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Greening My House

2009 January 27

About the author: Jeffrey Levy joined EPA in 1993 to help protect the ozone layer. He is now the National Web Content Manager.

image of houseA few months ago, my wife and I bought a house slightly bigger than our current home, but organized inside in pretty strange ways. Since we plan to spend the next 30-40 years there, we decided to renovate it. We want to do it in the greenest way possible. That means reduce, reuse, and recycle through the renovation.

“Reduce” starts with choosing where to live. Both our current house and the new one are about ½ mile from Metro, the DC-area subway; I walk and ride in. We also accepted smaller houses than what was available much further out.

The environment gains from these choices in a few ways: less fuel to commute and less energy used to heat and cool our house. But our quality of life is also better, because my short commute leaves me more time at home, and I’m relaxed on the train instead of driving in rush hour. Not everyone can choose where to live, but I think not enough people put living close to work on their “wants” list when house hunting.

Reducing also means:

  • choosing sustainable, low-emitting cabinets and flooring (THAT decision is a whole blog post by itself)
  • insulating well
  • replacing drafty windows with efficient ones, and
  • finding efficient plumbing (2-mode flushing toilets, anyone?)

It also meant asking the contractor to seal the basement so the heater isn’t running nonstop to keep the pipes from freezing.

“Reuse” comes in several forms. First, we’re keeping the existing appliances. I haven’t done the math, but it’s hard for me to believe that on a life cycle basis, even more efficient appliances are better than getting the full life out of existing ones. It just takes so many resources to create a new item. We also had the contractors keep trim work so they can reinstall it. Old kitchen cabinets will go in the basement. And what we’re not reusing ourselves, we’ll donate.

“Recycle” in this context includes scrap wood, metal, and bricks. We’ve been searching the web for help with that. It also includes recycling stuff we no longer want and won’t move with us (need an old computer power supply?).

Since it’s Radon Action Month, I should also mention we tested the house before we bought it, and it’s fine.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for renovating in a green way? Remember we don’t allow advertising in our comments, so please stick to generic product descriptions instead of specific companies.

UPDATE on Feb. 8. 2010: In a followup post, I discuss many of our decisions and invite you to share your favorite green features of your home.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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53 Responses leave one →
  1. Tina Chen permalink
    January 27, 2009

    Hey Jeff, do you know about Community Forklift? They are a 501c3 org. You can donate and purchase new/used building materials…they were at 2008 dc green festival. I hope this doesn’t count as an advertisement…i just wanted you and everyone else to know about this valuable local resource for finding used building materials or to donate leftover building supplies.

  2. Joan permalink
    January 27, 2009

    Tina that’s a great idea. I believe Habitat for Humanity also operates building supply stores in most parts of the country where you can buy or donate used building materials. Look online for a list of their “Restores”.

  3. Jeffrey Levy permalink*
    January 27, 2009

    Hey, thanks to both of you! I’ll check out those resources.

    I forgot to mention that we’ll also buy Energy Star for everything, whether we need new heating or air conditioning now, or when replacing appliances later.

  4. neetugarg37 permalink
    January 28, 2009

    hi, that is a great idea to greening your house. for this you can use thier used and waste material . this is good for environment also.

  5. Eric Feris permalink
    January 28, 2009

    Greetings from sunny Southern California! When my wife and I bought our house, there was lush green grass in both the front and back yards. Our entire neighborhood is like this and the common grounds are like parks. It’s gorgeous, but is very water-intensive. Everyone, literally, has a sprinkler system that irrigates their lawns usually twice a day in the Summer and a few times a week in the Winter. But this is the desert. There’s no water here. The water comes from Northern California and the Colorado River. Although I appreciate the beauty, I know it is irresponsible to use the level of water resources required just to keep patches of grass green. Hence, about 90% of our back lawn has since been replaced with a huge patio. That instantly cut our lawn water use by about two thirds. I have been gradually reducing the size of the front lawn by putting in low-water beds of plants and decorative rocks that are more suited for the local climate. As I do this I find myself changing the irrigation outlets to smaller, lower flow heads and in some cases, closing them off entirely.

    Another thing we did was install whole-house fans. These are 12″ fans in the bedroom ceilings that suck air into the attic from the room. Instead of using the air conditioner to cool the hot air upstairs, we open a few windows & doors and turn on the whole house fans. The entire volume of air in the house is replaced with cooler air from the outside in a matter of minutes. This air is drawn up into the attic where it replaces the extremely hot air up there! This keeps the whole house much cooler and uses a lot less electricity than the air conditioner. And since we use the AC less, I expect a longer life from it.

