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!
Kevin D Brown, CRHB (Certificate in Restoration of Heritage Buildings), MEDes(ID) (Master of Environmental Design - Industrial Design)
Kimberley, BC, Canada
Written in June 2009