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Building a Greener World, One Building at a Time

By Michelle LaBrosse with Erica Edmond

With ongoing concerns about rising energy costs and conservation, green building is a reality that speaks to the project manager within us all. Networks like Planet Green and HGTV have been dipping their toe into how to “green your home” with simple solutions like switching to different light bulbs or choosing an interior paint with a low-VOC. That is a great start to a greener lifestyle, but let’s dig a little deeper.

There are many other things to consider and execute to fully renovate your home or to even consider when purchasing a new home. A big one for most people is to find ways to identify and correct energy leaks through insulation.

The Whole is Greater Than Its Parts: People often think of insulation in parts, i.e. insulating one room or one area of the home, but to truly spend less energy heating or cooling your home, you need to look at your home’s insulation as a whole. For example, you may want to insulate an unfinished attic. All measures may be taken to ensure that energy does not leak from the attic, but your efforts will be fruitless if you do not also properly insulate your walls and your basement.

If your project is not a gut-renovation, there are few options to serve as a band-aid in the interim.

Air Leaks and Quality

  • Air Leaks: Stop the air leaks in the building envelope (perimeter walls, unheated basement ceiling and roof). An air leak usually occurs around windows, doors, outlets and small cracks in the floors and the walls.

  • Paint it Green: We’ve all heard about hazardous fumes that we breathe in from interior paints, and household cleaners. Switch to zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint. You can find these paints in a wide variety of colors and they are available in both interior and exterior grade. A lot of brands are offering a zero VOC line. Make sure you pay attention to formaldehyde content in millwork and furnishing.

  • Walls Need to Breathe: Walls need to “breathe” (taking up vapor from the air in humid conditions and release vapor into the air if it is dry inside) in order to handle the captured moisture content of the air. Gain control over the air movements to increase the benefit of the costly insulation. If your home is standard wood and sheet rock, consider introducing a whole-house mechanical ventilation program to protect your insulation investment.

  • Ace the Test: Try the “blower door test”  to identify leaks. This should be done by a professional, and will would take out the guess work from your plans and help greatly in the contractor’s bid evaluation process.

  • Throwing Money Out the Window: If your house is drafty, old windows could be your biggest problem. This should be in balance with the total insulation value of the house. Replace drafty windows that have low insulation value.

  • Retire Your HVAC Systems: If the HVAC system in your house is more than 20 years, you should consider replacing the system. There are very sophisticated furnaces that run on 90% efficiency. After going through the previous steps, you may find that your house requires a smaller system, which could save big bucks in the long term. If you live in a cold climate, it is a good idea to install an Energy Recovery Ventilator that transfers heat from the warm air that leaves the house to the cold air that enters the house in case you have mechanical ventilation.

Save Water: Consider installing dual-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads & faucets. These low-cost options significantly reduce water usage. If a new water heater needs to be installed, consider choosing a smaller on-demand water heater that is close to the point-of-use. This way you reduce the amount of water that goes down the drain while you are waiting for hot water to reach the upper bathroom for a quick rinse.

Let There Be Light: Make the best use of natural light in your home and you have an everlasting, free solution. The best lighting conditions exist if you install at least two windows per room. Place them on either two walls or a wall plus ceiling combination. Introducing natural light will save you money, look beautiful and, best of all, it reduces interior heat from electric lights which then reduces the need for air conditioning.

Swap your current lights to an efficient fluorescent or LED type of fixture. There has been a great improvement with LED technology; you can now find a wide selection of fixtures that use LED lighting. It is recommended to analyze your home or work environment carefully to make sure that you get the same or better luminosity than before. Changing only bulbs for CFL of LED bulbs could be a good retrofit if you don’t want to touch the ceiling design.

Another incentive is that most of the energy improvements needed are eligible for tax credit through government and local programs.


  • Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle: Whatever you call it, repurposing materials you already have in your home saves money and gives new life to something useful. Reduce waste to a minimum by sorting out structural materials, hardwood flooring, doors and windows that could be relocated somewhere else according to your new design. This could save you on dumpster fees, materials cost and time. What comes out of a demolition is a potential gold-mine for a wise contractor. There are places that you can sell or donate unwanted materials. Think about how much you can save from the waste that goes into landfills from demolition.

  • New Selections: Use a flooring material that is quickly renewable, like Bamboo and cork. There are a huge variety of salvaged flooring materials on the market from various sources. These can add to your design. For countertops, consider one with large recycled content. For cabinets, try to refinish your functional existing ones. For example, just  y replacing the doors, you give your cabinets a new face and save a great deal.

Investing in the long-term benefits of all the improvements implemented will serve you well in the long run. Lowered energy bills, increased value on your home, not to mention the health benefits of being around natural materials will all contribute to a positive impact on your life. Unless you have deep pockets and unlimited resources, it’s understood that you may need to take this one step at a time. Have a plan and think about the various stages that need to happen first, second and third and then break those down into smaller steps. Treat it like the priority project that it is for both your wallet and your well-being.  

Read other articles and learn more about Michelle LaBrosse.

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