A green remodel sounds great on the surface, but what actually goes into one? The answer is generally more complicated than it seems. Just like your home is designed to suit your own unique tastes and preferences, green retrofits need to be tailored to your property’s needs and your own household budget.
And often a “green remodel” is actually a series of projects—from manageable tasks, like replacing a thermostat, to complex renovations, like a solar panel installation or wall cavity insulation repair. Balancing those jobs means assessing your desired timeline, personal goals, and available funds. Sound intimidating? Don’t feel overwhelmed—it’s easier than it seems once you dig in. Here’s how to get started.
Have an Energy Audit Performed
A green remodeling strategy starts with an energy audit—a professional assessment of your home’s existing structure, heating and cooling systems, lighting, appliances, and other components. The audit evaluates each feature for its energy efficiency and mechanical functioning. The advantage to a professional assessment is know-how: most auditors hold a certification from an industry-recognized governing group, such as the Building Performance Institute. Auditors can initiate specialized analyses, such as a blower door test or a thermographic inspection. They’ll also evaluate your utility bills to get a better understanding of your energy consumption and expenses. Alternatively, you can examine your home’s energy functioning yourself through a DIY audit, although it may require prowling around your attic and crawl spaces with a flashlight.
This kind of thorough examination—either by a certified auditor or by yourself—gives you a much clearer understanding of the most pressing issues in your home, which in turn, can help determine your focus when you begin planning an energy-efficient remodel. Auditors usually provide an assist with this process as well. Their final assessment often includes projections of your energy savings and recommendations for various improvements. Alternatively, you can use an online calculator
Decide Which Projects You’ll Tackle for Yourself
The greenest objectives often come from a series of small changes, many of which you may be able to do on your own. Small air leaks are easy to fix yourself by sealing and weatherproofing around windows, doors, and pipe openings. Other ideas for energy efficient DIYs are installing a programmable thermostat or adjusting the temperature settings and performing maintenance on existing appliances. Once you have a list of existing projects, you’ll be able to separate them into self-reliant jobs, versus the ones that require a handyman or contractor, which in turn cost more and take longer to complete. However, certain general contractors may have experience with green upgrades in the past, making them a useful resource if you’re looking for help prioritizing improvements. Look for contractors who promote past green projects on their website or who have participated in national or regional green educational programs, such as LEED training or BPI certifications.
Assessing Your Budget
While many smaller green projects cost very little actual green, a number of energy-efficient renovations aren’t exactly what you’d call inexpensive. On the costlier side of the spectrum are HVAC replacements and new windows, which run between $2,000 to $5,000 and $300 to $700 per window, respectively. Solar installation, on the other hand, can cost that amount many times over. Average installations go for about $12,000, after incentives and rebates. While that’s not pocket change by any stretch of the imagination, the energy dividends for larger projects like these often outweigh the price. Replacing an outdated AC unit with an energy efficient model, for instance, sometimes saves homeowners as much as 40 percent on their cooling bills. If budget is a concern, you’ll probably want to choose one or two projects to tackle right away, which means you’ll need to not only consider which projects have the biggest return on investment, but the age of your existing equipment and structural components. For instance, if you notice broken seals or condensation forming on your windows, you might want to plan for a window replacement first, since they would likely require an upgrade soon anyhow.
Getting the Greenest Bang for Your Buck
Lowering your utility bills—while improving your property values—certainly adds to the allure of green renovation projects. If you’re after the best payback, you’ll definitely want to be savvy about the projects you choose to work on, targeting those with the highest return on investment first. For instance, improving the insulation in your attic is a fairly cost-effective project even when performed by qualified contractors. On average, professional fiberglass insulation installation costs about $1,300, but has over a 100 percent return on that expense. Air conditioning replacements, while expensive, also reap high rewards through utility savings. In some cases, homeowners make up the cost of these installations in utility offsets in less than a year or two. Here again, a professional energy expert—or at the very least, an online cost calculator—can be useful to help you determine your real-life energy savings after the project is completed, helping to understand how short or long the payback period will be for various jobs.
If You Care More About the Aesthetics
Mechanical improvements like those mentioned above aren’t exactly glamorous—and often, what you’re looking for in a remodel is a chance to personalize your home and add some polish to your interior aesthetics. If you want to bring your home’s design up-to-speed—while also integrating green elements—sustainable or recycled materials are 100 percent the way to go. Recycled glass countertops and corkboard floors, for instance, all have a unique profile and add to the green cache of your home. These obviously won’t net you much energy savings, but they’re frequently counted on other green labeling programs, such as LEED. VOC-free paints and finishes also add to the effect and improve air quality, to boot. Plus, a small but impactful change, like repainting, can significantly affect a buyer’s first impressions when they walk through your home.
Ultimately, your project organization depends on your priorities. While many homeowners care mostly about reducing their monthly utility bills, others are drawn to improvements that boost a home’s overall sustainability. Still, others want to organize improvements so that they benefit their home’s valuation or fit neatly into a tight budget. Essentially, when it comes to green, you’ve got options!