Green Remodeling Ideas You Can Use!

Dan Bawden, Certified Green Professional, Graduate Master Builder President, Legal Eagle Contractors, Co. – Houston Remodeling Guide – 2008

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have no doubt been hearing about the fast growing “green building” trend in this country.  But, have you heard of green Remodeling?  People are re-thinking building a “McMansion.”  With the upheaval in the mortgage market, more and more homeowners are staying put and remodeling their existing homes instead.

Goals such as energy efficiency, indoor air quality, use of recycled and sustainable materials are the same core principles of green building a new home.  Green remodeling has the same principles and goals but it is done in a more “cafeteria style” manner than green building.  You can pick and choose features based on how green you want to be, and your budget, of course.   Green Remodeling is different because you have to work with your existing home’s systems and its older components.

Remodeling can mean a wide variety of things, from repairs and maintenance, to whole house renovations.  Regardless of the project you decide to take on, you can now make earth-friendly choices that protect not only the environment but also help to keep your family healthy, by incorporating some of the ideas below.

The purpose of this article is to give you some specific ideas that you can incorporate into your next remodeling project.

Greening Your bathrooms:

The bathroom is a room dedicated to relaxation, health and hygiene.  But, it is often a problematic source of pollutants that under mind personal and environmental health.  If you decide to integrate some green remodeling ideas into your bathroom, remember to also look for environmentally-friendly products such as cosmetics, hairsprays, rubber floor mats, etc.

Green Remodeling Ideas for the Bathroom:

  1. Install a dual flush toilet, or at least a low-flow, water saving toilet.  These toilets will save you about $50.00 a year starting as soon as they are installed and save over 180,000 gallons of water during the first 6 year period.  Toilets use up to 28% of the water purchased in any given month.  If you decide to keep your existing toilet there is a simple way to save up to a gallon of water per flush.  Fill 1 liter bottles with water and a little gravel and seal them.  Then place them in the toilet tank, out of the way of the flushing mechanism.  Be sure that the toilet still flushes well before adding another bottle.
  2. Look for shower heads that feel like they have a good full stream, but still have water saving capacity.  Buy a shower head with a shut-off valve at the top.  You can save thousands of gallons of water per year by reducing the water flow to a trickle while lathering, saving many gallons per shower which adds up quickly.
  3. Install a “touchless” water faucets.  You see these in many public restrooms today, but there are models available for your home.  They are particularly a big hit with children, and they save a lot of water to boot!
  4. Consider installing a tankless water-heater.  This can be a small unit near the ‘point of use” or a whole house unit plenty powerful enough to keep your whirlpool bath water hot while the dishwasher and washer are running full tilt.
  5. If your bathroom remodel involves removal of sheetrock on walls and ceilings, consider adding insulation to the hot and cold water pipes in the attic space and in any outside walls for greater energy efficiency.  This keeps them from sweating and producing moisture in your walls.  If you can insulate the pipes running all the way from the water-heater to the shower and faucets it will save you 5% to 10% on heating the water for these fixtures.
  6. Next, if you are not up for a tankless water-heater, be sure that your home water-heater is an energy efficient model, and install a “re-circulating pump”.  By turning on the pump for less than a minute before you shower, you can move hot water to the shower head before you turn it on, virtually eliminating the water you would have wasted waiting for it to heat up.  The cost of the system is paid back in energy and water savings in less than 3 years.
  7. Install quiet vent fans to improve air-quality and remove moisture.  Bathrooms generate a large amount of moisture each day and can promote mold and mildew growth.  Many people have vent / fans but never use them.  One way to easily get in the habit is to install an electronic timer that allows you to push a button so that the fan comes on and removes the moisture and turns itself off, so that you don’t have to think about it.  Another alternative is to install a fan unit, such as the Panasonic Whisper Quiet fan which quietly and constantly removes moisture from the bath at a very slow rate (10 cubic feet per minute), but also can be turned on like a regular vent fan when more moisture removal is needed.  This also helps to change out fresh air from the home in general.  There are models available with motion detectors and humidity detectors that automatically turn on when needed.
  8. Bath surfaces such as walls and floors.   Look for recycled glass and ceramic tiles for a good all around choice for bathroom surfaces.  You can re-use tiles from your existing bathroom for other projects and it is getting easier to find new tiles with a high re-cycled content.  When you use tile, choose tiles that you can place close together and install an un-sanded grout, which is more difficult for mold to take hold in.  Apply a water-based grout sealer after the installation of tile will greatly increase the grout and tile while making it easier to clean.
  9. Avoid petroleum based materials such as vinyl flooring and acrylic shower stalls.  They use a lot of energy to produce and are difficult to re-cycle.
  10. I am not a big fan of “refinishing” bathtubs and sinks as the finished do not hold up very long.  It does have the positive affect of keeping those materials out of landfills and the environmental impacts of manufacturing new sinks and tubs however.  Refinishing is great if you are remodeling to get the house ready for sale.
  11. Cork, bamboo and wood floors are not recommended for the bathroom even though they can be sealed, since there is a good chance that they’ll have trouble standing up to the constant water exposure.  Carpeting is not a good idea either.  NOTE:  If your bathroom has vinyl flooring made before the mid 1980s it may be backed with paper containing with asbestos which can get into the air during removal.  The best idea is to install a new floor over the existing sheet vinyl or vinyl tiles to avoid getting asbestos in the air during removal.
  12. Countertops can be made of sealed stone, (Granite or Silestone type tops are most popular), but we still install ceramic tile tops as well.  Many sealers contain solvents that are not environmentally friendly so look for a water-based sealant such as “AFM Safecoat Mexeseal” or “Stone Tech Impregnator Pro Sealer” that are earth-friendly.  Be sure your countertop installer installs the stone with an adhesive caulking that is “Low VOC” (low in Volatile Organic Compound) and that it is placed over formaldehyde – free plywood, if possible.  If you choose the wrong materials, they will off-gas toxic compounds into your home’s air for a long time.
  13. Bathroom remodeling includes a lot of caulking to seal joints and plug leaks.  Caulk often contains toxic substances to make it more durable and fight mold, but it will build up in the air and harm you over time.   Look for low – VOC caulk that lasts at least 10 years and cleans up easily with water.
  14. Good bathroom maintenance.  All bathrooms will experience leaks sooner or later.  It is important to keep a watchful eye.  A toilet with a leaking flush valve can waste 10 gallons of water per hour and cost you hundreds of dollars a year.  If you see mold or mildew on the drywall, especially near the floor or anywhere in the bath, take immediate steps to find out why and stop the leak source.