    For 2009, we are beginning to look at solar panel technology which I gather is becoming more efficient. Since we have abundant sunshine here in our warm desert environment, it seems silly not to use it.

  6. BethAnn Lederer permalink
    January 28, 2009

    Hi Jeff,
    Living close to work is great for so many reasons. When I had a long commute for one career (before starting my own green company) I found I ended up eating out or carrying out all the time because it was too late and I was too tired by the time I reached home.

    A couple of thoughts on your plans. Check your old cabinets before putting them in the basement because a lot of cabinets (even today!) emit urea formaldehyde, especially if they have any exposed particle board. And, it’s not just in cabinetry. Also, you may want to check on and protect your indoor air quality during the remodeling process.

  7. Margo Marks permalink
    January 28, 2009

    Great ideas about making your renovation greener! We recentely replaced all of our windows with double pane windows that have gas inside. This will help keep our home warmer and cooler depending on the season. It will also protect our furniture down the line.

    The new windows presented the issue of figuring out what to do with the old windows. We posted them on Craig’s list for free, and were able to get rid of many which was a nice way to reuse them. We also donated several to a camp and they will decorate the windows for art projects and then hang them as decorations.

  8. Jeffrey Levy permalink*
    January 28, 2009

    Hi Eric! Good to hear from you.

    Your approach to greenscaping makes a whole lot of sense. Thanks for doing that!

    We have a big fan we stick in a window to do just what you describe: blow the hot air outside and pull in cooler air downstairs. We also sleep with our windows open maybe 4-6 months/year. It’s plenty cool enough. Even here in DC, we often don’t turn the AC on until July.

    We also have an attic fan in this house. Thanks for reminding me to talk to the builder about putting one in the new house.

  9. Susanne permalink
    January 28, 2009

    The annual Solar Homes Tour, typically on the first weekend in October, is a fabulous way to see what other people have done to “green” up their homes (often, solar is just one aspect of what they have accomplished), and to gather ideas for your own project.

    Find tour details near you on the American Solar Energy Society’s web site.

  10. Jon B. permalink
    April 29, 2009

    As a fellow government troll and Web page builder, I also opted to find a smaller home near public transportation in Atlanta.
    In rebuilding our home, we donated old materials to the HAbitat ReStore operation here. We used bamboo flooring for a majority of our home. Over time, we replaced our old wooden windows with double-pane gass-filled vinyl ones, we’ve put in a tankless water heater, a ductless A/C unit for our upstairs bonus room and added blown-in insultation to bring our roof up to R85. Added a Solar Tube skylight in our cathedral ceiling that provides great light all day. Replaced old toilets with the lower GPF units as well. Our backyard or patio wasn’t much, but now it’s a xeriscape with drought tolerant plants and lots of stone. Anyone can do this.

  11. Robert permalink
    June 4, 2009

    It is wonderful that you are renovating your new home to make it Eco-friendly. Re-using material is not only a wise decision from the environmental prescriptive but is also a cost effective approach. For more information and tips about remodeling, I would like to point your readers to Home Remodeling

  12. Frank Roberts permalink
    August 2, 2009

    I made my own solar power system for my house. It was fun and I saved a lot of money on the construction and installation by doing it myself. I had so much fun in fact that I posted a blog showing others how to build your own solar panel.

  13. Ben Tumbling permalink
    September 3, 2009

    Greening the house starts with little things that usually entails less efforts than expected. I started off buying off eco-friendly furniture that’s made from refurbished wood from old Korean farmhouses. Check out the fabulous kitchen cabinets here.

  14. Ron permalink
    November 22, 2009

    There is no doubt that reducing individual energy costs is a great way to not only help SAVE the environment; add money back to the family budget.

    Example: a 1/16″ crack around a window is equivalent to a opening (hole) in your wall the size of a BRICK. It is important to understand that the 1/16″ crack is not a perfect crack going around a window, but is irregular in shape. The cumulative effect is the same… a huge energy loss.

    Some of the ways to reduce or eliminate these loses are

    1) using some type of a caulking to seal obvious cracks.

    2) storm window make a Big difference if they fit well.

    3) thermal pain windows that are installed properly

    4) repair windows that don’t fit well.

  15. Patrick permalink
    April 7, 2010

    People you can now convert a box fan into a massive reusable air filter….See what this Former Jet Mech with the Marines developed.They are awesome, washable and really really unique for they protect using the simple vortex of the fan blades and a very unique hybrid fabric. MADE IN THE USA

  16. websitebuilder permalink
    April 14, 2010

    When this house was still on blueprint, I stressed out to my architect-friend that I wanted a house that wouldn’t require much artificial lighting. So our house has large ceiling-to-floor windows everywhere that embrace natural sunlight. We have cut down on electricity bills this way.

