Thursday, August 28, 2008

An Update on Unsustainably Green

Last month I posted a preview of an article that author and activist April Langschied wrote based on an interview that I participated in. April writes under the pen name of A Brewster Smythe and is the Founder of the Waynedale Green Alliance. The WGA, like the Irvington Green Initiative that I work with, is a grassroots organization that seeks to better our communities by involving our friends and neighbors in efforts to sustain and improve our economy and environment.

In the interview we covered the Green Movement and probed the differences between "green" and "sustainable." Here’s the link to her article which has now been published on Associated Content.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Living Life in a '46 Hudson

The next time that you’re stuck in traffic take a look around and imagine what it would be like if all of the Smart Cars and Priuses and flexfuel vehicles and hybrids and yes, even Hummers were replaced with 1946 Hudsons. What if the whole world drove a Hudson? That would change everything wouldn’t it?

Our roads and parking lots would be designed differently to accommodate the size and performance of the old Hudsons. Speed limits would be different. The environment would suffer differently from the effects of the Hudson’s 1940’s era emissions. Safety standards would be different. Gas prices would be even higher because the relatively poor fuel economy of the Hudson would create more demand. And the list goes on.

So here’s another question: Do you live in a 1946 Hudson?

By and large, there has been very little change in the way that we build houses in the United States since the end of the Second World War. Earlier this year I read a quote in
Dwell Magazine that was attributed to Swedish Architect Anders Holmberg. I think it sums things up pretty well. It went something like this: “we build houses today like we built cars in 1910. It’s an old technique … You wouldn’t build a car piece by piece today, out in the open, exposed to all the elements, so why build a house that way?”

Although they are not widely used in home construction today, there are a number of advanced building technologies that you will begin to hear more and more about in the near future. Most of these processes aren’t new; they’ve typically been relegated to multi-family construction or more commercial applications. All of them are designed to deliver a better constructed, better performing, healthier home that goes up on site faster and produces less waste than any of its “stick built” cousins. Here are just a few of the options that are available:

Structural Insulated Panel Systems: high performance building panels used for floors, walls, and roofs that are made by sandwiching a core of rigid foam insulation between layers of oriented strand board (OSB). SIPs are manufactured under factory controlled conditions and can be custom designed for each home.
Panelization: wall, roof and floor framing constructed in a controlled, factory environment. The process of panelization reduces construction waste while insuring accurate and tight framing. Field erection times are dramatically reduced and labor expenses are typically much lower than with “stick-built” construction.
Pre-fabrication: sections of a home are built in a controlled factory environment, transported to a project site and placed onto a foundation. Depending on the size and complexity of the home there can be anywhere from one or two to dozens of structurally connected pieces.

As you work with your
Architect on your new home or major Renovation or addition, ask about new building technologies such as structural insulated panels systems, panelization, and pre-fabrication. Naturally all projects are unique and there may not be a viable advanced building technology solution for your project. But even if you’re not ready to buy, it’s definitely time to start shopping for a replacement for that ’46 Hudson.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Do you need that?

I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here but do you really need that? It’s a question that you should ask yourself.

I know it’s exciting to think about adding space to your home. Many have dreams of a breakfast room that projects into the backyard sanctuary that they love so much or a home office with a separate entry for clients. You should think twice though before committing to an addition to your home. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. Or maybe there is a better way.

Maybe reconfiguring or changing the way that you use some of the existing spaces within your home is a better approach to your home improvement needs. Often times there are under-utilized rooms that can be re-assigned or opened up and combined with another space to create that new kitchen or office. Many times this approach can cost less than the addition that you had your heart set on. Working with a
Design Professional is a smart investment here. Your favorite Architect can help you analyze the way that you live in your home and talk to you about the feasibility of reconfiguring versus adding on.

Although common wisdom says more square footage equals more resale value, consider the here and now. You are certainly aware of the struggling housing market and falling home prices. And, if you are truly dreaming of a beautiful addition, you obviously plan to stay in your home long enough to enjoy it.
Sarah Susanka, author of the “Not So Big” series of books, teaches that a well designed and efficiently used home doesn’t have to be “Big.” As you work with your designer, remember that there are probably hidden spaces under the stairs, behind attic knee walls and in abandoned chases that can be creatively converted into any number uses.

Before you go to the bank for the home equity loan that you need to finance the new conservatory, try thinking “Not So Big.” You may save yourself some money and end up with a more enjoyable home in the process.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Unsustainably Green

A few weeks ago, I connected with author and activist April Langschied. She writes under the pen name of A Brewster Smythe and is the Founder of the Waynedale Green Alliance. The WGA, like the Irvington Green Initiative that I work with, is a grassroots organization that seeks to better our communities by involving our friends and neighbors in efforts to sustain and improve our economy and environment.

Since we share many similar interests and goals, April asked if I'd be willing to answer a few interview questions for the numerous outlets that she writes for. By the time we were done, we'd covered the Green Movement and probed the differences between "green" and "sustainable." She's published a portion of that interview on the WGA website and there will be more to come. An excerpt follows.

"Jeff Echols: "Don't Mistake the Difference Between 'Green' and 'Sustainable Living"

Jeff Echols works with the Irvington Green Initiative, a segment of the Irvington Development Project. He is from Atlanta, GA, but spent most of his life in the Chicago area. Echols graduated from Ball State University's College of Architecture and Planning. He and his wife moved to Irvington in Indianapolis 13 years ago and have been making a difference since. Here is a question and answer session I had with Jeff. Please note his contrasting of 'green' and 'sustainable' terms.

