When remodeler Michael McCutcheon visits Boston, he is struck by the longevity of some of the city's buildings. Take Paul Revere's home. Built around 1680, the house was remodeled at various times for a wealthy merchant, Revere's family, a candy store, a cigar factory, and more. The home remains today as a historic museum on its original site.

McCutcheon uses that attitude and approach when asked about the meaning of green remodeling. He says pros should be building and remodeling structures to last at least 500 years.

"Green remodeling is the recycling of buildings," says the Berkeley, Calif.-based president of McCutcheon Construction. "Instead of recycling the cabinets, the doors, or the trim, remodelers are recycling buildings." 
Second Chances
While many new-home builders are looking to reduce their homes' environmental footprint, green remodelers have a chance to give their clients a healthier or more comfortable dwelling without starting from scratch. "Remodeling is inherently greener than building new homes," says Abe Degnan, vice president of Degnan Design Builders, a building and remodeling firm based in DeForest, Wis. "You're working with existing infrastructures and with the houses that most need to be improved and greened," he says. "Beyond that, green remodeling is very much like other green processes."

In fact, remodeler Connie McCullah poses criteria for green remodeling that sound a familiar note to anyone already keeping up on the green building trend: "Is it energy efficient? Does it improve indoor air quality? And what's our resource conservation, what's our footprint on the planet?" says the co-owner of Odin's Hammer, a green design/build company based in Berkeley, Calif.

McCullah says her and her husband's green remodeling actually started with a concern about the health of the young men in their crews, many of whom had families and were using potentially toxic products. Seeing an employee running a power saw to cut a piece of plywood, sending sawdust and the product's urea-formaldehyde bindings into the air, led her to consider products like low-VOC paints, caulks, and adhesives, as well as certified and healthy wood products.

The partners' desire to create a healthier environment for their employees led them to ask, "Why aren't we creating a healthier environment for our client to live in?" That concern finally spread to the community at large. "It's the main focus of all of our design and all of our production," she says.

In addition to low-VOC products, McCullah often includes products such as air exchangers, which bring fresh air into the kitchen and bath, and radiant floor heating, which heats a room without stirring up allergens.

A number of remodelers say that green remodeling reflects their values of stewardship and conservation, or that it's good for employee retention and morale. But they also point out that it makes good business sense, particularly at a time when green consciousness is elevated. "[Our] No. 1 lead generation, beside repeat customers and direct referrals, is coming from the [Madison, Wis.] Green Built Home Web site," Degnan says. Plus, he says, green remodelers can sell upgrades and have greater profits due to green features.

Project Priorities
But while green remodeling has similar goals of green building, it's not nearly as simple. No two remodeling projects are identical, of course, and the amount of "green-ness" you can bring to a kitchen remodel is different from that of an addition. Incorporating green practices into a remodel requires a great deal of forethought, as well as a conversation with your clients about their needs.

"When we modify a structure, we take into account what needs to be done, and what benefits our green practices will bring to the table," says Willie Delfs, a builder and remodeler and president of Able Homebuilders in Sioux City, Iowa. "At minimum we will bring into the equation energy efficiency, whether that be in the form of HVAC equipment, windows, insulation, water heating, or appliances. We try to use recycled or sustainable materials." 

He also specifies what his client gets out of it. "The benefits to our customers are a cheaper environment to operate, a more durable product, and a better indoor environment," he says.

Remodelers agree that conducting an energy audit should be a high priority if the project involves exterior remodeling or significant interior remodeling with an opportunity for air sealing. "Energy efficiency and air sealing work is critical and, in my opinion, is the biggest component of green building to start with," Degnan says. The remodeler can determine if the duct or building envelope need work, and can specify an HVAC system that suits the space. They can then determine how successful their improvements were with blower door or infrared testing.

Many of those options are off the table, however, if the project is only focusing on the kitchen, bath, or basement. "One of the obstacles is the budget or scope of work limitation," Degnan says. "You may be forced to ignore a problem in another area because it's not part of the project." But remodelers point out that you can influence the small piece of the home that you've got; Degnan says it can sometimes take clients several projects and 5, 10, or 15 years or more to green their entire home.

Overcoming Obstacles
Some clients might be interested in green, but may be thrown off by the cost, or even the perception of higher costs. "Green can be more expensive," Degnan says, but "some options don't cost significantly more. It's important to be educated and help the homeowner decide what their green preferences and priorities are."

