If you’re thinking that building or remodelling your home in an eco-friendly manner means spending more, think again. In fact, I urge architects, designers and builders—not to mention the homeowners who hire them—that building green doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of green.
“Green” is more than buying the newest thing. It’s also learning how to use what we already have.
For example, I worked on a project where we had to get a home ready to go on the market. The kitchen was hopelessly dated (think the kitchen in the Brady Bunch), but the homeowner didn’t have a bottomless bucket of money for the typical kitchen upgrade. No one could see any option other than ripping out the 1970’s dark cabinets and starting over. Cost for the least expensive cabinetry from the big box store was over $10,000.
But when I compared the inherent quality of what we had versus the quality of the new products (as opposed to simply the visual appearance), I realized that older was better. The old cabinets were solid wood, and the doors were straight, had a nice weight, and closed with a satisfying “chunk.”
I suggested that we do a “soft demo” of the existing cabinets, where removal is done carefully, reconfigure the boxes (because cabinets are a series of modular boxes attached to one another), paint in a lighter colour and install new hardware.
We kept the old cabinetry out of the landfill, avoided consumption of all the raw materials and energy to produce the new product, and the homeowner saved $6,500.
In another project, we added a second storey to a home without consigning the existing first floor to the dumpster. The standard procedure when adding a second floor calls for such significant upgrades to the existing framing and shear wall (particularly in California with seismic requirements) that the existing first floor is virtually torn down. Instead, we devised a system with the structural engineer to strategically imbed structural steel beams at various points around the perimeter of the existing residence to carry the load of the second floor.
Again, we kept the existing materials out of the landfill, didn’t consume new product, saved money, and most importantly, preserved old-growth finishes in the circa 1915 home.
When examining energy savings, look to the past. For example, how were homes designed before we relied on heating or air conditioning? Wide eaves, shaded porches, higher ceilings and transom windows all help to naturally cool a house. Placing windows properly is vital for good cross-ventilation for cooling, and to capture daylight to reduce the need for artificial light during the day.
While swapping standard light bulbs for compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and making sure empty water bottles go in the recycling bin are things all of us can do, “living green” can extend into an even more fundamental part of our lives—our homes.
The “greenest” building is the one that’s already built. So focus on what’s right, save and repurpose what you can, and scrutinize everything before you toss it in the dumpster. Find architects and contractors who can think beyond the standard paradigm of, “It’s cheaper to tear it out and build new.”
image 1: Peter Stevens