The Best Materials

By Diane Schlindwein

October 2, 2009 5 min read

Whether you are building or remodeling your home, it's always best to think "green."

Because buildings consume 71 percent of the United States' electricity consumption and 48 percent of the United States' energy consumption -- and the production of energy has the biggest impact on our greenhouse gas emissions -- making buildings more energy-efficient is of utmost importance, says Barbara Buffaloe, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design accredited professional.

"When improving a home's energy efficiency, there are a few green items to consider," says Buffaloe, who is a housing specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. "I would recommend cellulose insulation for any attic. Blown-in insulation can also be used for wall cavities on new homes and existing homes if the interior drywall is removed.

"Cellulose insulation is recommended because of its recycled condition (it's made from newspapers), low embodied energy (meaning it doesn't require a lot of energy to produce it), and its excellent energy performance," she says. "Blown-in cellulose insulation can also get between all the gaps in the wall and provide a tighter seal, whereas (fiberglass) batt insulation cannot maneuver itself around conduits, different pipes, etc."

The right windows also can make your home quieter and more comfortable and attractive. In general, vinyl windows are more energy-efficient and affordable than other kinds of windows (such as wood) and a good return on your investment.

"If you are looking for a good investment, a window can save you 25 to 30 percent on your energy bill," says Roy Herman, president of Clear Choice Windows and Siding Inc., in Springfield, Ill. Windows that have maximum-performance glazing are fully qualified for the 30 percent federal energy tax credit.

In 2009 and 2010, homeowners can take tax credits for 30 percent of the costs of energy-efficient doors, windows, air conditioners, furnaces, heat pumps, boilers and insulation, up to a lifetime cap of $1,500.

That means, for example, if you spent $5,000 on new windows and doors in 2009, you can claim a $1,500 tax credit on your 2009 tax return. If you put them in during 2010, the tax credit will apply for 2010. However, if you take the full tax credit in 2009, you won't be able to take an additional credit in 2010.

Once you have the house blanketed in insulation and energy-efficient windows are installed, it's time to consider indoor air quality. "When purchasing materials for the countertop, flooring and walls, homeowners need to be aware that some products produce gases that are harmful for us to breathe," Buffaloe says. "Volatile organic compounds (VOCs, emitted as gases into the air) are the name for what we want to avoid.

"The best way to describe them is that 'new-carpet smell' that you get in a new home," she says. "That smell comes from the glue that is holding the carpet down. Products like carpet glue, floor sealer, laminate glue and paint can have a high content of VOCs in them and may be harmful to the air we breathe. Companies are aware of these risks and are doing much about offering alternatives."

Even if your home improvement is limited to painting, you still can be green. Today most people use latex paint on interior walls. Latex paints also have low volatile VOCs, which is good for the environment.

"Right now, as far as paint manufacturers are concerned, the news is all about environmentally friendly products," says Jim Allen, a professional coating representative for Sherwin-Williams. "Sherwin-Williams, along with other manufacturers (such as Benjamin Moore), has been developing products that lower emissions in the environment and that are green-friendly."

No matter where you live, Buffaloe says she is a great promoter of turning down the heat in the winter and using the least amount of electricity as possible all year long. "I think the only 'green' heating solution out there is sweaters and blankets! Though wood pellet-burning stoves are becoming popular and do have a high efficiency ratio.

"Really, the 'greenest' thing a homeowner can do first is conserve how much energy he is using. No energy is the greenest alternative energy out there," Buffaloe says. "It's important to remember we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, so making that environment healthy and comfortable should be a priority for every homeowner."

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