Jeff Echols
I work for HAUS – The Architecture Studio ( and WERK - Construction Managers ( (sister companies). HAUS is a collaborative architectural studio leading the design + construction process to realize unique, creative and significant architecture, interiors and sites. WERK is an Architect-Led construction firm delivering integrated Design + Build services to protect our clients’ investment in design. In short, through HAUS and WERK we provide complete design and construction services to our clients for a diverse list of project types.

I also run Renovation Resources (, an independent consultancy that provides Homeowners with the most important resources necessary to have a successful home renovation. Through Renovation Resources I also blog ( about a variety of renovation related topics in an effort to educate, inspire, inform and motivate homeowners wherever they are in the Renovation process.

I work with the Irvington Green Initiative, in an effort to implement a vision of a sustainable, historic, urban neighborhood in Indianapolis.
I’m on the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis Green Building Committee (

ABS) What sparked your interest in the ‘green movement’? And do you see it as a movement?

Jeff) Yes, I think that you’d have to say that “green” as we talk about it is a movement. There are a couple of points though that I think a majority of people miss when it comes to the topic of “green.”
The first is the distinction between and relationship between “green” and “sustainable.” Many people, myself included sometimes, use the two terms interchangeably. But, especially the way we talk about it today, there is a difference. I read an article recently that explained it pretty well. The author took the approach of looking at products; what products are “green” and are they also “sustainable?” The example that I liked was the iPod. I love my iPod. Is it a green product? In theory, it reduces the number of CD’s manufactured, packaged, boxed up, shipped, sold in big box stores, etc. I’d say yes, it is a green product. Is it a sustainable product? It is manufactured in a region that is famous for horrific environmental standards, under who knows what kind of labor practices, of materials that are so noxious that many cannot even be recycled. I’d say that the iPod is definitely not a sustainable product.

The second point that I think many people don’t have a good handle on is related to the “green” and “sustainable” discussion. Although many “green products” are very new and many more are coming into the market place every day, “sustainable” architecture and building is not new at all. In fact, sustainable building practices are the oldest, most natural forms of construction. It may seem counter intuitive but in a very real way, the “green movement” is more of a correction, to use a financial market term, or coming back to our senses than some great breakthrough.

But this line of thinking has some major implications. We have to understand that as we design and build our new green homes, offices, schools, churches, etc. that just by using bamboo flooring and tankless water heaters we are not necessarily producing projects which are sustainable.
Most good practitioners of “green” or “sustainable” design and building understand that there is a holistic approach that must be taken. You cannot address energy efficiency and create a completely “tight” building envelope without also addressing indoor air quality. If you do, you’ll end up with a very “sick” building not to mention its occupants. In a similar vein, there are a number of builders in our market and others that are building homes that they are heavily marketing as being “green.” These are, for the most part, well-built projects with many of the latest, most advanced “green” technologies and products available. They are also monstrous, million-dollar estates. If these homes are truly “green” are they also sustainable? I would argue “no.” Ideas such as those presented by Sarah Susanka in her “Not So Big House” series of writings are just as much a part of the equation as spray foam insulation.

The bottom line for me is that sustainability, by its very definition is a necessity. I am intensely interested in designing and building sustainably because the starting point for truly green and sustainable projects is good design and planning.

Jeff Echols full interview will be seen at Associated Content and American Chronicle. For more information about Jeff Echols please contact A Brewster Smythe at Email

There will also be a separate article with stark concentration on the differences between 'green' and 'sustainable' living."

Friday, July 11, 2008

This Old Green House

I recently did an interview with a journalist that asked me what the difference between “greening” a historic home versus “greening” any other existing home was. Interesting question. What do you think the answer is? I thought I accurately summed up the answer by saying “nothing and everything.”

Judging by the silence from across the table, my point wasn’t explicitly clear. Perhaps it was time to elaborate. In most cases as long as you’re not receiving any historic tax credits or grant money, “greening” the interior of your historic home is really no different from any other home.

You should obviously keep the historic nature of your property in mind and work with a qualified
design professional to develop quality construction drawings and a well thought out renovation strategy. But in terms of green products, all of the same rules apply. If your water heater is in need of replacement consider going tankless. Use low or no VOC paints, stains and sealants. An energy audit and thermoscan will help you pinpoint exactly where and how your home should be sealed up and insulated.

The possibilities are endless but remember that when it comes to replacement, first ask yourself if it really needs to be replaced. Replacing your 5-year-old, inefficient, beast-of-a-washing machine, that still works just fine, with the most efficient, water and resource saving model is not really green.

The exterior of your historic home may be a different story though. If you are in a Historic District, you’d be wise to check with your local building department before contemplating any significant changes, green or not. There may be regulations on materials that you use and where you can and cannot place things like solar panels or wind turbines. These rules will vary by jurisdiction but many Preservationists take the stance that
“the greenest building is one that is already built.” The charge for many organizations such as the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) is to preserve the character and value of the Historic properties in their jurisdiction. Often this means that the overall aesthetics of your original windows, wood siding and the like hold more value than your desire to install energy efficient products or alternative energy solutions.

But before we vilify Preservation groups in the name of green, remember that replacing your old, leaky windows without insulating your walls and sealing joints and penetrations is an expensive way to not accomplish much. And, many times, if you can install your alternative energy equipment somewhere that it cannot be seen from the street Preservation Commission staffers are more likely to be open to approving your request.

