Going Green: Here’s How To Make Sure Your Eco-Friendly Home Is Actually Sustainable

Buying a new home? Renovating? Just looking for a few easy ways to go green? Here's what you need to know.

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We probably don’t have to sell you on the advantages of an eco-friendly home. Putting the future of life on this planet aside, a sustainable home can save you a ton of money.

According to data from UtilityScore, the average single-family household spends $226 per month on utilities. Energy-efficient upgrades can reduce those expenses by $200 to $400 per year, per the Department of Energy, putting a decent chunk of change back in homeowners’ pockets.

Need a more significant financial incentive? Eventually your home’s energy efficiency might even affect its overall value.

“I really expect that home energy labels are going to become the norm, at the time of sale, sometime very soon,” says Asa Foss, director of residential technical solutions of the U.S. Green Building Council. “I really see that driving the market in the not-too-distant future.”

“People in the lending community are now looking at how they can [assess] utility costs to make that part of the fundamental information they use to determine how much home you can afford,” Foss tells HealthyWayIn other words, if you have a truly eco-friendly home, you might enjoy a higher sales price when you’re ready to move on. And if you’re looking to buy, you might be able to lock down a lower interest rate.

Even if your primary concerns aren’t money or the environment, there are other reasons to go green. Some eco-friendly upgrades might make your home a more comfortable—and healthy—living space. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that many household products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which can have “short- and long-term adverse health effects.” Invest in eco-friendly upgrades and you can reduce organic pollutants, potentially avoiding some of those effects.

We’ll just assume that we’ve convinced you to take a look at your home’s sustainability. That was the easy part—but where do you start?      

That depends on whether you’re buying, renovating, or just looking for a few simple upgrades. Here’s what you need to know.

Eco-Friendly Renovations: Planning a Sustainable Makeover

Everyone loves a good remodel, but unless the Property Brothers spontaneously show up on your doorstep, you’re probably shelling out big bucks for major renovations. Making sustainable changes means budgeting carefully. Eco-friendly materials often pay for themselves over time, but they’re initially expensive, and you’ll want to make sure that you’ve got enough green to go green.

“Depending on your budget, you can set a goal,” says Erica Leigh Reiner, owner of E. Leigh Designs, an eco-friendly interior design firm. “For instance, you can say that 20 percent of items or materials will be green, and then you can prioritize what those will be.”

Not sure where to start? To get the most substantial benefits, just look up.

“It’s difficult to properly insulate the walls of a home after it’s already constructed,” says Foss. “However, from an energy-loss perspective, the most important place is the ceiling. That’s absolutely the first place that people should be looking when retrofitting.”

Foss also recommends investing in inexpensive insulation upgrades in the basement or crawlspace. Cellulose insulation is an especially attractive option for eco-friendly renovation, as it’s often made from recycled newspaper and provides an R-value that’s similar to fiberglass but with fewer potentially toxic substances. Wool insulation is another renewable alternative.

For significant renovations—room additions, kitchen remodels, and the like—try to choose recyclable building materials. For instance, look for wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Products carrying an FSC certification are sourced from sustainably managed forests. Wherever possible, choose local materials to minimize fossil fuel consumption from freight.

Oh, and remember those VOCs we mentioned earlier? They’re potentially a big deal; the EPA notes they’re a potential cause of “sick building syndrome,” a mysterious medical condition in which the occupants of a building show signs of illness. Many construction materials can emit VOCs, but paints are an especially significant contributor.

“Use no-VOC paint for as much of your space as you can afford,” Reiner says.

Note that low- or zero-VOC paints can still contain harmful substances such as formaldehyde, so research paint brands carefully before making your purchase. Dark paints generally require more pigments than lighter paints, and as such, have higher levels of VOCs on average.

And as strange as it might sound, flooring can also affect indoor air quality. Again, look for low- or no-VOC flooring options.

“Even if you can’t afford eco-bamboo or cork flooring, you can probably get low-toxin flooring,” Reiner says.

Buying an Eco-Friendly Home: What makes a home sustainable, anyway?

If you’re buying a new home, keep this in mind: There’s nothing to stop sellers from using the term “eco-friendly” to offload a decidedly eco-unfriendly property.

“There needs to be an educated conversation about the [home-buying] process,” says Jeff Bogard of R.E.A. Homes, a custom home builder in St. Louis. “Consumers need to understand what sustainability means—the science behind how homes function, right-sizing utility systems, finding longer lasting materials, and things of that nature.”

It’s pretty overwhelming, but fortunately, there’s a shortcut.

“Look for building certification programs,” Foss says. Admittedly, he’s a bit biased in this respect; his organization runs the LEED for Homes certification program, one of the most widely used sustainability programs in the United States. Even so, Foss says that all sustainable certification programs are beneficial for ecologically mindful consumers.

“Building certification programs are really the easiest way for consumers to tell,” he says. “The biggest organization in the country, for homes, is Energy Star, which covers somewhere from 5 to 25 percent of the home market. It’s a really good baseline for people to look at.”

Other popular home energy efficiency programs include the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index and the Department of Energy’s Home Energy Score.  

“There’s a lot of local and regional home sustainability programs, which differ, but we’re all pretty much looking at the same things,” Foss explains. “There are nuances—and they’re important nuances—but we’ve got the same goals. We’re all trying to go green, it’s just different shades of green.”

