A roundtable of experts on making existing houses greener
Published in: Metropolitan Home
Date: April 2008

Everyone who renovates a home these days complains about the dizzying number of choices. Balancing everyday concerns—aesthetics, budget, durability—can be confusing enough given the multitude of products on the market. If you are determined to make the house green as well as beautiful, affordable and long-lasting, the number of decisions can be overwhelming.

In an effort to help, Met Home’s Fred A. Bernstein convened a roundtable of green-renovation experts—via e-mail. At the virtual table were two architects, Rob Harrison and Eric Corey Freed; a planner, Steven Lenard; an interior designer, Denise Shaw; and the director of A program that trains professionals in green homebuilding, Brian Gitt. Together, they explained how to go green without going over the edge.

Metropolitan Home: How do you strike a balance between green design and beautiful design?
Harrison: There is no balance to be struck here. If it’s not green, it’s ugly—in the way that anything thoughtless is ugly.

MH: But how do you begin to make a renovation green?
Lenard: Focus on the parts of your house that consume resources. Start with the small stuff, like replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescent lights.

MH: Many people hate fluorescents.
Lenard: In my experience, the no-name brands can produce ghastly light, but the full-price models are almost indistinguishable from incandescents.
Gitt: The quality of light and number of compact fluorescent products available have come a long way in the past few years.
Shaw: EcoBulbs, from Feit, produce a nice, warm light.
Freed: Color-corrected and dimmable bulbs are now easily available.
Harrison: But the dimmable ballasts for CFL lamps are very expensive. Luckily, that should change in the near future.
Lenard: Then move on to appliances. Most appliances have tags with energy-consumption figures. But think about the energy a new unit will save versus the energy required to produce it. Small gains in efficiency from replacing a five-year-old washing machine may not be worth it. Larger gains from replacing a 20-year-old refrigerator may be.
Shaw: Sadly, even appliances with the Energy Star label are far less efficient than many European models. I have a Bosch dishwasher, and it’s extremely energy-efficient. Liebherr is a brand to look at for refrigerators. Luckily, consumer interest is pushing the domestic brands to become more competitive in energy efficiency.
Harrison: On one project that a humble Kenmore refrigerator was the most energy-efficient option. So it pays to read the labels.
Lenard: And choose models that are built to last and don’t have parts that need frequent replacement. Next, you can go for more significant improvements in larger systems, such as your hot water or HVAC.
Harrison: Before you do any of these things, you may want to talk to a real estate agent. The most environmentally friendly solution when a home doesn’t fit your needs is to move to one that does! Chances are someone else out there will like your house the way it is. Not renovating at all is the greenest option.
Lenard: True. With parts of a building that have already been manufactured, transported and installed, the environmental damage has been done, so let them live out their useful lives. On the other hand, it’s wasteful to let an inefficient boiler or old, drafty windows cause higher-than-necessary fuel consumption for another fifteen years.
Harrison: I agree. These days, there’s a sense of urgency about climate change that makes it essential to do something about energy-hogging houses.

MH: It’s hard enough to be green when you’re building from the ground up and can control every element. Isn’t green renovation even more difficult?

Gitt: Yes, but only because renovation, whether green or not, is harder than building from scratch. There are always surprises when you open up a building.
Harrison: Sealing a house properly is the most cost-effective way to reduce energy use. And it’s hard to seal a house properly when you’re renovating.
Freed: Another problem with renovation, as opposed to new construction, is that you’re stuck with how the house is sited. Most houses are built parallel to the street; they don’t account for the fact that the sun is going to rise in the east and set in the west. That’s why, when we add on to existing houses, we often angle the addition toward the sun, which puts a crook in the floor plan. It’s become a kind of trademark.

MH: Contemporary houses often have a lot of glass, but isn’t glass a problem when it comes to insulation?
Gitt: With the right design, you can still have glass. You can use it to maximize the solar gain during the day. Heat is stored in a thermal mass, which can be something as simple as a concrete slab or tile floor. The heat radiates back into the building at night.
Harrison: Depending on location! This technique doesn’t work in Seattle. And windows lose heat anywhere from five to ten times as fast as walls.

