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Going Green Without Starting from Scratch

by Mary Ellen Slayter, Washington Post

Printed in The Charlotte Observer on August 18, 2007

Washington – Consumer interest in green construction has continued to grow, but few people can afford to build an environmentally friendly house from the ground up. They don’t have to, says architect Kelly Lerner, co-author of “Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House” (Sterling Publishing $24.95). To find out more about this design philosophy, Mary Ellen Slayter recently spoke with Lerner. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q.    How do you define green construction? What are the most important things to take into consideration?

There are critical threats to our species and our planet right now: global warming from the rampant emissions of carbon dioxide … (and) dangerously high levels of bio-accumulative toxins in our environment that threaten human health and the health of ecosystems. Green buildings should address these issues by designing buildings to use as much “free” natural energy as possible, but not adding carbon dioxide to the environment through their construction and operations, by conserving and cleaning their own water, and by using materials that are not toxic to life – no volatile organic compounds, no formaldehyde, no PVC. Instead, they use rapidly renewable materials, locally produced materials, etc.

Q.    Is remodeling easier or harder than building from scratch?

It all depends on the existing house, but in the context of a neighborhood that is already developed, it’s better to conserve all the materials in an existing house than tear it down and start over. It’s not harder, just different.

Q.    Is it usually more or less expensive?

You don’t have to invest in site development costs with a remodel, such as well, septic, road, electricity lines and phone lines. I think it can be less expensive when those factors are considered. You can also phase a remodel – do one or two rooms at  a time or do one or two projects at a time so that it can be less expensive over time, especially counting the cost of loans.

Q.    Who is best suited for this type of project?

Any homeowner who cares about the health of his or her family and the health of the planet. A do-it-yourselfer can save the most money, but working with a contractor can be fine, too. A house that has good “bones” – good materials, good layout, good location, etc. – is especially easy to work with.

Q.    If you only do one green thing in the course of a remodeling project, what should it be?

 I see two top priorities. One, saving energy and reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels – insulate, improve air seal, upgrade to a more efficient heating or cooling system, use compact fluorescent bulbs, upgrade to more-efficient appliances, add a solar water heater, or add photovoltaics. Second, developing indoor/outdoor spaces that help you reconnect to nature. We evolved living mostly outside; we now spend 90% of our time indoors. Human health is fully dependent on natural systems; for our health, we need to spend time in close contact with nature.

Q.    What is the biggest mistake people make when planning green construction or remodeling?

They focus only on green materials. They start without evaluating their climate, their house and their family, and without developing a prioritized strategy. They don’t think about how to creatively reconfigure the spaces they have. The book includes a diagram of the natural remodeling process.

Q.    What should people in a mixed-humid climate pay most attention to?

Insulate and air seal for winter and summer savings. Don’t oversize your air-conditioning system – an oversized system won’t dehumidify properly and, you’ll end up feeling sticky.

Lindsay Daniel provides residential architecture services to Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding communities.