Friday, July 24, 2009


I live in a green home. My home is not special, nor was it marketed as an example of “green” building. Like hundreds of houses in Missoula, it was built in the 1940's using durable materials (intended last 100+ years). Its construction contributed to the local economy and was made from locally available, sustainable materials. The wood was harvested by local workers from local forests and milled locally. It is small by today’s standards, but it is a great, useful space and occupies a small footprint, and we do not need bigger house.

I do not have an on demand water heater, fiber cement siding, photovoltaic panels, solar hot water (though I’d like to), low VOC paint, bamboo flooring (I could rant about this greenwash sometime), sustainably harvested exotic wood decking or all the other trendy “green” building products. However, when I moved into it, my entire home was 100% reused.

To me this is the best way to promote “green” building: buy a home that is already in place. It is surprisingly simple, yet in much of the green literature this view is not expressed. I think the first step in green building should be “build nothing”. But that probably won’t sell too well.
Inherently, buying, remodeling or renovating an existing home, is less impactful, less resouce intensive, and more sustainable than new construction.

I was very disappointed to read a story about green building in a magazine at the airport recently that was devoted to the topic. One article was devoted to questions and answers about how to build green. This question caught my eye, it went something like this, and I will paraphrase:

Question: Can my existing home be green or can I green it?

Answer: Maybe, but you will probably be better off building a new one and incorporating all the green features you desire.

After catching my breath and counting to three, I have to allow that, in fairness, there is some molecule of truth to this. Some things are more cost effective or practicable with new vs. existing construction. And there are a lot of limitations (read: opportunities or potential from my perspective) with my old house. For example, the walls are only 2x4 construction, location on the lot does not provide a great location for PV panels or solar hot water, when poured, my foundation was not insulated, and these things are difficult to change.

However, because of decisions we have made and our lifestyle, our home is energy efficient and “green”. Compared to other homes, we use very little water, gas and electricity and every year we strive to and do use less and less. We make improvements to the efficiency to reduce your demand, and it has been working.

As we have remodeled we have tried to be thoughtful about our choices for building materials and energy efficiency. We recently installed a metal roof after eking out all possible life from the existing roof, replaced the worst leaking windows and those on the south face of our home with efficient low e glass. We even painted our house rather than installing new siding, since our ugly siding was in perfect shape and will probably last forever (unfortunately). Throughout our remodeling projects we use reused and recycled materials whenever possible, and from local sources. We have been slowly upgrading to all energy efficient appliances, as our budget allows and as the appliances that came with the place succumb to old age. Our biggest remodel is our basement; will be mostly made from reused materials.

Obviously green building is a business, and it is a concept that is selling now. For many, building green has nothing to do with sustainable living, but is a way to justify living unsustainably. The bottom line is building and living green does not have to be expensive. We can make simple choices and thoughtful decisions, most of which require no money but often require difficult changes. I am sure many of you live in green homes, too. The biggest things you can do to green your home or life are often free.

And don’t forget your native plant garden for local wildlife.


  1. David,

    Excellent points made here! We added lots of green features to our remodel and addition. This week a simple clothes line.

  2. Good points! Too bad about the solar, though. We put some up when we moved into our house, and it's been great to watch the meter go backwards...

  3. I have always wanted to renovate something rather than buy new. More charm in an old farm house and the materials would be more than likely, local. I would like to incorporate some of the green new fancy gadgets though.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have solar hot water, PV panels, a grey water recovery system, and so on. But my point is you don't have to buy a lot to have a green house.
    Thanks again,

  5. An excellent article...
    Years ago, we bought a small countryhouse, (it's now 100 year old.) Not very old, but build according to a century-old building tradition.
    And guess... because of it's orientation (facing south, with lots of windows that side, and only a few small 'holes' at the north) the house is very cool in summer, and we don't need the heating turned on when the sun is shining in winter.
    (As an extra bonus: the roof has the optimal orientation and slope for PV-panels (planned for this fall).

  6. Well put, Dave! I too live in a reused home, the old railroad depot, and although not as efficient as it could be, it was 100% recycled by us to stand another 70 years. I actually hope I don't need it that long. lol.

  7. This is good article i liked this article, I have always wanted to renovate something rather than buy new. More charm in an old farm house and the materials would be more than likely

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