MH: What about in L.A., where there is often too much sun?
Shaw: I’ve used low-E glass in a number of projects. The low-E coating, which is invisible, lowers the heat flow through the glass. There’s a noticeable difference in temperature and comfort.

MH: Everyone talks about sealing the house to save energy. But doesn’t sealing the house trap indoor air pollutants?
Harrison: Yes. So if you tighten the house, you also need to ventilate it properly and use healthier materials inside the house so they don’t off-gas and contribute to indoor air quality problems.

MH: This is where a lot of people want to throw up their hands: There are many different definitions of green—saving energy is one, reducing toxicity is another—and in some cases, different definitions leads to opposite approaches.
Lenard: There are always trade-offs. For a kitchen floor, I can choose the Forest Stewardship Council–certified bamboo from China, which is rapidly renewable but used an actual boatload of fossil fuels to get here, or I can choose flooring of local hardwood that is not sustainably harvested.

MH: And which is better?
Lenard: Unfortunately, there’s no way to weigh an extra ton of CO2 in the atmosphere against an extra part per million of formaldehyde in your house against an extra acre of rain forest cut down. You have to choose which issues are most important to you and make design decisions accordingly. Or you can have a contractor make those decisions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that substitutes the contractor’s preferences for your own.

MH: Let’s see if there are any easy choices. The supermarket asks, “Paper or plastic?” What if your builder asks: Metal or wooden studs?
Harrison: Wood. In particular, wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Gitt: Using FSC-certified wood may not benefit you as directly as adding insulation in the attic. And it may cost up to five percent more, depending on the product. But it is worth doing: You don’t just save the trees, but you also improve water quality, sustain biodiversity and help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Freed: Instead of two-by-fours at 16 inches on center, go with two-by-sixes at 24 inches on center. If you do that, the building will be easier to build; it will be stronger; and, best of all, you’ll use less lumber. Plus, with the thicker walls, there will be extra room for insulation.

MH: For counters, solid stone or products like CaesarStone or Silestone, which are usually 93 percent stone and 7 percent epoxy?
Lenard: One advantage of the composites is that they can be made from scraps of stone that wouldn’t be good for other purposes, so there’s a lot less waste. On the other hand, forming these materials uses a lot of heat. And what happens down the road? Solid stone can be recycled, but recycling stone mixed with adhesive requires a specialized process.
Shaw: Fireclay Tiles makes a countertop product from recycled bottles – it’s called BottleStone. [BottleStone.com] I’ve also been working with a company that makes countertops from recycled polyurethane; they’re molded without any seams.
MH: It’s good to think about what will happen to the materials you’re installing in your house 20 or 30 years from now, but what about all the materials you’re tearing out right now?
Gitt: They don’t have to go to a landfill. In a properly managed renovation, more than 80 percent of the materials you remove can be recycled or reused.
Lenard: Facilities that recycle construction materials are opening up across the country. The Construction Materials Recycling Association has a website that lists facilities all over the U.S. [CDRecycling.org]. Patronize them. The thing they all need to survive is volume.

MH: Bamboo or wood?
Freed: Part of the issue with bamboo, although it’s a grass and it grows back quickly, is that most of it is coming from China. So there’s the energy that’s used in transportation. And sometimes they clear-cut the entire forest to get to the bamboo. Which is like chopping down an orange grove to get the oranges. Smith & Fong, which makes Plyboo, is a company I trust.
Shaw: In one house I just did, we explored bamboo versus certified wood, and we ended up with wood, because it’s about the same price but it’s much more durable. If something lasts longer, it saves resources.

