I live in a neighborhood that is moving into its second stanza. It sits on a peninsula, and the lake access and lake lifestyle make it an attractive place to live. So attractive, in fact, that it’s essentially built out. At the same time, many of the first-generation homes are beginning to show their age. The net result is that I see a lot of major renovations, some driven by families willing to settle for a less-than-ideal home in exchange for a great location, others by people who see the need to update as an opportunity to upgrade their homes. I’ve witnessed some amazing transformations, but I’ve also seen a lot of wasted opportunities as a “bigger is better” mentality often guides these projects. Even those that nod to the environment–using FSC-certified lumber, “green” drywall, recycled materials and so on–often miss the point. Going green isn’t about consuming the right products, it’s about consuming–and wasting–less.
It’s hard to avoid sounding preachy when you’re seemingly telling other people what to do, but I’m trying to stay off the soap box. My point is less about what any of my neighbors should have done to their homes than about the subtlety of truly going green. In a recent post, Steve mentioned that virtually all of the wood he uses in his own home projects is scrap or salvaged lumber. This kind of mindset–actively looking for ways to to avoid waste– is what I’d like to see applied when people are doing major renovations. (As an aside, reusing lumber from demolition makes particularly good sense in older homes, because lumber back then was generally harvested from much older trees than are currently used in the timber industry, meaning denser and stronger wood.)
The waste I see isn’t the result of disregard for efficiency or the environment, but rather a failure to ask the right question at the right time. Do you really need more square footage, for example, or can you achieve what you want by changing your existing floor plan to take advantage of wasted space, like a rarely-used formal dining room or second guest bedroom? Do you need a bigger kitchen, or a better-designed kitchen? If you’re really gutting a house, take advantage of the exposed ductwork to test your home’s HVAC system (leaking or compressed air ducts can severely compromise efficiency, but such problems are difficult to locate and prohibitively expensive to repair because the ducts are–usually–hidden behind walls). It’s also an obvious time to evaluate and possibly upgrade your home’s insulation.
One consistent advantage I’ve noticed is that virtually all of the renovations I’ve seen result in more open floor plans, which require less energy to heat and cool. But I think there are a lot of other potential improvements in efficiency that could result from major renovations–if only someone thought to ask.