Green means go, go, go!
Remodelers enter the final frontier of green building
You're ready to do it:You’re ready to invest in a major remodel that will turn your house into an eco-friendly home. Before you install insulation made of recycled newspapers or floor tiles made of ground-up light bulbs, however, imagine a remodeled house that wins gold stars not only for the environment, but also for you. A house that improves your mood and brain function, smells good, is ultra-quiet, eliminates harmful toxins from the air, saves money, and requires little dusting. And, when you’re ready to move on, it sells quickly for a tidy premium.
No, you’re not dreaming. Studies have linked green building to all of these benefits. Plus, as more builders and manufacturers jump on the bandwagon, the costs of “going green” are dropping dramatically.
Still, green building is complicated. Since the movement began 30 years ago, a lot of cooks have crowded into the kitchen. First came the eco-activists of the 1970s, pushing solar and rammed-earth building techniques. Then came architects and building scientists in the ’80s and ’90s. Now, the New Urbanists, city planners, ecologists, and landscapers have also joined in. The result is a green-building philosophy better described as a “holistic” or “systems approach.” Today, green building encompasses a broad spectrum of features, including energy and resource efficiency, durability, density, green space, and livability.
Green building remains the purview of a handful of builders, most of whom only work on commercial buildings or new construction where they maintain optimum control over the process. But a small group of Minnesota builders are brave players in the Wild West of green building: residential remodeling. Here, we focus on four of these mavericks, each of whom is dedicated to green in his own idiosyncratic way.
For Michael Anschel, principal of Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build in Minneapolis, remodeling green is like a choose-your-own-adventure story: you never know what will come up, and you have to react with your gut and conscience.
Photo by Andrea RuggMichael Anschel
Photo by Andrea Rugg
But, for Anschel, that’s part of the fun. Last year, he rehabbed a 1920 home in south Minneapolis that needed a complete redesign of the first floor—all the way down to the framing. The home had a three-year-old, 80-percent efficient boiler, and a decision needed to be made: “On the one hand, we could have ripped out the boiler and added a high-efficiency system for the whole house, or we could have used that same amount of money to put a hydronic in-floor system into the remodeled spaces, and leave the boiler alone,” says Anschel. He, and the owners, opted for the hydronic in-floor system, which uses warm water to heat the floorboards. Anschel even had money left over to incorporate a foil-stamped plywood product, called Warmboard, which reflects heat back into the rooms, making them feel warmer. He also super-insulated all of the revamped spaces with spray-foam insulation, and insulated directly underneath the roof, using a “hot-roofing” process. He used passive-solar design techniques, such as omitting the upper cabinets in the kitchen to allow for more natural daylight.
In the end, the owners are conserving energy, and the new spaces feel incredibly toasty. “Sometimes you just have to improvise with the house you’re working on,” Anschel says.
Bob Alf founded St. Paul-based Bob Alf Construction in 2005, but he’s no rookie. He’s been the deconstruction and reuse expert at The Green Institute and construction manager for LOCUS Architecture, a noted eco-architecture firm. It’s a roundabout career path that’s fostered his methodical approach to green building.
Provided by Bob Alf ConstructionBob Alf
Provided by Bob Alf Construction
“I think of it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” he explains. “On the bottom of the pyramid, there’s the basic protections of the house, then the thermal envelope, then the mechanical systems, and then, finally, the fun and visual stuff.” Alf admits that the model is kind of stuffy, but it’s saved him on more than one occasion.
For example, several years ago, he began working with the owners of a cool, 1950s-style house in St. Paul. They were scheming for a much-needed kitchen remodel, but—following his philosophy—Alf checked the house’s basic stability before they got started. He discovered the 50-year-old butterfly-style, tar-and-pitch roof had never been replaced. The pitch was giving way, allowing water into an interior wall. Further tests revealed mold damage. “The truth is, if I hadn’t discovered that, that family’s gorgeous $120,000 kitchen project would have been a total waste, damaged and destroyed after six months,” says Alf.
The health of the house always comes first, and that means worrying about mold and radon, good pressurization, sound structural elements, and smart construction. “The people in the trades are all specialists—plumbers, electricians, framers,” says Alf. “But green building is about being a generalist, a person who sees the house as a whole entity. That’s the future.”
With Tom Menke and Nate Smith, you could blame their obsession with residential green remodeling on a dangerous mix of youthful idealism and a strong urge to quit their jobs. They had both graduated from St. Thomas—Nate with a degree in entrepreneurship and Tom in geography—and had big ideas about green building. They particularly wanted to apply those ideas to a three-story house on Emerson Avenue known as “the garbage house,” after tons of trash, rotting food, old newspapers, boxes of random junk, and old salon chairs were hauled out of it.
Photo by Alex SteinbergTom Menke and Nate Smith
Photo by Alex Steinberg
The two 26-year-olds purchased the house, and then set about greening it up through salvaging. Smith notes that three different contractors recommended tearing down “the garbage house” before they started on the project. “Our view is, any time you can salvage something, that’s probably the most sustainable you can get,” says Menke, who, along with Smith, runs The Urban Project in Minneapolis, has applied green techniques to two remodels, including “the garbage house,” and is now building a green multi-family development called the E2 City Homes in south Minneapolis.
They kept the walls intact at the Emerson project, and didn’t re-wire or re-insulate, but they did install a 90-percent efficient furnace system and durable materials, such as triple-paned high efficiency windows.
“Green remodeling is one of the toughest things you can do as a builder,” says Menke. “But when it catches on, the impact is going to be far and wide because there’s a lot of housing stock out there to be saved.”
How green are you?Few green remodelers work in Minnesota, but when Minnesota’s green-remodeling guidelines are introduced in January 2008, it might spur more action.
Think your remodeling project is already primed for the green spotlight? Six or more “yes” answers to the abbreviated green quiz below earn you green kudos from Midwest Home and, more important, from the environment.
1. Is your house smaller than the national average (2,434 square feet)?
2. Does your house have spray-foam or other advanced varieties of insulation?
3. Does your house have a high-efficiency furnace?
4. Does your house use any of the following: photovoltaic panels, solar heating, or passive ventilation?
5. Does your house have a forced-air heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system?
6. Does your house have a fresh-air intake system?
7. Did you re-use or donate as many pre-existing materials as possible from your remodeling job?
8. Did your builder conduct a blower-door test or an infrared scan before and after your remodeling job?
9. Does your house have any of the following: oxygenated showerheads, dual-flush toilets, or Energy Star appliances?
10. Did you hire a certified Energy Rater to double-check your mechanical systems after installation?
11. Did you incorporate sustainable, local, or efficiently produced materials?
12. Give yourself an extra point for going online.
Alyssa Ford is assistant editor of Midwest Home.
For more information on resources featured in this story, please reference our Buyer's Guide.