In the mean time, work to capitalize on the natural efficiencies that many older structures were inherently designed with. If your windows and doors are placed in such a way that you can gain the benefit of cross ventilation in the summer or the warmth of the sun in the winter, cash in by reducing your use of your heating and air conditioning.

So back to the question; what is the difference between “greening” a historic home versus “greening” any other existing home? It turns out that I was wrong. The answer is actually “it depends.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Outside the Green Box

Regular visitors to Renovation Resources know that the posts here are about renovating your home. They’re about products, best practices and the process of building, upgrading or expanding your home. They often revolve around Green or Sustainable issues. Some are even meant to guide you through the process of selecting design professionals and craftspeople to work with. But let’s think outside of the box right now. Let’s go outside of the big, Green or soon-to-be Green box that is your home. Is your yard green? I don’t mean Scotts Lawn green. I mean good for your family, your neighborhood and the environment Green. Is it Sustainable?

One of the areas where you can make the most significant impact on the environment as a whole is actually outside of your home. Of course there are as many Green issues involved in this outdoor arena as indoors. You could consider everything from
rain harvesting to xeriscaping; grey water recycling to wind breaks; sun angles to lawn chemicals. An excellent resource for information and advice on these topics and others relating to your Green surroundings is Dean Hill, ASLA, CGP. Dean is a Landscape Architect, the namesake of Green Dean and the driving force behind the Green Dean Blog and Tangible Green. Like Renovation Resources, much of Dean’s work revolves around making changes to your environment that make sense for you finances, your health and your environment. When you’re ready to “Think Outside the Green Box,” check Green Dean out.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Home Renovation Scrapbook

Whether your Renovation dreams involve a kitchen remodel, a new master suite, a nursery or a media room, prepare for the planning process by keeping a scrapbook. You probably already sift through numerous home improvement-type magazines. Tear out the photographs of that kitchen that you like so much and look up the resources section for the fixtures in that bath that you admire.

But go one step further; jot down a few notes on exactly what you like or dislike in the photograph. You may find that the reason that you want that particular room for your own is actually that you just love the color used on the walls or the style of cabinetry. This personal exploration will likely tell you a lot about what you really want to accomplish in your future projects and will also put you a step ahead when you sit down with a design professional to start planning in earnest.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Free Heat

If you live in a city such as Chicago or New York, you’re probably used to seeing the “Free Heat” banner on many of the “vintage” apartment buildings. The advertisement is that your heat is included in your rent. One less utility bill to pay, that’s great but that’s not what I’m talking about. And it’s really not free now is it?

What I’m referring to is “geothermalheating and cooling systems. It’s not a new idea. In fact, geothermal systems have been around for decades. So why should I waste my time writing about an old system? Well, let’s get back to the idea of “Free Heat.”

Obviously, no one is going to install a geothermal system in your home for free. To be honest, you may be shocked by the installation cost of such a system. They can run up to twice the cost of a comparable, “ordinary” heating and cooling system. BUT, like I often promote here on the Renovation Resources Blog, the payoff is in the life-cycle or operating costs. And, if stories like the one on the front page of the
New York Times Friday morning are any indication, we could all use some relief from energy costs.

Ok, let’s get back to geothermal and how it works. Basically, geothermal systems use the relatively constant temperature of the ground to heat and cool your home. In the winter, the temperature under ground is warmer than the air so heat is extracted to heat your home. In the summer, the temperature under ground is cooler than the air so heat from your home is extracted and dissipated under ground. These transfers of heat are made through a series of “loops” of pipes underground. That may sound pretty complicated but the bottom line is it’s free, it’s renewable, it’s Green. For a more detailed explanation of the technology behind current geothermal systems, a good resource is a manufacturer called

So really, what about the true benefits of a geothermal system? The benefits of geothermal can be organized under the following 4 headings:

  • Operating Cost – Even though geothermal systems do use some electricity, and an electric backup system is advisable in some climates, they are much more efficient than other heating and cooling systems. Some owners report up to a 70% savings over conventional units that they’ve replaced.
  • Comfort – Because of the way they operate, geothermal systems deliver a more consistent temperature output whether in the heating or cooling cycle. In addition, the units reside inside your home rather than outside so they are designed to be “silent.”
  • Reliability – Since geothermal units are installed indoors, they do not suffer the abuse of the elements like the air conditioning compressor that you currently have. And the design of the units has proven to have a life span of up to 10 years longer than traditional furnace and air conditioning systems.
  • Environment – The Department of Energy and the EPA have deemed geothermal systems the most environmentally friendly way to heat and cool your home.

The final note on the geothermal topic is this: Whether you're Renovating or building new, installation of geothermal heating and cooling may be expensive, but at a cost savings of up to 70%, it's not difficult to see how quickly Mother Earth will pay you back. With that kind of return you may actually get free heat sooner than later.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fiber Cement the Wood Alternative

Whether you're replacing hail damaged siding, preparing to put your home on the market or simply want to spruce up the exterior appearance of your house, fiber cement siding is a product that you should be aware of. The popularity of fiber cement is exploding as it makes excellent replacements or alternatives to aluminum, vinyl and wood siding and shingle products.

First, a little history: Fiber cement products have been in the market place for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, the composition of the original fiber cement products contained asbestos. They weathered extremely well but were eventually pulled from the market along with everything else asbestos laced. Modern fiber cement products are composed of cement (sand and concrete), cellulose fibers and water.