Bogard agrees and notes that consumers should pay special attention to appliances, particularly water heaters and HVAC systems. While you’re shopping, don’t be afraid to ask your real estate agent for copies of actual utility bills, and personally inspect important appliances. If you’re thinking about upgrading right after you move in, make sure that your home will allow for the upgrade.

“You might want to upgrade to an eco-friendly water heater, but that will depend on your home’s flue situation,” Foss says. “But there are some really tremendous eco-friendly options available, particularly with water heaters.”

Look for a home inspector who specializes in analyzing eco-friendly homes. Green home inspections through organizations like InterNACHI evaluate a home’s materials, energy efficiency, and features that could affect human and environmental health.

Building an Eco-Friendly Home: Make sure you’ve got the right approach.

Planning on new construction? Make sure you’ve got the right mindset for eco-friendly building. For starters, you’ve got to look past the upfront fees.

“Very few people build a home more than once in their lifetime,” Bogard says, “so the default is to think of upfront costs as the total expense of the home. There’s very little conversation about operating costs and lifecycle costs.”

“Let’s say you get a more expensive HVAC system that costs less to operate. After a certain number of years, it pays for itself, and it’s eventually a reverse annuity for the client,” he explains. “You’ve also got to think about how long the system will last before you need to replace it. A system with a higher price tag that lasts for five more years is probably the better value.”

Yes, that means that you might pay more up front initially. The good news is that an eco-friendly builder can greatly reduce your living expenses over the long term while providing a comfortable, sustainable home.

“We have several accounts of people who built homes several times bigger than their old homes—old meaning homes from the ’50s and ’60s—where the monthly energy costs are significantly lower in newer, larger homes,” Bogard says.

To ensure sustainable construction, you’ll need to work closely with your contractor from the first stages of the process. Bogard notes that many “sustainable” construction projects start off on the wrong foot.

“When you stick-frame a house in the traditional way, you end up with a lot of waste that ends up in the dumpster, which ends up in the landfill,” he says. “When you use wall panels, the sections of the home come out, get delivered to the home, and there is no waste, so nothing is going to the landfill. It’s a win–win. You’ve got to look at the whole home to do things the right way.”

Starting Small: Quick Ways to Make Your Home More Sustainable

Let’s say that you don’t have the budget for huge renovations, and you’re not in the market for a new home. Are you doomed to waste fossil fuels and suffocate on VOCs until the end of time? Not quite.

Minor home improvements can improve both air quality and sustainability. For starters, consider adding a few plants. Some studies show that certain house plants can improve indoor air quality by removing VOCs from the air in a process called phytoremediation (don’t worry, there’s no quiz at the end of this article).

However, you need to get the right type of plant, as some indoor plants can actually release VOCs. Bill Wolverton, PhD, is one of the NASA scientists who discovered this effect, and he recommends Boston ferns, bamboo palms, and dwarf date palms, among other species.

When you’re ready to tackle sustainable interior design, remember: Reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order. Try not to purchase anything you don’t need, and wherever possible, avoid brand-new products.

“Buy quality secondhand pieces,” Reiner suggests. “There are so many online platforms to buy pre-loved pieces in any style and price range these days. This reduces [the] demand for new products that require virgin resources and fossil fuel for shipping and trucking.”

Reiner says to steer clear of cheap furniture manufactured in other countries, as tempting as the low price tag might seem.

“The wood is probably composite wood glued with formaldehyde, the fabric is probably petroleum based, the foam cushions may have been sprayed with fire retardant, and they were shipped long distances on ships using petroleum,” she says. She recommends taking 15 minutes to research manufacturers and look for green alternatives prior to each purchase.

“I am fascinated with products made from unwanted material,” Reiner says. “There are countertops made of recycled glass or stone, aluminum tiles made from old airplane wings, beautiful tables made from old barn wood, and leather floor and wall tiles made from reclaimed leather. Reclaiming or repurposing unwanted materials is great for three reasons: First, you greatly reduce the amount of energy, water, and virgin materials needed for the product. Second, less waste will enter the landfill. Third, the products might be made closer to home.”

What if you don’t like any of the sustainable options? We’re not judging; we’re pretty picky when it comes to interior home design.

“Even if there’s nothing you like in your style or budget, you can always limit your footprint,” Reiner says. “Take old paint to paint recycling centers or call carpet recyclers to pick up old materials. You can also donate old items—cabinets, materials, and furniture—to an organization like…Habitat for Humanity’s [ReStore].”   

When your main priority is reducing your carbon footprint, focus on making your home (relatively) airtight. If your home has a lot of windows, consider picking up some energy-efficient blackout curtains, which can keep your home cooler during the summer and warmer during the winter.

While you’re at it, check your windows for air leaks, which can easily cost you big bucks over the course of a year. During the winter, use temporary caulking to seal your windows (you’re not opening them until the spring, anyway), and consider getting rubber gaskets for any drafty electrical outlets. Use pipe blankets to keep water pipes warm during cold snaps.

Ultimately, your results will depend on your goals, budget, and your commitment to the project.

“Make a plan,” Reiner says. “The clearer you are about what you want, how you want it, and by when, the easier it will be to stay focused. Be your own project manager.”

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