MH: Tile or carpet?
Harrison: Anything but carpet!
Gitt: For one thing, if you’re concerned about indoor air quality, most carpets off-gas volatile organic compounds [VOCs] inside the home, and they collect dirt. As a former remodeling contractor, who has torn out old carpet, I can tell you: Old carpet weighs much more than new carpet.
Harrison: Carpeting isn’t always bad. I used wool carpeting with a hair-and-jute pad in a house for a woman with chemical sensitivities. That said, a lot of carpeting has problems. The backing is often PVC or latex, both of which off-gas and can contribute to indoor air-quality problems. Once it’s installed, carpet acts like a sponge, soaking up whatever other pollutants are off-gassing in the house. And when you’re done with it, it goes to a landfill, because, so far, very little of it can be recycled. But the industry is rapidly changing: Better backings are available, and manufacturers like Interface have instituted their own recycling programs.
Shaw: If you like tile floors, there are so many new lines of recycled tiles that are beautiful and long-lasting.
Lenard: You also have to think about the subfloor. If you’re concerned about reducing formaldehyde emissions, use exterior-grade plywood instead of interior-grade. Because of the way it’s made, exterior-grade emits far less formaldehyde than interior-grade plywood. But it may cost a little more.
Harrison: Whatever kind of flooring you choose, here’s the cheapest thing you can do to improve indoor air quality: Take your shoes off at the door.

MH: Shoes?
Harrison: The toxins carried in on shoes can include lead from paint flaking off buildings, pesticides and residues of petroleum products from streets and garages. In fact, when we design a new entry, we follow the Japanese model and include a bench for removing shoes as well as a place to store the shoes.

MH: How about walls?
Shaw: I’ve been using a new product called American Clay, which is a natural clay plaster. You don’t have to paint; you mix colors right into it. And it works for any kind of house. You can make it modern and smooth, or you can texture it like a stucco or plaster [americanclay.com].
Harrison: If you’re painting, most people advise using paints that are low in VOCs, but a paint can be rated low-VOC and still be toxic. The ideal paint or finish is both low-VOC and low-toxic. My favorite paints right now are by Yolo Colorhouse [yolocolorhouse.com].
Shaw: If you’re opening up the walls, be sure to insulate. I’ve been using recycled denim insulation, made by UltraTouch. Insulating is one of the cheapest things you can do to save energy. I also like that, with denim, the installers don’t have to wear masks, because you don’t have fiberglass floating around.
Freed: Insulation is incredibly important. There are over 110 million houses in the United States, and it’s estimated that half of them are underinsulated (and some are uninsulated). That wastes about two million barrels of oil a day, more than we import from Saudi Arabia.
Gitt: Anyone who has ductwork for heating and cooling should have it tested for leaks. Often, there are so many gaps that something like 30 percent of the heated or cooled air leaks out. You’re using energy to heat and cool that air, paying high utility bills as a result.
Harrison: If you can, put the ducts within the heated or cooled airspace of the house—instead of in a crawl space or attic. That way, air that leaks out isn’t lost.

MH: The bigger a house, the more resources it is going to consume. Can a house be green if it’s enormous?
Lenard: Size does matter. It would be difficult to call three people living in a 9,000-square-foot house green, no matter how many solar panels and low-VOC paints they use.
Harrison: Many people who hire architects seem to want large homes. So far I have managed to avoid working on one bigger than 5,000 square feet, but that is still huge by historical standards. I would prefer to set a goal of less than 3,000 square feet, with smaller even better.
Freed: Some of my work is helping other architects “green up” their projects. But it’s ridiculous when someone unveils a 14,000-square-foot house and asks me, “What can we do to make it greener?” My usual answer is, “Why don’t we take off the second floor?”
Harrison: Many green building rating systems (such as BuiltGreen here in the Seattle area and the national LEED for Homes) include either a penalty once a home gets above a certain size or a bonus if it stays below a certain size.
Gitt: There’s a rule in Marin County that if you build bigger than 3,500 square feet, you have to maintain the energy budget of a 3,500-square-foot home. Which is a way of letting people build big houses if they want to, but only if they make serious efforts to conserve.
Shaw: In terms of size, many of the houses being built in Los Angeles have reached appalling proportions. When you put a 7,000-square-foot home on an 8,000-square-foot lot, you’re not leaving yourself any outdoor space.
MH: Should the government outlaw McMansions?
Gitt: I don’t think the government should be imposing lifestyle choices, but it can create incentives, things like expedited permitting or reduction in permit fees for going greener on a project.