Most manufacturers of fiber cement products offer siding, shingle and stucco panel lines in their repertoire. All are designed to present the appearance of natural materials from wood lap siding to cedar shingles to cement stucco plaster.

Fiber cement products are "sustainable" or green products and have many advantages over their vinyl and wood counterparts. As a homeowner, one thing that probably concerns you the most about the exterior of your home is its maintenance. Wood siding and shingles are an American tradition. Just look at the number of products that have been designed to imitate wood and the way we use it: aluminum siding, vinyl siding and shingles, fiber cement siding and shingles, even pvc and urethane trim. The list covers just about every post-war innovation on the market. But what's wrong with wood? In short, it rots, it warps, it makes great fires, insects love it and it has to be painted or stained frequently.

Enter fiber cement. These products don't rot, they're cement. It doesn't warp or "oil can" like wood, vinyl or aluminum. It doesn't burn like wood or melt and produce noxious gases like vinyl. Insects don't like it but, as a rule, they have questionable taste anyway. The color range is limitless, unlike vinyl products, and most manufacturers offer 15 year paint warranties. But in the end durability is the key. In addition to wood's inherent shortcomings, vinyl becomes brittle and can be damaged by the weather or by the neighbor kid's wiffle ball. Fiber cement products don't suffer the same durability issues and many manufacturers extend 50 year warranties.

I think that the real testament to the popularity, if nothing else, of the fiber cement products is the fact that many, if not a majority, of the "price-point" production builders are moving away from vinyl siding and cladding their houses in fiber cement siding. The market demands it. In fact, some municipalities are creating ordinances that outlaw the use of vinyl siding. If you have any intention of selling you home in the near future, remember that most homebuyers are beginning to expect, desire or demand fiber cement siding on new or "updated" home exteriors. Check Renovation Resources Online Resources
for links to several of the most popular manufactures of fiber cement siding, shingles and stucco panels.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Value of Good Design. Can You Afford Not to Have It?

How many times have prospective home buyers toured a property with their realtor when a trip through the new master bedroom wing elicits "oh, that's unfortunate?" There's no doubt that the addition was conceived as a way to increase both the livability and resale value of the home. But, in the end, the poorly designed space may have cost the sale of the property.

It's no secret that many homeowners consider hiring an architect too expensive. And, admittedly, not all
Renovation projects require such expertise. But consider the Renovation that involves structural changes or additions, reconfiguring spaces, moving plumbing or other mechanical systems or designs that impact the exterior character of your home. Any of these elements, as part of your Renovation project, can represent a large percentage of the overall construction budget and will have an enormous effect on the value of your home. It makes sense to work with someone who is trained to protect, even enhance, your investment.

Architects are trained to be creative. But this creativity isn't just some academic excuse for producing artsy renderings of ego-driven, over-inflated, far-too-expensive monuments to the way people don't really live. Quite the contrary; the training and experience that an architect brings to your Renovation allow them to creatively consider cost, materials, efficiency, codes and regulations and current and future use. All while working with you to design creative, dynamic environments and aesthetics that both satisfy functional needs and enhance the way that you live and fit within your budget.

In the end, good design sells. It adds value to your home and to your neighborhood. American homeowners collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on
Renovation projects. A well designed Renovation is a smart investment that will return dividends in the way that you live and at resale time.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

You Want How Much?

How much will my project cost? It’s the most common question posed by homeowners contemplating a Renovation. It’s also one of the most difficult to answer. Here are a few tips for helping your contractor, architect or renovation consultant put together the most accurate numbers possible early on in the project timeline:

  • Keep a file of floor finishes, plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, cabinetry styles, counter tops and appliances that you would like to incorporate into your project.
  • Make a list of all of the rooms involved in your Renovation Project and assign floor finishes, wall finishes, light fixtures, and any special items that will be in that room. For example: The Den will have carpet, wood paneling, recessed can lights and built-in book shelves on two walls.
  • Familiarize yourself with available products. Look at carpet, tile, counter tops and appliances in showrooms and magazines. This will help you intelligently answer questions such as: What type of carpet do you prefer (berber, loop, pile, etc.)? What weight carpet pad do you want? Do you prefer ceramic, porcelain, glass or natural stone tile? and What counter top material is most appropriate for the type of cooking that you do?
The point is that anyone can throw out a “budget number” for your Renovation of $100 per square foot. But more often than not, it is the quality of the finishes, the fixtures, the cabinetry, the appliances and the windows and doors that will determine if your project costs $75 per square foot or $225 per square foot.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

In Hot Water

Wouldn’t it be nice if you were able to reduce your energy consumption by up to 50%, qualify for a $300 tax credit* and have enough hot water for a relaxing shower even though you’re last in line for the bathroom? Tankless water heaters are quickly becoming the darlings of the green building crowd for these reasons and more.

The fundamental difference between tankless and traditional water heaters is obviously the tank. But it’s an important difference. Traditional models are inherently inefficient because they store, heat and reheat water. They can account for up to 25% of your home’s energy consumption and the vast majority of that energy is wasted as “standby loss,” in other words, keeping all of that water in the tank hot.

Tankless models by contrast, heat water as it flows through the unit making them up to 50% more efficient than their big, bulky cousins and qualifying many for tax credits. As a bonus, the life expectancy of these super efficient units can extend beyond 20 years, potentially twice what you’d expect out of the tank that you have in your basement right now.

