Here’s how to start—from your home layout to lowering energy bills

living room(Above) Renovation in Los Angeles by Sweeten contractor Brett

Making the decision to renovate instead of constructing a new home is already the first step to remodeling green. Sustainable homebuilding, which seeks to minimize construction waste while making homes more energy efficient, is growing in popularity nationally. It is also becoming easier, especially in eco-minded markets like L.A.

“You don’t have to do a lot to make a big difference,” explained John Shipman from Build It Green. The non-profit developed the GreenPoint Rated label to help and reward homeowners and builders for sustainable construction and renovations.

Why you should renovate sustainably

Creating a more sustainable home can be as simple as adding a low-flush toilet, which can cost as little as $100, according to Shipman. If you’re embarking on an extensive project, a sustainable renovation will cost approximately $20,000 more than a non-sustainable one. Keep in mind, however, that you will make up for it over time by saving on the electricity bill.

Think of going green on your renovation as an investment rather than an expense. Not only will you save on your energy bills, but your home will increase in value. Homes that carry a green certification, like GreenPoint Rated, sell faster and for about four to five percent above market value, Shipman said. Another benefit: A sustainable renovation will likely provide a cleaner lifestyle, thanks to the use of non-toxic materials.

How to renovate green

Energy assessment

Calling in an energy auditor is a great place to start your sustainable renovation. It will not only lead to an efficient home, but it will also make your sustainable home renovation productive and strategic.

An energy assessment can involve a visual inspection as well as thermal imaging with infrared cameras to detect energy loss and a blower that picks up on unwanted airflow through cracks surrounding entry points like windows as well as roofs. An assessment typically costs a few hundred dollars (see more about the process here). It might be a worthwhile investment.

Passive design

The layout of your home and everything under the hood—think airtight windows and insulation—have a huge impact on how effortlessly you will live a modern, sustainable life. It can also eliminate 30 percent of your household energy bills.

  • Home layout: A significant part of passive design is the physical orientation of your house, and how that interacts with the seasons. If you’re embarking on a significant renovation, you may have the opportunity to consider where each living space goes. For example, you could reconfigure your living room, where you spend most of your daytime hours so that it faces south. This will give you maximum sun and heat during the winter, reducing your home heating costs.
  • Skylights are something else to consider to add natural light, said Timothy Corrigan, a Los Angeles-based interior designer who has completed several sustainability projects in the area. So that there isn’t just a black hole at night where the skylight is, he suggested putting LED lights in the shaft and covering the opening with an opaque filter to create some soft lighting.
  • The exterior color of your home will also make a difference, according to Timothy. If you’re in a warm climate, head towards light colors for a cooling effect. That’s one reason why a dark, even black home exterior is common in colder countries—it holds in heat.
  • Landscaping: What trees you plant and where can make a big difference. Deciduous trees provide shade during the summer and maximize heat and light during the winter when they shed their leaves. The best place to plant for this effect is on the south and west side of a structure, advised Sweeten landscape designer Michelle. Vines that climb up the side of a house or pergola also work well, she said.

Adding a green roof will keep your home cool, not to mention they are aesthetically pleasing. Green roofs can either be shallow and accommodate plants like grass or soil that is a little deeper for something that looks more like a garden. Either way, it is best to pick drought resistant or native plants to avoid extensive irrigation, Michelle said.

Timothy Corrigan(Above) Sustainable renovation by designer Timothy Corrigan

Materials for green living

Here are ways to go about sourcing new materials and reusing what you already own while mixing in your own creativity:  

  • The Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association’s Environmental Stewardship Program guides consumers to the most sustainable cabinets. The program rates options on five categories including environmental stewardship and air quality. And it turns out that sustainability is one of the main reasons home renovators or builders choose a specific cabinet company. That’s a good hint for companies to produce greener cabinets.
  • Product Guides: Build It Green’s website is a wealth of information on sustainable building materials, from plumbing to roofing to bathroom fixtures. Each section gives a detailed list of what to look for to ensure the materials you’re putting into your home are sustainable.
  • Deconstruct: Instead of coming in with a big hammer and demolishing the interior of your home, take it slow and steady. Give yourself and your contractor a chance to see what can be repurposed or refurbished.

If you don’t want to reuse anything, it’s likely someone else will. Nonprofits like Renovation Angel and Big Reuse make that exchange very easy by hauling away your old materials and appliances (after they assess its value), and then reselling them. You get a donation tax write-off for whatever they take plus you don’t have to pay to send it to landfill. 

  • Reusing: Giving new life to what you already have is a simple way to reduce your renovation’s carbon footprint. For example, refinishing your existing cabinets with non-toxic paint could save you thousands on a kitchen renovation. Then there’s also refacing, where you keep the cabinet frame and switch out the doors as well as pulls, knobs, and hinges.

Reuse cuts down on a range of negatives like manufacturing and transportation emissions from producing something new. It will also reduce your remodel’s waste and help shrink your budget, too. That’s a win on many levels.

  • Reclaim: Provided you’re using local items previously used and not shipping barn wood across the country, using reclaimed materials will improve the efficiency of your renovation. It reduces the need to buy anything new, which means less raw material is stripped from the earth.

Air sealing your home

An incredible amount of energy is wasted when air either leaks out or gets in. Think how much harder your heating system has to work if there is a continuous draft from a crack between a door and the floor. Here are some simple, and not-so-simple, ways to air seal your house:

  • Caulking: This material squeezes into small, stationary areas to prevent air flow coming through cracks and gaps and joints that are less than a quarter-inch.
  • Weatherstripping: This is typically a foam or rubber material that can be cut to fit different dimensions. Unlike caulking, weatherstripping is for anything that moves, such as doors or windows.
  • Airtight drywall: If you’re doing a significant renovation, this is the approach with the best outcome. Airtight drywall seals joints, seams, and openings in your walls, doors, and windows during construction.

Low-E windows

Low-Emissivity glass allows a minimum amount of ultraviolet and infrared rays through your windows. The coating keeps the inside temperature consistent by keeping it inside and preventing it from escaping. About 30 percent of heating and cooling energy is lost through windows and doors. 

Glass absorbs heat in the summer and cold during the winter, which puts pressure on your heating and cooling systems. The Low-E coating does double duty by reflecting energy from the outside and the inside, e.g., in the summer, it reflects heat back to the sun and the cold from air-conditioning back inside the house. If your renovation calls for new windows, it’s your chance to either use Low-E windows or add a Low-E coating to what you already have.


Insulation will improve the efficiency of your home by trapping energy in so the outside weather has less impact on your inside temperature. However, some insulation products have certain advantages. Recycled cotton and cellulose insulation are made from 80 percent recycled materials, according to the Build It Green material guide. Companies such as CertainTeed, use recycled glass so products meet the EPA’s Recovered Material Guidelines. This saves material from clogging up landfills while improving your home’s energy efficiency. When choosing your insulation material, be on the lookout for products that are free of VOCs and toxins.

Take steps for a sustainable renovation, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier home, planet, and wallet. Happy (green) renovating.

Find out how much it costs to renovate in Los Angeles.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

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