Home Improvement Done Right

According to studies conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, residential construction and demolition projects accounted for 58 million tons of waste in 1996, and as much as 90 percent of this waste is recyclable. To help address this problem, the American Society of Interior Designers’ Foundation and the U.S. Green Building Council recently released a set of guidelines for best practices in sustainable home improvement projects (see the related links).

With a little reading and advance planning, you can reduce the environmental impact of your next project—whether big or small—by adopting these strategies:

Reduce. Begin by thinking about the most efficient use of the available space and daylight, what materials or systems you can reuse, and how you can minimize the scope (and cost) of your project. You might even consider taking advantage of renewable resources such as solar energy (for electricity or water heating), wind power, geothermal energy (via a heat pump), or a combined heat-and-power system.

If you’ll be working with a contractor, choose one who is willing to recycle and work with recycled/reused or “green” products. The EPA recommends that a contractor’s bid be accompanied by a plan for reducing, reusing, or recycling construction waste as well as a description of the contractor’s experience with similar projects and references from those projects. The best possible option is a contractor or architect who has LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification—but be sure to ask for proof.

Deconstruct. When renovating an existing space, think "deconstruction" rather than demolition. Most things can be reused or donated, including flooring, siding, windows, doors, bricks, plumbing and lighting fixtures, ceiling tiles, unused roofing materials, leftover paints and varnishes, hardware such as nails and screws, and structural components.

Reuse. Before heading to the lumber yard or hardware store, look for a materials exchange such as Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores, which may offer both new (surplus/overstock) and used materials and building components.

Recycle. Take whatever items you cannot reuse to a local recycling facility or materials exchange (see the related links). The EPA identified more than 1,000 asphalt and concrete recycling facilities nationwide as of June 2004, as well as 700 wood-waste recycling facilities and 300 “mixed-waste” recycling facilities that accept demolition debris.