It is all the rage to talk about "green building" and "sustainable design," but what do these buzz words really mean and what difference does it make to you?
They essentially mean the same thing: design and construction that are sensitive to the environment today and in the future.
Sensitivities range from energy efficiency to recycled materials to land-use planning to indoor air quality. From the dramatic to the simple, there are several ways individual homeowners can take part in the green building movement.
At the far end of the spectrum, you can build a home with special materials and techniques, such as straw-bale construction.
You can choose to use only renewable resources and generate your own power with methods such as photovoltaic panels or ground-source heat pumps. Enough homes have been built with methods like these that they are no longer considered experimental; however, they are still a very small percentage of our nation's housing stock.
More mainstream approaches include using environmentally responsible building materials and products wherever possible, taking advantage of passive solar energy, maximizing natural daylight and collecting rainwater for use in your yard.
Sustainable products generally use raw materials that are rapidly renewable. For instance, bamboo grows very fast as opposed to oak trees. Cork and linoleum are more easily renewed than travertine marble or slate. Wheatboard cabinets with a thin wood veneer have less environmental toll than solid maple cabinets.
Remember, the more locally manufactured products you choose, the less energy will be consumed in transportation.
Locally, there is a store called The Green Building Center and the proprietor, Ashley Patterson, is well-versed in environmental issues and locally available products.
Of course, it is easier to build a new home that uses sustainable design concepts than it is to rearrange and update an older home.
But remember that remodeling in itself is inherently green. By merely keeping your home in existence and in use, you are saving valuable resources. Though you need to try to make that old home less drafty and more energy efficient, every year you live in that "first-growth" wood or masonry home made decades ago, you are making good use of the embodied energy in your home.
If you want your remodel to be as energy efficient as possible, you need to look at the whole room and eventually use a whole-house approach.
Here is a list of simple things you can do to make your remodeling project greener:
Install maximum insulation
Install high-efficiency windows
Seal all exterior penetrations in the area being remodeled
Purchase only energy-efficient appliances
Install low-flow water fixtures
Upgrade to an energy-efficient water heater, or better yet, a tankless water heater
Purchase the highest-efficiency heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system you can afford
No matter if you choose to include just a few energy-efficient appliances or to go with the completely green renovation, every little effort helps.
Architects Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the founders of Renovation Design Group, www.renovationdesigngroup.com, a local residential architectural firm. Renovation Design Group has a LEED certified architect on staff that specializes in sustainable building design.