5 Easy ways to get a greener home

When you hear the term "green building," you might first think of solar panels on the roof or compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. Then you might start to think of bigger concepts, like walls built with straw bales. But while CFLs definitely have their place in every home, and straw bale walls are great for insulation in some applications, solar power is one of the last things you should think about.

First, you should shrink your home's energy use as much as possible, manage your light and heat gain and loss, make sure you have good air quality and check to ensure that you have well-maintained surfaces inside and out. Then crown your green masterpiece with a photovoltaic array. It's important to prioritize your wants and needs during a green remodel, as with any other project.

Here are five places to start.

1. Buy a bath fan. What's the most important thing in a bathroom? It's hard to argue with a toilet and some running water. But after those (and before you add a shower), you need a bath fan. I'm amazed at how many bathrooms I go in that don't have one. A window is not enough, and a small noisy fan that nobody wants to turn on is not going to do you any good.

Buy a good, quiet bath fan, and if it doesn't have an occupancy sensor, wire it with a separate timer switch. A fan should run for at least 10 minutes after you leave the room for odors and 20 to 30 minutes after a shower. Make sure it vents to the outside. Though it's important to have a certain level of moisture in the air in your home, it's not good to have it all in one place. Vent your bathroom and your paint will last longer, you won't run the risk of mold growth and cleaning will be easier.

2. Manage the light. Managing the light that enters your home is a way to save on utility bills and make your home a more cheerful place. Strategically placed awnings and roof overhangs can help you do this. In the summer, when you don't want as much light or heat, the sun is higher in the sky. Because the light hits your house at a steeper angle, the same awning that blocks out light in the summer will allow the low-angled winter light in when you need it most.

The awning pictured here serves another purpose. Because it is set down below the top of the window, it reflects light up onto the ceiling inside, creating a nice ambient glow inside instead of a glare.

Another great way to get light into your home without bringing in a lot of unwanted heat is to install a solar light tube. These capture the low-angled winter light using reflective coatings within a roof-top dome, and are much easier to install than a skylight since they require no structural headers. Also don't feel limited to rooms right below the roof. The reflective tubes can be run down from the second floor to the first floor though closets or thick walls, and they can even make slight turns.

3. Insulate. If you spent a lot of money getting the most efficient windows you could afford, don't let the heat escape all around their sides.

If you've ever used a can of foam, however, you know it can be a tricky, messy process, and some is inevitably wasted when the can dries up. So if you have a lot of foaming to do, invest in a foam gun. The foam doesn't dry out, and you can control the flow rate, which means the application process will be less messy and less wasteful.

Once you seal up your house with foam and caulk, you don't want to trap harmful pollutants inside. Indoor air is generally much worse for you than outdoor air, so don't make it worse by using home improvement products that release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.

Most of you have probably heard of no-VOC paints. But what about the painter's caulk? I've tried many "green" caulks, and most are not as easy to use as standard painter's caulk. This product from Geocel is solvent free and VOC free, and it works great.

4. Use reclaimed materials. Most metropolitan areas now have several architectural salvage shops. While materials made from recycled materials are great, remember that it's reduce, reuse and then recycle.

Reclaimed materials are a great way to reuse. Go to your local salvage yard and think creatively. Here a wall is dressed up with old boards, some with the original paint on them. Reclaimed doors, light fixtures and tile are all great ways to give a space character. Don't be afraid to use something for a purpose other than what it was intended for; my coffee table at home is made of an old exterior shutter.

I know what you're thinking: "Kenny, you just got done telling me not to let my airtight home be filled with VOCs, and now you're telling me to bring crusty old building products into my house and leave the old lead paint on them for charm?"

Yes, but there's one more step. If you want to safely coexist with surfaces that may be covered in lead paint (and any painted surface from before 1978 should be considered a risk), you can encapsulate the lead by using a product like this one from Nansulate. It has a very low level of sheen, so you won't even know it's there. And you can get that rustic look without endangering your family.

5. Choose quality materials. Finally, think about every aspect of your project with that first "r" -- reduce -- in mind. We're currently renovating a house in Philadelphia built in the 1700s. The floors are original; the plaster is original; the brick front is original. By using materials that last, such as brick, we reduce the number of times a home needs to be renovated. And that means less waste and less energy used making new materials (and less work for contractors like me). Of course, there will always be work building for a growing population and serving people's changing needs and tastes. I just hate tearing out a cheap floor that lasted only 10 years.


Kenny Grono is the owner of Buckminster Green LLC, (http://www.buckminstergreen.com), a remodeling company based in Philadelphia, Pa.

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