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The July issue of Real Simple magazine is now off the newsstand. So in case you missed it, I am reprinting my article about green renovations. The editors asked that the information be presented  as a series of questions for the various contractors that might work on a home renovation. I couldn’t really do justice to any of the subjects covered in that format and the space allowed, so I will try to expand upon some of them in future posts.

Crumbling house prices and economic jitters have convinced many homeowners that it’s safer to adapt what they have to what they need, rather than jump into a shaky housing market. But can a renovation help your house adapt to the planet as well?

Throwing a few photovoltaic solar panels on the roof won’t make your home green. And environmentally sensitive architects have moved beyond the singular obsession with energy efficiency. The catchphrase of green building in the 21st century is “embodied energy.” How much fossil fuel went into the bricks, cement, steel and glass that make up your house? What quantity of greenhouse gases is your home responsible for even before you switch on the first light? For some houses, the embodied energy of day one will exceed the sum of a few decades worth of electricity and gas bills.

Building in harmony with nature means working with the local climate, local suppliers, and even local soil. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead of waiting for easy answers, start with the right questions. And if a contractor stares blankly at the ceiling in response to your queries, you may want to look for someone with greener credentials.


How earthy can our house be? Green architects agree that adobe, cob and rammed earth are wall materials of first choice for low embodied energy. An architect who has worked with them will know whether they suit your project. The biggest concern: banks will not approve a bond for new structures supported by such raw materials. A home renovation, however, may be able to get financing.

Can we aggressively pursue passive solar? The right combination of windows, walls and floors can supply most of your heating needs in sunny South Africa. But a large roof overhang is vital to keep the high summer sun out. If your architect cannot calculate the ideal overhang based on your latitude, orientation, roof pitch and height, find another architect.

Can we build around a wood stove? If you have a local source of sustainable wood, such as suburban tree fellers, a closed-combustion wood stove is the greenest way to heat. But with all of your warmth concentrated in one spot, careful designing is needed to help the heat reach colder parts of the house. Keeping the stove central to an open plan but away from any double-volume ceilings is a good start.

How can our home use nature’s air conditioning? Your architect should know how to take advantage of prevailing winds. Low windows on the cooler, south side of the house can draw breezes to force out summer heat from high windows on the north side. Drain the pool of heat on your ceiling with small, high windows that you can leave open all night without worrying about cats or cat-burglars. Transom windows aid the flow between rooms. Trees or shutters can shield western surfaces from the afternoon sun. Don’t let some sweet-talking salesman convince you into electric air-conditioning until you’ve given nature a chance.