Ask the experts

You’ve got home improvement questions and the Southwest Journal knows who can give you the answers. Welcome to the first in an occasional series in which we ask the experts about building, remodeling, decorating and gardening.

Which green building techniques and materials are the best investment?

Homeowners looking to do the right thing for the environment may find that their good intentions stretch only as far as their wallets. While green home building techniques and materials don’t always add to a project’s bottom line, there are still some tough choices that have to be made when funds are limited (and aren’t they always?).

Tristan Roberts, editor of buildinggreen.com, reminds us that energy bills are high right now and, in his estimation, just going to get higher, so anything you can do to save on energy bills is a great investment. If you’re building new or building a substantial addition, look for the thickest insulation you can get with the highest R-value, a measure of thermal resistance or insulation potential.

“I personally recommend cellulose” — made mostly from recycled newspaper — “it’s a great investment,” he says.

And how the insulation is installed is just as important as what kind you use. You want to be sure that you create a really good air barrier around your house. “You can have all the R-value you want around your home, but if there are teeny gaps around outlets, you’re losing energy,” Roberts says.

Nancy Kelly, of the Green Institute in Minneapolis, agrees that proper insulation is key, but she cautions homeowners to pay as much attention to ventilation as they do to insulation. “Once you’ve made your house tighter, make sure you’re ventilating it properly. That’s a health and safety issue,” she says.

Retrofitting

If you’re not planning any major renovations, there are still good green investments to make in your home.

“A lot of people think they need to upgrade their windows, but usually it doesn’t pay off that well,” Roberts says. “I recommend storm windows. They’re inexpensive and really pay off. And in an older house, you can keep your charming old windows.”

Sealing up the spaces around lights, electrical outlets and pipes is another easy investment of time an money.

“You can spend about $100 on sealing foam and caulk and make the same amount back on your energy bills,” Roberts says.

Experts like Kelly at the Green Institute can perform a home energy audit before you even pick up a caulking gun, so you know just where to put your time and money.

And she recommends doing your homework: Investigate federal and state rebate programs, like Minnesota’s new energy-efficient appliance incentive, and research appliance choices ahead of time.

“There are so many decisions that have to be made quickly once the job starts,” she warns.

Finally, remember the old mantra, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Look for ways to salvage any old materials that you are pulling out of your home and shop at a salvage yard or Minneapolis’ own ReUse Center before buying new. “That’s both green and affordable,” Kelly says.

She notes that everything from doorknobs and trim to whole kitchens come through their doors and if you’re one of 5,000 people who receive the ReUse Center’s weekly e-mail, you can shop from the comfort of your own home, even viewing pictures and specifications online. (Sign up for the e-newsletter and learn more at thereusecenter.com.)

Got a question for our experts? Send them to tcornell@mnpubs.com. We’ll research the answers and print them in the May Home Improvement Guide.