Doing A Home Renovation? 6 Things To Consider To Make It More Sustainable
After so much time at home, many people are feeling the itch to redesign, renovate, or rebuild altogether. These changes can get really resource-intensive really quickly, and eco-minded homeowners might be wondering if there's anything they can do to keep their renos as sustainable as possible. To find out how to pull off a grand redesign on a small footprint, we asked architect and author of House to Home: Designing Your Space for the Way You Live Devi Dutta-Choudhury for some insider tips:
Place your windows wisely.
If you're looking to keep your new home or addition low-impact, windows are one of the first things to consider. By placing lots of skylights and panes in areas that get strong sun, you can reduce your home's electricity and heating needs in the long run, Dutta-Choudhury explains. Working with nature's rhythms and not against them is always the goal.
Lighting cues can also help you decide how to lay out your new space. "Maybe you don't want a quiet bedroom on a super-sunny side of the house or a kitchen in a dark corner," she says. "That's something simple to think about from the beginning, but it's harder to change later on."
Salvage what's usable...
Renovating what you already have will always be more sustainable than starting from scratch. That being said, it isn't always feasible: "A lot of places, unfortunately, were built very cheaply," Dutta-Choudhury says. "So maybe when you open up the wall, you realize it's not worth saving."
Nonetheless, she recommends going into a project with the intention of saving and salvaging whenever possible, to reduce your need for new materials. Who knows; you might be rewarded with beautiful wood framing that can be repurposed as vanities, countertops, etc.
... and recycle what isn't.
Even well-intentioned renovations and builds will inevitably lead to tons of waste: 600 million tons a year, to be precise, according to a 2018 report by the EPA1 on construction and demolition debris in the U.S. Concrete tends to be the most-discarded material, followed by asphalt and wood. Luckily, all of these can be recycled and reused relatively easily.
Some cities in the U.S. are now requiring that a certain percentage of construction waste be diverted away from landfills. If that's not the case where you live, keeping these materials out of the dump will require working closely with your contractor, since they'll have to keep an eye out for elements that can be recycled, donated, or reused during the demolition process. "It's something you have to build into the project beforehand with the contractor so they know that's a goal of yours," Dutta-Choudhury advises.
Shop locally for materials.
There are lots of nature-based building materials in the works right now, from insulation made from mushroom mycelium to carbon-absorbing timber walls. But until these eco-alternatives are readily available on the market and construction workers are trained on how to use them, our options are relatively limited.
While some foundation, wall, and finishing materials are lower-impact than others, Dutta-Choudhury says that they are all relatively resource-intensive in one sense or another. In her book, she gives bamboo floors, made from a natural material that grows quickly, as an example: "While we installed bamboo floors in our addition, the fact that they were originally harvested in a remote forest and then shipped across a vast ocean kind of diminishes their renewable sourcing," she writes. "While a material like bamboo is eco-friendly from some metrics, it is not when you look at it from another perspective."
With that in mind, she considers the most sustainable materials to be the ones you can buy locally: Look into what's available within 200 miles of your home to cut down on the emissions it takes to ship such heavy materials across the world.
Top it off with energy-saving touches.
While they require a significant upfront investment, Dutta-Choudhury says that finishes like induction stoves, energy-efficient appliances, well-insulated walls, and thick casement windows (which open outward instead of sliding to allow for more airflow) can all reduce your home's emissions in the long run.
Design based on your life (not the latest trends).
Considering that all construction projects are environmentally taxing at the end of the day, designing a home that will stand the test of time is ultimately the most sustainable thing you can do. Instead of making decisions based on trends that will be passé in the coming decades, Dutta-Choudhury recommends being more intentional with your styling.
"What do you really like? If you create that in a high-quality way, that will be timeless," she says, adding that enduring styles like mid-century modern and Art Nouveau prove that authentic, thoughtful design will only get better with age. Music to any environmentalist's ears.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.