Renovate, Save Energy, Live Better

Recycling through thoughtful redesign is the ultimate green building strategy

The News & Observer, Home & Garden, December 26, 2009

By Georgia Bizios and Katie Wakeford 

The Triangle has a diversity of older houses. Many of us treasure these charming homes and the neighborhoods they create. But unfortunately, these old homes can be dark and difficult to heat and cool, and growing utility expenses indicate that we are often paying for wasted energy.

Half of all existing houses in the U.S. were built before 1973, and U.S. homes consume 20 percent to 25 percent of the nation’s energy, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Recycling our housing stock through thoughtful renovation saves resources. It is a “green building” strategy and a national imperative.

President Obama recently proposed incentives for homeowners to renovate with energy conservation in mind. The so-called “Cash for Caulkers” program emphasizes weatherization techniques such as enhanced insulation and sealed ductwork. Other valuable building science strategies include properly sized high efficiency mechanical systems, sealed attic and crawl spaces, geothermal heating/cooling systems, and spray foam insulation. Architectural modifications also provide great opportunities to improve the energy efficiency of our homes. Adding an elegant shading trellis, building an inviting screened porch, or eliminating a confining interior wall to let in light and air can translate into energy savings. Such renovations also improve the character of our homes. Architectural retrofits bring the tandem benefits of saving energy while creating better spaces, enhanced quality of life, and curb appeal.

Respond to the sun

Houses that harness the sun’s light and warmth without overheating and glare can reduce dependence on utilities. In new construction, architects and homeowners make key decisions about building orientation. Stretching a house on the east-west axis, opening it to the southern exposure with appropriate shading, and minimizing windows on the other facades significantly lower energy consumption. The simple goals are to minimize mechanical heating and cooling loads and to achieve generous natural lighting without glare. Although you cannot rotate your house in relation to the sun, sensitive solar design can guide modifications and solve problems.

Design that harnesses the sun makes a home more enjoyable to live in.

Add an outdoor room

Sunrooms, porches, screened porches and shaded decks or patios can be added as shading strategies and also provide pleasant memorable places. Outdoor rooms make our houses feel larger. Because they do not have to be cooled or heated, they cost less to build than an enclosed room. They add character to a home and encourage us to stay connected with our neighbors and natural environment. They can be designed as a simple protective shelter or as a well-appointed room with sophisticated construction and materials. 

A screened porch and shaded deck create outdoor rooms that can reduce overall energy costs.

Let in the light

Natural light animates a house and nurtures the life within it. Darkness is one of the most often cited reasons for wanting to renovate an existing house, but improving the natural lighting requires skillful design. Consider moving, adding, or deleting windows for energy savings and better living. Light from two sides of a room will give a sense of spaciousness. Illuminate interior areas with skylights, solar tubes, and dormers. Window changes may also provide new opportunities for natural ventilation. It is critical, however, to place, size, and install windows carefully. Specify windows with appropriate glass technologies, such as invisible metal, low emittance coatings to control heat gain and loss.

Interior windows are underutilized in residential design. Consider making a wall opening to connect spaces. Double-pane glass in the opening will provide acoustic privacy. Place the opening above eye level and visual privacy is preserved while still benefiting from shared light, air, and space.

Windows on two sides of a room or high in a space mean more daylight and ventilation.

Shade the glass

Excessive heat gain from windows is a common problem. In the Triangle’s climate and latitude, unprotected windows that face south or west increase cooling costs. Roof overhangs, awnings, and horizontal trellises that shade south-facing windows protect the interior from overheating. A two-and-a-half foot overhang will shade a south-facing eight foot wall at noon on June 21. To avoid heat gain and glare, west-facing windows can be shaded with vertical shading devices such as shutters. 

Planting deciduous trees or vines supported by a trellis are dynamic ways to shade windows that are vulnerable in the summer but that can afford some winter sun. Shading devices also activate the exterior of our homes by changing light and shadow patterns throughout the year.

A trellis combines pragmatic shading with an artistic accent.

Tweak the plan 

Older homes are often subdivided into small rooms. Removing walls to create an open plan for contemporary living may provide opportunities for better daylight and ventilation. In addition to saving energy, the natural light, fresh air and open configuration may have positive benefits for well-being. If you are undertaking major renovations, take better advantage of solar orientation. Put frequently used living areas on the southside and place storage or rooms that need fewer windows on the north or west. Kitchens are lovely to the east so that they catch the morning sun during breakfast. Create spaces where the inside and outside can flow together for light, breezes and a sense of connectedness with nature.

With no south facing windows, this space gets little sunlight
Adding shaded windows refreshes several rooms

Why now 

Considering home renovations is particularly timely now. Weaknesses in the real estate market and economic uncertainty have compelled many homeowners to stay where they are. Additionally, many of us want to “age in place.” Renovating now can make it safe, comfortable and affordable to do that in the long run.

State and federal tax savings can offset the cost of upgrades such as solar water heaters, geothermal heat pumps or lighting modifications. North Carolina is a leader among states in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy sources through tax incentives. For more information, go to

Finally, renovating preserves the best features of older homes – quality materials, established neighborhoods, family memories – while giving them a face-lift using the best practices in design and construction. Maintaining our nation’s housing stock is a way of protecting our communities and the environment for generations.

So if your inefficient mechanical system needs replacing, if you never use your dark living room or if you long for a screened porch, now is the time to act. An architect can help you take a comprehensive look at the configuration and condition of your house while considering your budget and needs. Professionals can advise you on the technologies and design strategies that are good values, not only for investment and cost savings but also for your lifestyle and enjoyment.

Renovate. Save energy. Live better.

The authors

Georgia Bizios, professor of architecture at N.C. State University’s College of Design and a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, creates residential architecture. Katie Wakeford, an intern architect with the N.C. State Home Environments Design Initiative, is co-editor of “Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism” (Metropolis Books, 2008). Both are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, accredited professionals.