All Systems Green: Building Conservation Into Remodeling

By Sandra Fleishman
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 27, 2007

Going green isn't just for those building new homes. Homeowners can also remodel in ways that conserve energy and natural resources.

To help them, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing released a list earlier this month of the top 10 remodeling projects to improve energy and efficiency. The effort is a voluntary partnership involving leaders in the home-building, product manufacturing, insurance and financial industries, and representatives of federal agencies.

These recommendations are "definitively proven," said PATH representative Dana Bres, though he notes that the equipment and materials have to be installed, used and maintained properly to produce the desired results.

Some of the suggested products come with a higher upfront cost, as well. Energy Star windows, for example, can cost 10 to 15 percent more than conventional ones.

Many of the projects provide their biggest payoff when installed in concert with others. Improving the house's air seal, for example, often allows homeowners to downsize their heating and cooling system, which can save even more money.

But not all of the recommendations are possible for all houses. For example, using spray-foam insulation is recommended, but Bres acknowledged that it isn't practical for many older homes unless drywall and plaster are being removed anyway, because there isn't much space in the wall to insulate, and replacing walls is costly. "It might be better to spend those dollars on something that has a higher payback," he said.

Case Design/Remodeling in Bethesda is trying to incorporate energy-saving techniques into its designs and its own operations, said George Weissgerber, senior vice president of research and development.

Surveys show that homeowners like the idea of using less energy and resources, but they often balk at the upfront cost, Weissgerber said. "The first thing they say in focus groups we've done is, 'This is expensive.'

"Not everything makes sense financially at this point to all people," he said. "It's not going to make a lot of sense to rip out the drywall or the plastic to spray in foam insulation" unless the walls are already coming down. But, he said, saving energy will be on everyone's minds as electricity and natural gas grow more expensive.

Case does routinely recommend putting in low-flow shower heads, high-efficiency, low-flow toilets, wireless controls for lighting and thermostats, house "wraps" and efficient roof paper. Installing a new heating and cooling system "is probably the best thing to do," Weissgerber said.

Tim Burch, president of Burch Builders Group in Warrenton and president-elect of the Washington area chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, said he expects "green" technologies to become commonplace and prices to fall as a result. "There are certain areas in the U.S. where the codes are already all green, like in Boulder, [Colo.], and I think you'll eventually see that sweep across the nation."

Burch said many of the PATH projects have become routine for his company, such as using spray-foam insulation in cathedral ceilings and garages. "We've found that a lot of times people will tell us, 'Our master bedroom is above the [uninsulated] garage, and it's freezing in there.' So they're really turning up the thermostat to be comfortable."

To conserve natural resources, Burch is getting recycled hardwood flooring from an old tobacco barn in Southern Virginia.

As PATH officials said in announcing the top 10, "There's something to improve almost every area of the home: the building envelope, lighting, HVAC, plumbing, controls and floors."

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