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A home made green and lean

Eco-aware rehabber finds that doing right by the earth is cost-effective, too.

By Correspondent / June 30, 2010

The author gestures to stacks of old, wide, wooden floorboards to be installed in her home. They were salvaged from houses slated to be gutted or torn down. Alexandra Marks is at work on a book about her rehabbing experience.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff

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East Haddam, Conn.

Almost a year has passed since my fiancé and I began renovating Sheep Dog Hollow in what we hoped would be a green and economical manner. Our goal was to test the proposition that "green" and "affordable" were no longer mutually exclusive, thanks to advances in technology and the various tax incentive and rebate programs designed to encourage people to kick the fossil-fuel habit.

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The 100-year-old-farmhouse has been transformed from a musty, abandoned shell into a model of cutting-edge environmental technology. Our heat and air-conditioning now come from the ground beneath our feet; there's not a draft anywhere, given the tightness of our castor-oil-based spray-foam insulation; and our floors are made of boards rescued from old buildings before they were razed.

And while my savings and retirement accounts are drained, I haven't filed for bankruptcy. So, I conclude: mission accomplished. Well, almost. There's more to be done. Most of it is cosmetic, like the trim, painting, and putting up electrical fixtures. But we decided from the start that we didn't want to go into debt, so we will finish when our bank accounts recover.

As with any human endeavor, hindsight shows how things could have been done better. That's partly the purpose of this article, to tell you a few green-renovation lessons I learned – some of them the hard way – so you won't have to.

My biggest revelation

The most striking thing I found is that green building has arrived. As the motto of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) states: "Residential green building is no longer a trend – it is the future of building."

Green products are now sold at The Home Depot and Lowe's. They're more efficient and less expensive, compared with 30 years ago. Equally important, the notion of green building has become part of our conversation.

"When people ask what I do, I say 'green building,' " says Maureen Mahle, a green homes program manager at Steven Winter Associates in Norwalk, Conn. "It wasn't until the spring of 2007 when people stopped asking what that meant and understood it. I've definitely seen a change in awareness."

While people might now understand "green building," it is still far from the norm. Ms. Mahle and other green experts contend there still needs to be an adjustment in how the nation values energy efficiency. A green home still costs about 20 to 30 percent more than a traditional one to build or renovate. You have to consider "affordability" in the longer term, five or 10 years, and include monthly costs.

'Affordability' redefined

The energy-efficient windows we installed are a perfect example. They can cost as much as 50 percent more than regular windows, not exactly "affordable" as it's generally understood. But they have "low E" (low emissivity) glass. It's coated with a microscopic layer of metal that reflects heat, to keep warmth in during the winter and heat out in the summer. Considering that about 25 percent of a typical home's energy is lost through its windows, we decided it was a good investment (since the rest of the house is now properly insulated and sealed). The upfront cost is high, but we'll recover that, and more, in the longer term.