What are the decisions you will encounter when remodeling their home that have an impact on the planet? The choices you make for your project might not have an immediate impact on the role of the building industry in addressing climate change overall, but they do matter. What power do you have to make your renovation as “green” as possible?
When renovating there are a thousand little choices that come up and each decision has an impact on our planet. Familiar buzzwords– "green", "efficient", "sustainable" –can be associated with many products without consistent meaning and without having to meet specific standards. In order to avoid getting lost in a sea of buzzwords and marketing, it's helpful to have core principles to put into practice that can steer you toward common sense ways to make your renovation more friendly to our planet.
“In the building industry, embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials. In contrast, operational carbon refers to the greenhouse gas emissions due to building energy consumption.” We recommend checking out the Carbon Leadership Forum if you are interested in understanding more, and for information about the types of policy action that could address emissions on a global scale.
Most homeowners are familiar with thinking about the operational carbon impact of their home through the context of how much electricity and fuel they use to heat, cool, and operate their homes. Choosing to take steps to increase the energy efficiency of a home during a renovation, such as weatherization and air sealing, is one way to reduce negative impacts on the planet.
The most straightforward way a person can reduce the embodied carbon impact of their remodeling project is to incorporate as many natural materials as possible and to source those materials as locally as possible. Sourcing all kinds of building materials locally is not always feasible, but opportunities do exist. For example, in Vermont we have excellent access to lumber produced in our region.
Other examples of natural materials include natural wood siding which is less harmful than manufactured siding, such as vinyl, especially if that wood siding is expertly installed into a durable cladding system that will ensure that the material can last for generations. Natural flooring such as oak or Vermont maple is far less emissive than vinyl plank flooring or imported woods like Brazilian Cherry. Naturally derived insulation choices such as cellulose or wood fiberboard are far, far kinder to our planet than petroleum-based foams.
While some of these materials can increase project costs in certain circumstances, that is not always the case. You should look to your contractor as a partner to help you understand both the financial and environmental impact of the choices you can make for your project. One of the strengths of working with a Design-Build team is having a partner who approaches the project as a whole - considering all of your goals for your project and providing access to transparent cost information every step of the way. If you're considering a renovation, consider seeking a team who can help you determine where to invest a little more in lasting finishes that you will love, and that will keep our world a little cleaner.
In the past, it was considered enough for builders to focus on the energy efficiency of a home in service of reducing fossil fuel consumption. As the climate crisis looms more ominous, and we have less time to fix our emissions problem, there is more to do. If we focus only on how little energy will be needed to heat a home but ignore the embodied carbon of the materials themselves, the ugly truth is that the embodied carbon associated with the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of some building materials might far outweigh the carbon savings created by a more efficient home.
Aside from choosing low emission materials and improving energy efficiency, another way to reduce a project's carbon impact is to simply build less. A well-designed floor plan can condense a home to its essential functions into less square footage without sacrificing quality of life. A well-designed home can feel twice as large because of a meaningful floor plan that was designed for the unique needs, daily traffic patterns, and activities of the occupants. Improving energy efficiency, using natural and local materials when possible, and utilizing expert and thoughtful design are the principles to keep in mind as you navigate the many options and decisions involved in a renovation or building project.