Green Remodeling Ideas for the Kitchen:

Kitchens tend to be the heart of the home where the party happens.  It is where families and friends gather like moths to a flame.   The goals of greening your kitchen should include natural lighting, good ventilation, low toxicity finishes, energy and water efficient appliances and surfaces that are durable and cleanable and most important, esthetically pleasing.  Here are some specific suggestions for the kitchen:

1. Appliances:

  1. Refrigerators:  Buy an energy efficient refrigerator.  This is a must do if your refrigerator is 10 years old or older, as the energy efficiency is so much higher now.
  2. Dishwashers: Be sure to buy an Energy Star – rated model dishwasher  (these use 41% less energy than other dishwashers).
  3. Microwave Ovens: Buy a good microwave oven, these use up to 80% less energy than a conventional oven.
  4. Ovens and Ranges: gas and electric cooktops use between 55% to 65% of the energy produced in the kitchen.  Consider induction cooking (“glass tops”) which use 90% of all energy produced.  Induction does not involve generating heat which is then transferred to the cooking vessel.  It makes the cooking vessel itself the original generator of the cooking heat. When choosing an oven look for convection ovens, which save up to 20% on energy.  A self-cleaning model will have more insulation tending to make it more efficient, as well.
  5. Avoid commercial appliances such as Sub-Zero refrigerators or Viking ranges unless you truly need the extra capacity.  According to the consumer product magazine surveys, many of the high quality models made for residential use by the more traditional appliance manufacturers not only cost significantly less, but have features that actually work better for residential applications.