So why don’t we all have these tankless units in our homes already? The short answer is probably cost. The tankless technology is relatively new to the United States and units can cost twice as much as the traditional models. Installation can also run more due to the potential need to upgrade fuel supply lines and venting over your current system requirements.

Before you run out and purchase a new tankless system for your home, do your research and consider not only unit costs and installation costs but also the life cycle costs. You may find that the unit pays for itself in a relatively short period of time. Whether you are beginning a Renovation, adding a kitchen or bathroom, or your old water heater just sprung a leak, the tankless models are definately worth considering. To get you started on your research, check out three of the most popular tankless brands available in the US: Bosch, Rinnai and Takagi.

*Unfortunately, the Federal tax credits have run out but check to see if your State gives any tax credits for energy efficiency; many do. As I understand it, there is a movement in Congress to reinstate the 2005 credits. I'll keep you posted on progress towards that goal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Seeing the Light / Saving the Green

Even Walmart has figured out that conserving energy makes sense. Their goal: sell 100 million (yes, that's 100,000,000) compact fluorescent light bulbs in 12 months. That was 2007.

One easy way for consumers to conserve energy in their homes is by making intelligent choices about lighting design. Lisa Donato of LightSOURCE explains that when it comes to lighting, saving energy is all about using fewer Watts. The Walmart strategy designed to reach this goal is the compact fluorescent bulb which uses roughly a quarter the wattage to produce the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb. However, when you're planning your Renovation project, consider the fact that there are several components to a good design that can take your lighting conservation one or even two steps further.

Lisa offers these suggestions:

  • User fewer incandescent light sources, instead opt for compact fluorescent or LED type fixtures.
  • Design spaces to take maximum advantage of natural daylight.
  • Consider Lighting Control Systems. These systems can incorporate occupancy sensors, daylight sensors and stepped dimming to provide only the amount of light needed in any given scenario and location throughout your home.

You've no doubt heard of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star rating system. Look for Energy Star qualified lighting packages. Many of the major lighting manufacturers offer such systems and fixtures and the number is growing every day. On its Energy Star web site, the EPA offers a high-impact but practical piece of advice, "Replace your highest use fixtures or the bulbs in them with energy efficient models." The EPA claims that Energy Star qualified lighting typically uses 66% less energy, produces 70% less heat and last 10 times longer.

If you're still a doubter, you're not alone. Lisa Donato says that the biggest reason that energy conservation in the residential lighting market is still in its infancy is money. "It costs more up front to be efficient; the payoff to the homeowner comes down the road when energy savings brings cost savings."

Visit the Energy Star web site for more information on that program and contact Lisa Donato for your illumination consulting needs.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are You Permitted?

"Don't pull permits, it will just drive your property taxes up." "Why get permits? It's not like anyone is going to come out for an inspection anyway." "I don't typically pull permits for my work because it takes too much time, it's too much trouble and it just ends up being an extra expense to you." Has anyone ever said anything like this to you? None of these comments are totally without basis. But none of these comments are necessarily well guided either.

Many times, the "party line" on the purpose of building permits and zoning regulations includes terms like "public safety," "public health," "life safety," "conservation," or even "property value," but let's take a minute to consider why proper permitting is important from a slightly different angle. As you enter the planning stages of your upcoming Renovation project, don't think of permits in terms of scheduling or budget, but look beyond to re-sale or re-financing or even estate planning.

When it comes time to sell or re-finance your home one or more appraisers is likely to get involved. If you've completed a Renovation project that has added significant and most likely very valuable, square footage to your home, what will the appraisers find when they search the public record for the recorded square footage of your home? If permits weren't secured for your project, that new kitchen expansion which was supposed to be the major selling point of your home, may not figure into the appraised value. If you live in an historic area and didn't receive a Certificate of Appropriateness for your project, matters could be complicated even more. If your Renovation project violates a setback requirement or an easement and you didn't go through proper Zoning or Variance procedures, extreme measures could be required to rectify the deed. Any one of these scenarios could easily derail the sale or re-financing of your home or the distribution of your estate.

To be honest, many Renovation projects are completed, homes sold, financed and re-financed without a hitch and without going through proper permitting processes. But the next time that you undertake a major project and someone suggests foregoing proper approvals, seek out better advice and the expertise of a qualified professional that can guide you through the proper channels. After all, delays, fines and penalties could be the least of your worries.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Grass is Always Greener

Hardwoods are popular options for flooring today and a lot of effort goes into making more economical and sustainable use of the oak, maple, walnut and even cherry that we expect to tread upon daily. But in the name of sustainability why not walk on grass? Bamboo is becoming a mainstream "hardwood" flooring option and it's not a wood at all.

Botanically speaking, bamboo is a grass. It is also one of the most sustainable "wood" products available today. Here's why:

  • The growth period for bamboo stalks from sprout to maturity is approximately 3 years.
  • Bamboo forests require minimal, if any, fertilization or pesticides.
  • Bamboo plants regenerate themselves without a need for replanting.
If you're not familiar with bamboo flooring products, you may be wondering how a grass can possibly make a good floor in your home. Isn't it too soft or flimsy or green? Although a grass, bamboo is actually very strong, hard and dimensionally stable. And, a variety of finishes are available.
As a point of reference, bamboo's hardness, as measured by the Janka Ball Hardness Test, typically compares to or surpasses the hardness of red oak. Its dimensional stability is significantly greater than that of most common hardwoods.

