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The greenest house is the one already built

Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling. Because many older homes are built with solid materials like brick, plaster and old-growth timber, restoration can save the ‘embodied energy’ of these materials. Embodied energy is the total expenditure of energy involved in the creation of a building (materials, construction, maintenance).

The labor-intensive process of rehabilitating older buildings also creates jobs, and this labor can’t be shipped overseas.

Here are some of the major areas of focus and local resources for home restoration projects:

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What to consider

If you're planning on boasting to your friends that your renovation is truly green, find a contractor who is up to date on the principles of sustainable building and whole-house performance. The work you pay for will give you not only a beautiful new space, but one that is healthier, cheaper to heat and cool, and a smarter investment. 

You can ask your contractor, What is your energy conservation strategy? If they don't have an answer, here are a few items to put on your checklist:

Make sure your plans include some serious air-sealing work. Beyond weather stripping the doors and windows, find a qualified person to seal up the rough openings around pipe and cable entrances, block the air that gets under the floor platform, seal off the air pathways that let that expensive warm air escape through interior walls into the attic. Read more.

Lighting. A renovation is a great opportunity to reduce electricity use. Make use of compact fluorescent lamps and emerging LED technology as much as possible (costs for both are rapidly declining). Avoid recessed ceiling lights (another air sealing problem), use lower wattages in areas with natural light, and paint in light colors to reduce the amount of daytime electrical light you need.

Windows. Virtually any older or historic house can become more energy-efficient without losing its character. A great example is older wooden windows. The replacement window industry has spent millions of dollars on a campaign to convince us that new windows are a priority. In reality, old wooden windows perform very well when properly weatherized — this includes caulking, insulation and weather stripping — and assisted by the addition of a good storm window. Weatherizing leaky windows in most cases is much cheaper than installing replacements.

There are caveats: Rates of return on investment for energy improvements are lower when starting with typical or tight windows with storms in place, but are significantly higher when renovating loose windows with no storm. Good data on replacement versus restoration can be hard to find.

The Cleveland Restoration Society has worked with the following independent contractors on restoring old wooden windows and building storm windows for older homes.

Window repair contractors:

  • Bill Hoose (216) 321-4734
  • Reid Carpentry (440) 286-4248
  • MJM Window Restoration (216) 321-7729

Interior storm windows: Allied Window Inc. 513-559-1212

Shop green. For appliances, like hot water heaters and furnaces, look for the familiar EnergyStar yellow label. For faucets and toilets, look to EPA's WaterSense list for the best available at local retailers like Home Depot and Lowe's.   

Good reasons to buy and renovate an existing home instead of building new

  • The vast majority of older homes are occupied by the working poor. Even before the foreclosure crisis, 6 million older homes were being torn down in America. That makes housing less affordable.
  • Repairing and rebuilding a home keeps dollars in the local economy by hiring local tradesmen, compared to new construction where many raw materials come from out of the country (of course, green building is all about local materials...)
  • Solid waste disposal in America equals 1 ton per person per year.
  • Embodied energy: The total expenditure of energy in building new is 15 times greater than the annual energy use of a renovated home.
  • Higher quality materials and craftsmanship—a house built to last
  • Make use of existing infrastructure: Whether you build new or rehab an old house, try to do it in a location that minimizes your driving.

Cons for existing housing

  • In a low-cost housing market like Northeast Ohio, it might not pay to invest substantial sums in a deteriorated house.
  • Some houses are too far gone—deconstruction is the best hope.

Forty-three percent of America's carbon emissions come from heating, cooling, lighting and operating our buildings. Older homes are particularly wasteful: Homes built in 1939 or before use around 50 percent more energy per square foot than those constructed in 2000. But with significant improvements and retrofits, these structures could perform on a par with newer homes.

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