Can a Home Renovation Ever Truly Be Green?

updated Apr 30, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock Design: Apartment Therapy

With home design trends constantly changing, the temptation to take a sledgehammer to your current space in favor of something new can sometimes feel overwhelming. But if your home is technically fine — functioning cabinets, working fixtures — you might feel pretty guilty about remodeling, especially if you allow yourself to think about the ecological impact of the project. You know, like those granite counters mined from deep underground, the floors and windows made from petroleum, or the massive fixtures and appliances shipped from another continent, for instance.

It can often feel like the only truly green home renovation is no home renovation at all. (Not the news you want to hear if your laminate countertops are chipping away, or if your growing family is tripping over each other at home.) But done right, some renovations really can be green — or even, potentially, have a net positive impact on the planet over the long run. 

In fact, renovating to extend the useful life of an existing space is almost always a better environmental choice than building from scratch, so if you’re modifying what you have, you’re already on the right track. “Whenever you can, reusing existing buildings is inherently a more sustainable choice,” says Rachel White, chief executive of Byggmeister, a design-build firm in Newton, Massachusetts. 

There are a lot of reasons for that, including the obvious: New construction typically demands new land to build on, which could involve clearing a forested lot or paving through a meadow. But improving existing housing also keeps people in already-developed communities, where they may not have to drive as often or as far to get around. 

And no matter where it’s situated, remodeling an existing structure reduces the need for new materials, including a foundation made of concrete — which has perhaps the highest carbon footprint of any building material. So, beginning at the bottom, here are some things to think about if you want to keep your next renovation as green as possible.

Credit: Perry Mastrovito | Getty Images

Use the foundation you already have.

Concrete is responsible for an estimated 8 to 10 percent of carbon emissions worldwide, largely due to the intense, 2,640º Fahrenheit heat required to produce the key binding material in cement. “If you build something using concrete, even if it’s net-zero, it’s going to take 30 years before you pay back your carbon debt,” says Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network

While some lower-impact concrete mixes are emerging, the greenest remodel will generally be one that doesn’t involve a new foundation. “Look for the smallest intervention that you can make to achieve your functional goals and your needs for your space,” White recommends. “We look to solve people’s problems within the existing footprint of their homes, rather than adding on. That may seem like a small thing, but starting with that mindset makes a really big difference.” 

The disposal of spent building materials is another heavy environmental cost of remodeling. Residential renovations are the second-largest source of construction waste, according to the EPA, and 90 percent of that debris comes from demolition. White suggests extending a “doing less” mindset to what you tear down and throw out as well: “Do I really need to take down all those walls?” she asks. You might, but give it some careful thought first — after all, open floor plans may be trendy, but they’re not necessarily timeless (or functional).

Credit: Diana Liang

Restore, reuse, and repurpose whatever you can.

In older homes, take a preservationist approach to oak floors, wood trim, and even old windows, many of which were made with old-growth wood — ancient, dense timber that grew slowly over centuries, unlike modern, fast-growing trees — and can be restored to last another 100 years. And solid hardwood floors of any era can be refinished several times before they’re too thin to sand down anymore. At the very least, make an effort to salvage and upcycle materials that can be reused.

You can also think about giving items a new life in other parts of your home. “There are plenty of times where we’ve taken out cabinets and repurposed them in a garage storage area, or in a basement storage area or shed,” White says. Ask your contractor about their waste protocol, and ensure as much material as possible gets recycled.  

Even if you no longer want your working fixtures, someone else might. Building reuse centers and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore outlets will generally accept donations of used cabinets, sinks, and other home fixtures if they’re still in good condition. You might also find takers in a local buy-nothing group, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or architectural salvage shop.  

Credit: ungvar/Shutterstock

Prioritize energy efficiency.

A remodeling project is a great opportunity to make a space (or your entire home) more energy-efficient and less dependent on fossil fuels, which will yield long-term environmental benefits. You can even aim to make your home net-zero or net-positive, meaning it produces as much or more energy as it uses.  

To accomplish that, the first order of business is to reduce the load on your HVAC system, says Jeff Sweenor, a Rhode Island home builder who helped transform a 1920s bungalow into a net-zero home on season 40 of This Old House. “We try to increase the efficiency in the house to decrease the energy demand, and typically you do that two ways: one is air sealing, and the second is insulation,” Sweenor says. “The tighter the house, the more easily that volume of air can be conditioned.”  