    Amy Cameron

  17. Dan permalink
    May 31, 2010

    Great stuff – thanks for sharing.
    One of the most important things to consider when taking on a project like this is personal safety. You can run into things like asbestos, lead paint, toxic mold etc and knowing how to deal with them is very important for your health as well as your family’s.
    For more information on how to deal with lead, you can read this article:

  18. egr permalink
    July 1, 2010

    Envisioning the Future
    What will the energy-efficient house of the future look like? The Wall Street Journal recently asked four architects to stretch their imagination and design an energy-efficient house “without regard to cost, technology, aesthetics or the way we are used to living.” They came up with some imaginative ideas. One envisioned a home that functioned more like a living tree. Another imagined a home with a “biomorphic” skin that could change colors to insulate or cool the home. The third architect focused on constructing a home covered in plants that would provide food and shelter from the sun. The fourth turned to ideas from the past such as a “breeze chimney” for cooling to go alongside newer ideas such as solar paneling built directly into the roof. All in all, it’s a wonderful preview of what our green future may look like.

  19. Mike permalink
    July 28, 2010

    I think that not only should we be doing green renovations to the permanent structures like stairs and walls, but even the furniture selected that we decorate with should be made using green materials also.

    While there are still many companies that sell real wood furniture that is easily bio-degradable, there also many manufacturers that are producing furniture that includes non-bio-degradable materials such as certain plastics.

    Even though the shell of your house is a large portion of each individual’s home, it is still a shell and the personal items inside can account for a lot when it is all added together.

  20. John permalink
    August 5, 2010

    Whoa there are so many things one can do to create or modify an eco-friendly home. Aside from the recycling and less driving bit, there’s a lot here that I don’t know about. Like everyone else, I wish to make less of an impact on our environment but don’t know quite how to do it.

    However, I do know that getting solar panels on your home is one of the best ways to reduce the electric bill as well as utilize a clean source of energy. Another thing that I do happen to know is that you can buy eco friendly furniture. I think these are the same as the low emitting cabinets and flooring. But you can get all kinds of eco-friendly furniture such as dressers, beds, tables, chests, bedroom pieces, etc. It’s definitely worth it to take a look.

    I think one should be proud of the bedroom furniture collections in their homes, and what better way to do this than knowing that it’s helping out our planet :-)

  21. Todd permalink
    September 30, 2010

    You have a bunch of great concepts in your comments. Have you considered radiant barriers yet? I am CHEERS rater (California Home Energy Efficiency Rating Service) in southern California. Radiant barriers are a must for anyone that is serious about energy efficiency. They work very well in warm climates but can also assist you in a colder climate like DC.
    Bear in mind that radiant barriers are not insulation. They only assist the thermal boundary (insulation). This material by itself will not help to retain heat. Its primary purpose is to reflects it. As insulation works to slow the transfer of heat, the radiant barrier assists by reducing the amount of heat the insulation layer is exposed to.
    Some builders try to attach the radiant barrier directly onto the roof sheathing prior to their installation on the roof rafters. However, a more effective method is to simply buy foil-faced plywood or oriented strand board sheathing instead. Another option is a foil roll that can be stapled to the rafters below the roofing material. There are also metal roof shingles that have a reflective underside. If you need roof shingles, these are a practical option, but the cost of this type of radiant barrier is considerably higher than other types.
    I hope this helps and good luck with your project. If you would like to learn more about them I wrote an article on the subject.

  22. New York Home Renovation permalink
    October 9, 2010

    We have found that the general public still requires some educating when in comes the amount of money they can save just doing a few simple things. Installing energy efficient windows during their next home renovation can pay for itself after only a few years.

  23. Bedroom furniture permalink
    October 19, 2010

    Your article is great! I like your articles and I am very interested in the field.Thanks and regard.

  24. Furniture Guy permalink
    November 11, 2010

    I like the picture of the house. Simple but cool and relaxing.

  25. Robart Thomas permalink
    November 20, 2010

    Nice blog of Roof Insulation.
    Excellent topics, I am searching online roof repair Atlanta. After long searching I got this online that, ROOFER.ORG is a “full service” National roofing company and they can handle everything from a new roof installation, restoration and maintenance to re-roofs and repairs. All with the assurance that can solely come with years of experience. Every company is treated with the “personal touch” that comes from their staff. Contact today!

    Robart Thomas

  26. brain hithecell permalink
    November 29, 2010

    thanks for the interesting advice!! i love learning new ways to make my life better and thanks to you guys i can do so! much love and regards

  27. Rodney Henkel permalink
    November 30, 2010

    You strike me as an interesting individual, and your comments intrigue me. You seem like you want to know more about greenscaping! I hope you comment back so we can get to talking, you obviously want to know more, and I’m ready and willing to provide the information that you need to become a master greenscaper!

