Keep Your Remodel Out of the Landfill

19 min read How can you plan an upgrade for your house that will keep it out of the landfill for as long as possible? I’m so glad you asked!

Do you ever think of your home as destined for the landfill? 

This is dark, I know. But all things are…eventually. Every part and piece of your home has a useful life, a finite number of years to serve as a dwelling. 

Sure, some buildings have lasted for ages and across the globe there are numerous examples of structures standing the test of time. These structures are often constructed of naturally occurring local materials and designed to function well in their climate without too much mechanical intervention.     

Buildings are where humans spend the vast majority of our time and are, rightly, a place we invest an incredible amount of resources.  And so it makes sense to help each building out of the landfill for as long as we can. At least, that’s what I believe and that’s one of my primary goals for Mid Mod Midwest. Some days I think of my job mostly as postponing each mid-century home’s trip to the dump for as long as I can.

And our beloved mid-century homes are reaching a turning point right now. They’re getting to an age where if they aren’t properly maintained and upgraded, their original systems and even some of their original materials are going to start to fail.  

How you can Keep your remodel out of the landfill

So how can you plan an upgrade for your house that will keep it out of the landfill for as long as possible? I’m so glad you asked!

Keep Up On Maintenance

Neglected repairs and deferred maintenance can lead to structural issues, water damage, and deterioration. Maintenance tasks may not be glamorous but are crucial for extending the lifespan of a home.

Make Design Choices You Love

By selecting high-quality materials and timeless designs, you can extend the life of the materials you choose and reduce the chance of frequent updates and replacements.

Think long-term and opt for designs that align with your style, your life and the original era of your home. Think about creating spaces that stand the test of time and reducing the waste associated with trendy, short-lived designs.

Right-Size Your Home

One distinctive feature of mid-century homes is their “right-sized” nature. These homes prioritize functionality and efficiency. Smaller homes consume fewer resources and have a smaller environmental footprint. 

But sometimes mid-century homes are just a little too snug for modern lives. Most homes of this era were actually designed to be expanded over time, so adding on is very possible and often a great way to create a home you’ll love forever.

When people talk about a sustainable home, they usually mean a new house designed from scratch and filled with a laundry list of of the latest green features.  But many new homes – however filled with green tech – are unsustainably large, full of excessive features and sadly wasteful in the residents per square foot ratio.

Fight the good fight (you’re already winning)

Just by choosing to remodel your mid-century home you are making a big leap toward sustainability! And as you make choices about your sustainable mid-century remodel you can continue to up the ante. Any individual material, appliance or layout decision is less important than the effect it will have on your experience of your completed remodel. Take some pressure off yourself to make the “greenest” choice and instead focus on making the right choices for you. 

You can:

  • Include what you need and not what you don’t. Don’t let someone talk you into something you don’t need for “resale”.
  • Choose timeless materials that you love and that echo the mid-century era. Natural materials, simple patterns and durable finishes will delight you and future homeowners. 
  • Go ahead with bold choices, if they will transform a house you like into the home you’ll love.   

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • Why gutters may be the greenest technology around. 
  • Making sure your modern materials will be in it for the long haul. 
  • How we design to avoid waste. 

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Resources to help keep your remodel out of the landfill

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Read the Full Episode Transcript

Do you ever think of your home as destined for the landfill? This is dark, I know. But everything is eventually. Some days I think of my job as postponing that inevitability as long as I can. It’s on my mind a lot because our beloved mid-century homes specifically are reaching a turning point right now. They’ve got life left in them. Don’t get me wrong, but they’re getting to an age where if they aren’t properly maintained and upgraded, their original systems and even some of their original materials are going to start to fail. You don’t want that. So today, let’s talk about how to keep your home out of the landfill. Hi there.