2. Kitchen cabinets:

Consider installing cabinets made of re-cycled or re-claimed wood.  Look for more offerings in this department in the coming weeks.  Many people are not aware that there are some gorgeous cabinet systems available made of bamboo, a quick growing renewable resource.  The glues for these is low – VOC and they even have special glues to use around chemically sensitive individuals.  They come in a variety of looks including natural and caramelized (a rich medium brown) and in vertical and flat grains.  (See bamboocabinets.com)

3. Countertops:

  1. Check out countertop materials using re-cycled materials such as re-cycled glass (see Icestone.biz or Vetrazzo.com).  Icestone seems to have lighter colors with more conservative patterns, and is more terrazzo-like. Vetrazzo has darker colors with bolder patterns.
  2. People still love granite or Silestone of course, and granite is still very popular.  Be sure that if you are sealing granite, you use a water-base Low or Low VOC sealer.
  3. Another alternative for countertops is 100% recycled glass tiles for the countertops.  These are not quite as hard and scratch resistant as ceramic tiles, but you should consider them for your backsplash material if you choose to do stone on the main countertop.
  4. A new and interesting type of countertop material is called paper composite.  The 2 main brands of this product are “Paper Stone” and “RichLite”.   Paper Stone uses 100% recycled, post consumer, paper pulp, and RichLite uses pulp from sustainable managed forests.  The countertop material is processed and combined with other fibers that have been impregnated with resin.  Believe it or not, they are very hard, waterproof, and the composite material handles heat well.  The material does not nick easily and comes in many darker colors that resist staining.  Bet of all you would out-green your friends by being the first one to have cool recycled paper countertops.  Talk about a conversation piece!
  5. Recycled plastic countertop materials vary widely in look, recycled content, recyclability, and composition.  Some are made of compressed yogurt containers and aluminum (!) while others end up looking like traditional terrazzo such as Origins, which is made from 100%, post consumer, polyethylene material.
  6. Wood:  Untreated wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an alternative, but it is not a good choice for continually wet areas, such as the space surrounding a sink and can be burned or scorched near the cooking surfaces.  Even though it can be kept sealed with natural mineral oil, to prevent drying, it is still not my favorite for a long term, durable and healthy counter material
  7. Stainless steel:  This is considered a green material, particularly if it is made of salvaged metal or has a high recycled content.  It is also recyclable.  When used as a countertop material, it is among the most expensive however.
  8. Formica and other laminates:  Don’t rule out laminate as a countertop material.  Much has been done by the manufacturers to produce this material efficiently while being less reliant on fossil fuels and reducing emissions.  Keep in mind that laminate countertops are 70% paper and wood products and the rest are water based phenolic resins and always have been.  In fact most are “Greenguard Certified”.  Best of all, good-ole Formica is many times less expensive than many of the options above.

4. Vent hoods: 

Use an energy efficient vent hood and make sure  that it has a variable speed exhaust fan that transfers the air out side of your home.  Look for an Energy Star – rated exhaust fan.

5. Install a trustworthy skylight, like a Velux Sun Tunnel or Roof Window.  These do not leak and do not add heat to the room like the older skylights.  They bring in lots of natural light so you won’t have to use any artificial lighting during the day.  This is a great energy-saving idea.  Natural, full spectrum light makes everything in your kitchen or bath look richer and more attractive.  Your countertops and cabinets will “come alive”.Install a high-efficiency ceiling fan to help move air through the space and create natural ventilation.

6. Install compact florescent, recessed light fixtures which are 4 to 5 times more efficient than incandescent lighting and cooler. For the best look, pick lights with a color rendering index of 84 or greater and a color temperature of 3500 Kelvin or greater, and with a quick-start electronic ballast.  These numbers may sound like technical mumbo-jumbo but they are often printed right on the box that the bulb comes in, so look for them.

7. Consider a local, on-demand hot water system or a whole house, re-circulating, hot water loop (discussed above).  Energy Star Ratings for appliances:  Look for this rating on every appliance you buy.  Energy Star (www.energystar.gov/) is a great program.  It is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.  Results are already adding up. Americans, with the help of ENERGY STAR, saved enough energy in 2007 alone to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 27 million cars — all while saving $16 billion on their utility bills!.

Conclusion: I hope you find this information useful.  I encourage you to try building a few “green” features  into your next project.  You will feel great sense of satisfaction knowing you are not only doing good works for the planet, but also for yourself and your family.

