One of the biggest trends in residential design is the sustainable home. Whether you’re considering a major renovation or looking for some light-yet-meaningful green adjustments, architects are ready and willing to lead you to a more energy-efficient abode.
“I take a green thermometer to my clients from the beginning and take their temperature,” said William Scholtens, AIA, principal of Elements Architectural Group in Oak Park, Illinois. “Sometimes they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, nor should they. They’re sharing a wish list, and it’s my job to come alongside and synthesize that list with them.”
If you’re a homeowner who is looking to shape your own list of sustainable options, here are five ideas to get you started.
1. An energy audit
Before you alter a single element of your home, find out what it needs the most. That’s where an energy audit comes in.
“The point of an audit is to determine a baseline,” said Alison Alessi of A3 Architects in Dennis, Massachusetts. “'How much energy are we using? What is the insulation strategy that we have in our house right now, and where can we be better?'”
She added that the audit process can vary from state to state; your energy utility may provide one as part of your existing services, or you may need to find a nearby certified energy rater. Either way, it’s a worthwhile first step.
2. 'Low-hanging fruit'
LED lights. A new, more efficient boiler or air handler. These aren’t groundbreaking ideas, but they can have a huge impact on energy efficiency.
“A lot of these old boilers are only getting 70% to 80% efficiency,” Scholtens said. “It’s so easy to replace those and get to 94% to 96%. Same with a high-efficiency air handler.” And with a return-on-investment of roughly seven years, you won’t have to wait endlessly for your new systems to pay off.
Plus, for the aesthetically minded, there’s more to these simple wins than “this lightbulb saved me 13 cents on my energy bill.”
“The quality of light is just better with LED,” Scholtens said, “and they’re all dimmable.”
Ensuring that you’re properly insulated is one of the biggest steps a green homeowner can take. A good architect will encourage you to think beyond the interior.
“If you’re getting ready for a renovation and it’s time to replace the siding, I tell my clients that it’s a once-in-a-building’s-lifetime opportunity to do insulation on the outside,” Alessi said. “Even when renovating the interior, it can be hard to address insulation because maybe you’re not taking the walls down to stud. But on the outside, it’s easy to add in.”
If you’re lucky, she added, a good chunk of the work may be covered as part of your audit.
It's not always a good time to replace your windows. It’s a major expense and the environmental impact of removing the old windows and adding new ones may offset the long-term energy gains being made.
But if your windows are overdue for an overhaul, adding new ones can make a major difference. Plus, you’re not living in a vacuum; green choices should be comfortable ones as well. New windows can do that.
“Getting double-paned glass can also help the acoustics and block out street noise, especially if you’re in the city,” Scholtens said. “They not only reduce your energy cost; they’ll make the space more comfortable.”
5. Solar panels
Last up are the international sign of a green home: solar panels. They’re a logical addition to the roof of any sustainably-minded homeowner, but it’s unwise to just install them and call it day.
“When you’ve done everything we’ve talked about — you’re as airtight as you can be and you’ve gone as far as you can go with efficiency — then you can think about solar,” Alessi said. “But if you’re going to produce on-site renewable energy, consider the big picture and remove anything using nonrenewable energy from your house. Focus on all-electrifying and on making the most of those panels.”
For any project, big or small, an architect will ask a homeowner to think holistically. They want to know your desired outcome; their job is to get you there, step by step.
“The vision of the project is always the client’s,” Scholtens said. “My job is to help unearth that vision.”
About the author: Steve Cimino is a D.C.-based writer focusing on architecture and design.