Welcome back to mid mod remodel. This is the show about updating MCM homes helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, you’re listening to Episode 1403. All right, this is part two of my slightly wonkish series that I’m getting into with a podcast inspired by needing to explain what it is we do for a small business grant pitch a few weeks ago. These ones are for all my design nerds out there. Hi, friends.

Now last week, I shared a little of my passion for making my architecture practice as inclusive as possible, making mid Midwest a place where every client’s voice is heard, and where the lives of our clients are meaningful to the design work we create.

Today, reason to that I ran away from traditional architecture as she is practiced and started a business that marches to the beat of my own drum is that I wanted to make the world a less trashy place. Literally, I want less building waste to end up in the landfill. Now before I get into that, as always, you’ll find the show notes with links to the references we make and an outline of this conversation on my website at mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1403. Check out the show notes. And you’ll find links to a couple of other relevant episodes that I’m going to mention.

For example, you might want to just go check out the blog post and matching episode called your sustainable mid-century remodel, why and how, because it’s going to have some practical tips and design steps you can take as you plan to remodel that screen. Now, when I lived and worked in the Chicago area, the residential neighborhoods all over the city were ongoing, undergoing right then a shockingly rapid visual transformation. I don’t know as much about the situation since I’ve left the city but I assumed that the teardown trend has continued or probably increased since then, on my walks home from work in Ravenswood through to Lake View I used to regularly see oh, there we go. Another pile of construction debris the foundation of a former House.

Seeing an old house demolished always feels like a small tragedy. It’s true. Some older homes have outlived their useful lifespan or are in poor repair or are structurally unsound or chemically unsafe. Sometimes the change in the neighborhoods needs calls for higher density a six unit building instead of a single family home. But my take is that you should always think carefully before you knock a building down and demolished houses were not only an unusual sight in Lakeview, they were common. Older homes were being consistently purchased to be replaced by newer versions at the same or higher size place at a lower density.

Curbed magazine highlighted this issue a couple of years ago and pointed out that most of these teardown projects were destroying beautiful historic buildings, or even the odd sizable pricey home was still being torn down to make way for a newer, more sizable, more pricey home. Urban planner Steven Vance estimated that 1700 of those homes had been torn down in Chicago in the eight year span between when he started calculating them in the early aughts. To the time of that article, I’ll link to it in the show notes.

His website spots probable teardown projects by noting city granted permits for demolition and new construction then within the next 60 days. It’s not surprising then that Lakeview west town and North center had the list for the most teardown projects as they become infinitely more pricey over time. Now in many cases, the homes being torn down are the most historic the most charming small builder cottages and gravestones and in my experience they were almost always replaced by big blocky modern monsters a building that was basically a diagram of the maximum allowable buildable square footage on a Chicago lot.

Not my favorite site, but also a sad marker of landfill because tear downs become landfill and they don’t only happen in Chicago. I was incensed list last year or maybe the year before when a darling little metal loose drawn house in the Westmoreland neighborhood on my dog walk route here in Madison was demolished not disassembled for reuse, but demolished and is still in the process of being replaced with a monstrosity of a McMansion that it’s completely out of scale and out of character for the otherwise single floor mid-century neighborhood.

Now if the name Lustron doesn’t immediately linked up in your head, the list on homes were a fevered dream of the late 1940s. A company that really wanted government funding to pioneer a new line of prefab gas stations was told that actually All the money was going towards new housing developments at that moment. So they switched gears, and they made a lot of prefabricated metal houses.

The houses had a steel structural system and then as an enamel coated exterior metal and interior wall system, you hang your art on the wall of electron home with magnets. And it also had this really incredibly innovative forced air heat delivery system with a plenum of warm air that flowed over the ceiling spaces. It still works today in homes that haven’t been too heavily retrofitted by HBs HVAC contractors who didn’t understand how they worked. Now, that’s a side issue. We’re not talking this isn’t an episode about Lustron homes. But the thing is, there are only 1500 Lustron homes or so still existing in the country. And we have a handful of them in Madison, but one less this year than a few years ago. Oh yeah.

