Improvements that Count – BusinessWeek Online
September 15, 2006
Remodeling: Going "Green"
May Not Save Green
Using eco-friendly products and materials may
make a homeowner feel good, but doing so comes
at a price—and sometimes it's an ethical one.
With the real estate market in the doldrums, it's
a good time for homeowners to look around and
remodel, dressing up their domiciles for the next
market crest. For those settled in for the long
haul, new tiles and cabinets are a way to make
home feel more, well, homey than before.
But those who consider earth their first home
and their house or condo the second, may give
priority to incorporating environmentally friendly
materials into improvement projects.
With materials ranging from floors made from recycled
glass to wood from the fast-growing and easily
replenished Lyptus tree, green materials are a
well-established segment of the interior decorating
and design market. But consumers should be careful.
Green products may translate into lower energy
costs down the road, but buying and installing
them can mean a major investment.
As anyone who has remodeled their home knows,
there's no limit to what you can spend. The good
news for buyers on a budget is that some of the
best ways to help the environment and save on
energy bills are at the low end of the price spectrum.
Household appliances like dishwashers and air
conditioners are consistently becoming more energy-efficient.
Dan Taddei, director of education at the National
Association of the Remodeling Industry, says "the
government has pushed hard for people to do EnergyStar,"
a program rating the efficiency of household appliances.
Still, consumers are likely to find out that this
can be a proportional equation. Upgrade the fridge
to a plus-size behemoth and it'll still suck up
its share of electricity.
Fluorescent lighting is another money-saving option.
Though buzzing greenish bulbs have given fluorescent
lighting a bad reputation, the bulbs available
now are both reasonably priced and not "the
cold sinister light that we're used to from commercial
spaces," says Marc Schlesser, chief design
officer at MyHome, a kitchen and bathroom showroom
in Manhattan. In terms of energy consumption,
he describes fluorescents as preferable to the
halogen lamps that he called "heating devices
which happen to produce light."
But new light bulbs and an air conditioner don't
amount to a home makeover. Contractors say customers
going the remodeling distance should expect to
pay a premium for doing good for the planet. Chris
Donatelli, a partner in Donatelli Castillo Builders,
a remodeling outfit in San Jose, says clients
tend to choose the earth-stewardship route because
"it's the right thing to do."
And consumers often find health and air-quality
reasons to go green. Buildings are now more energy-effecient,
but that also means they hold in more of the chemicals
added to building materials. Dan Mackey, a San
Jose remodeler who is developing a green course
for industry professionals with Donatelli, says
he sees increased interest in materials made with
fewer chemicals and less glue. For example, formaldehyde,
commonly found in insulation and other building
materials, has been known to cause asthma attacks,
and often people are willing to pay more for insulation
Indeed, creating one's own indoor Eden is not
cheap. "It's not going to be practical for
everyone to make every choice in every house a
green choice," Mackey says, which is why
you need to make your choices carefully. Mackey
is in the process of reroofing his own home with
a recycled tire product. It's a "striking
thing," he says, noting that it "looks
like I'm putting a slate roof on my house."
For a wow factor, Schlesser likes induction cooktops
that create a magnetic field and send currents
into magnetic pots and pans, effectively turning
them into the cooking devices. Compared with gas
and electric stoves, they save energy and don't
throw off heat. But such options don't come cheap.
Likewise, solar panels on houses may impress passersby,
but don't count on them as an investment. Breaking
even on them depends on factors like initial installation
costs—which can easily top five figures—the amount
of sunlight in an area, and net metering—whether
the local power grid gives homeowners credit for
energy they return to the grid. In short, they
should probably not be thought of as an investment
that can produce a meaningful return.
Those willing to dabble in green materials can
pick and choose. But even the the truly committed
will have to make choices. Schlesser points out
that any benefit from an environmentally friendly
house far from public transportation will be counterbalanced
by the driving it takes to get there. Products
made from recycled materials may be produced via
As demonstrated in his showroom, it is sometimes
necessary to compromise. Schlesser pointed to
Corian, a DuPont (DD) product that he describes
as "a countertop of Saudi oil," because
it is produced using a petroleum derivative. He
disapproves of using fossil- fuel-based materials
so affluent homeowners can chop their endive in
style, but, as he admits, it always comes down
to the customer's choice.