Green Remodeling Ideas for the Exterior:

The first things that pop into mind when you think about exterior remodeling improvements are solar electric power and solar water heating systems.  There are several vendors in the Houston area that sell and install these systems, but they are not cheap.  Solar power is still more expensive than fossil fuel generated electricity, but there are amazing advances being made in solar to make it more competitive.

The technology is changing as fast as all the other technology around us, particularly in Germany and Japan where government subsidies to consumers have sparked booms in installation of these systems.  Remember that solar power systems are also known as PV (photovoltaic systems) when you are doing your research.  The cost to install a solar / PV systems which produce enough energy to run your home, including a/c in the summer are in the $30K to $45K range.

Solar water-heaters can be cost effective in any climate but work well in the Gulf Coast area where we have plenty of sun.  There are 2 types of systems; Active, which has a circulating pump and controls and Passive, which does not.  Solar water-heaters require a well insulated storage tank.  Sometimes there are 2 tank systems in which the solar water-heater pre-heats the water before it enters the conventional water-heater.  You have no doubt seen some of the black, weather-proof boxes called “flat plate collectors” on people’s roofs.  While these are still used (and can be especially good for pool heating), the technology that is coming on strong now is the “evacuated – tube solar collectors”.  Inside of a long (2 to 3 feet) glass outer tube there is a metal absorber tube attached to a fin.  The fin has a coating which absorbs solar energy, but does not release heat loss.  In the past these have been used more in commercial applications, but because the cost is coming down, it is being used more and more for residential applications.  If you are interested in solar power or water-heating, there is plenty of information on line, see www.eere.energy.gov.

What are some other exterior remodeling opportunities to go green?  Insulated doors and windows are excellent examples of a way to not only increase your home’s efficiency, but also a way to cut down on the noise pollution that seems to be a constant din these days.  There are a number of vendors and a number of window and door types, including aluminum, vinyl, and clad wood products.  Be sure that you buy windows and doors that have a good “Low-E” coating, that are double paned, with an Argon gas feature.  It is worth noting that there is a higher level of Low-E coating available called “Low-E 2” which has a metallic coating on the inside of the outer pane.  This keeps the heat out much more effectively than traditional Low-E coatings.

If you are doing a room addition, you have an opportunity to build the walls differently than traditional construction, and you should consider “structural insulated panels” which are pre-fabricated, highly efficient wall sections that fit together like a puzzle or “ICF”s which stands for “insulated concrete forms”.  This is a system of Styrofoam and steel mesh blocks that are filled with concrete for a very energy-efficient, a very strong wall system.   This can be ideal for coastal locations or even if you just want to feel protected from hurricane force winds right here in the city of Houston.

Moisture control is a very important part of proper exterior construction.  Products such as permeable house wraps (such as Tyvek) and Styrofoam / Blueboard insulating sheets can all help to keep water out of your home.  There are some newer house wraps that will not tear, that perform very well and are likely to last much longer than typical house wraps.  One locally available brand name is XYZ?????

Fiber cement siding, (such as James Hardie siding) are excellent products in our human environment, and have excellent warranties.  To improve the energy efficiency of the exterior of your home consider using light paint colors and planting trees that will provide good shade on the East and West sides of your home.

Before putting that new roof on your home or room addition, install “Radiant Barrier” plywood decking, (such as Tech-Shield) or radiant barrier paint on the inside of the roof, facing the attic.  There are a number of ways to improve ventilation and remove hot air from your room addition or your existing attic space.  Ask your contractor about options which range from solar powered exhaust vents on the roof, to perforated soffit material, to roof ridge vents.  Ask your contractor or builder if they can use high-tech structural framing members, made from weed-woods which are made from easily replaced or re-cycled materials.  There are even metal framing components made out of re-cycled steel, if you look for them.

If you are building a deck as part of your remodeling project, consider one of the many re-cycled, composite decking material such as Trex or Ultrawood????.  These are available locally here in Houston and there are plenty of other brands out there to consider.  These are more expensive to install initially, but will last many years longer and require -0- maintenance, if installed correctly.