The easiest win in home insulation generally comes from your attic. Heat rises, so a thick layer of insulation on the attic floor can keep a lot more heat inside your living space. (Your optimal R-value — that is, the thermal heat resistance of the insulation you use, with a higher R-value offering greater heat conservation — will depend on where you live.) Heat also escapes out of windows and walls, so older homes can benefit from getting insulation blown into wall cavities or adding weatherstripping and storm windows to drafty single-pane windows. 

Credit: Jason Finn/Shutterstock

Go electric (and add solar panels, if you can).

The other key to achieving net-zero emissions at home is switching to all electric systems, including heat — but not the expensive baseboards that gave electric heat a bad name in the 1970s, Sweenor says. Modern heat pumps use compressed refrigerant to extract any available heat from the outside air and bring it indoors (or the opposite in summer); they’re ultra efficient at both heating and cooling, even in cold northern winters and hot summers. 

Pair that conversion with a rooftop solar array that produces as much energy as you use, and your home could make more energy than it takes. “By changing your equipment to make sure you’re using electricity to heat and cool your house, and adding R-value to increase efficiency so you don’t need as much heat to begin with, and then producing electricity via solar, now you have the chance of essentially getting off the grid,” Sweenor says.  

But even if you can’t install solar panels on your roof, White says, community solar is becoming more available, and the electric grid is getting greener as more renewable power sources come online, with many utilities offering customers the ability to enroll in 100 percent renewable electricity. (While solar panels aren’t environmentally perfect, they do more good than harm, especially if spent panels are responsibly recycled after their 20- to 30-year lifespan.) “Anytime you can switch from fossil fuel, gas, and oil, to an electric heat pump, that’s taking a giant step forward,” White says. 

The same goes for other home systems, including your cooktop. “Up until the last few years, there was this thinking that gas was the pinnacle of what all serious cooks want, and induction cooktops are really proving that wrong,” White says. Some customers still go into a renovation thinking they want a gas range. “But when you introduce them to induction, and the level of control you get and how quickly they heat up, we’ve rarely had anyone unhappy with an induction cooktop,” White says. Plus, it’s an improvement over the harmful air quality above a gas stove.  

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Consider options for water conservation.

Your home can be net-positive in other ways, too, says Shawn Hesse, director of business development at the International Living Future Institute. Buildings that meet the standards of ILFI’s Living Buildings Challenge are regenerative — meaning they produce as much or more energy and water than they use.  

Even if you’re not ready to install a greywater recycling system — where sink or shower runoff can be saved to flush the toilet, for example — a simple starting point for water conservation, Hesse says, is to stop irrigating your yard or washing your car with painstakingly treated drinking water. 

“In many places we treat all water to a level that you could drink it, and then we use it for functions that do not require that level of cleanliness, like flushing toilets or watering plants,” Hesse says. If you live in a temperate climate, something as simple as a rain barrel can provide much of your nonpotable water. But even in dryer areas, he says, it’s possible to capture and condense fog into usable water. And, of course, swapping a thirsty lawn for a landscape of native plants that have adapted to local conditions can cut out the need for irrigation altogether.

Credit: Lula Poggi

Think about the carbon footprint of your materials.

As our homes get more efficient in terms of energy use, a bigger portion of their carbon footprint comes from the materials used within them. That’s why organizations like Dovetail Partners, an environmental think tank in Minneapolis, conduct life cycle assessments of building materials that take into account everything from raw material extraction and transportation to processing, installation, maintenance, and end-of-life disposal. “Everything is part of a system, and when you change one part there’s almost always a reaction that must be taken into consideration,” says Dovetail’s Jim Bowyer, a professor emeritus at University of Minnesota. 

When it comes to the embodied carbon in flooring materials, for example, “wood products and anything plant-based comes out on top,” Bowyer says. “Solid wood, laminated wood, cork plank, linoleum, which is totally plant-based — those come out with very low global warming potential.” 

Meanwhile, in terms of global warming impact, “wool carpeting is the single worst product you can put on your floor, and it isn’t even close between other kinds of materials,” Bowyer says. Why? Sheep farts (yes, really). “The big problem with wool carpeting is the sheep both burp and fart methane, which in the short term has about 80 times the warming capacity of CO2,” he says.  

Sustainably harvested wood is, in most cases, the best building product you can use from an environmental standpoint — in everything from flooring to siding to cabinetry. There was a buzz about bamboo flooring for a while, but Bowyer cautions that it’s not as green as it seems. “Bamboo has a lot of good qualities — it’s renewable and grows fast and all that,” he says. “However, a good deal of bamboo is coming from lands that have been recently cleared of forests and is raised in a monoculture of stands, and with a lot of pesticides and herbicides.” 

