Setting the standards for building green and sustainable remodeling
For several years, Ann Edminster agonized over the energy costs of her 1940s pre-fabricated kit home. Other concerns, like a consistent cough and irritated throat, prompted her to action in 2006, when she spent $120,000 renovating and adding 190 square feet to her living room using green building design techniques. "The focus was on energy retrofitting," she says.
Edminster started by replacing her forced-air unit with a new radiant heating system, eliminating blowing dust particles that were polluting her home. She also installed Mitsubishi solar panels on her roof, but knew the extra energy they supplied would be wasted through leaky doors and uninsulated walls if she didn't upgrade the interior. So, she installed high-performance windows, sprayed top-performing insulation in the walls of the entire downstairs and air-sealed the space. She replaced her outdated washer, dryer, dishwasher and refrigerator with Energy Star appliances and the furnace and water heater with a multi-zoned hydronic heating system and a high-efficiency boiler. To improve water conservation, she put in dual-flush, EPA WaterSense Toto toilets.
Selecting the proper finishes for her home was an added priority. The sloping portions of the roof are covered in highly durable steel; all interior wall finishes are low-VOC paints and earth plasters; and her deck's made of Forest Stewardship Council-certified tropical wood.
Although she had to take out a second mortgage to afford the renovation, Edminster knows she'll recoup some of the cost over time. The $14,000 solar panel system should pay for itself in 14 years at current utility rates. Already, her electric bill has dropped from as high as $100 a month down to $5, and her gas bill has decreased by 30 percent. Perhaps best of all, she no longer wakes up coughing every morning from the dust blown around by an old heating system. "Energy improvements offer a return on investment higher than most conventional investments," Edminster says. "So if you have any money at all to invest, your home's a great place to start."
Existing homes like Edminster's account for 94 percent of buildings in the United States. They're 30 years old on average. Their doors and windows are drafty. Their walls, attics and crawl spaces are poorly insulated. And they're responsible for 21 percent of the country's carbon emissions. "We have the ability to effect major change through existing homes," says Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and founding chair of the USGBC.
However, remodeling is typically an ongoing process and encompasses such a wide range of projects, from painting a few walls to completely renovating several rooms, that the USGBC concluded a uniform rating system comparable to LEED would not work. Only "gut" rehabs, which entail stripping walls down to the framing, are eligible to participate in the LEED for Homes program.
The National Association of Home Builders disagrees that older homes cannot be certified. It plans to roll out the first and only national ratings standard for remodeled homes this spring. "The NAHB's National Green Building Standard addresses the question of scale and existing conditions," says Calli Schmidt, NAHB director of environmental communications. Each section of its rating system lists specific criteria or point modifications applicable to additions and renovations. For instance, new homes must have sealed air ducts throughout. A renovated home earns one point if duct leakage is reduced by 25 percent and four points if 100 percent of the leaks are eliminated.
Green building expert David Johnston sides with the USGBC, calling the NAHB's plan a pipe dream. "A remodeler's job is much more complex than a homebuilder's because they inherit whatever is behind the walls," Johnston says. "There are a lot of factors to consider." He explains that the component systems of a home are interrelated, so changing one part without consideration of the others can create a domino effect with negative outcomes. For example, making a building airtight without also improving ventilation can lead to poor air quality.
In lieu of a points system, the USGBC partnered with The American Society of Interior Designers Foundation and dozens of building experts to create the first nationwide green residential remodeling manual for existing homes called REGREEN, available at regreenprogram.org.
The REGREEN guidelines and NAHB certification program follow many of the same principles recommended for new construction, but they also had to tackle some very new challenges, such as always factoring the homeowner into the equation and addressing different kinds of products that affect air quality like furniture and drapes.
"It's an entirely different audience," says Linda Sorrento, USGBC director of education and research partnerships and ASID member. "LEED for Homes doesn't involve a person already living in a space. It's a great way for us to communicate the impact that homes have on a family."
Sorrento says the USGBC and ASID felt it was time to address green remodeling: "Both organizations were faced with tons of questions and pressure from consumers."
Remodeling is a $230 billion business, according to the NAHB, and research shows homeowners hunger for more information on sustainable renovations. Nearly 50 of Angie's List members polled say they plan to remodel green this year but want to learn more first.
Cincinnati residents Patrick McKelvey and Marjorie McKelvey Isaacs wish they could have gotten more guidance when they began fixing up their 1950s tract house to make it more energy efficient. "It was hard to find professionals to assist me," Patrick says. "I was talking to my HVAC repairman this morning, and I have the distinct feeling I'm being humored about my green interests. He probably thought I was off my medications."
Several programs hope to change that by educating building professionals. Virginia-based Green Advantage launched the first national program to certify building practitioners in 2003 and has certified 1,800 professionals to date.
The National Association of the Remodeling Industry developed a green remodeling education program in February 2007 and launched its Green Certified Professional Program six months later. NARI requires five years remodeling experience – three of those years must involve green projects – to become certified.
The NAHB began certifying builders and remodelers in February, a designation called the Certified Green Professional that requires two years of building experience, completion of an educational course and ongoing training.
"The more resources we have to support people in their efforts to employ green practices, the better," Edminster says. "While there is no substitute for having experienced green building professionals to help you, don't be deterred if you don't find them - a willingness to learn is almost as good."
Johnston, who helped create the NARI program, says that although these various initiatives are a step in the right direction, they have a long way to go. "All of these organizations are still just limping into the marketplace, although with good intentions," he says.
As contractors begin to catch up with consumer demand, green remodeling is sure to explode. With that growth will come many changes. McKelvey hopes so. He still has a list of green goals he'd like to achieve, such as a no-mow, low-water lawn - that's if he can find the right resources and contractors to make it happen. The architects of REGREEN also sees many changes on the horizon. "This is only the beginning," Sorrento says. "We have a lot more to learn."