Speaking at MREA Energy Fair: Remodel to Create Your Green Dream House

6 min read I’m speaking at the MREA Energy Fair, Friday May 15th at 2:30 and 5:30 to spread the good word on green design and remodeling.
Here’s what I plan to say!

I’m speaking at the the MREA Energy Fair, in Custer, WI, this Friday, delivering two lectures on green building. 

Views of Building Green: From the Architect’s and Owners’ Perspectives

Underhill 1

I’ll talk about the process of designing and building Underhill House from my point of view as an architect and then ask for the alternate perspectives of the clients: my parents Doug Hansmann and Denise Thornton.   I’ll discuss the vital importance of clear communications between designer and clients and break down the qualities that make a building truly “green.”

Since I gave the Views of Building Green talk last year, I’ll just link to the summary I wrote up then for anyone interested in learning more about it … click here.

Achieve Your Green Dream Home by Remodeling

that thing you love

I’ll discuss the ways that remodeling a home can make for a greener project and a better overall experience and end result than can building from scratch.  Also I’ll run down a laundry list of concepts that should be included in any remodel to make it as sustainable as possible.

If you don’t have a chance to be at the MREA Energy Fair, Friday.  Here’s what I plan to discuss.  

Many people think of a green home – or sustainable building or natural house – as a new object, designed from the ground up.  I want to remind you that there is also substantial sustainability making new use of what we already have.

My goal is to show that improving your existing home can be greener – and better – than starting from scratch. Here are six reasons why I think that’s true:

One: Your Location

As any Realtor will tell you, “Location, location, location,” is the most important concept in home buying.  It certainly is one of the most key factors.

Why did you choose your current house?  I’m guessing you selected it in part because it shortened your commute, belonged to a good school district or was in striking distance of your favorite restaurant, walking trail or cousin’s house.   No new construction can duplicate this for you.  Hang on to the best of your current home and focus on fixing its flaws rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water!

Note: if you don’t love where you live, consider moving.  But you may still find it more effective to buy an existing home and remodel it rather than start from scratch.

Two: It Has What You Love

Actually there are probably quite a few things you like about where you live right now.

When we focus on the ideal of a “dream” house, it becomes easy to fixate on the flaws of where we live right now.  But you chose this place for a reason.

Don’t let anyone talk you into destroying your favorite details during a remodel.  Don’t paint wood trim if you love the grain.  Don’t remove a wall if you are charmed by the anachronistic telephone niche it contains.  Prioritize an existing tree over a few more feet of addition space if you love your shady patio.

Remember that taste and good design are not the same thing.  Design can enhance any particular taste or style.  Design helps you create the feel and use of space that you want.

Three: Remodeling Protects Undeveloped Land

Most new homes are built in new developments.  They require not only the resources to construct the house proper, but the land disturbance, energy use, materials, and consequences of sprawl that are embodied in new roads and infrastructure.   Even with infill development – putting a new house on an open lot – the local micro environment will take a significant hit.

Once you’ve committed to remodeling rather than building new, you can still do more or less to protect undeveloped land.

Every little bit helps.  You can avoid adding to the impermeable surfaces of the world by remodeling within your existing building footprint rather than building new OR expanding beyond the current boundaries.

Look to your basement, attic, porch, or the connection to your garage to find areas to gain living space WITHOUT disturbing the land around your home.

Four: You will Use, and Waste, Less Material

Whenever you are remodeling, you have some part of the building that you will keep. This gives you an advantage.  You have the bones of the house in place – for example, a good roof, sound structure, strong footing and a furnace that won’t need replacing for another decade.

That’s time, money, and worry you don’t have to expend.

With any remodeling project you have some of your work completed before you begin.  You have a structure. You can choose to change anything while you are remodeling but you don’t necessarily need to.

Five: Constraints Will Make Your Design Stronger

Design is problem solving.  Any designer will tell you that constraints and complications make for better design.  A good remodel project is filled with solutions for problems ranging from  zoning restrictions, to awkward structure placement or the struggle to re-use materials.

Remodeling- working with existing conditions – makes your and your designer’s life more difficult, yes, but also leads to more creativity.

The trick is to use design thinking to turn potential problems into advantages.  The constraints of the design process make the project more interesting.

Remodeling can provide clarity and reduce the problem of over-design. Working with existing conditions helps you pare down your plans from everything ever seen in a cool house to what you really need (and want).

Six: You Have Greater Control Over The Whole Project

It is a myth that building a house from the ground up gives you the most control.  Consider this: the only successful way to build a new building is to start at the beginning, and go on to the end of the project before stopping.   Anything else can create dire consequences for cost or even the overall building structure.

With a remodeling project however, you can set a budget and then make choices regarding scope, management and timing that fit within it.  You’ll never have perfect control over cost, but you get a lot more control with a remodel.

You will decide how extensive your scope of work will be.  You set your budget and stick to it.  You determine how much, if any, of the project you do with your own hands.


Keeping (or making it) it Green

Here are a handful of concepts to make any remodeling project as green as possible. 

Emphasize Natural Light

Any time you break out the buzz saws, you want to be improving your access to natural light.

Beautiful natural light can outshine a host of more expensive architectural interventions and literally brighten your day.  Don’t be afraid to cut holes (carefully) in your basement walls, or roof or to enlarge or improve the existing windows in your living spaces.

Improve the Layout for Passive Solar Potential

Don’t let yourself think of existing walls as immutable or hyper-focus your attention on the surface of things.  Gilding the lily won’t fix an awkward, dark or segmented floor plan.

Start by assessing your solar gain situation.  When are the hot and cool times of day and year and where does the sun hit your home at those times?  When does direct sunlight shine into (or hit the outside of your house)?

In order to take advantage of solar heat gain you want to: allow sunlight to enter the house strategically and direct it to a heat-absorbent thermal mass.

On the other hand, to take advantage of passive cooling you will: block sunlight from entering the house and take advantage of stack effect air circulation.

Embrace Thermal Delight

Why spend energy to achieve idealized internal temperatures when it isn’t necessary?  That doesn’t mean I want anyone to be uncomfortable in their own home.  But I do encourage you to consider both how you can make your modern home as self sufficient as possible.

Remodeling is the perfect time to improve your thermal envelope – to insulate your home and make it more airtight.  This will help you keep the house warmer and cooler and keep out unwanted humidity at all times of year.

Remember that Small is Beautiful

I can’t say this often enough: your dream house – your remodel – is about you.  So make sure you prioritize what will be really important to you.  Only you can determine what parts of a proposed remodel are necessary and what are not.

As you make choices about your remodel, remember that any individual material, appliance or layout decision is less important than the effect it will have on your experience of the space when it is complete.

Make sure you prioritize what is really important to you.

Make Thoughtful Product and Material Choices

With the world at our finger tips via the internet you CAN find a healthy alternative to nearly every conventional home building product.  Consider chemical compounds, material location, life cycle analysis and, when in doubt, consult reputable third party rating systems such as Energy Star, GreenGuard, WaterSense, Forest Stewardship Council and Green Seal.

A Note on Trendiness vs Longevity

This is your house.  It is for you.  However, if you don’t feel strongly about something one way or the other, try not to lean too hard into the latest cutting-edge fashion of remodeling.

I recommend choosing your battles.  If you love a trend, embrace it.  But try to apply it to the most modifiable parts of the house and not the least.  Go crazy with paint color or fabric.  Be cautious with embedded color siding.  Stay neutral with tile choices (I’ve been told that the average tile in an American house lasts only seven years).

There you have it!

I hope you can feel the power of green remodeling and be considering how a green remodel can get you the house of your dreams.