SMART, MONEY-SAVING GREEN CHOICES
You’ve got a home improvement project in mind. Maybe you’re building something new. You’ve seen the TV shows and read a few articles about how to make your project green. You’d like to reduce the impact your new room—or house—has on the environment.
But what’s the best way to do that? Going green can mean using recycled materials, reducing the water and electricity required to run your home, and using products that make your house healthier. There are many choices—some better than others.
Various shades of green
“People need to get out of their heads that there is one green product,” says Ben Leigh of The Sustainability Institute.
Leigh is director of training for this non-profit organization based in Charleston. He teaches workshops for homeowners who want to be environmentally conscious when they build or renovate. Green has become a way to market products, he says. The label doesn’t necessarily mean the product will be the greenest choice for you.
Instead, you have to evaluate the materials you choose and consider the trade-offs. Then, factor in your budget and your taste.
“I ask myself five questions,” Leigh says. “Is it made from recycled materials? How long is its useful life? Can it be recycled after? What is the impact on energy use? What is its ‘embodied’ energy?”
Leigh takes bamboo flooring through this evaluation process. Bamboo flooring is not made from recycled material, he points out, so it does not reduce the burden on landfills. It is durable, so its useful life is long, and it can be recycled after, another benefit. It has little impact on energy use; in other words, bamboo flooring won’t help you save money on heating and cooling your home.
But what about embodied energy? Embodied energy is the amount of energy required to grow, manufacture and deliver a material, Leigh explains. The bamboo flooring on the market in South Carolina is grown in Indonesia and China, so it has a high cost in the embodied energy category. And that, Leigh says, is what makes bamboo a less good choice for him.
He’d prefer either a locally grown and milled floor—wood maybe—or wood that’s been reclaimed from a local building. “Anytime you can buy something local, that’s a good choice from a green perspective,” he says.
Creating a healthier home
Greenville architect Scott Johnston develops green homes around three priorities—wellness, conservation and environmental impact. “We start by thinking about making a building as healthy as possible,” he says. “We add natural daylight, try to incorporate natural ventilation, and eliminate mold, harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds.”
Reducing those volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, has been one of the major efforts of the green building movement.
Identifying VOCs is easy for most of us, Leigh says. “That new car smell? VOC. New carpet smell? VOC.” Odors in your house—from paint fumes to fabric dyes—derive from VOCs. These products are giving off gasses that may cause headaches or irritate your throat and lungs. Some VOCs may even trigger long-term health problems, including cancer.
With the growing attention on green building, avoiding VOCs is getting easier. All major paint manufacturers now offer low- and no-VOC paint choices. Flooring and furniture manufacturers are also reducing the VOCs that their products contain.
Again, not all products deliver on their lofty green claims. Leigh recommends you check out low-VOC products through greenguard.org.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Upgrading to more eco-friendly products is great, but where is all that wood, sheetrock, carpet and linoleum going after you rip it out and place it in the dumpster? What about the lumber scraps and bits of metal that are byproducts of new construction?
If you want to be a green builder, you’ve got to minimize construction waste, too. In a renovation, one way to reduce waste is to deconstruct, rather than demolish, as much as possible. Some companies will come in and remove cabinets and flooring, for example, for re-use.
In the Upstate, new construction waste is easily recycled, according to Johnston. "At no additional price and with hardly any additional effort—one extra phone call—you can have a bin to collect construction waste for recycling.” Companies take lumber scraps, sheetrock pieces, metal and other refuse, sort it and recycle it. “Fifty to 75 percent of new-construction waste can go to recycling centers without even trying hard,” says Johnston. “With effort, you can get as high as 90 percent into recycling centers.”
Using recycled items can reduce the construction impact on landfills. Counter top and tile manufacturers are recycling glass, stone, even paper, to make new products. The Sustainability Institute’s Ben Leigh cautions that you apply his five question test as you choose these products, too. “There’s a company making recycled counter-tops in Charleston, just a half-mile from my house, so because they’re local and they’re recycling materials, they’d be a great choice for me,” he says.
Leigh says that all reclaimed products are not equally green. “I would use flooring that’s been reclaimed, cabinetry that’s been reclaimed, or counter tops. Those are good choices because you’re keeping it out of the landfill.”
A used toilet from a re-sell store, on the other hand, might not be an automatic win. “There, I’d think about the useful life that’s left in that item and the water use. It might not be the best green choice for me.”
The most important green improvement
The improvements that benefit the planet most may not be the splashiest, say both Johnston and Leigh. Their number one way for you to build green is by increasing your energy efficiency. “The proof is in the power bill,” says Leigh.
“A lot of people skip over this, but you can renovate and cut your energy bills in half,” says Leigh. A home energy rater will test your house, then create an energy model on a computer. They can predict your bill based on the upgrades you choose. It’s a way to help you see the best ways to get returns on your investment. “Think of it as having a financial analyst on your side,” Leigh says.
Leigh looks at a kitchen renovation as a good place for many energy-saving improvements. “New appliances are easy; you get Energy Star-certified ones.”
Water use is another opportunity for saving if you install low-flow faucets and water-saving dishwashers. If you use less water, you use less energy.
Renovating one room may be an opportunity to also make whole-house improvements that should not be passed up. Leigh says that’s where an energy analyst can help you make choices: “What if I added more insulation in the attic while I’m doing this project? A cost-benefit analysis will show you how much savings you can get.”
It’s hard to go wrong with adding insulation, radiant heat barriers in the attic, or having your ductwork tested and sealed, says Johnston. "Most people can save 30 percent right there.”
Even better, if you’re building new, design with energy efficiency in mind. That starts with how you position your house on the site to take advantage of sunlight and wind patterns and extends to making choices such as installing your ductwork in the heated portion of the house.
“If you’ll design for maximum benefit, then start adding technology such as foam-based insulation and radiant heat barriers in the attic,” Johnston says, “you’ll find a home that, before you know it, is twice as energy efficient as the standard house.”
The Sustainability Institute: A South Carolina nonprofit that provides homeowner and contractor training and an online directory of local vendors for green building. Visit sustainabilityinstitutesc.org
United States Green Building Council: They provide LEED certification information and maintain an information-packed website at usgbc.org
GreenGuard Environmental Institute: A nonprofit that works to improve indoor air quality. They award their seal of approval to products that meet stringent guidelines for reducing chemical emissions and mold. Visit greenguard.org