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Genuinely Green, the New Urban Scene

Remodeling with sustainability in mind: adaptive reuse

By Brett Marlo

I know. Blah blah blah, another article on sustainability. Even though I live and work as a green builder every day, the term sometimes wears me out too. So why even mention it? It’s tough not to have a conversation these days without acknowledging what we want our lives to look like as we age.

Recently, my family’s living situation abruptly ended. Optimistically, I looked at it as an opportunity for change. Moving to a new city to create a new home felt like the right move. My girls, now teenagers, were tired of living tiny (less than 200 square feet). Their latest request, “I want a door with a bedroom behind it!” Well, I suppose it seemed a reasonable enough request after living tiny for five years, their rooms “lofts.”

We looked for a property in our desired destination, Tacoma, that could be easily altered to meet our goals. We were lucky enough to find the right spot: a smallish home at 1,200 square feet, with an 800-square-foot unfinished basement. The house, built in the 1940s, was a rental for decades and desperately needed some love. At first sight, we knew we could create accessible intergenerational living on the main floor and a small rental in the basement.

As to expect in any remodel, there will be unwanted surprises that will increase the project timeline and cost more than your original budget. We did not come out unscathed, even with all our planning and experience. I can safely say now that we are nearing the end of this remodel, each stage of building unfolded a new challenge. You name it, it likely happened. I felt I was playing a part in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Money Pit.

Our project provided more than the typical number of surprises. During deconstruction, we found out that our home did not have any drywall or insulation, the sheathing of the house was merely quarter-inch plywood, buried tanks were in our way of the new basement entry, and the attic was home to generations of decaying squirrels.

Despite all of the remodeling challenges, we love our Grit City home. Sharing our experiences, some photos (a sneak peek) and employing the Rs as a framework, we hope to help guide you in achieving your dream remodel. Here are tips on how you can meet your goals and vision while weaving sustainability through your project.

Reimagine. Consider how much of the existing structure can be reused. Reorganize the layout to meet remodel goals that minimize expansion. We intentionally designed our home to be intergenerational with two typical bedrooms, two accessible bedrooms, one fully accessible bathroom, one typical bathroom, and a basement ADU (accessory dwelling unit). By creating an exterior entrance for a studio basement rental unit, we are now able to provide an affordable city rental and help reduce our out-of-pocket monthly overhead.

Reject. Buying materials that create unhealthy indoor air quality will not achieve the quality of life you are investing in the remodel. Reject unhealthy materials. We opted for healthier materials and refused to buy from sources that have questionable business practices.

Rethink. Traditional ways of doing things may not be the best way to meet your goals. Design for the future. Consider aging in place or universal design, installing future blocking for handrails, conduit for future solar or designing for disassembly. When desired products are not available, costs are high or trends are overplayed, consider making changes. We chose yellow cedar instead of red cedar, which ultimately led to a uniquely warm exterior and saved on costs. Reduce. Designing multifunctional spaces and creating storage along circulation zones reduces the need for the amount of materials and labor needed; helping you stay within budget. You can also reduce creating new materials when you purchase reclaimed goods. We purchased wood doors constructed from reclaimed fir, and their look and feel was a much better outcome than we would have achieved otherwise.

Reuse. Save money by reselling or donating to second-use stores or community organizations. We were able to give another life to windows, doors, sinks, toilets, lighting and hardware by sharing them. We earned credit toward salvaged items we reused on our project. The dirt excavated for the basement entry went to good use in a friend’s backyard. We even made new friends by offering neighbors bricks from the deconstructed chimney stack.

Repair, Remake, Repurpose. When searching for materials, seriously consider used or blemished items. By either trimming, mending, painting or sealing them as needed, your home will become one of a kind. While sometimes this process may be time consuming, the end products are richer both in form and story. We salvaged blemished products such as wood doors and countertops. We also collected old cedar fencing from local residents by searching through online posts. The grayed fencing became the cladding for our exterior porches, fencing and shed siding.

Recycle. Before deconstructing, consider where you intend parts of your project to go and organize your jobsite accordingly. Label waste bins to separate construction waste from reusable items. For the remaining items not reused, we employed a mixed waste construction waste dumpster and were able to recycle the bulk of our deconstruction waste.

Remember. Last but not least, any project is more rewarding when there’s time to be thoughtful. Take time to find inspiring designs that fit your intentions. Seek out craftspeople, both local and regional. Remember to remain flexible when challenges arise; there’s no such thing as a remodel without those, and fresh solutions often make the project even better than you first imagined!

Most importantly, remember that laughter gets you through this journey. The ups and downs will become the best parts of the story you will remember and tell. Before you know it, the project will be complete, and you will be enjoying your newly created space; proud of how you handled your journey.

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