Remodeling Our Forever Home


Remodeling our “Forever Home” is testing our patience! There are so many little details to study and decisions to make. For example, we decided to make our bathroom wheelchair accessible. After coming up with the design for the perfectly sized vanity and a generous walk-in shower, we realized that a traditional toilet would not allow a wheelchair to get past it to enter the shower. So our contractor advised getting a unique toilet with a tank built into the wall. This meant spending a bit more so that the toilet would stick out several inches less and allow a broader pathway to the shower. Instead of getting the more expensive hide-a-tank toilet, we could have eliminated a linen closet, which sits where the old furnace return was. Nope, we really want that linen closet.

Filter Decisions

We installed a ducted heat pump system in the attic, which meant building in an attic access and air return in the hallway ceiling. That makes it possible to service our new HVAC equipment, such as changing the filter every year, according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. We picked a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV-13) filter even though we could have upgraded to a thicker and more effective filter that could filter out finer particulate matter from our indoor air. We also could have brought in ducting with built-in UV light to kill viruses, but we didn’t think we could justify the added expense for an unknown health benefit of very, very clean air versus immaculate air.

Can Lights

How many “can lights” do we want to install to provide proper lighting? Do we go with 4-inch or 6-inch can lights? Our electrician has been a big help in this area. Twenty years ago, I would have refused any can lights because they were usually uninsulated and leaky. It was hard to insulate the old cans because they utilized hot incandescent lights that burn hot. The heat builds up, and a safety thermal guard trips, turning the lights off. We insulated some can lights in our current house a while ago. Some would turn off every half hour. When we replaced the incandescent with cool burning LEDs, we had good light to read or watch television with and spent much less on electricity. LED can light kits come air-sealed and insulated out of the box.

To Grass or Not to Grass

We plan on getting a dog. We are waiting until the big move and are still mourning our 14-plus-year-old Labradoodle, who died several months ago. Do we plant grass in the tiny backyard flat enough for a dog to frolic on? Or do we mulch it and plant drought-resistant plants to save water?

Dark Sky at Night

Getting outdoor lights that point down instead of directing light into the night sky is a no-brainer. This wastes energy and interrupts the natural sleep patterns and, therefore, the health of animals who share our suburban space. Check out DarkSky International for lighting recommendations and resources.

Deck Boards

We want to spend much of our lives at home outside, so we’re having a deck that is accessible from our bedroom and family rooms. Decks require a lot of material, with significant potential environmental impacts. So, do we choose vinyl deck boards or wood composite? One-hundred percent recyclable or not? Natural wood? We eliminated natural wood from our choices because of expense and the need for reconditioning every year or two. That would require hundreds of gallons of chemicals over the deck’s lifetime and tons of money.

I asked one salesperson if the fact that something is labeled recyclable means that it is recycled—and not sent to the landfill—when its decking days are over. He was honest and said he didn’t think so but would find out. He matched us up with 100% recycled vinyl boards that are 100% recyclable and are recycled by the manufacturer. We are moving from cradle-to-grave recycling, where we use something repeatedly until it no longer has a valuable purpose and then toss it, to cradle-to-cradle recycling, where we keep recycling and re-using a material without end.

We can be sure that materials meeting California building codes do not off-gas or emit harmful VOCs or other harmful chemicals that pollute the air or water we breathe. However, some companies publish EPDs or environmental product declarations that vouch for the environmental credentials of their materials.

Many More Questions

When remodeling a house to be efficient, comfortable, and with a minimum carbon footprint, there are so many questions that you can look at from several angles. Before we started this project, we decided to give up our current location, which allows us to walk to Trader Joe’s or Peets. Now, we will probably have to drive more. But we are moving into a house that is paid for and has no mortgage.

Michele and I are inspired by how others create efficient, healthy, and comfortable homes through remodeling. Check out the  April 6 & 7 Online Green Home Features Showcase (part of the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tours). In particular, there are two homes featured on the tour with “green” features. Check out this fact sheet on the Pruegel home and this page on the Simon/Lubeck home. I can also recommend a fine book describing the remodel of a 1922 Bungalow in Santa Cruz. Called Midori House, it has achieved a high degree of energy efficiency and water-efficient landscaping, winning several local and national awards.

I will also recommend a book I edited in 2013, No Regrets Remodeling, Second Edition. You can read it in PDF for free, thanks to the Department of Energy.


Photo of framing for kitchen skylight by Jim Gunshinan.

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