Your Sustainable Mid-century Remodel: Why and How

13 min read Have you ever considered remodeling your mid-century ranch is an act of radical sustainability?

sketch of a mid-century house on a green background

Think about it! There are 15 million of these modestly-sized, well-built houses across America located in walkable neighborhoods close to local businesses and schools. Taking on a sustainable mid-century remodel means helping people occupy them, love them and preserve them. In doing so, you prevent their demolition to build something larger or just building new homes on greenfield land elsewhere, and this is a significant environmental win.

Yes, mid-century modern style is cool and fun, but more than that – coming up with design tools to help 15 percent of US housing stock stay relevant is IMPORTANT WORK.

I believe that helping people love, update and improve America’s 15 million ranch houses has a powerful and positive impact on our planet, and I plan to shout about it from those lovely ranch house rooftops until everyone is on board.

Roll up your sleeves, remodelers. This is about to go deep.

Note: If you feel like skipping around, here’s a handy dandy Table of Contents to help you navigate to the goods.

The New Housing Industry has spun out of Control

In a recent New York Times OpEd, Allison Arieff called out the National Association of Home Builders profoundly out-of-touch design for the 2018 “New American Home.” The house is “a sprawling monstrosity of more than 10,690 feet on a 1.5 acre lot. It has EIGHT BATHROOMS and a car elevator. As she puts it:

The N.A.H.B. house may be meant to highlight trends, but they’re not necessarily the trends homeowners want (and certainly not what most people need). Instead, they’re what builders, kitchen and bath manufacturers and real estate agents would like to sell.

This is crazy. We’ve just been told by scientists in the know that we have a decade left to take decisive action on climate change. Arieff’s argument is that the new American Dream Home should be a condo, and I think she’s right. New construction should be higher density and focused in urban areas with great connections to transit. 

But what about all the houses that already exist? They have huge value – and impact – as well.

Mid-Century Houses Make a Great Modern Single Family Dream Home

Carl Elefante, FAIA famously said that “The greenest building is one that’s already built.” I’d amend that to say that its the one that’s already built and has been lightly updated to improve its energy standards. If you want to live in a (relatively) sustainable single family home, consider this:

Mid-century homes (while they may need some updating and new green features) are actually WAY closer to the mark on what real homeowners are seeking for their personal sanctum. They are an appropriate size for a modern family and often walkably close to resources like local schools, libraries and shops. 

I’m going to break down a few reasons why updating an existing ranch is one of the greenest home choices you can make.

A Sustainable Mid-Century Remodel is Greener than almost any New Build

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 as we’ve just seen, 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.

sketch of google map image

Enjoy a Livable Location

Sustainability isn’t just green building materials.  It is also the kind of lifestyle that your home allows you to lead.  

The ranch neighborhoods of the mid-century were some of the first wide-spread suburban development in the US.  As such they are not amazingly green compared to urban neighborhoods.  However, when you compare them by lot size, location and locally-accessible amenities and services to a contemporary development they look very good. 

In general a mid-century ranch will be in a great location allowing its occupants to live a more walkable locally networked lifestyle.  

That is one of the reasons they are still so popular.  A recent Washinton Post article on how homes aren’t turning over from retired boomers to millennial first-time home buyers says  aging boomers are hanging on to them because they’re close to libraries, schools, medical centers and other necessary resources.

My sweet little ranch has one thing in common with every home I’ve chosen since college.  It is walking distance from the public library – just two blocks in this best-yet case.  It is also located on a quiet, shady, low-traffic street. with It is minutes from my sister’s apartment and blocks from the highway that leads to my parents’ town. 

Here are a few examples from my own walk score history. If you haven’t played around with the Walk Score website, checking out everywhere you’ve ever lived and visited … well, you aren’t the urban planning nerd that I am!

A mid-century Ranch

My own ranch has a walk score of 66 “some errands can be accomplished on foot” and a bike score of 90 “flat as a pancake, excellent bike lanes.  

An urban apartment/condo

My old neighborhood of Lakeview in Chicago had a walk score of 84 “most errands can be accomplished on foot,”  and a bike score of 92 “bikers paradise.”   I can back that up by noting that I lived happily and comfortably without a car during the those three years.

Late century suburban development

The house I grew up in, a mid70’s split level tract house, rates a sad walk score of 12 “almost all errands require a car.”

Still, it was MUCH closer to schools and the central shopping district than the countless mcMansions built around the edge of town during the years I grew up in. Compare those to the 2018 New American Home and get back to me when you stop shuddering in horror.