Although there are many finish options to choose from, the major selection criteria to consider are vertical grain vs. horizontal grain and natural vs. stained vs. carbonized.
The grain direction refers to how the bamboo stalk is sliced. Vertical Grain, or VG, cuts result in thin, 1/4 inch wide strips that result in a floor with a traditional hardwood appearance. Horizontal, or HG, cuts produce 1 inch wide strips with the typical bamboo look.

The natural color of bamboo flooring is a light, golden tan but it can be stained any color. Another option is a process of heat-treating called "carbonization" that darkens the product to an amber color. It should be noted that as with most engineered products, each individual manufacturer has its own standards and means and methods.

Green Way Supply in Indianapolis is a supplier of a variety of green building products. According to Fred Gray, a co-owner of Green Way, Teragren Products is the bamboo flooring manufacturer that Green Way represents. Fred says that the reason he's so enthusiastic about Teragren is that they are committed to the environment.

Not only has Teragren established ISO certified manufacturing facilities in China, but their products use adhesive and finish materials that meet the most stringent environmental protection regulations in the world. Each of their bamboo products contribute to certification under the United States Green Building Council's LEED Rating System.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

You Are Here. Now What?

You've probably been contemplating a Renovation project for some time now. These things don't usually come to fruition too quickly. Rome wasn't built in a day you know.

Homeowners Renovate for different reasons; your family is growing or the kids finally moved out or you're going to get the kitchen that you always dreamed of. But the reality is that there are as many reasons for not starting a Renovation as there are reasons for Renovating; we just can't afford it right now, will this price us out of the neighborhood, where do we begin, we don't know any contractors. Have you ever uttered these words?

One of the biggest keys to a successful Renovation is getting good advice upfront. Whether you work with a Renovation Consultant, an Architect or a Design / Build firm, it's important to have questions concerning feasibility, scope and budget answered early on.

If you will be putting your project out for bid, your goal should be to have your project as accurately defined as possible before you go to contractors for bids. Working with your design professional, strive to define not only physical dimensions, but material and fixture selections, details and finishes. This information will not only help the professional that you're working with put together more accurate budget numbers for you, but it will also help glean tighter and more accurate bids.

When it's time for the bid process, make sure that you're comfortable with a list of at least 3 contractors before asking them to bid. The following 5 tips will help you to pre-qualify those in consideration:

  • Ask for references, including not only clients but material suppliers and creditors.
    Contact past clients and inquire about the contractor's reliability, honesty, quality and cleanliness. Also ask about their attitude, ability and process for dealing with changes. And the most important question, "Would you hire them again?"
  • Contact material suppliers and creditors and inquire about the contractor's credit and promptness of payment.
  • Ask for license and proof of insurance information and check with your local Better Business Bureau for reports about the contractor.
  • If possible, tour not only completed projects, but projects that are currently under construction.
  • Most importantly, work with a professional that will help you to develop a well defined game plan and help you stick to it. They will help you work within your budget, prepare for and conduct the bidding process and analyze bids and select a contractor. The strategy that they help you prepare will lay the groundwork to a successful Renovation.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Different Kind of Audit

You might be wondering “just how energy efficient is my home?” There are, of course, many factors that go into answering a question like this. Luckily for homeowners there are professionals that focus their practices on answering just this type question. But you should be aware that the level of service and techniques used vary and the cost of the services will reflect this variety.

A “simple” heat loss analysis is usually conducted by reputable Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors as they design the HVAC system for your new addition. This method involves calculations incorporating factors such as the area and volume of space, foundation type, wall and ceiling or roof construction and insulation and window and exterior door construction.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are companies that specialize in providing Infrared Analysis of building envelopes. These companies come into your home and use infrared photography to illustrate the temperature differences in exterior wall constructions.

Perhaps one of the most useful services available is the relatively inexpensive Blower-Door Test. This test uses a large fan to pull air out of your house while a technician locates and measures leaks. Certified Energy Auditors will also test your heating and air conditioning ductwork for leaks and even inspect appliances, HVAC equipment and water heaters to analyze the cost effectiveness of replacement.

A quality analysis may combine all of these techniques and should produce a report that pinpoints and prioritizes specific problems, as well as, providing cost effective solutions. A relatively small investment of a few hundred dollars before you embark on an expensive window replacement program or insulation upgrade could pay huge dividends if you find the real culprits to your energy loss problems.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Movement, Politics or Religion

I recently read a post on Douglas Garbe's blog that seems to have followed a bout of soul searching about his true reasons for being an "earth friendly green Realtor." By the time I read the post, there were already 93 responses. I would estimate that around 50% of the responses were supportive or in agreement with Douglas' reasoning and 50% were hostile towards his thinking.

Well, that got me thinking. The following is an excerpt from my comments on the post. I repeat it here in hopes of provoking more widespread consideration of the topic.

Ask yourself these questions:

By in large, we have not changed the way that we build houses since the end of WWII. What would it be like if the 600 million + automobiles that inhabit the planet today were 1945 Hudson's?

Humans have been building shelter for themselves and their loved ones since the beginning of time. To completely over-simplify the example, Eskimos built igloos and inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa built from mud and straw. Yet today we, especially in the United States, build vinyl sided boxes from Arizona to Maine. Does this make sense?

