Image: Solar trellis
Solar panels as part of a solar trellis is just one example of green remodeling. “I think our national leadership is out of step with environmental concerns," said landscape architect Dennis Buettner. "Why wait for energy prices to double before you become more energy efficient?”
By contributor
updated 6/5/2007 11:07:58 AM ET 2007-06-05T15:07:58

Green may be the talk these days, but when it comes to doing a green home remodel, few homeowners — and contractors — understand exactly what it all means or where to start.

“Most people think of green building and they think of straw bale houses and solar panels,” said Greg Brooks, president of Innovative Builders, an Austin, Texas, contractor that does green home renovations.

That is not necessarily the case. As of yet, there are no national standards on what constitutes a green remodel or even any rules for appraisals that give homes with environmentally friendly features more value. But remodels dubbed “green” by contractors tend to use less energy or water; improve indoor air quality; use sustainable, recycled or used materials; and produce less waste in the process.

That can mean putting up formaldehyde-free insulation or installing a high-efficiency air conditioning unit. A new kitchen might use energy-efficient refrigerators and dishwashers and fluorescent compact lighting; a bathroom, water-efficient toilets. The exterior of the house might use bricks from the existing house or a metal roof, which helps with home cooling and offers cleaner rainwater runoff. Landscaping might rely on low-water planting techniques or take advantage of rainwater barrels that capture water from the roof to be used in landscaping irrigation.

“It’s not easily defined, and people need to know it doesn’t have to cost more,” said Scott Blunk, president of GreenBuilt Construction in Sacramento, Calif.

GreenBuilt recently finished a $100,000 kitchen remodel for a client, and it cost just $350 more for the additional eco-friendly features, such as energy-efficient appliances, an on-demand water heater, cork flooring (since cork can be harvested from trees every eight years vs.  every 40 to 50 years for wood) and paper-stone countertops, made from 50 percent post-consumer recycled paper. GreenBuilt Construction also refurbished the home’s existing cabinets and made some new, matching ones that used formaldehyde-free and low-volatility glues and varnishes, said Blunk.

Landscape architect Dennis Buettner and his partner Scot Lace hired Pragmatic Construction in Milwaukee to add a 780-square-foot living area and new two-car garage onto their home. The addition to the 1,300-square-foot ranch house will include several green features like solar panels for hot water, radiant-floor heating, south-facing windows (for more sunlight), recycled aluminum gutters and salvaged windows and lumber. The garage will have electrical outlets to power the electric cars the two hope to own someday.

Buettner and Lace initially suffered sticker shock at the $100,000 cost of the remodel, since they paid nearly that same amount for the original home 18 years ago. But they ultimately decided a green renovation would pay off down the road.

“We’re planning for the future,” said Buettner, 64. “I think our national leadership is out of step with environmental concerns. Why wait for energy prices to double before you become more energy efficient?”

Despite the interest in green building by people like Buettner, the number of contractors capable or interested or skilled in green renovation remains small, said Jose Alcala, a Montclair, N.J., architect who does green building projects. “Very few of them have the resources, the time and willingness to get educated,” he said.

Consumers can find listings of green remodeling contractors at GreenBuildingBlocks, as well as listings of green architects, green interior designers, among others.

In June, the Cambridge, Mass.-based GreenBuildingBlocks will launch a related Web site,, that will let people comparison shop for 1,700 green building products, getting information on not only price but energy savings, how the systems work and where to buy them.

Since April, homeowners can find eco-friendly construction supplies at Home Depot, since the home improvement chain rolled out an Eco Options labeling program that uses a third-party group to certify environmentally friendly products including compact fluorescent light bulbs, paint low in VOC (volatile organic compounds), programmable thermostats and sustainably harvested wood products.

Home Depot spokeswoman Jean Niemi said the retailer for years sold some 2,800 products that met the Eco Options criteria, but consumers didn’t know they were better for the environment. “This is making it easier for consumers to get educated,” she said.

Making your home greener doesn’t necessarily involve a major remodel, since the small cracks around windows and doors let out enough air that it is equivalent to leaving a window open all year, said Maria Vargas, spokeswoman for Energy Star, a federal program that certifies the energy efficiency of appliances, including television sets, washing machines and DVD players. Consumers can find a listing of these products here. Even putting lights on timers or using and fluorescent compact lighting can make big differences in energy-consumption, she said.

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