Ask Eartha: How to ensure sustainability in home remodeling (column) |

Ask Eartha: How to ensure sustainability in home remodeling (column)

Making renovations in your home to improve on more than just the aesthetic appeal, is the most cost-effective way to approach home remodeling.
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Dear Eartha,

I’m interested in remodeling my home this summer. How should I prioritize projects, and what sustainability considerations should I keep in mind as I start down this road?

— Drew, Breckenridge

Thank you for your question this week. We’re approached with this question regularly at the High Country Conservation Center through our home energy efficiency programs. Amidst a home-energy audit, I typically get the homeowner in a state of deep reflection on the status of their housing. As we walk through the home and I peek through the walls with an infrared camera, the homeowner curiously spies over my shoulder, enticed with a view of their home they’ve never seen before. They have been bestowed with a supernatural power, temporarily sure, but an incredible ability to see through their walls. They can see the cold structural framing, and they can see that patch of missing insulation in the attic. It’s at this moment that the gears begin to churn. There’s plenty of potential projects in any given home, many of which remain in plain sight, but, when a homeowner sees something they didn’t even realize was there, they become suddenly motivated to conquer those projects that have been sitting on the back burner. And then comes the million dollar question you have just asked: ‘OK, so there’s clearly some room for improvement, what things should I be considering as I rip this place apart?’

The simple answer:

A sustainable home remodel is one that addresses three primary considerations: The use of recycled or otherwise sustainable building materials, the reduction of project waste and reducing carbon footprint through energy efficiency measures.

Oftentimes, I find myself answering this question with several considerations of my own. What is the scope of work? What rooms will you be impacting? Will you be making structural changes to the home? I end up talking a homeowner’s ear off about renovation ideas, budget, etc., but, in the end, a successful and fun remodel really comes down to one thing: planning.

Remodeling your home can be a daunting task, especially if you plan to do things under a strict timeframe (as if project budget and having your kitchen in shambles isn’t enough of a headache). Get a game plan, and strategize which projects to take on first. My priorities in any remodel are to tackle projects that yield a return beyond the obvious aesthetic value. In my eyes, a high-priority project would be one that improves the floor plan, efficiency or overall value of the property. For example, projects that involve opening up walls provide the opportunity to address hidden concerns within that wall cavity, improve insulation and perhaps even improve floor plan. Putting a major addition on your home offers opportunities to build things right and to incorporate some advanced efficiency measures, such as insulated windows and doors. Remember, an important and sometimes overlooked component of home value is the operating cost of that property. This factor will continue to play a larger role in real estate markets as utility prices continue to rise.

The use of sustainable building materials in home remodeling has become commonplace over the course of the last decade. Architectural salvage yards and recycled building material warehouses have grown in popularity as the home improvement market seeks ways to reduce project waste. When demolishing, spend an extra few minutes to remove pieces without damaging them. Many furniture resale stores or building material resellers will pick up this material for free and may even lend you a hand in the demo process.

Oftentimes, the outcome of a remodel is improved through the use of quality, recycled items over virgin materials. Here in Summit County, contractors and homeowners alike have taken advantage of a recent influx in the supply of pine beetle wood. Reclaimed barn-wood has become incredibly popular, as well. Rather than seeking out granite or other mined stone for countertops, some homeowners have turned to recycled glass or even concrete countertops.

My approach to home remodeling also places a focus on sourcing project materials first. Don’t commit to a project until you either have the materials you will need or are certain you can get your hands on them. Remodeling sustainably is like going to the grocery store without a strict shopping list. Instead of having a list of specific items you need, remain flexible and shop based on what is locally available and what is offered at a great price. There’s no shame in sourcing project materials through Craigslist or Freecycle. I’ve found tremendous success in acquiring flooring in general through this process, as the amount of flooring for a project is often over-ordered, leaving excess material after a project is completed. Check with your local stone or granite yard and have an employee take you out back to their remnant yard. A half hour picking through piles of stone can turn up some amazing finds for smaller projects like mantles or bathroom countertops. Be resourceful, reduce what you throw away and implement applicable energy-improvement measures while you’ve got things opened up. Following these general guidelines will help you become a sustainable home remodeler.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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