Renovating a brownstone can be a daunting task. Over the years we have renovated many, and as we embarked on our latest renovation in Brooklyn we decided, in the face of the global warming catastrophe, rising fuel costs and sustainability issues, to go about it as a “green” project. Starry eyed and gung ho, I dove right in, started researching exactly what it means to be “green” and exactly what is encompassed by “green” building practices. Every inquiry led me in multiple directions, like an exploding star, and I rode a roller coaster of barely contained enthusiasm, to being overwhelmed, to being paralyzed, to finally being able to see the forest for the trees. 

Allow me to explain.  My epiphany started with becoming familiar with LEED®, arguably the best place to start a discussion of green building practices given the recent proliferation of building-size “going for LEED certification” banners cropping up all over the metro area. “LEED” stands for The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and the LEED Green Building Rating System™ was first developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1998, for commercial construction, as a way to encourage the development and implementation of green building practices. LEED has become the pre-eminent green building rating system in the U.S. measured by dollar value and square footage of LEED certified green commercial projects and number of homes in the program. In 2005 the USGBC launched a pilot LEED for Homes program, and on Dec. 5, 2007, made the LEED for Homes program official.

“Great!” I said to myself. Here’s a set of standards I can follow, I think subconsciously wanting to believe that they made it easy by doing the work for me, eliminating the need for me to research and make decisions because the Guidelines would spoon feed me with what I needed to know to become “green”. Without even looking at the guidelines I decided that I wanted to be the first LEED- certified brownstone under the new LEED for Homes guidelines, despite the fact that I secretly wrinkled my brow at press articles about LEED-certified urban homes touting bicycle racks as a green attribute that earned LEED credits – bicycle racks are a great idea, don’t get me wrong, but we live in NYC with a dense population, local services we can walk to and a great and extensively used mass transit system.  An urban project will have built-in LEED credits in the category that deals with reducing the need for vehicular use due to our location, therefore adding a bicycle rack to the front of a home does not further promote forsaking car transportation. In other words, though a great thing to do, a home bike rack is a low-impact aspect upon which to hang a “green” hat in an urban environment. Nevertheless, I placed blind faith in LEED and wanted to set an example of LEED certification focusing on bigger-impact aspects of renovation, like solar and wind power, overall systems design for reduced energy consumption, water saving measures etc., and to chronicle the process to make it an easier path for others to “be green”.

Then I got into the nuts and bolts of trying to apply the LEED for Homes standards to a brownstone. I became a member of the committee evaluating the new LEED for Homes standards for NYC, and I studied them with a view to their application to brownstones. (see our Article Navigating the Green Building Guidelines Part I: A LEED® for Homes Guidelines Primer -- The Lay Person's Guide)  I quickly discovered that, in order to qualify for certification, the project must be a total gut renovation, right down to the joists and studs -- not very practical or necessary for the vast majority of brownstone renovations, nor, arguably, should it be given that brownstones are historic properties worthy of preservation.  Unnecessarily ripping out all the walls, beautiful architectural moldings and detailing, and floors simply to further the goal of getting a green stamp of approval, seemed hypocritical and indeed not “green” because it adds a tremendous amount to demolition waste and burgeoning landfills, some of which could be toxically laden with lead and asbestos.

So, what’s the point: simple – don’t get hung up on the points. Taking action simply to accumulate credits under a green building guidelines scheme misses the point and tricks people into thinking they are meeting some master criteria handed down from a higher power. Focusing on the points, rather than the issues, adds greater significance than warranted to low-impact actions. The focus, therefore, ought to be on the ISSUES when making decisions about building and renovating, not the credits. Perhaps this is a reason why the motivated and well-intentioned professionals at the USGBC, together with the American Society of Interior Designers, issued the Regreen standards last month, a program for non-gut renovations and remodeling focusing on best practices rather than a rating and certification system.  I urge you not to approach a "green" renovation as a status symbol that requires a third party stamp of approval. 

If you indeed are embarking on a gut renovation for legitimate reasons other than to simply meet the LEED® certification criteria, then by all means go for certification! If, however, you are renovating and don’t need to tear down all your walls and rip out all your floors, then an understanding of the LEED® for Homes guidelines, and the NAHB guidelines as well as Regreen, can help focus you on the issues, some of which you may have never even known existed. An understanding can assist you in making environmentally sound decisions on a project-wide basis, but not dictate decisions simply for the purpose of  earning points under the guidelines as an end in itself.

Since I started this process the National Association of Home Builders has issued “The NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines” and has plans to launch in late spring, in cooperation with the International Code Council, the “National Green Building Standard” dealing with single-family construction, remodeling and multifamily construction, which will be submitted to the American National Standards Institute for approval after the public comment period.    (Each of the guidelines will be the subject of an Upcoming Article.)

Confused?  Don't be.  Ecobrownstone™ will guide you through the process, and the first step is to internalize the mantra that "there are no wrong answers, only choices."  We're doing the research and distilling the infomation because, remember, we're renovating a brownstone too.  Through a series of in-depth articles Ecobrownstone™ will help you make sense of the standards by analyzing LEED® for Homes, Regreen, The NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines and, when issued, the National Green Building Standards. We will demonstrate how each can be applied to our ongoing case-study brownstone renovation at 168 Clinton St. in Brooklyn Heights, and to vintage urban row-house or townhouse renovations generally. Also check our articles for detailed information on specific aspects of the building process, from Air conditioning to Zero-VOC finishes and furnishings.

The first place to start your green renovation odyssey is to read Start Here:  The Decision Making process for Brownstone and Urban Row-house Green Renovation.