15 Smart Ideas for a Green Remodel

What we used to call "green" design is now just common sense. Take it from a contractor who called on his eco savvy to update his own home.

By industry definition, Jeff King is a contractor specializing in sustainable building, but he'll be the first to warn you against the G-word. "Green has become so overused a lot of people don't take it seriously," says King, who became a certified green builder in 2004. So he reframed the conversation, telling his clients about the health benefits of cleaner air from zero-VOC paints, the dollars saved by radiant-heat flooring, and the durability of Caesarstone countertops--all choices that happen to be environmentally friendly.

The new space feels biggerThe new space feels bigger
Use space wisely

Though it has a similar foot­print to the prior kitchen ("low 8-foot ceilings, red cabinets, dismal," King's wife, Margot Beall says), the new walk-through space feels bigger thanks to higher ceilings, glass-front cabinets, floating shelves, a pull-out pantry, and bright white surfaces. King added recessed energy-efficient LED lights in the kitchen and family room.
Top green homes in the West

The bench seat stores art supplies underneathThe bench seat stores art supplies underneath
Do double duty

In the breakfast area, the bench seat maximizes the narrow kitchen-to-backyard area and stores art supplies in drawers underneath. "We squeeze as much out of the space as we can," says King. By day, it's a homework spot. By night, it's addi­tional seating while the family and their friends watch movies together.

Zero-VOC Mythic paintZero-VOC Mythic paint
Lose the toxins

Though King used zero-VOC Mythic paint on the walls, he chose low-VOC for the trim and woodwork since the zero-VOC versions aren't as durable yet.

Salvaged butcher blockSalvaged butcher block
Mix old and new

The butcher block counters were salvaged from the former kitchen.
The zero-waste home

The family room also functions as a home officeThe family room also functions as a home office
Build in flexibility

The new family room also functions as a home office, thanks to an ingenious floor-to-ceiling media center. A sliding door on the cabinets conceals the TV, and doors fold down into desks. File drawers and a printer station are concealed below--not a phone charger in sight. "Getting stuff to disappear was a driving force, while optimizing every inch," King says.

A favorite part of the houseA favorite part of the house
Create an oasis

The addition let King expand one of the four bedrooms upstairs into a master suite--he bumped out the master bedroom at the back of the house and added a bathroom and closet. "It's my favorite part of the house," says King. Surrounded by trees, "it feels incredibly private for an urban area," he says.

Keep the face really simpleKeep the face really simple
Keep it clean

A small master bathroom is tucked into a short hallway that also houses a shared closet. "We decided not to do drawers on the bathroom cabinets to keep the face really simple," says King of the FSC-certified cherrywood vanity. The custom medicine cabinets' niches hold electric toothbrushes and hide the cords. In addition, a water-efficient steam shower takes the place of a bathtub, saving even more floor space.

A lot is packed inA lot is packed in
Live big in a small backyard

A lot is packed into the 25- by 45-foot backyard: a play structure, fruit trees, a deck, lawn, and even a zipline. The addition made room for a rooftop garden just off the master bedroom's deck where the family grows herbs, strawberries, and succulents.
How to make the most of a small backyard

No-maintenance exteriorNo-maintenance exterior
Plan for low upkeep

"Out back, our top priority was a no-maintenance exterior," says King. He clad the addition in white cedar shingles knowing they would turn a silvery gray. "We didn't paint any of it. If you paint it, you have to maintain it," he says, noting they might eventually go all-shingles out front too. He also used highly durable copper gutters.

Bluestone patio requires zero attentionBluestone patio requires zero attention
Choose low-maintenance materials

The most eco-friendly material is often the one that lasts longest with the least effort. "The endgame is the net energy use on a product, so if it requires repainting, refinishing, or constant cleaning, it's not the best product," says King. For example, the family's bluestone patio requires zero attention.

Look for the Forest Stewardship Council's label Look for the Forest Stewardship Council's label
Choose FSC-certified products

Not all wood is harvested equally. Furniture and materials with the Forest Stewardship Council's label signals the wood was responsibly harvested from a forest that's being managed to ensure future growth.

Most pay for themselves in a yearMost pay for themselves in a year
Light up your home with LED

In the last few years, the cost of hyper-efficient LED bulbs has gone down dramatically--most pay for themselves in a year--and the quality more closely matches natural light. Try the Cree LED TW Series (from $17; homedepot.com).
More on energy-efficient lighting

Just add elbow greaseJust add elbow grease
Use humble cleaners
Ammonia- and chlorine-based cleaners add toxins to the air and also often degrade the material they clean, shortening its life. Instead, go back to basics. "Simple things like vinegar and water are the most eco-friendly cleaning products out there," says King. Just add elbow grease.
Green cleaning

At least 85 percent is considered good.At least 85 percent is considered good.
Beware "recycled content"

Read the fine print: "So often, 'recycled content' is splashed all over the packaging," says interior and furniture designer Kelly LaPlante. "But when I look into it I learn it's only 5 or 10 percent post-industrial waste--not even consumer waste." (At least 85 percent is considered a good amount.) We love the Lollygagger Lounge chair, pictured, which was fashioned from 312 recycled milk jugs ($440; lolldesigns.com).

The natural choice should winThe natural choice should win
Go natural

When choosing between an item made with recycled materials or one of natural components, the natural choice should win, according to architect Eric Corey Freed. When something like flooring is made with a high percentage of recycled content that isn't natural, the material could continue to off-gas.
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