By Paula Minahan

The idea of living in a truly sustainable green environment is a homeowner’s dream: Lower energy bills, healthier materials,

Photo: Barley & Pfeiffer Architects

Overhangs provide protection from the sun.

the satisfaction of “doing the right thing.” But with our slumping U.S. economy, many worry about holding onto their home — let alone building a new one. To most, a new green home will never be more than a dream.

Green retrofitting, or adapting an older building to greener standards, opens the door. The U.S. Green Building Council has identified 11 ways to retrofit your home. Some are as simple as programming your thermostat at 78 F or higher in summer, and 62 F or lower in winter. More elaborate, and perhaps expensive, are switching to green power and exploring solar technology solutions.

So where to begin? Green Right Now went to LEED-accredited architect and building scientist Peter Pfeiffer for advice. Along with partner Alan Barley, Pfeiffer founded Barley & Pfeiffer Architects on a commitment to environmentally responsive green building more than two decades ago.

We sat down with Pfeiffer in his Austin office to tap his experience and posed the questions: ‘How can I make my existing home greener? What’s the smart approach?’ His recommendations follow.

Low-cost Tips for Green Retrofitting

  • Tighten up your home

I’ll start with the idea of making your home more energy efficient. It’s important because it affects so many things: Your comfort, the environment, air pollution, global warming. All because we generate excessive electricity for our inefficient homes.

There are little things you can do that make a big difference — reducing air leaks in your house is huge. I was formerly chairman of Austin’s Resource Management Commission that oversaw the birth of the Green Building Program and other energy conservation programs. Some gave away fluorescent lights or paid you rebates to buy a more efficient air conditioner.

We soon realized that to reach our goal of reducing what we call “peak demand” at power plants, the single most-effective initiative was the weatherization program. It offers residents money to have their house caulked and weather stripped. It’s by far the most effective program in the city, because it saves more energy than anything else.

Here’s an analogy. You can wear a winter coat and if it’s not buttoned up, the heat will escape out your chest. It doesn’t matter how thick the coat is, you’ll still catch cold. It’s the same with a house. If you have an open window and it’s a winter day, it doesn’t matter how much insulation is in the walls; all the heat will go out the window. So it’s important to weather strip your doors and make sure your windows close tightly.

  • Block solar radiation

What causes a building to need air conditioning besides leaks? Solar radiation and humidity coming in from the outside. So stop radiation before it comes in through the glass by shading the windows and the roof. That should be obvious, but to a lot of people, it’s not. They think closing the blinds is all they need to do, but the radiation has already come in. It’s already infiltrated the building.