And that brand new house, the list drawn home isn’t the only thing that ended up in the landfill. All those brand new and enormous homes are being built make landfill to about a 10th of the so called construction and demolition waste that we generate in this country is created not by tearing down old buildings and tossing them in the trash. But by actually throwing away extra pieces or whole units have materials that are ordered but not needed for new construction that are damaged before they’re used or that just aren’t processed efficiently.

The EPA estimates that an average 2000 square foot residential construction project generates 8000 pounds 70 cubic yards of landfill stories like that. facts like that are one part of why here at mid Midwest. Our mission is to save every mid-century house in America from mediocre remodels because mediocre remodels, mediocre homes don’t last and remodels in homes that don’t last end up in the landfill. So we’re doing our part here to cut down on landfill waste by saving mid-century homes. And look there are 15 million probably of these mid-century houses extant in America. They contain a vast investment of materials and resources.

Old Growth lumber forms the two by fours two by sixes two by eights that structurally support these houses. And the cedar siding that lines most mid-century houses that whenever you see that 10 or 12 inch deep horizontal laid siding, that’s probably redwood. These materials are unavailable because those forests aren’t around anymore. This old growth lumber the metal that we’ve mined out and turned into process, the masonry we don’t make in the same way anymore are all unavailable today. These commonly found mid-century materials are precious even though they may seem simple. And I really think that we owe it to these houses to the old growth forests we tore down to think about these homes with love and with care and think about how we can help them last as long as possible.

If you ever wonder whether the two by fours in your house are old growth, try to put a nail into a two by four that’s original to your house, maybe in the basement or into the floor joists of the structure above a two by 10 versus a new piece of two by lumber you get from Home Depot or your local lumber yard. It is a night and day difference. When I need to put a nail into a stud that’s original to my house. I predrilled the hole because I just am not that good at hammering nails to make them ever, ever go straight. If we don’t make nails the way we used to either. I don’t know.

Here’s the thing. Updating mid-century homes for a new generation is much more than just a trendy style thing. These 15 million homes are modestly sized well built, and they’re located in sustainable walkable neighborhoods close to local businesses and schools. So to take on a mid-century remodel is a green prospect. It’s helping people live lightly occupy and preserve lovable demolition proof houses. This is more than an aesthetic goal. Now we can do more. We can add accessory dwelling units, expand interior occupancy, build, use build greener building technologies as we retrofit and we can make these houses as sustainable as green as possible.

But Carl Elefante of the AIA famously said that the greenest building is the one that’s already built. And I always amend that statement to say it’s the greenest one the greenest building is the one that’s already built and has been lightly upgraded to improve its energy standards. Now our mid-century master plan designs help homeowners to stay in and maintain their right sized homes. Let’s unpack that a little bit.

The greenest building. That’s a fuzzy metric. Sure. Does it mean the least embodied energy, the least energy consumption, the least waste the smallest, some sweet spot between all three of them probably. But no matter how much effort you put into a latest, greatest, newest, best contemporary green design building, you’re always going to run into some tradeoffs. Where did those new materials come from? Who worked upon them? What does it take to build that solar panel? What were you removing in order to put this new building in its place an older building A previously undeveloped area.

We don’t need to belabor the point. But I think we can agree that mid-century homes exist, they exist by the millions. And their very existence means we should do what we can to keep them out of the landfill. What does that mean? It’s pretty logical really just don’t knock down a mid-century home. But to take it a little further. All infrastructure is waste in transit. That short sentence broke my brain in October of 2002. When I first heard it, it was casually dropped by Cambridge Professor of Engineering and sustainable development, Peter Guthrie, who was giving a lecture to my study abroad group about the broader implications of sustainable design. Why just knocking down and replacing all of our existing infrastructure with newer better, quote unquote greener unquote material wasn’t the best answer.

