautiful and appealing which is why real estate agents recommend clearing out your home when you put it on the market. So why not live in your home at its best by getting rid of things you don't use frequently or love dearly. By de-cluttering you will likely find greater satisfaction and enjoyment of the all the space you do have.

Do the spaces in your home reflect and support the activities you do everyday at home? We see lots of under-utilized spaces taking up prime locations in the home, such as living rooms that are used occasionally for entertaining, while everyday activities like watching TV and videos are regulated to the musty basement. Another common example is the guest room that languishes on the main floor while the home office resides uneasily in the master bedroom or on a kitchen counter.

Space for less frequent activities can be found by temporarily converting a space to a new use. For example, kids can sleep together in one bedroom while their grandparents visit. Alternatively, experiment with taking activities outside the home. We had one client move out of her home office during a remodel to add another room only to discover that she much preferred working outside the home. The cost of a major bathroom remodel could pay for many visits to a spa. Likewise, a guest room addition or basement remodel may cost many times what a hotel might cost for your friends and family. One family found that spending a night or two in a local hotel along with their guests made it more fun for everyone.

Finally it is important to make sure that you have the right furniture for your home. Often we accumulate furniture in opportunistic ways (the free bookshelf, table, or couch) or hold on to it for sentimental reasons (Aunt Sophie's rocking chair). Properly sized furniture that functions exactly in ways you need is key to creating spaces that you can use and enjoy fully.

Basement and Attics Are "Free Space"

Another driver for remodel is a desire to convert a basement or attic used for utilities and storage into living space. Many basements and attics were not built with the qualities necessary for a healthy living space such as natural light, good air quality, ventilation, adequate head height, safe access to the home or outdoors, and well-proportioned spaces. It can require a lot of effort, time, and money to convert these areas into rooms that are wholesome places to live, and to do less than that is to create sub-optimal or dangerous places for your family.

We Need Another Bathroom

In reality, bathrooms are some of the least used rooms in a house in terms of hours per day. Generally, the issues involve timing (the morning bathroom jam) and convenience to bedrooms. Sometimes cleanliness and storage are issues as well. Then there is the desire to have an inviting bathroom that beckons you to luxuriate in a big shower or tub. While it is true that the addition of a bathroom will likely address some of these issues, there may be more cost effective ways of solving these problems, especially if a new bathroom would require adding on to your home. Bathing at night, separating the toilet from bathing area, adding a sink in another location are strategies for improving bath facilities without necessarily adding another room.

Our Old Kitchen

Kitchens have moved from being backstage places where food was prepared to the center of family life and entertaining. Along with this shift there has been the desire for bigger spaces (to accommodate more people along with more and bigger appliances) and an expectation for higher-end finish materials. While the opening up of the kitchen to the rest of the home has many advantages, do not be seduced by glossy images designed to sell you products. While the kitchen can be the workhorse and heart of the home for those who cook and have time to gather together, lovely meals and times have been had in kitchens of humbler materials and dimensions. The key to kitchen design is a good layout with well positioned work spaces and easy-to-use storage. In this high functioning area, well designed spaces can trump lots of space, which often means more steps for busy cooks in any case.

Moving Versus Adding On

There is a perception that building more space is less expensive than, or equal to, buying it. Our experience and the advice we get from real estate agents and appraisers is that buying space is almost always the most cost effective way to get the space you need. We recommend to one in four families we meet that they move to a different house, either because their current house is too small for them, or because it doesn't fit them in other ways. And while moving does take a lot of effort, it is still less effort and stress than a major remodel.

Buying the right size home to accommodate your family for the next several years is important. Remodeling when you are pregnant or new parents is extremely challenging and should be avoided is possible. First and foremost there are risks that during a major remodel, even a green one, that a pregnant mother or young children will be exposed to a number of toxins that may be hazardous. Trying to control dust and fumes to this degree may significantly increase the time, cost and stress for you and your builder. Additional issues that make remodeling difficult under these circumstances include the need to make many decisions when hormones, stress and time pressures may make this more difficult than usual, and the very real need to complete the work before a hard deadline like the arrival of a newborn, thus leaving no room for the unexpected and delays.

Another reason we advocate for moving versus adding on is because housing size and affordability are closely linked, and by enlarging the size of existing homes we are making housing less affordable. Given that most of the new housing is considerably larger than older homes, we think it is important to preserve 800 to 1,200 square foot homes whenever possible.

In sum, buy the square footage you need and then spend your energy improving the quality of the space.

When is a Green Remodel a Green Remodel?

From our perspective a truly green remodel is one that improves your quality of life while reducing your ecological footprint. Your ecological footprint measures the resources required and waste produced by your lifestyle choices. To calculate your ecological footprint, visit Global Footprint Network's calculator.

As we have indicated, there are many ways to make changes to your home short of an actual architectural remodel that can achieve that goal. A home remodel, even a green remodel, involves a lot of resources, time, money, and stress. For these reasons it should be undertaken only after consideration of other strategies. However, there are two situations when a green remodel is often the greenest and best alternative.

Making Your Home Resource Wise

Most homes, particularly those built before the 1980s, waste a lot of energy and water. They are often poorly insulated with draughty walls and windows. Heating and cooling equipment is often inefficient, which is compounded by leaky air ducts. Energy gulping appliances such as refrigerators and freezers and incandescent lighting further contribute to energy waste. Water leaks out of toilets, showers, and faucets, while older washing machines and dishwashers use many times more water than their modern counterparts.

If this describes your home in any way, then you may be able to really benefit from remodeling work that improves these aspects of your home. Insulating and sealing up leaks in your home is a good place to start. There is a lot of excellent and detailed information available about how to evaluate the resource efficiency of your home. Start with the websites for your local utilities. The Department of Energy (yes, our federal dollars!) offers extensive information. At some point you may decide that you want to call in a professional to help you determine which bigger changes will make the most significant differences and save you the most money over time.

Creating Better Space

Instead of more space we are strong advocates of improving space such that it feels and functions really well. A well-designed space is much more satisfying and ultimately greener than spaces that are poorly-sized or awkward. Many older homes have spaces that no longer fit our lifestyles, and a remodel can breathe new life and use into an older home.

Opening up rooms to create bigger spaces with expanded sightlines is one strategy for a creating more functional and better feeling space. Connecting the indoors to the outside can also give you a greater sense of space without adding on. By bringing in more natural light with windows, skylights, and solar tubes a space can feel larger and more inviting too.

Another way we can make a home feel more spacious is by improving the flow between rooms, eliminating tight pinches and problematic transitions. In addition, many older homes were not designed to hold all the stuff of modern life and thus need more well placed and easily accessible storage of all types.

A common motivation for remodeling is to update materials. Good quality materials and craftsmanship can make a space more appealing and easier to maintain. In homes where the materials are wearing out or are no longer aesthetically pleasing, the goal is to replace those materials in a way that creates the least waste, re-uses existing materials where possible, and employs the least new material. New materials should be selected with an eye to long term viability in terms of aesthetics, cleaning, refurbishing, and disposal at the end of their useful life. Beautiful materials will inspire you and others to enjoy and take care of the space for years to come.

Ultimately the greenest and best strategy for making changes to your home is to find the type and scale of change that solves the issue with the fewest resources. By creatively applying behavioral, furniture, and architectural solutions, it is possible to make just the right changes that improve your home, your quality of life and the planet.

© Beth Meredith and Eric Storm, February 2008

This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.

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