Small Home Gazette, Fall 2009
Greening Your Bungalow
The Bungalow Club’s 2009 spring presentation—“How Green Is My Bungalow?”—may have motivated you to (or frightened you into) seeking ways to lessen your home’s impact on the environment. Global warming is a big problem, but there are many small things you can do to reduce the carbon footprint of your house, whether it’s a venerable bungalow, an older house in a more recent style, or a brand new one. If you want to undertake a remodel, there’s available advice on finding a green remodeler, as well as some disappointing news on getting the government to pay for the whole thing.
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which has developed the standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), has a number of tips that can apply to any house, no matter when it was built. They focus on reducing the environmental impact of living in your house. The council suggests the following (the complete list is online at www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=2121):
- Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs.
- Program your thermostat to reduce the need for heating or cooling when you’re not home or asleep. (Install a programmable thermostat if you don’t have one.)
- Tune up your heating and cooling system. Schedule a checkup every two years to make sure it’s running efficiently. Be sure to clean the filter monthly during peak use.
- Choose ENERGY STAR® appliances when you replace your appliances.
- Reduce water use. Indoors, add aerators to sink faucets and install low-flow showerheads. Outdoors, reduce the turf grass in your yard and add native plants to your landscaping.
- Use products that don’t give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially if you are planning to paint.
- Choose wood products from sustainably managed forests, like those certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Use renewable flooring materials from fast-growing grasses and trees—bamboo, cork, or eucalyptus—instead of traditional hardwoods.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation recommends some additional steps to become more energy efficient while preserving your house’s original character. Their tips, housed in an attractive interactive graphic, are online at www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2008/january-february/green-home-tips.html. Here’s a sampling:
- Keep the original windows intact—weatherstrip them to seal.
- Reuse old materials when you’re making home improvements.
- Plant trees—on the northern exposure to block winter winds and on the southern side for shade.
- Ask your local utility about an energy audit.
- In the summer, open the windows and use fans and dehumidifiers—take advantage of your house’s design for cross-ventilation.
- Restore porches and awnings, which provide shade in summer and insulation in winter.
If you’re ready to tackle specific projects, Home and Garden Television (HGTV) also has some excellent suggestions, which they divide into do-it-yourself (DIY) projects and contracted projects. On the DIY list, they offer tips on caulking; adding insulation; finding efficient lighting; and installing storm doors, programmable thermostats and ceiling fans.
More complex projects—ones you’d probably call a contractor for—include things like installing green flooring or eco-friendly carpets, retrofitting radiant heat, or adding an energy recovery ventilator. HGTV’s suggestions for green remodeling are online at http://tinyurl.com/ybwrfvf.
Planning a Green Remodel
If you’re thinking about doing a green remodel, you’ll need to do some planning and research well before you find a sympathetic contractor. Public television’s “This Old House” show, which documented the green remodel of a 1920s bungalow in Austin, Texas, has a few useful steps to take as you get ready. Their project is nicely documented at www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,1589664,00.html, and includes the specifics—many of which any bungalow owner can replicate—as well as before-and-after photos.
First, think realistically about square footage. Consider what you really need, and also keep in mind the original intention of the house. Preserving the house’s footprint and design are good goals for sustainability, and the less you alter, the fewer new materials you’ll need and the less waste you’ll create.
Second, do your homework on green technology and resources. The better informed you are on green materials, techniques and technologies, the easier it will be to talk to your builder. A good place to start is the USGBC’s Green Home Guide, online at www.greenhomeguide.com. It outlines the basics of green home building and includes a green remodeling guide. To get ideas about green home building, websites like Jetson Green (www.jetsongreen.com) allow you to dream. For a smaller, and more practical set of ideas, there’s a nice summary on the website of the City of Seattle, Wash., http://tinyurl.com/3b8jqo.
Third, find a green-minded builder. It’s getting easier, thanks to a local program called GreenStar in Minnesota, which certifies residential builders and remodelers according to green standards. MN GreenStar maintains a list of their certified builders and contractors at www.mngreenstar.org.
Another way to find a green builder, remodeler or contractor is through the annual Living Green Expo. You can check their list of recent exhibitors at www.livinggreenexpo.mn for ideas and contacts. As owners of older houses know, not all contractors and builders are equally sensitive to the particular quirks of older houses. Finding the right one—green and historic—will take some effort. You may want to talk to preservation-minded contractors to see how green-minded they are, and green remodelers to see how they’ve handled older homes.
Fourth, decide what really matters to you. Think about how green you want to be. Keith Pandolfi, writing about the Austin remodel in This Old House magazine, says, “If your goal is simply an energy-efficient house, you can focus on Energy Star appliances, on-demand water heaters, high-efficiency insulation and windows, and solar technology. If you want to take it a step further, you might consider sustainably harvested woods, reclaimed lumber, salvaged fixtures, and rainwater collection.” Keep in mind how much greening you can afford. Pandolfi says, “Sometimes—no matter how good your intentions—your sense of responsibility to the environment has to play second fiddle to your budget.” But remember that the smaller things can sometimes have a big impact, and a lot of those smaller things cost less.
Funding for Green Improvements
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—popularly known as the “stimulus package”—includes upfront funding and a tax credit for green home improvements. Both have some significant constraints.
The Act includes $5 million for weatherizing homes, including older ones, but the bill limits funds to low income families who make no more than $32,000 for a family of four. “Weatherization” includes an energy audit and money to install more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, improved windows, and better insulation.
The Act also provides for a tax credit for up to $1,500 that covers 30 percent of the purchase price of new energy efficient windows, air conditioners, water heaters and insulation. The products must be 15 to 20 percent more efficient than standard models.
Unless you meet the income guidelines, the weatherization assistance is unlikely to help you, and unless you’re considering new windows or a heating and cooling system, the tax credit is unlikely to cover your green improvements.
A better bet, especially for energy efficient improvements, may be utility company rebates and credits. Xcel Energy details theirs at www.xcelenergy.com.
If you can’t do a lot, or do it all at once, don’t despair. Sustainability in building isn’t about whizbang technology or glitzy design. It’s about the small things that any homeowner or home dweller can do. Those small changes can have a big result. If all of us use less electricity, run less water, and put less waste into landfills—the kind of thing that involves small decisions and small changes every day—it translates into a big impact on sustainability.