Essential Steps to Green Remodeling

"We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape our lives."

Winston Churchill

Many home remodels typically involve wasting large quantities of materials; do little to reduce the home’s impact on the planet; don’t reduce life-cycle costs for the home; make use of toxic materials; and do little to enhance the health of the occupants. Home remodels don’t have to be that way. Instead green remodeling can use materials efficiently, with little waste; minimize a home’s impact on the planet; reduce the home’s energy and water costs; use only low toxic materials; and be done in a manor that enhances, rather then compromises your health. A building that has been remodeled with awareness to what is possible, can be a delight to enter, and bring serenity and health when occupied.


  • The first and one of the most important steps to green remodeling is choosing a good team to work with. It’s very helpful in doing a green remodel, to have as many members of your team to have as much green remodeling & green design experience as possible. It’s particularly helpful to have both your architect or designer and contractor to be well experienced with green remodeling. If that isn’t possible, then it’s essential that they each, at the least, have a positive attitude about it, and an interest in learning about it. It’s also very important that the contractor have subs that are willing to fully carry out all the steps to green remodeling that are going to be done. For many remodels, it’s helpful to involve a consultant to help bring the rest of the team up to speed on one or more aspects of green remodeling.

  • The next step is start planning out your remodel. For any home remodel, there are many, many decisions to make. You have to make design decisions, choose fixtures, appliances, colors and finishes and many more. Typically these decisions are largely made based functionality, aesthetics, personal preference and cost. When doing a green remodel, you need to add to those considerations, ones that include using low-toxic materials, reducing energy & water consumption, reducing your home’s effect on the surrounding area as well as on to the planet as a whole. Early on in this process, it’s important to define what your priorities are incorporating environmental considerations into your remodel.

    The pre-construction design process should include planning a design that works well for how you actually will be using your home, in a size no larger then you really need. It should include plans for a home that will be comfortable and enhance your enjoyment of living there. Be careful to choose low-toxic and resource efficient materials and finishes. Plan to include a heating & ventilating system that is energy efficient, includes good ventilation, and good filtration for the air.

    The plans and other documents from which the remodel will be done should be very clear on the remodels environmental priorities as well as specifically outline which finishes, materials and processes that are to be used. It should also include which materials and practices are not acceptable.

    Before the project begins your home should be carefully evaluated as to what existing problems it may have. Does it have any mold or other moisture problems? Is there off gassing from newer finishes or materials that are a problem? Does it have proper ventilation, particularly in wet areas such as bathrooms? Are there radon problems in your soils? Are there toxic materials in the home such as asbestos or lead in the paints? For any these where there are problems, a solution for them needs to be incorporated into your remodeling plan.

  • When the remodel begins, it’s important that the workers install barriers to fully isolate the work area from the non-work areas of your home. It’s often a good idea to run a fan from the work area out a window to depressurize it relative to the rest of the house to reduce the possibility of air flow from the work area to the non-work area. It’s also important to take steps to protect and surfaces or materials that may be at risk from damage during the remodeling process.

    The next step is to begin work by de-constructing any areas that need to be removed. This is different from the normal construction demolition process in that it usually involves taking things apart by hand for the purpose of optimizing the amount of materials that can be salvaged for reuse, or at least recycled. Many materials that are salvaged can be reused somewhere in your remodel. Other materials can be given or sold to others by taking them to a salvaged materials store, having a salvage sale, selling or giving them away through newspaper or internet listing, or simply putting them out on you curb with a free sign.

    During the construction process its good to use as much materials as practical that are salvaged or have a high recycled fiber content. It’s important to choose materials that are long lasting and are easy to maintain. It’s good to avoid the use of tropical hardwoods and use wood that is certified as sustainable with the FSC label as much as possible. As much waste as practical from the remodeling process should be re-used or recycled.

  • Probably the greatest environmental impact your home has over the long term has to do with how much energy it consumes. To reduce its energy consumption and reduce your homes life-cycle cost its helpful to: • Insulate all walls, attic & floors over unheated space as much as possible • Install highly energy efficient windows & exterior doors • Make your home’s shell as air tight as possible to save energy and improve comfort. With a relatively air-tight home it’s important to have a good whole house ventilation system. • If practical, optimize passive solar collection and consider install a solar hot water collector and/or photovoltaic collector • Use day-lighting and compact florescent lighting as possible • Use only highly efficient “Energy Star” appliances

    Reducing water consumption is also beneficial. This can be accomplished by having a very low-water landscaping; collecting rainwater for reuse; having flow restrictors on faucets & shower heads; low flush toilets; and by having a horizontal axis washing machine.

  • Quality control is a big issue for a healthy remodeling. During construction it’s important that everyone involved is following the steps and specifications for optimizing a high degree of indoor air quality for your home. In a large home remodel there can be many different subs and workers involved. Over the course of a remodel, there are hundreds of different materials used. There needs to be careful coordination and supervision with everyone involved so that all of the intended materials and processes are used properly. Additionally, there needs to be careful oversight to ensure that there aren’t any really bad products used and good coordination for changes that are made.

  • During the construction process there’s a number of steps that are particularly important to ensuring a healthy home. After each new finish is applied (such as paint or a flooring finish) its important to vent out the house for a few days. The off gassing for each of these steps is most significant just after their application. Venting out the house helps move the off gassing to outside and prevent a secondary off gassing from the same materials. Additionally it’s important that combustion heaters are not used as temporarily heaters while work is being done. Its important to have a good quality CO detector installed in your home if you have any combustion devices.

    It’s helpful that the jobsite be kept clean during the project. At the end of construction the furnace and ducts should be thoroughly cleaned by a quality company that specializes in that. Additional, the work area should be thoroughly cleaned and aired at the end of the job.

  • At the conclusion of your remodel it’s important that your contractor and his subs explain to you how everything works and how to maintain each component. Regular maintenance is absolutely key to ensuring that your home remain a healthy place. To make regular maintenance easier, it’s helpful that you or your contractor create a chart that outlines: • Each task that needs to be done • The frequency that it should be done • Information on what materials are needed for each task (like what furnace filter to buy) • Information on how to do the required maintenance for each item • Information on where to get materials needed for each task (like where to buy the best furnace filters) • A number of columns to record when the maintenance for each item has been done

    To maintain a healthy home it’s also important to keep your home very clean. It’s best to use low toxic cleaning products. It’s important to use a vacuum cleaner that uses a bag that captures a high percentage of the very small particles, such as done by a HEPA filter bag. It’s also helpful to create the practice in your home of not wearing shoes inside. Shoes that have been worn outside can track into your home many harmful toxins that may include pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and others. When buying new furniture, shelves, rugs, drapes and shades for your home, it’s important to get ones that are low toxic and easy to keep clean.

  • Jon Alexander is one of the founders of the Green Construction and Remodeling movement in the greater Seattle area. He is the principle of Sunshine Construction LLC. Some of his projects have been features in the local press and the New York Times. He can be reached at or by phone at:(206)782-4619