A recent piece in the New York Times’ Home and Garden section featured the growing eco-consulting industry—entrepreneurs who give up-close and personal advice to people about how to live their lives more sustainably. The writer questions whether or not the small stuff adds up to real impacts. In fact, she reminds us that the biggest impacts are much farther “upstream”:

There is also debate about whether individual action matters at all, with some experts noting that the most effective greening people can do is in the voting booth. No individual action could compare, for instance, to the emissions avoided if the government found a way to replace coal with other technologies to reduce dependence on fossil fuels

  • But is there a middle ground? Composting and changing light bulbs adds up eventually, voting and helping enact policy is huge…but tackling big home efficiency projects not only cuts substantial emissions, but can save money too.

    Locally we have our share of events and resources focused on supporting individuals to make sustainable decisions. Next month in Medford the Oregon Green Expo kicks off to bring together “veteran green practitioners with some of the latest technologies, products and services available.” The Northwest GreenEcobuilding Guild has a search engine to help homeowners find green contractors for home improvements.

    So, greening your life can start small or go right for the big stuff.

    A Harvard study released earlier this year provides some solid evidence that there is an opportunity in the shifts some people are making. The study conducted by the Joint Center for Housing Studies took a close look at the remodeling industry and found that it is suffering like the rest of the housing sector. 

    However, the study found that because of falling housing values there is a big shift away from higher end improvements—the kitchen, bathroom or garage remodel—and toward improvements that create energy savings. Homeowners, especially those seeing the biggest drops in housing values, are putting their money not into remodels but into retrofits. That’s good news.

    Existing homes consume about 22 percent of the nation’s energy and older homes, built before 1970, account for about 70 percent of that consumption.

    Housing Energy Pie Chart

    The study also points out that investments in improving rental efficiency increased only 30 percent between 1995 and 2007 compared to 150 percent for owner occupied units during the same period. If, as the study suggests, a lot of this spending will shift from owner occupied units to renter occupied units and goes toward retrofits, it would go a long way toward improving the problem of split incentives.

    Our region, according to the study, is likely to see some shift from remodels to retrofits, but perhaps not as much as in other areas where prices hadn’t climbed so high. When a home is losing value owners are less likely to spend money on improvements. For that reason, places like California will see the greatest drop in home improvement, while places like Dallas and Denver may see more money being spent on retrofits. But Seattle was in the middle of these regions spending on average about $3200 annually in home improvements—a number that’s not likely to change dramatically.

    Going green might make us feel good but in tough economic times cost savings from energy retrofits might motivate a new kind of decision-making: Put money into ground source heating as opposed to new counter tops. And renters might benefit from energy savings as property owners convert more space into rentals and upgrade existing rental properties.   

    The Harvard study shows that homeowners are having the realization that the best remodels are the ones that pay for themselves. We might emerge from these tough economic times with blurring of the lines between remodels and retrofits that will be broadly beneficial to energy use and climate change.