MH: These days, there are all kinds of government programs, like rebates, meant to reward people for saving energy. Are they working?
Harrison: I have yet to have a state rebate or tax incentive make a difference in the choices we make on a project. They’re not, in Washington State anyway, large enough to sway the decision. My clients would likely do it anyway, rebate or not.
Freed: And I’ve never seen a rebate for renters. Which is a shame. A renter can’t put solar panels on a house, and a landlord has no incentive to do it. So it’s crucial to have government step in and help.
Shaw: Photovoltaic panels can cost $50,000 or more. That’s a big check to write. But for one house I did in Venice [California], the owners, a young couple, leased solar panels from a company called Citizenre. [www.Citizenre.com] They didn’t have enough roof space to go entirely off the grid, but they’ve gotten pretty close.
Harrison: In Seattle, $25,000 will get you a utility inter-tie system, in which you are still hooked up to the grid, but your meter runs backward when the house is producing more energy than it’s consuming. For panels made in Washington State, you’ll get paid $0.50 per kilowatt-hour for energy you return to the grid.

MH: Are there other things government can do that don’t cost money?
Gitt: In parts of the Bay Area, there is a time-of-sale ordinance: a punch list of energy- and water-saving measures that you have to undertake before your house is sold. Now there’s an effort to take the law statewide. The real estate folks are dead set against it, because they think it will make transactions more difficult. But I think the problems can be resolved.
Lenard: I think government should also work hard to remove regulations that actually make it hard to build green. In many cases, building codes have to be updated to permit use of the latest green technologies.

MH: We’ve talked a lot about saving energy. What about saving water?
Gitt: Put in a high-efficiency toilet. With the new models, you don’t sacrifice function.
Freed: Everyone should have a dual-flush toilet. You choose number one or number two. It saves a huge amount of water. And if you can, install a gray-water recycling system, which takes the water from your sinks and showers and uses it to flush the toilet.
MH: Can you install a gray-water system if you’re renovating an existing building?
Freed: It depends on how extensive a renovation you’re doing, because it does require you to go into the walls. But there’s also a great device called Aqus that recycles the gray water from a single sink to a toilet up to ten feet away. It’s a $300 box, and it’s something even renters can use, because you can take it with you [WaterSaverTech.com].
Harrison: We’re recommending our clients install a rainwater-collection system. For about $7,000 you can install a system with a 1,500-gallon underground tank that will collect and filter rainwater for use in toilets and laundry. In Seattle, these systems will pay for themselves in five or six years. You might say water is the new energy. Everywhere you look, scarcity and quality of water are becoming bigger issues.

MH: Do you use only recycled products?
Freed: We source a lot of recycled products, but you have to be very careful with the word “recycled.” It’s thrown around quite a bit. We ask a series of specific questions about every product we use: Where does it come from? What are the by-products of its manufacture? How is it delivered and installed? How healthy is it? And what are we going to do with it when we’re done with it? And sometimes it’s hard to get the answers.
Gitt: Which is why you should hire professionals with green-building experience. You don’t want to have to teach your architect or contractor about green building any more than you’d want to teach your plumber how to install a dishwasher. That said, green building is always an evolution, and new information becomes available every day.
Harrison: Durability and beauty are as important to me as recycled content. This comes together nicely in some products, like locally made tiles of recycled glass [BedrockIndustries.com].

