So you’ve decided to renovate your home to improve your lifestyle and make your living environment more eco-friendly. But where do you start?
Of course, this is a million-dollar question and the answer relates directly to your budget and your personal needs.
While we are striving globally to use net-zero energy, it’s going to take a lot for people worldwide to stop using harmful fossil fuels. But it is possible for us to use sustainable building methods and materials and to address at least some of the issues in our own homes.
Unless you are building a new home, it’s unlikely you will have the funds or capacity to embrace all the issues relating to a correctly sealed “building envelope”, energy-efficient heating, cooling, and lighting, and insulation that really does work. But you can address some of them, and you can also switch to energy-efficient appliances and systems when you need to replace or upgrade these.
The truth is that it’s a lot easier to build a net-zero energy building than it is to retrofit an older one. Of course, a new build is costly, but relatively speaking, a retrofit can be even more expensive. Nevertheless, home renovations offer a viable opportunity to add eco-friendly features.
With this in mind, here are some tips to help you with eco-friendly home renovations.
Recycle and Consider Recycled Materials
If you’re ripping things out or building on, recycle what you can and use recycled or sustainable materials for building. If you need new wood, look for timber that has been certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) or the less rigorous Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) to be sure that it comes from a responsibly managed forest environment.
Use Eco-Friendly Lighting
Even if you aren’t able to do structural changes that reposition windows or add skylights, it isn’t difficult to maximize the use of natural light. Open the curtains or blinds and let the light shine in.
When you need artificial lighting, make sure it’s energy-efficient. Incandescent light bulbs are out globally and light-emitting diode (LED) and compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) light bulbs are in. You can also install occupancy sensors on lights to ensure they don’t stay on when not required.
Switch to Eco-Friendly Heating and Cooling Methods
Energy efficiency is often just thought of in terms of power. But it is also part and parcel of other closely related elements including renewable heating and renewable cooling sources, both of which should ideally negate the need for fossil fuels, including natural gas.
Instead of relying on fossil fuels for space and water heating, consider one of the renewable options, all of which can be part of a renovation project:
- Solar power in the form of panels or solar water heaters
- Geothermal, which utilizes ground-source heat pumps
- Biomass, which relies on organic matter
Harvest Rainwater and Reuse Waste Water
Saving water is as important as saving energy. Even if you do it on a small scale, fit a rain tank to your gutters and downpipes to harvest rainwater and channel non-potable wastewater from washing machines and dishwashers into a tank that can be used for flushing toilets and irrigation.
Avoid Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)
Stripping old surfaces, repainting, and staining or sealing wood are common activities undertaken during home renovations. The problem is that many products including paint strippers, paints, lacquers, and many building materials contain toxic VOCs that are released in gas form when these products are used. Some carpeting products also contain VOCs.
Improve the Thermal Envelope of Your Home
The thermal envelope is a key element of low energy or passive solar houses. In essence, the shell of the house provides a barrier between the inside and outside environments. Properly designed, it will keep those living in the house cool in summer and warm in winter.
Insulation is key to an airtight thermal envelope. It needs to include every part of building structure including walls, roofs, and foundation walls and slabs, and be installed so that there are no gaps. But adding insulation to an existing home can be a challenge, so we will discuss this in more detail later on.
It is also important that there is adequate ventilation because moisture can get trapped inside a building that is too tightly sealed which can result in lower air quality inside as well as mold problems. Controlled ventilation is the solution.
Another important element is the windows in a home. While high-performance windows save energy, it is a known fact that typical homes can lose more than 25% of their heat through windows. In new houses, this is overcome with the positioning of windows (more on the south wall in the northern hemisphere) as well as their size and total area in relation to the floor area of each room (not more than 9%).
Designing a house with a well-designed roof overhang will also help keep it cool in summer and warm in winter.
You may not have the budget to make major changes, but there certainly are things you can do to make improvements.
Improving the Insulation of an Existing Home
If you’re undertaking renovations and your house is not properly insulated, it makes perfect sense to upgrade the insulation now. If you’re not sure how effective the existing insulation is, have an energy assessment audit undertaken. A professional will establish the R-values in your home, which is the ability of materials to resist heat transfer and heat loss and advise on the type of insulation required in areas where it is lacking.
Areas that often need upgrading include attics and floors and walls next to unheated spaces like basements or parking garages.
Insulation types that are suitable for renovations include:
- Blown-in and loose-fill cellulose, fiberglass, or mineral wool made from rock or slag. It can be used to insulate existing walls, unfinished attic floors, and other areas that are difficult to reach.
- Sprayed foam, which may also be foamed-in-place, which is manufactured from various materials – cementitious, phenolic, polyisocyanurate, and polyurethane.
Other types like blankets in batt and roll form, concrete block insulation, foam board, insulating concrete forms (ICFs), various reflective systems, rigid fibrous or fiber insulation for ducts, and structural insulated panels (SIPs) need to be used before walls, ceilings, floors, walls, and roofs are complete, depending on the product and its approved use.
For a home to be energy efficient and therefore eco-friendly, mechanical ventilation is required to maintain indoor air quality. There are four basic systems:
- Exhaust, which is relatively simple and inexpensive to install but can increase heating and cooling costs. It is also really only suitable in cold-climate areas.
- Supply, which is also quite simple and inexpensive to install and which provides better control than exhaust systems. It is suitable for all climates.
- Balanced, which is a bit more costly to install and run, but is effective and suitable for all climates.
- Energy recovery and heat recovery ventilators can be cost-effective in areas that experience very hot summers and extreme winters that result in high fuel costs. They are though costly and require experienced contractors to do the installations. They also need more maintenance than other types of ventilation systems.
There are many other technical elements to be considered, so it is best to consult a professional before making decisions on the route to go. A company offering (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) HVAC engineering services in Chicago, New York, Washington, Atlanta, or whichever city you are closest to will be able to advise the best solution based on your house, budget, and needs.
Of course, controlled ventilation also plays a major role in terms of the health and comfort requirements of those living in the house.
At the end of the day, eco-friendly home renovations won’t just benefit the environment, they will benefit you and your family too!