by Kelly Hart

There are many reasons for remodeling. It could be the desire for greater comfort in your home from improved insulation or heating and cooling options. Or perhaps you want to create new space for activities or family members. Or maybe you hope to achieve increased efficiency and savings on utility bills. Sometimes toxic materials can be replaced with more benign, natural choices. Perhaps you want your house to be more attractive. All of these goals can be accomplished with a carefully planned green remodeling project.

Life is a fluid affair. Circumstances are always changing. Families enlarge and contract; employment and interests change. Making your house accommodate these changes as they occur will make your life flow much better.

To renovate a home is one of the ultimate ways of recycling, taking an existing structure and using it as a basis for creating just what you need. This is certainly a more sustainable choice than building an entirely new home that would likely entail the use of much more material with all of its embodied energy and negative ecological impact.

From a more basic perspective, we have biological needs that we expect our house to serve. We want to be comfortable, neither too hot nor too cold. We want to have hot and cold water available. We want the electricity we need to run appliances, lights, etc. We want clean air to breathe. And we want all of this be provided without harming us or the environment.

The first step in planning to remodel your house is a realistic needs assessment. What aspects of your life are not being served adequately by your current home? How could you change things to bring your house more into alignment with your needs?

One approach to evaluating your needs is to make a list of all the various activities that you can imagine doing regularly in your house. You might do this as a brainstorming session with your partner or children, without immediately judging the relevance of each idea. Then once you have your list you can go back and note how important each function is and to what extent your current situation satisfies it. This process should result in a list of activities that your house is not currently serving well and help you evaluate what sorts of remodeling options might contribute to greater well-being and satisfaction.

While you are evaluating your list, bear in mind that living modestly and compactly are virtues in terms of green living. This is true from several standpoints. Smaller spaces both require fewer materials to build and less energy to keep comfortable. This likely means less expense and less housework. And there is often the added convenience of having possessions near at hand.

As an example of this principle, several years ago my wife, Zana, and I bought a used manufactured home to use as a basis for developing a small ecological homestead. This house had a footprint of about 1100 square feet, with two bedrooms. We both work at home and we each really need our own office, so one of the bedrooms would become an office . . . but where would the second office be? We made a drawing of the existing floor plan and made little cutouts of our furniture. It took several days to settle on a plan that suited both of us, but we were determined to make it work without immediately enlarging the house.

When we bought the house there was a wood stove in the corner of the L-shaped living room, and a hall going back to the rest of the house on the right. We determined that the only practical candidate for carving out a second office was the area where the stove was located, so we moved it to a more central location between the living and dining areas. This left a hole in the ceiling where the stove pipe had been, which we converted to a light well. The hole in the wall where there had been an air inlet for the stove became a cat door to a cat enclosure just outside the wall.

We extended the hallway with two large bookcases at right angles to each other. There was a space between them for doorway access to the new office nook. At first we thought that this would be a temporary solution and that eventually we would enlarge the house to accommodate a separate office. Now we have become accustomed to this arrangement and prefer the convenience that it provides in its proximity to all of the other functions of the house. Obviously the living room is smaller, about half the size it used to be, but it is big enough to suit the way we use it.

The former owner had the foresight to orient the home with the long axis east-west, providing more opportunities for passive solar heat. In fact, she had already added on a passive solar greenhouse at one end of the south side. The home came with two rather large windows, side by side, on the south wall. Next to those two windows was enough space to put in another window to increase the solar heat gain, so that is what we did.

There was not much of an eave to shade those windows during the summer, however. When I put a new metal roof on the house, I extended the eave, but we still need to use our interior shades sometimes to avoid too much heat. At over 8,000 feet of elevation, the heating season is most of the year, so the extra heat in the spring and fall is generally welcome. I also added an extra window facing the east. Not only does this bring in more morning sun, but also gives a more extensive view of the magnificent mountain range in that direction.

Along with windows that bring in the sun, any good passive solar design needs to employ plenty of thermal mass within the house interior. Thermal mass materials are dense and heavy, like stone, brick or tile. In this case, I installed about a ton of tile with its cement backing board over most of the floors of the entire house. We chose a dark tile that is better at absorbing heat than a lighter tile would be.

Behind the wood stove, I added another substantial heat sink by mortaring some of our lovely local rocks into a decorative heap. This easily adds another ton of thermal mass to the house, and helps hold the heat generated by the wood stove. All of this mass helps maintain a more stable temperature in the house during the cold season and also in the warm season.

All of the windows in the house have thermal shades that can be lowered. These are accordion-pleated shades made with an air space between the two membranes. They do let in some light when drawn during the day. In other houses I have used solid panels that provide more insulation, but these have to be stored somewhere when not in use.

One way to improve the insulation of many houses is to loosely place radiant barrier under the rafters in the attic. It needs some air space on either side to be most effective. Also, the exterior of the house can be wrapped with a radiant barrier. I did this with the manufactured home. The original exterior siding was painted pressboard that was already beginning to show its age, so we decided to both insulate the house and resurface the exterior in one operation. I stapled the radiant foil over the old siding, and then tacked nailing strips over that to provide the air space between the foil and the rough-sawn siding.

When we moved into the home, we knew that we would install a PV system large enough to power the entire house. Before I could begin to install this system, I put a new metal roof on the house. I knew that once the panels were mounted up there I wouldn’t want to do roof maintenance, and metal roofs can last for decades.

We have added a large garage/barn with an attached underground pantry to the original structure. This is set up with a rainwater catchment system.

All of the remodeling mentioned in this article, and much more, is included in a book I just published, titled Remodel Green:  Make Your House Serve Your Life. This can be found at Crestone Mercantile or online at Amazon.com, either in the print edition or as a Kindle.