Are you comfortable knowing that your children, grandchildren, even you are probably going to sleep in a bed, surrounded by pieces of furniture, on a floor, under a roof, in a house all of which are most likely constructed of products that contain formaldehyde? Yes, that's the same stuff that the frogs you dissected in your high school biology class were floating in.

Did you know that the vinyl curtain that you just hung in your shower will weigh half as much in one year as it does today? It loses this weight through a process called off-gassing. Vinyl off-gasses toxins.

Do you have anything against saving money?

I know that these questions are vague and wide ranging. My point is simply this: You can dub the "movement" Green and call it political or pseudo-religious. You can agree or disagree with any or all of the comments on this page. Just do yourself a favor. Ask yourself some very common sense questions and become informed and educated before you form an opinion.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Death, Renovation and Taxes

In many areas of Indiana (and many other states around the country) homeowners recently experienced exponential increases in their property tax bills. Regardless of your own particular situation or politics, there are a few key pieces of advice to keep in mind in light of these recent developments when it comes to your outlook on Renovation projects.

Don’t Panic – It’s easy to say I know. Yes, there may be some real and immediate effect on property values, but look at it this way; you own a large number of shares in a stock that’s been trading at $80 more than what you paid for it 15 years ago. Suddenly, it closed out today down $50. Would you put in a sell order tonight? Your financial advisor would tell you not to. You haven’t lost anything until you sell. You could look at your property in a similar light. If there is any way that you can endure the next few months of uncertainty, hang on and wait to see what happens. If it's any consolation, Indianapolis remains atop the list of affordable housing markets and our taxes are still low relative to most other states.

Renovate for Yourself – There are two points of view to consider when you’re planning your Renovation project; Quality of Life and Resale Value. Unless they are planning on selling their home in the next two years, I typically advise clients to lean more heavily towards the “Quality of Life” side of the equation. The recent property tax issues bear this out now more than ever. If you want to remodel your kitchen or add a master suite or extra bedroom just to improve your quality of life in your existing home, then by all means, do so. I wouldn’t advise executing a design that will negatively impact your resale value or expanding to a project scope that will price you too far out of your neighborhood, but being comfortable and happy in your own home has a value all it’s own.

Renovate to Sell – If you need to sell your home soon, certain Renovation projects can give you the upper hand in a slow market. One look at the lineup on HGTV will prove my point. Yours may be one of a growing number of homes in the neighborhood that have recently sprouted a Realtor’s sign. There’s no need to worry about property taxes now, you’ve already been assessed. All you’re worried about is getting the house sold. What will distinguish your home from the others? Will an updated kitchen do the trick? Or will yours be the only one with a legitimate master suite? A well advised approach to key Renovations could help you sell faster and bring in more at closing than your neighbors.

As we enter what is likely to be a new era in the ongoing debates on taxation, property value and, in turn, the real estate market, it may be best to take a step back, be patient and examine our Renovation goals. Who are we Renovating for? And why? Despite wildly varying opinions, the property tax issue will eventually be settled and life will return to normal. Approach your Renovation project under quality guidance and you should come out ahead. It won't be the death of you.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Do I Scare You?

A movement abounds where homes and buildings are recognized, even rewarded for being energy and resource efficient; for being healthy for their inhabitants and friendly to their environment. Products are being developed to add comfort and value to your home. What's not to like?

I'm guessing that given the choice between building a home that allowed you to spend less on utility bills and maintenance and that was a healthy place for you and your family to live and a home that was built with little consideration of any of these issues, wouldn't make for a tough decision.

Let's say that you're headed out to buy a few gallons of paint to spruce up your family room. If you could buy a paint that was healthier for your family than the brand that you typically use would you buy it?

If you needed to replace your furnace and air conditioning and could receive rebates from the equipment manufacturer and your energy provider, tax rebates from the government and a lower billing rate from your energy provider, just by choosing an energy efficient model, would you take advantage?

Sure, these are pretty easy examples that only scratch the surface of what being, dare I say it, GREEN is. I've been hearing from a number of colleagues and industry experts lately that the terms Green and Sustainability may scare consumers.

Fine, let's talk about energy efficiency and life cycle costs, indoor air quality and healthy homes. However you'd like to define it and whatever you want to call it, hopefully these examples begin to illustrate the fact that it doesn't take too much thought to realize that Green isn't that scary at all. In fact, it really makes a lot of sense.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How to Save 30% or None at All

The Renovation budget is tight right? How much did you add to the budget for contingencies? Oops! It goes without saying that you want to save money. Couldn’t you save 10, 20 or even 30% if you act as your own General Contractor? Maybe, but at what cost? It is possible to save money by acting as your own General Contractor, but before taking the plunge consider the potential costs, both tangible and intangible, of being the boss.

So you’ve jumped in feet first and your kitchen Renovation is under way. You just realized that your electrician forgot to add that outlet under the window seat and didn’t provide power to the range hood. Now he can’t get back to your job until next week. You’ve scheduled an inspection for tomorrow and the drywall crew for the day after tomorrow. Can you add the outlet and power the hood yourself tonight and pass your inspection tomorrow? You aren't even a licensed electrician. What about the items that the inspector flags? You’ll have to have them corrected before the dry wall goes up. Can you take care of that tomorrow night after work? Does your boss frown on finding you asleep at your desk or the fact that you are always on your cell phone coordinating inspections, subcontractors’ schedules or the purchasing and delivery of materials?

