Home "tiny green remodeling"--what else is there?, 11°

I've learned recently that in addition to buying products that are better for the environment (such as energy saving bulbs and biodegradable cleaning products), there are some things that homeowners can do to reduce the environmental impact of our homes. From a friend, I heard about installing grey water systems (for example using shower drain water to then flush the toilet), and solar-powered water heaters... And now I'm wondering what else is out there?? These seem like relatively simple "tiny remodels" that can make a huge difference on our environmental impact. Can the Celsias community enlighten me as to what else we can do along these lines? Thanks in advance!

10 replies

In green building and remodeling as in other fields of environmental action, pick the low-hanging fruit first. So do the obvious:
- if you live in a region where you are spending energy either heating or cooling, check out the "seal" of your home. Make sure that there are no leaks around windows and doors. Weather stripping is the cheapest way to reduce your carbon footprint. Some caulk might help too.
- On a cold day, track drafts, and find out where they are coming from. Often the feeling of being cold that makes you crank the temperature control on the wall is caused by a convection current that washes through your home: a cold, single-pane window can set in motion an air current that can act as a refrigerator and cool your home. A heavy drape in the cold season can help in this case. Blankets to seal the bottom of doors can help too.
- Look for any single-pane glass in your home, and look to upgrade these asap.
- BUT! If you have an older home that gains a considerable amount of its charm from the older panes - and many do - then don't get suckered by a window salesman that promises to keep the heritage aspect of your home, and then replaces the charming old frames with blank windows. There are several ways of upgrading old windows, but here is a quick description:
- check the "seal" of the window putty against the frame. Dig out and replace old putty with a quality glazing putty. With caulking, seal any cracks between the sash and frame. Repaint if needed.
- Then, once the old windows are in good shape - and anyone with a modicum of painting skills should be able to complete the above tasks - assess the type of window frame and sash.
- You might be able to get the single pane glass replaced by double pane sealed units. This is a good choice if: 1) the sash is thick enough to accommodate the new glass units, and 2) the old glass does not have a look or reflective character that you might want to keep, and 3) if they are openable windows.
- If the windows are not openable, then it is easier to upgrade the glass with new glass. But if the glass itself is something you want to preserve, then consider having a new double - or triple - paned unit installed in the frame, on the INSIDE. This way you preserve the funky view through the historic glass, the reflective quality of the glass when viewed from the outside, and the old frame.
- There are other design options as well, but you should at least have these points in mind when you talk to a window salesman. And don't forget that a small, local glass shop might be more flexible and work with you for a reasonable cost than a large window company. Also: It is perfectly possible to have your old window frames reproduced: reproductions that are weather tight units that work better are just more expensive. The problem remains, however, of how to preserve historic glass, since new windows cannot use it and get a proper seal...

- Make sure that your furnace - if you have one - is serviced, that the filter is replaced or cleaned often, and that the ducts are kept clean.
- If you have a hot water radiator system, have the pipes checked to ensure that they are not too old and corroded to allow proper flow of hot water.
- Buy a sweater to keep warm in the winter.
- Use an open window in summer to keep cool. The number of days that are really hot: is it really worth having the air con on? Use a fan instead of the air conditioning.
- Keep an eye out for condensation in the home. If you find it, you may not be ventilating the home sufficiently.
- Build and renovate for your climate and eco-system. The mistakes made by thinking that what is good at the old place will do just fine for the new one can be a big mistake. There is no point building a sealed, warm house out of softwood meant for the far north of Canada for a tropical climate - of course! But it is also amazing to see how many people ignore the sun and wind, and then try to use technology make up for the huge cost of closed windows...
- So, use the sun and the wind. The wind will cool or warm the house, depending. The sun can warm the house. In summer, paying attention to the sun and draperies can allow you to use natural convection currents to keep the house cool during the days, and cool it further in the evening.
- If you are tempted to turn on the air conditioning, but have a bit of garden in the south - sorry, north, for those of you down under - then plant a tree. It will shade in the summer, and do double duty in reducing the carbon load: it will help you keep the air con off, and take up carbon to grow.
- When furnishing the house, look in the phone book for "Woodworker" or "Furnituremaker." Almost every community has a skilled woodworker nearby who can build great furniture, often at a lower cost than would be purchased from a large dealer, and with a much lower cost to the environment. Many use salvaged or recycled wood as well.
- When looking for new furniture or fittings, don't forget the used market. Lots to find, and with a bit of work, lots to appreciate.
- Look for and use water-based clear finishes, eco-certified paints, low VOC (volatile organic compound), and solvent free finishes. These products are less toxic to produce, use and dispose of.
- When designing a major renovation or a new home, look for designers and builders who care. Many are smart enough now to advertise their green credentials and projects.
- And don't forget to continue remodeling. Though the focus of much green building literature is on new construction, but the embodied energy of old buildings is a huge resource. The energy that has already been used to build the building is still there, in the walls.
- When remodeling, look for novel ways to get rid of or recycle the old parts. So if you do decide to replace the old windows with new ones, keep the old ones, fix them up and use them for... well, this is where you come in with your creativity. Just don't trash them!