When it comes to responsibly sourced lumber, look for wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). “The FSC certification is by far better than any other certification,” Walsh says. “FSC may cost more, but that’s by far the better environmental choice.” 

It’s getting harder to find tropical varieties of FSC-certified wood, White says, such as ipe and mahogany, but it’s worth trying. Meanwhile, it’s possible to use reclaimed wood for floors, walls, and other finishes. “For my bedroom, we used a company that resells salvaged hardwood taken out of barns and other buildings,” she says. “It takes more research and digging around for salvaged wood, but for the motivated client, that’s a good option.”

Credit: Studio Light and Shade/Getty Images

Pay attention to toxicity, too.

Emissions aren’t the only consideration. Some building materials and finishes are more toxic than others, and ILFI tracks the most hazardous offenders on its Red List. A truly green renovation probably shouldn’t introduce known carcinogens to your indoor environment — nor the lungs of contractors, factory workers, or people who live near production plants. 

“Even if a chemical doesn’t pose a risk to, say, a building occupant, once the material has been installed, if it is a hazard, it means that people all along that supply chain have been exposed to that hazard,” Hesse says. “So the people who are manufacturing the product, they’re going to be exposed to it, the people that live next to the place where it is manufactured — we call these fenceline communities — those are typically exposed to much higher levels of toxins and carcinogens, and they have a higher rate of cancer and other diseases related to exposures.” 

Those “fenceline” communities are disproportionately comprised of people of color, Hesse says, so choosing non-toxic products isn’t just a healthy decision for you as a homeowner, it’s a social and racial justice issue. 

Hesse recommends buying products that willingly disclose their ingredients. The ILFI maintains a searchable database called Declare (which it calls “a nutrition label for products”) that serves as a transparency platform for building materials. “Anything that’s in that platform, we know is disclosing all of its ingredients,” Hesse says. “And chemicals that are either carcinogens or endocrine disruptors or persistent biotoxins are flagged on those labels… You don’t have to be a toxicologist to see the health impacts of the products.”

Low- or zero-VOC paints, stains, and sealants are good, easy-to-find options. But for additional guidance, the Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree site ranks a range of building products, from flooring to paint to countertops, on a scale from least to most hazardous. 

While some vinyl products are less toxic than they used to be, Walsh is still unsettled by their dominance, given that petroleum is the key ingredient. According to the plastic industry’s own estimates, Walsh says, “We will produce far more plastic by 2050 than has been produced in the history of the world so far. So imagine the scale of that problem.” 

Another thing to check is whether the manufacturer accepts responsibility for its own product at the end of its useful life — a rare but good practice that drives more responsible materials use, Walsh says. “It’s called extended producer responsibility, or EPR,” he says. “So one thing to look for if you’re buying a product is if that manufacturer will actually take it back at the end of its life, to reprocess it or refurbish it, that is a good signal.” 

Credit: PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier/Getty Images

Push for sustainable materials whenever possible.

One of the most important things you can do as a consumer is to ask your contractor to be as environmentally conscious as possible, and make it clear that you expect them to use healthy, sustainable materials. Because it’s consumer demand that has the power to change the way the industry operates, and that has paved the way for rigorous certification standards such as FSC. “It turns out that the driver for market acceptance of certification is coming not from distributors, but from consumers themselves,” Bowyer says. 

“All of those kinds of decisions reinforce and kind of signal to those manufacturers that the investments they’ve made to eliminate toxins and to generate their products with renewable energy, it sends a very clear message to them that that’s what consumers are looking for,” Hesse says. 

What’s more, you might be surprised by how receptive your contractor is. “Architects, designers, contractors, they’re all really smart, capable professionals, and they will rise to whatever goals are set,” Hesse says.  

I was prepared to get depressed researching this article — and our staggering, unrelenting use of plastic and concrete is certainly overwhelming. In one sense, it does seem like the only truly green home renovation might be creating a new primary bedroom in the form of a backyard tent with en suite compost toilet and bequeathing the rest of your home to nature. 

But if we accept as a starting point that homes with plumbing are a good and reasonable thing, then the fact is, our housing really can be built and renovated to work in greater harmony with nature. And the good news is, we’re getting closer to that ideal.

Bowyer cites nylon carpet as one example: Its fibers can be completely recovered and turned back into more nylon carpet. “The problem right now is it’s cheaper to start with virgin materials, and that’s the story with a lot of materials today,” he says. “If we ever as society start to put a tax on carbon, things would change overnight. There are a lot of technologies sitting on the shelf, just waiting for the economics to work. I’m pretty optimistic really we could very easily shift what we’re doing and make a big change.”