  28. brain hithecell permalink
    December 1, 2010

    Thanks Rod!! I hope you don’t mind me giving you a nickname;) thank you for the compliment and actually i would love to know more about greenscaping! I would love if we could talk a little more, maybe get to know each other and share our secrets about greening our lives. P.S. If you have any other scaping advice of any kind please let me know. Hopefully you write back soon Rod!

  29. Rodney Henkel permalink
    December 6, 2010

    I do agree on the fact that we need to share our thoughts on greenscaping. Maybe this time, in person? I’ve got a portfolio of ideas that will help you keep some money in your wallet, for things like taking people on a date maybe? ;). I really do hope to hear from you soon, comment back soon please! :)!!!!

  30. brian hithecell permalink
    January 20, 2011

    hey rod, sorry its taken so long for me to get back at you. i really like your idea of us meeting up sometime to express our ideas ;) i live in a nudist colony near the ocean if you would like to visit sometime we green lots of things

  31. Todd the Office Chair Guy permalink
    February 16, 2011

    How about making sure that the insulation you buy is made from recycled materials?

  32. Joel Kanzelmeyer permalink
    June 30, 2011

    One thing to watch out for now that it is summer and it’s hot and humid is mold growth. No matter how “green” your house is, this is something you will have to be aware of. For tips and information on mold damage and mold removal visit the link below

  33. May 8, 2012

    I am checking many blogs from since morning in search of unique information i have got some of my related info on your blog its really good.

  34. May 11, 2012

    The presentation looks quite nicely done. Explanation is nicely done and is quite easy to understand. The page is nicely designed and also the planning will be done perfectly

  35. May 30, 2012

    You have shared really informative and interesting post i will like to say thanks and also request you to keep post that kind of stuff in your more posts.

  36. June 8, 2012

    Those are all great ideas to help make your house more eco-friendly. I particularly agree with the idea of donating whatever you end up not reusing.

  37. June 12, 2012

    Fantastic post. You really crossed the line… OMG!! I want to write like you.

  38. July 18, 2012

    Actually, I would think that when you contract with the main contractor, it should be his responsibility to pay his subcontractors and see that the work was done right. The contract is with Yoeder and not the subcontractor.

  39. August 3, 2012

    I would like to thank both of you for all your green ideas. I’ve gone through my house and changed all the windows updated the installation in my renovation quest. I got my house several years ago in a quiet and closer inner-city neighborhood which is only 5 min. from work so my commute is short and I don’t have to deal with all those heavy traffic woes. You also gain a lot of time back into your life by spending more time at your home rather than on the road.

  40. August 15, 2012

    It’s actually a cool and helpful piece of info. I’m happy that you shared this useful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  41. jason permalink
    September 24, 2012

    I am very thankful too you for this sharing..It is very useful for my writing project I get enough information for my writing..!!!

  42. Lou permalink
    October 17, 2012

    I am searching to find out some home decorating ebook and tips in that search i reach to your post its also really interesting.

  43. Lou permalink
    October 24, 2012

    I am checking many blogs from since morning in search of unique information i have got some of my related info on your blog its really good.

  44. Bedroom Furniture  permalink
    January 30, 2013

    On a recent trip to Savannah, Georgia, I discovered that this fascinating city of Southern charm and diverse architecture lives up to its great reputation. With its historic district paired with fabulous, over-the-top Southern cooking, elegant 18th and 19th century homes, plus a bounty of antique shops, lovely hotels, B & B’s and diversified art, Savannah more than met my expectations.

  45. crossventconcepts permalink
    March 5, 2013

    Your blog are impressive to each other.I read your blog its very good and friendly, Help ful for all.

  46. TonyHall permalink
    April 14, 2013

    Well install vinyl greenhouse windows Toronto might also prove to be a better idea for a greener environmental alling environment friendly windows like nt.

  47. logo design permalink
    April 23, 2013

    Always so interesting to visit your site.What a great info, thank you for sharing. this will help me so much in my learning.

  48. Jeff permalink
    May 8, 2013

    I work for an outdoor furniture store and the post above is amazing. I agree that recycling old cabinets and furniture is a great way to lower home costs and to keep the environment clean. I love what was said on how picking where you live can greatly increase the value of your life.

  49. Amanda Stefan permalink
    June 9, 2013

    I believe to get the maximum from Attic fan is considering the area where the hot air has to pull out. carefully calculated and then installing the proper size of attic fan enhance the air cooling reduce the heat inside the home

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