If you think you’ve got the stomach to handle real world scenarios like these then take some advice from a Pro. Melissa Iannucci is the President of North Avenue Trades, a residential design build firm focusing on building high quality homes in downtown Indianapolis . She’s been in and around the construction industry for most of her life. Here are three tips that she offers to would-be contractors:

  • “The easiest way for things to go wrong is a lack of communication. It helps to constantly be on site, overseeing things, double checking, verbally explaining and reviewing with the subs; a lot of patience is necessary.”
  • “Always have someone with a lot of experience that you can turn to with questions.”
  • “My time is split between resolving design questions and following up on getting things done. Plan on spending a lot of time on the phone answering questions and scheduling.”

Do you have what it takes?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

Well here we are; officially mid-way through winter. How’s that list of indoor projects going? As you continue to contemplate the to-do list, take a minute to consider how the products that you use affect the quality of life that you and your family enjoy.

If you’re not yet familiar with the term “indoor air quality,” you soon will be. Indoor air quality is one of the cornerstones supporting the U.S. Green Building Council’s, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (
LEED) guidelines for high-performance, healthy buildings and homes. In short, good indoor air quality promotes healthy and comfortable living by providing clean, unpolluted air for you and your family to breath.

So does this mean that the air that you breathe indoors at home and at work is polluted? Yes. In fact, a number of studies have shown that the air quality in poorly designed buildings is actually more polluted than the air outside in major cities.

What does any of this have to do with your winter projects? Well, everything. Are you planning to paint or stain? Build an addition or remodel? If so, use Low or Zero VOC products and building materials, cabinetry and trim that do not contain Urea-Formaldehyde.

VOC’s, or
Volatile Organic Compounds, are chemical compounds found in a variety of products that off-gas and pollute the air. Paints, stains, carpets and vinyl shower curtains are some of the usual suspects inside your home. Formaldehyde is used as an adhesive in the manufacture of a variety of pressed and composite wood products.

The good news is that many manufacturers now recognize the offenses of VOC’s and formaldehyde and produce green product lines. These chemicals are, of course, just the tip of the indoor air quality iceberg but bypassing them while completing your project list this winter is an effective way to start improving the health of you and your family.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Green But Not New

Many today would consider the idea of Green or Sustainable Design to be relatively new concepts. This is not actually the case though. much of the "recent" movement towards these ideals is really a re-birth of sorts. Historically, architectural elements such as deep overhangs and porches and the location of chimneys had everything to do with the region where the house was built. Today we call this site-centric design or simply designing to suite the site. A central fireplace and chimney heat a house more efficiently in colder climates while the masonry mass of the chimney on the outside wall helps to dissipate the heat to the outdoors where heat in warmer climates is a consideration. Deep porches and overhangs provide shade and cooler ventilation for sunny areas in the South.

Consider the catch phrases "reduce, re-use and recycle" and "regionalism." In the days of our forefathers, before building materials became the commodities that they are, the 'R' words were a way of life. Everything from siding to floor boards was re-used whenever possible. Building materials were local products. Stone for foundations was quarried on site or near by, bricks for wall construction were made locally, timber for building lumber was harvested locally and homes were built by local craftsmen who had intimate knowledge of these local materials.

The next time that you wonder why we don't do more to sustain our planet, contemplate the fact that until relatively recently, regionalism, reduce re-use and recycle and sustainability were ways of life rather than catch phrases. Work with a professional that can design to fit your site and help you select materials that are made from recycled products, are harvested from sustainable forests or are produced locally.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

With All Due Respect Kermit, It Is Easy Being Green

Kermit the Frog (yes, that Kermit) once sang "It's not easy being green." And many people may be under the impression that "going green" or using sustainable materials or green design isn't easy or is cost prohibitive. What with $13 light bulbs and all, you can appreciate their point. It's also true that the very nature of sustainability is about life cycle costs and future savings not necessarily about saving money up front.

But you don't have to take your existing home off the grid and use 100% recyclable materials today. If you're planning a new home or major Renovation, work with a design professional who is proficient in the issues of sustainable design. Work with them to design the most sustainable home that fits within your budget.

If you're not ready to take on a major Renovation project though, think green in smaller degrees. When a light bulb burns out, replace it with a compact fluorescent bulb. If your water heater stops heating water, consider a tankless water heater as a replacement. If you need new windows, think Low E and insulated glass. In short, consider the green alternatives for each project that you tackle around the house and before long only Kermit will be singing that old song.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Mainstream is Green

The days of Green or Sustainable design and building being an “alternative” practice are past. As usual, studies abound; everyone from the National Association of Home Builders to the U.S. Green Building Council cite statistics from the number of new housing starts that are Energy Star qualified, to the number of LEED Certified Professionals and buildings, to the explosion in the number and types of “green” products in the market place. As usual, the trend is stronger in California , the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast than in the Midwest, but even Indianapolis is getting into the game.

As you read this, there is a developer in an urban Indianapolis neighborhood constructing a pilot project of 3 “green” homes, there are numerous blogs devoted to green or sustainability issues in Indianapolis, former Mayor Bart Peterson enacted an environmental plan called Indy GreenPrint (though it seems to have been abolished by the new administration) and Green Way Supply exclusively supplies green building products to local builders and consumers. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

As you plan your next Renovation project, consider the fact that green or sustainable design and construction is not only becoming more popular but more necessary. Work with knowledgeable professionals to help you incorporate lot design; resource, energy and water efficiency and conservation; indoor air quality and life cycle costs.