Other homeowners might lose interest if they find out a remodeled home can't be certified for their local green program, says Dan Taddei, director of education and certification for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. "You have the challenge of, 'What's the resale value?'" he says. "Much of what you're doing is unseen. It's reflected in the comfort of the home and the energy efficiency of the home." Bringing out the energy bills is one way to show the value of green improvements.

Despite its challenges, you don't have to be an expert to pick out a few aspects of green building and begin educating yourself or incorporating them into your business. "Green remodeling is just like the salad bar. You can take as much as you want or as little as you want," says Dana Bres, research engineer for the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing. "There are multiple shades of green,"
he adds.

The key is to find out what your clients are interested in. Their goals are usually higher than the budget, "so the remodeler helps the client focus on what's important," Bres says. Just like in any remodeling process, it forces the pro to be an educator and a coach.

Still on the fence? "The best way to get started is just to start to do something," says Chris Donatelli, vice president of Donatelli Castillo Builders, a remodeling contractor in San Jose, Calif. When he wanted to initiate greening his business, he began to recycle waste wood and cardboard from his projects. After that, he began to educate himself on better air sealing and healthier finishes, and he now recycles old toilet fixtures, doors, and other leftover products. "Taking it all in one big gulp is like trying to drink from a firehose," he says. Your first green projects don't need to incorporate it all, he adds. "They can be baby steps."

Click here to read three case studies of remodeling/renovation projects.

This article originally appeared in Building Products magazine.

Green Guidance

If you're looking for guidance, several organizations are developing or already have green remodeling programs. Here's the scoop: 

  • The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) has both education and a certification program. The green education program, available as a tele-seminar or through some local chapters, runs for a total of 24 hours over 12 weeks and covers the basics of building science, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and a variety of other systems and green processes. GCP, or "Green Certified Professional," is a designation offered by the organization to remodelers that meet education and experience prerequisites and pass a comprehensive exam. 

  • Regreen is a set of residential remodeling guidelines developed through a partnership by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). The guidelines are in draft mode, with a final introduction expected at the ASID conference this month. The program will help design and construction professionals understand green remodeling best practices, and will complement USGBC's LEED for Homes, according to Linda Sorrento, director of education and research partnership for the USGBC.

  • NAHB's Model Green Home Building Guidelines were meant to apply to new homes, but as part of the ICC-NAHB committee's work to convert the guidelines to an ANSI standard, the committee is adding a section that applies to residential remodeling, says Calli Schmidt, NAHB director of environmental communications. After that, she adds, remodelers will be able to use an online scoring tool so remodeling projects can be nationally certified after being verified in the field. The NAHB also offers a Certified Green Professional designation.  

  • www.greenhomeguide.com: Homeowners looking to remodel green will be able to find local NARI Green Certified Professionals in GreenHomeGuide's green directory, according to NARI. 

  • www.toolbase.org: Provides technical information on building systems and green technologies.

Waste Not, Want Not

Remodeling may be like recycling a home, but to make the most environmental impact, remodelers should consider using recycled building materials in their projects or salvaging the building materials from deconstruction to reuse in the home or to sell. About 30 percent to 40 percent of the country's waste comes from building, renovation, and demolition, and almost 40 percent of that waste comes from renovation, according to Brad Guy, president of the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA). Salvaging building materials by either reusing them in a renovation or donating or selling them to reuse stores keeps them out of the landfills. Plus, Guy adds, "There's an awful lot of historic and high-quality materials that get thrown away. That's a cultural loss."

Guy says cabinets are the most popular salvage item for reuse groups, but windows and doors, kitchen and bath fixtures and appliances, and lighting fixtures are all big sources of products for the groups.

About 1,000 to 1,200 stores nationwide offer salvaged building materials, Guy estimates, and some will strip out useful materials from projects for free in exchange for keeping the materials-one aspect of a project you can outsource at no cost. Reclaimed materials sometimes can be 30 percent to 50 percent of the price of a new product, Guy adds, so reusing products can be green and inexpensive-and a way to please a green client with a taste for the one-of-a-kind.

To find a reuse store or salvage service near you, try these resources:

  • BMRA: Offers a directory of reuse stores and salvage services.

  • www.build.recycle.net: Pros can buy, sell, or trade used building materials of all kinds.

  • EPA: The Office of Solid Waste has a page dedicated to resources on construction and demolition materials.

  • Freecycle, Craigslist, and eBay: While not exclusively focused on building materials, these sites can be useful online resources for buying and selling salvaged products.

  • Habitat ReStore: Includes a directory of ReStores that salvage and sell reused building materials at a discount. --J.L.