In short, mid-century neighborhoods are often a great, green choice. And taking on a sustainable mid-century remodel will only improve its value and sustainability.

sketch of a mid-century house addition

Protect Undeveloped Land

There are 15 million of these modestly sized, well-built mid-century houses across America grouped in walkable neighborhoods close to local businesses and schools. Taking on a sustainable ranch remodel means helping people occupy them, love them, and preserve them.

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.  Avoid adding to the impermeable surfaces of the world by remodeling within your existing building footprint when possible. Consider this before building new OR expanding beyond the current boundaries.  

Look around the house for unused space you already have.  This is the low-hanging fruit in any remodel in terms of of speed, difficulty, return on investment and baseline cost.

sketch of a construction dumpster with trash sticking out

Require – and Waste – Fewer Materials

You can choose to change anything while you are remodeling but you don’t necessarily need to. With any remodel, you get to keep a lot of the building intact. This means you have some of your work completed before you begin.

With structure in place you can also ignore any part of the house that works fine right now. You chose your focus.  Keep it entirely cosmetic, or you can gut the entire building; the choice is yours.

Avoid Needless Waste

According to the EPA, residential renovation is a giant contributor to American landfills. Construction waste ends up in the dumpster because it is removed from the building in a way that damages it beyond reuse. You can prevent this.

Professionals on the clock will gut a space as quickly as possible to keep costs down.  They will also often demolish more than is strictly necessary.  It simply makes their work flow more efficient. If you make this a priority, you can ask (and probably pay) to have demo done more carefully.  Think crowbar not wrecking ball.

You can make sure that demolition is done as mindfully as possible by doing it yourself.  This is a pretty easy DIY process.  It is hard to screw up – you are just taking things apart.  Save a little money, get to know more about your home and have the satisfaction of knowing exactly where your construction waste ends up. 

sketch of an exploded building: roof, walls and foundation

Use Constraints to Power Sustainable Choices

Design is problem solving.  Any designer will tell you that constraints and complications make for better design.  A good, sustainable mid-century remodel project is one problems solved after another. Issues range from zoning restrictions, to awkward structure placement to 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.  

Remember that ridiculous 8-bathroom house from the top of the post? If they’d been trying to work within the footprint of an existing ranch, that never could have happened.

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

How to make your Mid-Century Remodel as Sustainable as Possible

So now we’ve covered WHY its a strong green choice to work with an existing mid-century house. WHAT can you do to make sure your sustainable mid-century remodel makes the home as green as possible?

Here are a few key design concepts that are always on my mind. You can apply these to any remodeling process to make sure the outcome is a more sustainable (and livable) home.

sketch of a sphere with thrown shadow

Emphasize Natural Light

Any time you break out the demolition tools, make a point to improve your access to natural light. 

Generous access to daylight is good for the environment.  Keeping the lights off uses less power and generates less heat in the home (requires less artificial cooling).

It is even better for you and your health.  A study conducted by Northwestern University found that office workers in buildings with day-lit work spaces slept better, had more activity in their lives and reported a higher quality of life than their artificially-lit counterparts.  It follows that having the same access to natural light in your own home can have similar benefits.  Wouldn’t everyone want that?

Cutting Holes in the House

If you are modifying the envelope – the walls, roof and foundation – of your house at all, start thinking about expanding windows.

Don’t fear cutting into your envelope even in seemingly extreme places like the basement foundation walls or roof.  You have the potential to transform the basement from a second class area to prime real estate. I advocate boldness with skylights (or light tubes), too.  The stigma against cutting up the roof is really due to shoddy products and thoughtless installations.  Be brave, and let the light shine in.  

In a well-designed building, you should need very little artificial light between the hours of sunup and sundown.  If you have concerns about solar gain, you can never go wrong adding East and North facing windows.

sketch of sun path diagram over a house addition

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.  

Get the biggest bang for your design buck with small changes in layout.  (Mindfully) opening the kitchen into the living area is easy for a contractor and pays huge dividends in terms of the roomy feel of living in a space.

Take the opportunity to improve all kinds of layout flaws. Address tight corners, inadequate kitchen storage, not enough privacy for bedrooms, etc. And for sustainability, focus on layout changes that will improve your relationship with the sun. 

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

In both cases, you will need adequate insulation to extend the heat or cooling you collect under favorable conditions through the 24 hour period.

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)? Making a few small changes here can dramatically change your energy bill AND your home comfort.

sketch of a warm blanket

Embrace “Thermal Delight” and Save Energy

Lisa Heschong wrote a beautiful monograph called Thermal Delight in Architecture as a master’s student at MIT in 1979. She said, “there is an underlying assumption that the best thermal environment never needs to be noticed, and that once an objectively ‘comfortable’ thermal environment has been provided, all of our thermal needs have been met.  The use of all our extremely sophisticated environmental control systems is directed to this one end – to produce standard comfort zone conditions.”

