Doug and I are remodeling a house in Madison with our daughter, Della, who is a green architect. She spent three years in Chicago remodeling existing structures. In Madison, she is applying her renovating ideas to a 1952 ranch house. You can follow her project at Ranchhouse Redux http://ranchhouseredux.wordpress.com


Last week when we were repainting the walls of the unfinished area of the basement, I turned on the recorder and Della shared some thoughts of how renovating older homes can be greener than building new ones.

Della says:


I see multiple levels of sustainability in a well-organized remodeling project. No brand new Passive Certified or LEED Gold structure can compare to the sustainability of remodeling an existing building and bringing it up to current energy model standards.


We see many older buildings 50 to 100 years old still standing. You might think that in 2090 there will be as many tract homes built in 1990 around, but frankly there won’t be because they aren’t being designed to last that long.

11582828-c553-42e5-b56f-b9932fd05e90-large16x9_st_johns_demolished_home.bmpThere are really horrifying statistics on the average life span of various components in American home building today. Some of this is driven by trendiness. An interior designer told me that the average lifespan of an interior tile in America is 7 years. That’s not because tile doesn’t last longer, but that they are likely to be scrapped for a new look. We all know houses where the tiles last a generation. That means some people are landfilling perfectly good tile more often than 7 years. That’s horrifying.

Appliances are intended to last 10-15 years based on both their functionality and style trends.

Beyond trendiness, there is durability. Some of the standard components of a house now have limited life spans. House wrap and roofing come to mind. Asphalt roofing has a theoretical life of only 25 years, but are often replaced earlier than that.

This is horrible because all those materials come from somewhere, and when you are done with them, they all go somewhere. They end up on a landfill.  Many communities have no rules about this and though some communities have requirements about recycling a certain percentage of building waste – it is not a perfect system.


The benefits of remodeling are that while adding materials and objects that give your home up-to-date appeal, you can also make changes that improve the performance, longevity and resiliency to climate change.

IMG_2980My ranch house project is a perfect example. This little home built in 1952 was in dire need of an update to fit the taste and living style of 2017. Like other ranches of its era, it has great bones, but on the con side, it was never insulated because heating fuel was cheap, and the concept of greenhouse gases was not well known.

I’m taking a number of steps to make sure this ranch remains a sturdy, comfortable home into the next century.

We took the very dated rec room and study downstairs and removed everything down to the uninsulated concrete block walls. In the process we were careful to preserve the amazing 2x4s made of old growth timber, which are remarkably heavier and stronger than those available today (sigh). All nails were pried out, and they are stacked for reuse as we put the basement back together.IMG_2746


I started with a raised subfloor system that has a plastic underlayment with a texture that raises it off the floor by about an 1/8 inch.


  1. it will keep the floor feeling warmer
  2. in the event of the ever-more-frequent flash floods Madison is experiencing, any water that gets onto the concrete floor will be under the wooden flooring and run through the channels in the plastic to the floor drain.


We are building the new walls on top of the floor so they will also be protected from any moisture that gets into the basement. We created a multiple insulation system with 1-inch rigid foam (R5) adhered directly to the concrete wall, then an air gap, which both lets moisture circulate and adds more insulation. Any humidity trapped behind the wall will work its way out rather than forming mold.  (When we carefully removed the knotty pine (which can be reused) and the drywall, there was mold behind them. Hopefully, that won’t happen in the future.

In front of that I have built a 2×4 wall on top of the subfloor system so that it can’t be damaged by water that might get into the basement. And in that 2×4 cavity, we will install bat insulation to the tune of another R13.fullsizeoutput_15c1

This is one way I am playing around with the design of a finished basement. This house theoretically had a rec room and study/bedroom, but they were cold, damp and uninviting.

By doing this work I am building with the long run in mind. Any future updating through the decades can be done without having to disturb or replace the structural insulation changes we have made.

We make choices about sustainability every day. Some of the most important ones – because they last so long – are those we make about our housing.

Have you been thinking about or doing green remodeling? We’d love to hear about what you have learned and done?

1 reply

  1. Hello Denise,
    Your article was very interesting to me! We are doing a remodel on an old farmhouse. It has a back section with a damaged half basement
    that supports a bathroom, pantry & entry. We are going to replace that with a full walkout basement, and on the first floor – bathroom, pantry/mud room and an entrance way from a
    high trex porch! Just writing this sounds adventurous!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s