Good luck with your efforts - here's a bit of information. I am sure that there is more out there!

Cheers,

Kevin.

Kevin D Brown, CRHB (Certificate in Restoration of Heritage Buildings), MEDes(ID) (Master of Environmental Design - Industrial Design)
greenest Homes
Kimberley, BC, Canada

Written in June 2009

Hi Kevin, Thanks for all the great info! It's good to know more about how to handle draftiness/heat in the house. I live in a warm climate, but rarely turn on the AC (just fans... are they huge suckers of electricity?). And on my budget, nearly every piece of furniture in my home is second hand... I feel a pang of guilt every time I take a long warm shower or leave my computer plugged in over night. That said, it's the recycling of what I have (when I'm done with it) that I find tough! But perhaps you're right that I've got to get creative. :) Any thoughts on recycling of old electronics/phones/etc.? What about old carpets, tiles and things?
Thanks again!

Written in June 2009

Hey Lindsey,

Great to hear from you - yes, the recycling is the worst part often. It would be much better if we were to design things to actually be recycled. That is the biggest problem with recycling - things are so rarely designed for recycling from the outset, that our attempts to make industrial products from recycled materials are usually not so successful. So we end up "downcycling" instead, using quite good materials for a purpose of lesser utility or quality than the original item. There are attempts to do this differently, the "cradle to cradle" philosophy of design (see: http://www.mbdc.com/ref_protocol.htm for one explanation of this goal), but overall recycling isn't quite what it's cracked up to be. This is why creativity is needed when dealing with old goods...

Electronics? I am afraid that I think the best way to deal with them is through your local e-waste dealer/collector. Just make sure that you ask the questions about what is happening to them, and make sure that they are not just getting shipped to China to be cooked down by people over open fires in order to get the small but significant amounts of gold and copper from them - there have been some grim stories coming out of that experience. If you cannot find a local place to get rid of them in a way that is sane, perhaps get involved and have your local government establish one...

Or you can make art out of them - but I find that I have short patience for pictures of old circuit boards...

As far as tiles go, even if you lay them in concrete and make garden path brick out of them, there are lots of ways to deal with them.

Carpets? If they are wool with jute backing, they are great for keeping weeds under control, and then they compost into the soil eventually. If they are synthetic, then I would be reluctant to introduce them into the environment. If they are clean and usable, bags, car carpets, door mats - there is a lot that can be done. But if they are simply dirty and old and synthetic? If there is not a recycling facility for this material - and they are very rare - then I think that the best thing to do with them, unfortunately, is to burry them, deep. Unfortunate, again, but until carpet companies all get on the bandwagon and redesign their businesses to be able to handle recycling (check out Interface Carpets; they do: http://www.interfaceflor.com/), we will be stuck with acres and acres of used stuff that we have to bury in order to get rid of. But I haven't looked into carpets specifically, so others might have more info on this point...

Have fun! That might be the best advice, and it certainly adds to creativity more than, "We're doomed!"

Cheers

As for your electric fans: they don't use nearly as much as air conditioning. But if you are concerned, look for a cheap current meter - they are becoming available on the consumer market - and test the fans that you have to see if you can find one that uses the least amount of power.

Written in June 2009

Steve A. 100°

You can also keep your landscaping in mind as well. A lot of people overlook things like rain barrels and shade trees. Have you got a particular window that always seems to get too much sun? Sometimes a tree will do you better than drapes. Also, programmable thermostats, programmable device timers and water-efficient faucet heads are a great and relatively cheap investment.

Written in July 2009

Anella S. 10°

What about the type of carpeting you have too? I am in the midst of remodelling my office and have heard that carpet tiles are very environmentally friendly.

Written in October 2009

Anella S. 10°

Sorry, link: http://www.carpettileking.com/v/flood.html carpet tiles that are water resistant and effective against floods, I definitely want this in my office!

Written in October 2009

Hi Anella,
I'm now working with the Green Building Councils worldwide, and one member is Interface Flooring... for office spaces they have great, eco-friendly carpet tiles as well.
Let me know what you end up using--I'd love to hear about your experience.
Lindsey

Written in October 2009

The other option for flooring is to look at what's around you, be creative, and use what's on hand. That in the end is the greenest you can get. Just think about poison. Is there any, at any part of the production process? The sale, use or disposal of the product?

What is the ecological cost of saving this and reusing it creatively, vs. the cost of disposing of it? The ecological cost, not the money; the money you will save, make, by seizing previously useless resources and being creative, will be the real goldmine.

Written in October 2009

That's a good point, Kevin. I often get into checking out green products, and lose sight of solutions already in front of me, that don't require (even "green") manufacture or transport.

Written in October 2009

Anella S. 10°

Ok, I have alot to consider, for me the greener the better, good point Kevin.

Written in October 2009

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