If you are pouring a concrete patio slab, sidewalk or even a driveway, consider putting in Pervious Concrete instead of traditional concrete.  A locally available brand of this is called “Ecocrete”.  It is also known as “enhanced porous concrete”, because it allows rainwater to trickle down between the 2 sizes of rocks (called aggregate) that the material is made of.  It is strong but porous.

Whether you are insulating your new room addition or improving the insulation in your existing home, consider re-cycled materials such as cellulose or cotton insulation.  Many people don’t know about it, but there is a wonderful cotton insulation product available in Houston that is made of re-cycled blue jeans.  Like cellulose, which is made of ground-up newspaper, the material is treated to be fire-retardant and to resist the affects of fire and moisture.  These materials also tend to have better acoustic properties as well, and are often installed in interior walls, particularly around the master bedroom.

Rainwater collection systems; consider trapping some of that water that pours down through your gutters and downspouts into a large collection tank in an inconspicuous spot in your backyard.   Our regular Houston rains can keep it filled with enough water for you to attach your garden hose and have a gravity fed water supply to water all of your vegetables and flower gardens.  Putting one of these collection systems together is simpler than you might think, and can be done for under $500.00.

Green Remodeling Ideas for the Interior:

Have the air-conditioning system and the “leaky” areas of your home evaluated to see where repairs are needed.  For instance; there are consultants in our City who can temporarily install a “blower door” which takes the place of one of your exterior doors and creates a strong negative draft blowing to the outside.  When the fan is turned on, all of the spots in your home that allow air to seep in (and moisture and other bad things) become apparent.  A list of these places is made and suggestions for plugging those leaks.

Similarly, a “duct blaster test” can be done which forces a large volume of air into your existing a/c and heating ducts to locate all of the areas where air is escaping.  Many of us live in homes that are 30 to 60 years old here in Houston, and the estimated air loss is 50%.

If duct work needs to be replaced, it should be replaced with insulated, rigid or flexible ducting, meeting the current, model energy, code requirements of an R-8 rating.  One excellent brand of crush-proof and environmentally friendly (formaldehyde free) duct work is a brand called “Flexmaster”.  Be sure to ask for this by name.

There are a myriad of indoor air quality machines that can make your life easier and more comfortable.  It is beyond the scope of this article to go into them in detail, but many of them involve maintaining an ideal humidity level in your home (ideal indoor humidity is about 56%), by adding a de-humidifying machine in the attic and installing systems that have proper replacement air, so there is a constant re-cycling of fresh air in your home.  If you live in a newer home (especially one built in the last 10 years), you may have a very tight home that tends to trap air- borne fumes and toxins.

Controlling lights by installing electronic dimmers, (which you should never set on full blast), but always down a notch or two.  This is a great way to extend bulb life, several fold and also keep the temperature down inside your home.

Most interior remodels involve interior paint work.  Some of them involve a great deal of interior paint work.  It is important to look for interior paints that are Low-VOC products.  These are available in both latex, water-base paint and oil-base paints.  Be aware that there are a number of paint products out there that claim to be Low-VOC and these reduce smog, but that is only part of the story.  Consumers need to ask specifically if the paint promotes indoor air quality and if all the toxins are taken out.   You may have a paint that is low-VOC, but if it has a pronounced smell, you are breathing in aromatic, hydrocarbons, which is not a good thing.   Also be sure to ask if the clean-up solvents to be used are also low-VOC.  Sherwin Williams makes some low-VOC paints (ask for Harmony paints).  In addition there are a number of excellent products made by AFM “Safe Coat”.  AFM Safe Coat also makes low-VOC sealants, glues, stains, carpet shampoos and caulking.  These are available locally through a company called Southwest Building Products ?????.   Remember also, that paints that are imported from a foreign country or far away manufacturers are not considered green because of the high carbon footprint to get the product to you.

Interior Plasters – More and more Homeowners are asking for “Mediterranean Plaster” type of looks instead of the traditional roll textures.   There are some excellent products made for interior decorative use and are made of re-cycled materials, such as sea-shells from the sea-food industry and re-claimed marble dust.   One such product, locally available is “American Clay”.  Even the cotton bags that the material comes in can be recycled!  Creative contractors are adding other materials to produce very interesting textures and looks, such as mica, straw and even coffee grounds and tobacco!


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