Question

Is it more sensible to make energy efficiency upgrades on a 1960s home than to choose green options on a newly constructed home?

Asked by Tom Hemming

I've been told that remodeling an older (1960s) home with energy efficient components makes more sense green-wise than upgrading options on a newly constructed home. Can you recommend any good reading on this topic?

Answer

Steve Saunders

Answered by Steve Saunders

Irving, TX

TexEnergy Solutions, Inc

January 15, 2010

Your question poses quite a dilemma. What exactly is "green-wise"? One person could take it to mean the overall carbon impact of the decision. Under that scenario, perhaps there is less overall impact by not building another home. However, the next person might just measure their personal energy use as the key point of comparison and decide that an energy efficient new home would allow them to minimize the total personal impact of their energy use. Ultimately, the argument about what is or is not sustainable is personal in nature, and how you consider and rate the issues can have a striking impact on the eventual decision.

  • Consider that your location and your lifestyle—that is, how you live in your home—have a major impact on energy use and total carbon footprint. Do you walk your errands or must you drive? An older house may be closer to work or shopping than a new home built further out in the suburbs. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED green building rating system is designed to promote building locations where jobs and services are within walking distance of the home or near public transit. Walk Score will give you a walkability score for addresses in the United States, Canada, and the UK. 
  • The question of repair versus replace will always start a lively debate. There is no single answer that fits all situations. When do we repair our appliances and when do we buy new ones? Should I buy a new HVAC system that is much more efficient while my current one is still running? Do I cover or remove those asbestos tiles installed in the 1950s? What are the advantages of installing new efficient water fixtures versus keeping the current fixtures and avoiding the environmental costs from the manufacture and distribution of a new product? Do I tear down my current residence and rebuild a more efficient home in my favorite neighborhood? We will make many of these types of decisions in our lives. These questions have no clear-cut "right" or "wrong" answer. 

Ultimately, there is a wealth of information for you when you decide whether to upgrade or build new. You have plenty of support in searching for a good direction for either decision. 

Personally, I think that reading the LEED for Homes rating system and the expanded explanation guide for that system will carry you a long way, whether you are renovating or building new. The USGBC worked for seven years to understand residential building practices and to develop the green rating system that now defines homes (and other building types). This was a ground-breaking and paradigm-breaking effort in the early part of this decade and stands today as the definitive guide to going green. 

The USGBC's decision to LEED-certify existing buildings only when they have had or are having a gut rehab was a provocative move. This thoughtful decision—that a building must have a well-sealed and well-insulated exterior envelope in order to be green—is a stake in the ground for the importance of the envelope in consideration of the house as a system. The requirement for mechanical fresh air follows closely on that decision: if the envelope is tight, the home must have an effective mechanism to "breathe." In most markets, mechanical fresh air is relatively new and a retrofit to deliver mechanically driven fresh air is still rarely asked for, rarely offered, and seldom requested. 

There are a host of other books, magazines, and web sites that will offer general information as well as specific answers to highly technical questions. Some of these will guide you though successful case studies and offer links to additional resources and to contractors who work in your area. 

Books

Websites About New Green Homes

Websites About Existing Green Homes 

  • The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and USGBC's ReGreen Program is a great guide with specific case studies on how to green your existing home. 
  • The Energy Efficient Rehab Advisor, a resource funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a pretty good toolset of ideas and answers to your renovation questions. 

In the long term, your personal choice to live a greener lifestyle will have more impact than any specific decision about repairing or replacing materials. Changing your outlook changes your daily impact. Our personal commitments and actions have reverberations. Like the stone in the pond, the ripple effect of our personal choices will have influence far beyond our immediate circle. I believe that (eventually) we will all come to know that we have an environmental responsibility. 

I am reminded of an essay I once read about decisions required of CEOs of major organizations. The essay spoke of "making the right decision" versus "making the decision right." It is easy to make the right decision when the preponderance of evidence and information pushes us to one side of the scale. But our leadership is challenged when the costs and benefits of a particular decision seem about equal. What do we do then? The story, as presented, said that the best CEOs took a position and then worked to make that decision a right one. Note that I did not say the right one but a right one. The decision whether to renovate an existing home or build a new one has no single right answer. It does have a framework that allows each of us to make determinations on our own as to what is best for us and best for a sustainable earth—and then we are called to make that decision a good one. 

I wish you the best of luck in your search for a right and green answer.

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