MH: Does green have to cost more?
Gitt: When you’re buying a countertop, you can choose granite or Formica. It’s no different in the green world: There are some very expensive countertop options, and there are other options that are less expensive.
Harrison: Sometimes, green is cheaper. Stacked framing – where studs 24 inches on center support ceiling joists 24 inches on center, and so on — uses less lumber than conventional framing. You could spend some of the savings on additional insulation and better windows that result in lower heating costs for the life of the home.
Freed: We talk very frankly with clients about return on investment. In the Bay Area, we tend to see a five- to ten-year return on solar panels. Of course, the farther north you go, the longer it will take to make back your investment.
Harrison: This is an issue for Americans, who move once every five years on average and so often don’t think beyond that timeline. Ideally we would be doing these things not just for ourselves but for the house’s future owners as well.
Lenard: One thing to keep in mind is that even if you do spend a little extra in construction costs, you get a better building or space, so it’s money well spent.
Gitt: It would help if people could recoup the cost of green renovations when they sell their homes. But too often that doesn’t happen. That’s why we’re launching GreenPoint Rated, a consumer label for new, remodeled and existing homes. The idea is to have a neutral third party tell buyers how well a house performs environmentally.
MH: We’ve talked about saving energy and water; about using recycled materials as well as materials that can be recycled someday; and about indoor air quality. Are there other elements to making a house green?
Harrison: We haven’t talked about location, which is very important. Choose a house in an urban, walkable neighborhood, that is, one within a good walkshed [see WalkScore.com]. That makes a huge difference in overall household energy use—as well as in the health of the inhabitants.
Freed: We include community in our definition of green. We ask our clients to include at least one feature that benefits people around them. In one case, it was a bench in front of the house. Another client has a 14-foot blank wall right on the street, so we covered it with slate and put out chalk—people can write and draw, and then the rain washes it away. Another client hung a disco ball outside. They light it at night, and people walking by sometimes start dancing.

MH: I won’t ask how much energy that uses.
Freed: The solar panels on the roof help with the lighting! Besides, it was a renovation. And renovation is inherently green — you’re recycling a building.


ERIC COREY FREED, Green Architect
Eric Corey Freed founded Organic Architect, his San Francisco firm, in 1997 “as an alternative to traditional design practice.” A graduate of Temple University, Freed designs “environmentally friendly buildings” and also advises other architects on how to make their projects greener. He teaches at UC Berkeley and is the author, most recently, of Green Building and Remodeling for Dummies (OrganicArchitect.com).

BRIAN GITT, Green Building Advocate
Since 2004, Brian Gitt has been the CEO/executive director of Build It Green, a nonprofit membership organization whose mission is to promote healthy energy- and resource-efficient buildings in California. He is a LEED-accredited professional certified by the U.S. Green Building Council and a Certified Green Building Professional. Gitt received his education in ecological design and environmental studies at Prescott College in Arizona (BuildItGreen.org).

ROB HARRISON, Green Architect
Rob Harrison is the principal of Harrison Architects of Seattle, Washington. Since 1992, his firm has focused exclusively on what it calls “lyrical sustainable design.” Primary concerns include “conserving energy and resources, using healthier materials and finishes, reducing long-term costs and making poetic places.” A founding member of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, Harrison studied architecture at the University of Toronto (HarrisonArchitects.com).

STEVEN LENARD, Green Planner
An urban planner in Brooklyn, New York, Steven Lenard dedicated himself to sustainability when he realized, as a contractor to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, that cleaning up pollution after the fact could never be as effective as preventing it in the first place. A volunteer in the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) and for GreenHomeNYC, a community-based nonprofit that promotes environmentally sustainable urban buildings, he holds a B.S. in biology and political science from the University of Chicago and a Master of City Planning from MIT (GreenHomeNYC.org).

DENISE SHAW, Green Designer
A film producer since the 1990s, Denise Shaw alternates between making movies and helping to make L.A. houses greener. Her focus is on renovating midcentury homes, maintaining their design integrity while taking advantage of the latest eco-friendly materials and methods. She appears on Greenovae a new series on the Discovery Home Channel.