I scrawled his words across the top of my notebook that day, and I have perseverated on them ever since. All built infrastructure is waste in transit. And it is, we may think of the building as solid as durable as a permanent barrier between us inside and the world outside. But that’s just not true. Anytime you do a demolition project on a house, you see how tenuous the barrier between inside and outside can be at any time you take a trip to an older part of this country or out of it. I was in Cornwall, England, when I heard this lecture. Sleeping in a centuries old stone cottage will instantly put into perspective, our American sense of building longevity. But even in older places in Europe and Egypt, in India, in China, buildings have lifespans.

Basically every building currently standing or planned for future development is just waiting in line for its place in the landfill. Now, that’s not entirely accurate, certain notable buildings of antiquity have prevailed and will probably continue to last. But generally speaking, it’s true of every suburban house, rural outbuilding, and skyscraper. It’s the long view and a little dark, but it’s the logic behind my ethos. If everything we touch is eventual trash, then what can we do to slow down the process of it getting to the landfill? How can we design to avoid waste?

In many cases, that’s just to design for good quality, good quality buildings, finishes and furniture last, in particular, focusing our attention on good bones. Beautiful, long lasting structures, rather than artistic decorative elements increase the odds that our designs will last, people can update and adapt their lives while keeping certain elements in place. Living Spaces, bedrooms, and other areas of the house are more likely to stand the test of time if they are sturdy and well designed.

On the other hand, it will be silly to assume that the design of kitchens and bathrooms that we oversee this year will last forever. Although in a mid-century home, we can also push back against trendiness by designing in tune with the original era of the house rather than what’s current on HGTV this year, we can push back we can extend that landfill timeline. Here’s another personal story that has stuck with me and still drives my design choices. A few years ago, I was traveling in Oaxaca. And I sat on a bus next to a friendly couple who as it turned outran a small US tile company.

Now I wasn’t working, but I always want to talk with people who care about residential design. And they told me a little about how they loved their craft, and their chosen calling. And they were so delighted to see their tiles go into gorgeous designs. But they also always wondered when they set out a shipment, how long would their tiles last?

You see a tile installed on the floor or wall of a house could last as long as the house. It’s a sturdy, infinitely durable material that’s meant to withstand whatever use is coming. Tile, in fact, only began to be installed in modern American houses in the 1920s and 30s. As a practical nod to hygiene and washability, perhaps as a reference to the 1918 flu pandemic. But we know that these things can withstand all sorts of harsh chemicals. They can withstand scrubbing. They can withstand wear and tear. The lifespan of a tile and a house should be the lifespan of the house.

But I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. In fact, according to these folks, the average lifespan of a tile in an American house is just seven years. Wow. Not even a decade. It’s not the tile that’s failing and needs to be replaced. I assume this isn’t planned obsolescence like a modern refrigerator, which is another sidetrack into sad landfill stories. The tile just goes out of style. And once crowded onto a house, wall or floor it’s pretty hard or impossible to remove a tile for reuse. It goes on and then it’s next up is landfill.

Now that’s why although I personally love a mid-century color block bathroom when I’m helping my clients make choices for their new added bathroom or for one that required a full remodel. I always suggest that we plan for something relatively neutral unless you have a deep seated love for a pink bathroom or a blue one or a peach. I suggest my clients Choose a relatively neutral and completely unfriendly tile to install. With new trending with light fixtures with pink colors with soft furnishings, and other easier to change out items. But for tile, I want you to think about one that you and the next owners can live with easily.

Now, aside from trends, the other reason that buildings and building parts end up in the landfill is usually delayed maintenance. Most materials installed inside a house or on the outside, no matter how builder basic don’t really wear out. They either go out of style, or they suffer from delayed maintenance until they fail.

For example, that Redwood cedar siding I talked about it up at the top that should last for generations. It is sturdy, it’s relatively rot resistant, but it’s not zero maintenance, it does need to be protected from water by a good roof overhang and sturdy gutters above. And by paint along its face, it needs to be regularly checked for seal from water. And if the seal is broken, if the paint peels, it needs to be scraped down to bare wood primed and painted again, it’s not rocket science, and wood won’t rot overnight, but rot will eventually result from deferred maintenance.

