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An example of a sustainability study for a remodel.

Custom Residential, Going Green

Designing a Sustainable Remodel

Designing a high-performance new home is straight-forward and time-tested. Designing a high-performance remodel can be a bit more complex and nuanced. Here are areas in which to focus your efforts so you can maximize the sustainable impact of your project, remodeling your space into a beautiful and high-performing home.

August 15, 2019

The difference between sustainble new homes and sustainable remodels.

Designing and building a high-performing and sustainable new house is fairly easy. The science is understood, and there are a lot of great principles and details we can use. However, when it comes to how to approach a remodel of a single-family home in a sustainable way, the path can be far more confusing.

We work on a lot of residential remodels, and finding paths to take an older home to a higher level of performance in sustainability is one of our team’s passions. When I became a Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC), I was incredibly excited to take the knowledge I gained and apply it to remodels. It isn’t always straight-forward, and like most things in life, it seems I like a challenge. Besides, saving an older home and embracing the embodied energy that already went into creating it is inherently sustainable, and so approaching a home to remodel it rather than tearing it down is a fantastic foundation on which to build a higher-performing home.

Before I get too far, you may have noticed that I’m referring to homes as “higher-performing” rather than “green”. You’ll also notice that I’ve written out the word “sustainable” a few times, and that’s mainly so search engines know what to do with this blog post. But “higher-performing” is really what the issue is, and hopefully, we can all shift how we talk about it.

Think of your home like a machine. We want to look at all the elements of it, and make sure they’re performing at the highest level that makes sense for your situation. This lowers your costs to run your home, helps you breathe better, and ensures that you’re comfortable on a daily basis. When you're remodeling, spend the time to ensure that, when you move into your beautiful new home (and it should be beautiful, by the way), that you’re comfortable.

Here’s what to consider for a high-performance home remodel.

We’ve written about how many of these ideas can create great cost-saving opportunities — and that post is a fantastic start. This post, though, is about taking your remodel to the maximum.

If you’re thinking beyond cost savings (which, again, are probably inherent in many of the ideas below), what are some of the remodeling tools you should consider to turn your remodeled home into a high-performance machine?

Mechanical Systems

A high-performance system can deliver amazing amounts of conditioned air with little noise, all while using far less energy than older systems.

One of our favorite approaches is to ensure that all of your air entering your home is already conditioned. A good HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator) is going to ensure that the fresh air you’re breathing has already been brought up to the temperature of your space.

Air Tightness

The absolute best approach for most homes is to install a new layer of exterior insulation. With a properly-detailed air and vapor barrier, you can create a fully air-tight home as high-performing as a brand new passive house. In combination with new windows and new siding, you can create a home that looks and performs like a new home.

Energy Consumption

The goal of any high-performance machine is to perform at the highest level while using as little energy as possible. If you’ve seen the fanaticism of Tesla owners, you know that there’s something exciting about a machine like that. If you’re judicious with tightening up your home, you’ll need very little energy to heat or cool it. If you’re extra careful about your lighting systems (LEDs all the way), put your outlets on switches, and select appliances with low energy requirements, you can run your home for a tiny amount of energy.

If you couple this with an efficient solar panel system and a home battery so you’re not pulling from the electrical grid during peak loads, you’ll have an amazing home running off almost no energy. If you push it, we can even get you to the point where you’re producing energy and giving it back to the grid.

Quality of Materials

In a truly high-performing home, you want everything to last as long as possible. High-quality materials sourced locally and tested are going to be the best answer to this problem. We live in a wonderful region of the world and have lots of building materials available close to us. Considering the carbon footprint of not only the actual material but also the impact of the shipping/travel ensures that your home is truly high-performing.

Other Aspects to Consider

Consider the siting of any addition.

With a new house, we’ll carefully consider sun angles and the placement on the site to maximize views, solar exposure, and to coordinate with any passive cooling approach. With a remodel, your house already is where it is and likely isn’t going to move (although that isn’t impossible, it rarely makes sense). You should certainly consider where your new windows go, but the only real consideration here is where any new addition goes. Often, this is more of an interior consideration than a holistic one considering the whole site, but it certainly can be a factor and should be considered.

Factor in the value of embodied energy.

Sometimes, building something new because it is 10% more efficient doesn’t make much sense when what you have already exists and the energy used to create it was already spent. A lot of your home is going to have plenty of elements that might be perfectly fine to keep. Carefully consider the value of those elements and whether or not it is really worth replacing them. Often, highlighting salvaged items can help highlight the journey the home has taken.

Find the balance of your goals for performance and budget.

In the end, a remodeled home can be a comfortable and beautiful space to live. With most remodels, we work with you to carefully balance sustainable goals with your budget to find an approach that suits your project. But it is also true that we can sometimes push things to the limit to satisfy your urge to experiment. Just like many Tesla owners would be perfectly suited in a Chevrolet Volt, there’s something enticing about pushing the boundaries of what can be done. Find your sweet spot and enjoy the ride.

Would you like to read more from the team?

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