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    Credit: James Taylor

The collapse of the housing market has forced many homeowners to make some tough choices. Until the market recovers, many who stay put are opting to fix up what they have with small-scale remodels and renovations. Home improvement projects present an opportunity for architects to demonstrate how sustainable materials save both energy and money.

Matthew Coates, AIA, of Coates Design in Seattle, recommends that architects first start with local sources of sustainable materials that homeowners can affordably use in their homes. “You are supporting local businesses, and you are finding out what materials are readily available in your neighborhood,” he says.

For used and surplus materials, shops like ReStore offer everything from windows to cabinets to lighting fixtures. “You can not only get a good deal, but you are being more sustainable because you are keeping stuff out of the landfill cycle,” says Coates.

His team also sources local recycling facilities. “A lot of local jurisdictions have bulletin-board websites where they will publish resources for materials, whether it’s framing material or finishes and tile,” Coates says. Stores like Ecohaus, on the West Coast, and Green Depot, a national chain, are other sources of green building supplies.

James Garrison, AIA, principal of Garrison Architects in Brooklyn, N.Y., says when choosing green home renovation or remodeling products, architects should be guided by an understanding of a material’s embodied energy, especially since so many products claim to be sustainable.

“If we paid very little for it in terms of energy, and it lasts a very little time, it’s probably not as a good of a deal as something we pay somewhat more energy for but lasts much longer,” Garrison says. “So there is the balance of quality and longevity and embodied energy that needs to be taken into consideration.”

While bamboo flooring is popular among homeowners, they may not know that the product has been manufactured in the Pacific Rim and shipped to the United States, which ratchets up its embodied energy and carbon footprint.

“So what we’ll tend to use, since we are in New York, is plentiful Eastern hardwoods instead,” Garrison says.

Tonic Design in Raleigh, N.C., relies on nearby Southern Energy Management of Morrisville, N.C., to help it integrate solar technologies and energy-efficient systems into home improvement projects. Tonic Design’s Katherine Hogan says her firm also looks to North Carolina State University’s North Carolina Solar Center for assistance in selecting the right green materials, as well as to some of their subcontractors who are familiar with the best products available.

Joanne Ellis of Bainbridge Island, Wash., who worked with Coates Design on the design of her LEED-Platinum home and who is also renovating a rental house in Seattle, prefers using quality products that will last.

“People often think about using the cheapest product, and what they forget is that they have to maintain that product. You have to look at what the operation and maintenance factors are of your products, as well as how long that product is going to be around,” Ellis says.

Some homeowners might be unwilling to capitalize later on a sustainable investment now, but Coates prefers to dispel the myth that all sustainable home renovations and remodeling projects are more expensive. Garrison points to state and federal tax incentives that help offset immediate costs. But there’s nothing wrong, of course, with incremental or small-scale improvements. LED fixtures can be retrofitted later, reports Hogan, but you will start to see energy savings immediately.