But this is something to watch out for actually, as a new homeowner of a mid-century home myself, and you are in the position of having recently become the owner of a home that’s been cared for by older generations of folks in the decades previous. It’s sometimes hard to know all of the maintenance tasks that regularly been carried on. Homes don’t generally come with an owner’s manual.

And it may be that someone was regularly doing seasonal work, they were checking the perimeter for weeds touching the siding they were making, making sure it wasn’t growing, they were switching in and out the storm windows or doors in a way that it just doesn’t occur to you, particularly if you grew up in a house that was built earlier or later than the mid-century period would be necessary.

One thing you can do is ask around ask your neighbors figure out if there’s something that you see them regularly doing on an annual or seasonal basis. And check some regular homeownership maintenance lists to see if there are some check the house for long term stability things to keep an eye on your biggest worry in all will this end up in the landfill questions is going to be water keeping water out of the house from the roof to the wall.

So the foundation is the most important part of keeping your house out of the landfill. I recently went on a client site visit to see a house that is now it’s in the same family but it’s been taken over by a generation from two generations before so the grandparents of the current owner had lived in the house they built it and taken great care of it for a number of decades. But as they got older, their maintenance cycle slowed down.

And now the water is seeping into the house in several key areas. And the long term longevity of some of the parts of the house is in question that the house itself is nowhere near a teardown we’re going to turn it right back up. But some beautiful original building materials are going to have to be sacrificed because they lost probably a decade of water prevention and maintenance in that slow handover from one generation to the next. The last thing you can’t really do anything about but the last thing that will cause a building to end up in the landfill is a bad original build.

A few years ago, I remember a headline about a whole bunch of host homeowners in northeastern Connecticut who discovered that the concrete foundations of their homes were failing due to a high I think it was pyrrhotite content in their concrete mix. Something like 35,000 homes have been built with concrete sores from one particular quarry starting in the mid 80s. That had a mineral content which caused the concrete to crack and crumble in as little as 10 years. The homeowners who realized this was happening tried to patch their walls or shore up the foundations but they had no luck. And very unfortunately, as they started to report the problem, they created real catch 22.

Because a house with the situation is not safe to occupy but also can’t be sold and insurance companies claimed their coverage of building collapse only counts if the building actually falls down. Jerks. So they wouldn’t do anything if it was just slowly going to erode over decades. So in some cases, the homeowners notifying their insurance of the problem just got immediately cancelled coverage. What a horrible situation. This it also seems to be going on in across the border in Canada.

This is one of those things that you just can’t see coming. But we in our sturdy mid-century homes can be extremely grateful that our houses are holding up better that they were made with materials that have lasted for many decades and now only need a little bit of care to last for decades more how much landfill a house becomes is determined by how much house it is. And one of the very first things I ever talked about on this podcast in the first episode is how right sized mid-century homes can be they are right size is in direct contrast to the common styles and assumptions about consumption that are being pushed by the modern new construction industry.

I called out the National Association of Homebuilders new American house 2019 In that episode, with 10,000 square feet, a show garage and a real one, three kitchens, five and a half bathrooms plopped right in the middle of the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas and had a lot of nerve calling itself quote sustainable on its website.

You won’t be surprised to learn that exactly. Nothing has changed since then. The National Association of Homebuilders new American home 2023 Is the 40th house built for the showcase and it is 7000 square feet seven bedrooms with just four bathrooms just that’s a conference center, not a house. And they yet they expect this house to earn the National Green Building Standard emerald status the highest efficiency rating given by the NGBs. And it will receive certifications from multiple departments of energy programs including ENERGY STAR, Zero Energy Ready Home and the builder’s challenge.

