Be smart about green shift in your home

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - MIKE HOLMES

I’M of­ten asked how to green an older home — how to im­prove its ef­fi­ciency and make it more sus­tain­able. If you are build­ing a new home and build­ing from the ground up, you can pretty much do what­ever you want within your bud­get. But restor­ing an old home to high ef­fi­ciency is more of a chal­lenge.

Not ev­ery­one can or wants to tear down an old home and re­build to new net-zero stan­dards. There’s beauty and her­itage in an old home — and they don’t build them like they used to.

But old build­ings lag be­hind to­day’s per­for­mance stan­dards.

They were built years ago, be­fore the prod­ucts, ma­te­ri­als, technology and meth­ods we use to­day were in­vented. They have aged — they have cracks in walls, loose win­dows and doors — and very likely have lit­tle in- su­la­tion. All of that con­trib­utes to lost en­ergy and air leak­age.

Tear­ing down an ex­ist­ing old home and build­ing new has the ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage of let­ting you cre­ate a high­per­for­mance home, which is greener than what was there.

But we also have to fac­tor in the waste cre­ated when we de­mol­ish homes. There is a lot of em­bod­ied en­ergy in the house that ex­ists and we should fac­tor that in be­fore we make a de­ci­sion to tear a house down and start over. It would take decades to make up for the lost re­sources and em­bod­ied en­ergy in a home that is de­mol­ished to make room for a new home.

I’m not sure if the re­duced en­ergy sav­ings in the new home makes up for all that lost em­bod­ied en­ergy. It might just be more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly to work with the ma­te­ri­als that al­ready ex­ist in the house, and im­prove its en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. It’s cer­tainly less waste­ful to im­prove than to de­mol­ish and re­build.

Sus­tain­able build­ing is durable — it lasts a long time. Old houses are do­ing that be­cause they’ve al­ready lasted a long time. Let’s take build­ings that do ex­ist, and green them up. Any­thing we are able to re­use is some­thing we don’t have to re­place.

An­other facet of sus­tain­able build­ing is high per­for­mance and en­ergy ef­fi­ciency.

Houses weren’t built in the past with the en­vi­ron­ment in mind.

But how green can you go with an old home? How much can you re­duce its en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact? The an­swer: a lot.

The first thing to do is to take care of the base­ment and the at­tic. They’ll give you the most pos­i­tive re­sult, and are the eas­i­est to ac­cess, as­sum­ing your base­ment isn’t fin­ished.

Cold air pushes warm air and it will come in at the low­est part of your house and push the hot air out through the roof. So you should fin­ish your base­ment prop­erly and cre­ate a ther­mal break to pre­vent cold air from get­ting in. It will also keep warm air from meet­ing cold, which leads to con­den­sa­tion.

You also should in­su­late your at­tic space above code and make sure there is good vent­ing. You have to en­sure the at­tic stays cold in the win­ter, and gets hot in the sum­mer. It is not meant to be a con­di­tioned zone.

I don’t like re­cessed lights in an at­tic space as they give off too much heat and will warm your at­tic space in the win­ter. But, if you must have them, make sure you are us­ing the right ones. They need to be in in­su­lated boxes if they are in con­tact with in­su­la­tion, with seals around them to pre­vent hot air from es­cap­ing into at­tic.

It’s im­por­tant that you stop air leak­age around win­dows and doors and air move­ment be­tween the con­di­tioned and un­con­di­tioned spa­ces in your house. If you are tear­ing right back to studs, use closed cell spray foam and make sure there’s a per­fect seal on walls and be­tween the liv­ing space and at­tic. There are other things you can do:

Re­place old win­dows with dou­ble glazed, low-e glass — es­pe­cially on the north and west sides of your home.

Add sky­lights to in­crease nat­u­ral day­light and re­duce need for ar­ti­fi­cial light.

In­stall low-flow fix­tures and re­duce your wa­ter use, re­duce air con­di­tioner use by us­ing ex­te­rior awn­ings or strate­gic plant­ing to shade your home. Al­ways use low-VOC prod­ucts. Use ma­te­ri­als with re­cy­cled con­tent or from rapidly re­new­able sources.

Most im­por­tant, choose ma­te­ri­als with long life spans, such as a metal roof over as­phalt shin­gles or BluWood over reg­u­lar tim­ber.

If you’ve got a big­ger bud­get, add geo­ther­mal so­lar pan­els and grey wa­ter recla­ma­tion sys­tems. Any of those will pay you back over time.

What’s re­ally im­por­tant is that we learn that build­ings are not dis­pos­able. We need to start build­ing with the fu­ture in mind. I want my house to out­last me. I want my sus­tain­able house to leave a last­ing im­pact, but not a big en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print.

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