Standardized, unvarying conditioned air doesn’t nurture the human soul or enlighten our experience any more than an IV nutrition drip. 

You want your house to work for your comfort

Having great insulation AND natural vent capacity is especially important in summer. You can air out the house at night and then close it up in the morning and hang on to that cool all day. 

In winter, the daylight warmth you collect can last well into the night before other heat sources are required.  

Whether you are making cosmetic or deeper layout updates, a sustainable mid-century remodel is a perfect opportunity to also improve the “thermal envelope” of your home.  

Any change you make gives the chance to choose the best insulated product or method appropriate for your climate.  Spray foam into disturbed wall cavities.  Add cellulose or batt insulation to your attic.  Choose windows with multiple insulating layers and the best possible air seal.  Each small improvement lets you more efficiently control your interior climate.  

sketch of tiny house on wheels

Remember that Small is Beautiful

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

It might SOUND like what I just said was: Reach for the stars and stuff everything you’ve ever saved on Pinterest into your remodel. No. What I said was PRIORITIZE WHAT’S REALLY IMPORTANT TO YOU.

One of my guiding philosophies comes from the book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher.  He asks us to stop “assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is “better off than a man who consumes less.” 

As you make choices about your sustainable mid-century remodel, remember this. 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. Don’t let a designer, a contractor, a realtor, or a home-goods showroom salesperson talk you into something you don’t need.

That said, don’t be afraid to be extravagant with yourself in areas that really matter. 

Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House concept proposes that by keeping the square footage of your new or remodeled house small, you have more resources to expend on quality finishing and furnishing. This is something you will appreciate in the long run more than extra square feet of floors, walls and ceilings to keep clean.

sketch of green building labels: LEED, Energy Star, UL, FSC and Living Building Challenge

Focus on Product and Material Choices

You can really make an impact on your overall energy footprint just by choosing one product over another.

Choosing more sustainable and healthy materials may cost more – although it doesn’t always – but it usually results in a better quality and longer lasting product.  

Here are a few points to consider when making product choices:

  • Watch out for VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) found in paint, cabinetry and engineered floors.
  • Seek wood from sustainable sources: sustainably grown, renewable or reclaimed.
  • Choose local products to cut transportation energy costs.
  • Select products made from one – or few – materials for easy repair or future recycling.  
  •  Consult third party rating systems such as Energy Star, GreenGuard, WaterSense, Forest Stewardship Council and Green Seal.
sketch of a mid-century alarm clock

Trendiness vs Longevity

This is a topic I just hit last week when talking about the current trend of painting your mid-century brick house. Sure a coat of paint can be an instant and dramatic change, but what are the long term consequences? 

Consider the shifts from the avocado appliances and metal framed built-ins or the 1960’s kitchen; oak built-ins and granite counter tops;  minimalist European cabinets and waterfall counter tops. You’ll see this walking through a neighborhood.  Siding color tells you when the home was last updated.   Brown means the ’80’s, beige the 90’s and early 2000’s.  Newer houses are shades of light or dark grey.

Ultimately your house is for you.  However, if you don’t feel strongly about something one way or the other, avoid leaning too hard into the latest cutting-edge fashion of remodeling. As fans of mid-century design, we have a responsibility to preserve it intact for future generations as much as we can!

I recommend choosing your battles.  If you love a trend, embrace it.  But try to apply trendy styles to the most modifiable parts of the house and not the least.  Go crazy with paint color or fabric interior choices.  Be cautious with embedded color siding or painting your brick

Remember Good (Sustainable) Design Takes Time

Often when taking on a sustainable mid-century remodel, we are eager to get it moving as soon as the idea is firmly formed.  There may be a financial factor, a bridge loan or mortgage.  You may have a date or deadline driving your schedule – finish the guest room before the holidays, for example.  I advise against this. 

I believe in the power of time to improve design.  

Good design does not happen in a rush.   Allow for the leavening effect created by waiting with your plan in mind and letting it rise to a new level. 

So … Ready to Join My Ranch Revolution?

There’s a line from the ridiculous Terminator Salvation that has stuck with me. Our gravelly voiced hero is standing alone in a bunker breathlessly muttering into a hand held mic about fighting evil AI. He signs off: “This is John Connor: If you’re listening to this, you are the resistance.”

If you’ve read this far, you’re with me here in the design resistance. Let’s work to reclaim mid-century ranches, not just for their cool aesthetic potential but as an active step toward making the world a little more green. A sustainable mid-century remodel project is one way we can help out. Join the Ranch Revolution!