Now what does that tell us? It tells me that national energy standards are bullshit. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I do firmly believe that these points based rating systems have become little more than a rubber stamp that can be used to greenwash otherwise, deeply unpalatable realities. So if you actually want to make sustainability friendly choices for your home, don’t build from scratch, stick with the house you’ve got and tune it up so that it can last for generations more outside the landfill.

Alright, how about some practical to do list items Della to keep your house out of the landfill, the best thing you can do is to make your home improvement project specific. The best way to keep a mid-century house from being torn down is to really pour your love and attention into it. The wrong person can always purchase a house. But the more house is itself the more it leans into its mid-century design and is well cared for the more it maximizes its mid-century nests, the less likely it is to be seen as just another replaceable unit and the more it feels unique and worth keeping.

And don’t forget maintenance. Look, maintenance tasks may not be sexy, they may not be the most fun way to spend your remodeling dollars. In fact, they’re probably the least fun way. New roof gutter repairs, repainting the siding where it peels in the summer sun keeping the vines off. None of these are exciting or dramatic or transformative, but without them houses begin to go downhill. So take some steps to take care of your house.

Now as the season changes from fall to winter is the perfect time to check on the paint status. The water status make sure your house is staying as strong as possible. Make sure that when you get water inside the house in a place it shouldn’t be, it should feel a little urgent. It can feel like oh dear and inconvenience let’s mop that up. But anytime moisture is getting into your house when it shouldn’t be there. It can cause mold dry rot or critter life to facilitate the eventual turn of an apparently solid house into a pile of rubble in the landfills. So help us out with our mission at mid mod Midwest to keep your mid-century home out of the landfill for as long as possible.

We want to help you and other mid-century homeowners to plan upgrades, updates and even basic maintenance that will keep your house snug and sturdy and beloved for generations to come. When you’re thinking about making changes to your home, make sure that you’re making choices that are perfectly for you. This doesn’t mean when you’ve got an eye to the future that you’re creating a perfectly average house. In fact, the opposite. If you make your choices for a home that you will love 100% Then you’ll want to care for the house and the odds are it will seem appealing to the right next person as well.

Before we go, can I ask you a favor? If you believe in our mission of helping to keep mid-century houses out of the landfill? Help me spread the word. Think of just one person you know one person who loves mid-century design. One person in your neighborhood who loves their house like you love yours, or one person you’d like to visit estate sales with a friend who’s in the house hunting process looking at mid-century homes and pass them this podcast. Let’s grow our wonderful community of mid mod remodelers. Really your recommendations are more powerful than any Google search or paid ad. So I count on you to help me find those mid mod remodelers out there. Now, if you need help preparing your well prioritized beautifully flexible pivotable master plan that’s going to help your house stay out of landfill.

There are two ways that mid mod Midwest can help. First, you can take advantage of our DIY support programs, join the ready to remodel program, and our current mid moto Mod Squad so that we can walk you through the process of planning your own perfect mid mod home update or just check out one of our bite sized design topic clinics take two hours this weekend and dig deeply into the plan for your mid-century kitchen upgrade owner suite improvement or exterior update. The second way we can help is to let us do the design work for you.

Now, this is the perfect time in case you didn’t catch the news to take action on working with Midmark asked for a mid-century masterplan package. And that’s because we are going to raise the package fee on October 1. We aren’t changing our incredible service. So if you reach out today and schedule a quick get to know you chat with me, we’ll make sure your home is a good fit for what we can provide. And then you’ll be able to get our great services at effectively a discount. Don’t wait. Schedule your appointment right now and we’ll talk before October.

As always, you can find the show notes with everything I’ve mentioned mid mod dash midwest.com/ 1403. And next week on the podcast, I’ll be talking about why we use a fixed fee package model for our master plans. Spoiler alert, it’s all because I believe it’s the best and most affordable way to provide you with great landfill preventing lifestyle and pooping designs. Catch you next week.