Living in a green 'envelope'

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Featured Article - posted Thu., Aug. 16, 2012
- Contributed Photo

With all the recent talk of global warming and carbon footprints, the nation's consciousness has been raised about the need to treat the environment more kindly.

In home remodeling, we are seeing a track toward the “green” side, as well. There are environmentally-friendly alternatives in building products as well as building practices that cost about the same or only slightly more to adopt. All of them hold the promise of being friendlier to the family income as well as to the family's health and safety. In the longer term, they have a net effect of being easier on the planet as well.

We have become accustomed to the odd configurations of lighting alternatives that, while costing more now, promise much longer product life, with demonstrable reduction in energy use and cost. Once the money is spent, most of us will probably not bother to track the economic benefit of the expense, regarding it rather as “a wise investment.”

The focus of green remodeling is aimed at conserving the energy expended on every aspect, while blocking the negative effects of heat, cold, dampness and light in the home. At the same time, it targets conservation of natural resources during the remodeling process, while maintaining a human- and eco-friendly balance in the remodeled home.

While we have known for decades how to conserve heat in the home through insulation and conscientious construction methods, only in the last decade or so has technology intensified the degree to which conservation can be brought to bear. High-tech foils and other insulation products are now readily available.

We no longer live in a house with walls, a roof, insulation, windows and doors. Now we live in an “envelope.” It is not enough to seal sills and joints with caulk and insulate walls and ceilings to maximum R- values anymore. We have to wrap the outside of the house with a vapor barrier and install flashing around window and door portals. Allowing air to infiltrate the home or escape it simply won’t do. The use of insulation batting or blown-in material is giving way to more high-tech foam insulation that is sprayed into unfinished walls and ceilings, adhering to every building component and expanding to seal every possible crack, crevice, hole and aperture. Thus, warm or cold air and/or moisture is positively prohibited from passing through the wall, ceiling, roof, gable, etc.

How does your “envelope” measure up?

If it seems the envelope's environment should be cozier, it might, at the same time, also be somewhat stuffier. There is no denying that snugging-up your home will make heating and cooling more efficient and therefore less costly. You might also feel more comfortable about having helped to reduce the strain on the planet's natural resources - the trees, carbon-based fuels and its water supply to cite the commonplace. Over time, these practices will make the earth a more sustainable place to live. That's a good thing.

But don't take a deep, satisfying breath yet. As we undertake our building and remodeling projects, we also have to pay close attention to the quality and composition of the components inside the envelope - the building materials, flooring, paint and other finishes, and even the decorations. Indoor air quality could well suffer if we do not consider the potential for exposure to chemicals used in the construction materials. Paints and cleaning materials that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) will release those chemicals into the inside air well after the drop cloths are stowed away.

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) suggests implementing green concepts in a variety of small ways. Some of them are self-evident, such as installing programmable thermostats, choosing energy-efficient appliances, switching over to energy-efficient lighting, insulating hot water pipes, and converting to a tangles water heater.

You may need to do a little more research to include some of NARI's other ideas in your “envelope.” Select non-toxic paints and sealants when redecorating. Go for a natural flooring material instead of something that contains and emits noxious chemicals. When searching for floor coverings, choose only from natural fiber rugs and fabrics. On the exterior of the house, find roof shingles and tiles made from recycled materials. You can also seek out local building materials, or opt for engineered building components manufactured from recycled or used materials.

NARI's website is one resource you can use to expand your awareness of green remodeling. A visit to the big bookstores or even your public library will provide plenty of material to get you thinking very seriously.

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