Is it greener to renovate or rebuild?

Recycling truck
Is this recycling truck fuel efficient? Probably not. See more pictures of green living.
Sava Miokovic/­iStockphoto

­The distinction between what's green and what isn't lies in the details. For example, recycling is a good idea, as is reusing raw materials rather than using virgin ones. However, the current process we use to recycle is flawed in many ways. For one thing, two separate lumbering and equally inefficient vehicles pick up your garbage and your recycling. Another flaw is the energy required by large recycling centers to process these used products back into raw materials.

The choice to recycle extends to housing as well. Eco-friendly people strenuously debate whether it's more environmentally friendly to renovate an existing structure into a greener version of itself or to tear it down and build an eco-friendly house from scratch. As old and previously run-down neighborhoods are rediscovered and reborn as people move back into cities across the U.S., the question is coming up more than ever.


­There's no hard-and-fast rule we could use to settle this debate; the best choice for you depends on your individual situation. That said, it's difficult to justify destroying an existing house instead of simply renovating it. On the other hand, some houses may be so run-down that renovating may cost more than rebuilding.

For the most part, however, it's a better choice from an environmental standpoint to renovate rather than rebuild. Why? It's simple: A lot of different parts make up the standard home. For example, drywall or plaster covers wood stud frames to form walls. There's molding along the ceilings and floors. A roof is covered by shingles and tarpaper, layered over plywood and supported by wooden rafters. There are pipes and ducts hidden throughout the structure. Restrooms have old toilets and bathtubs, sinks and tiles. All of this stuff -- and every other bit of material used in the original home's construction -- has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the municipal dump.


Less Waste: Why Renovation is Greener

City dump
Not the greenest method of disposing of construction and demolition waste.
Joy Fera/­iStockphoto

­All of the refuse that results from the demolition of a house (or any other structure) falls into the category of construction and demolition waste. This waste stream is a wide and deep one in the United States. On average, it adds up to about 136 million tons of waste annually -- or a whopping 40 percent of the solid waste dropped off at municipal dumps every year [source: EPA].

Gutting a house entirely and saving only the exterior and internal load-bearing walls helps cut down on the waste generated by remodeling the home. If you compare the amount of trash generated by each process, renovating is greener than rebuilding. Again, however, the devil is in the details when it comes to determining what's green. Think of it this way: A homeowner who puts notices on sites like or to offer salvage materials will seem greener than someone who renovates and sends all debris straight to the dump to rot.


Renovation still tends to be greener than rebuilding, especially for waste reduction purposes. This is especially the case with small startup green demolition companies, like the Seattle-based nonprofit RE Store. The group salvages and sells as much of a house undergoing demolition as possible and recycles whatever remains -- down to the nails. In 2007, four of the company's projects received recycle or reuse ratings of between 70 and 97 percent from the Environmental Protection Agency [source: Stiffler].

It takes considerably longer to deconstruct a house by hand than it does to bulldoze it, but the green approach to demolition is catching on. Even if a home is demolished in an eco-friendly manner, keeping an existing structure standing will require less heavy machinery when the home is rebuilt. This means that the land surrounding the house will remain undisturbed, leaving trees and other greenery intact.


Ideas for Green Remodeling

Take a little extra care to find out whether any new appliances you purchase for your remodeled house are truly green.
Joe Raedle/­Getty Images

­When it comes to green building, renovating beats rebuilding. However, exactly what's done with the remodeled or rebuilt house makes an enormous difference as well. There isn't much point to having a green demolition crew demolish a home -- or even consider the question posed in this article -- if the final product's going to be an ecological nightmare.

As eco-consciousness continues to rise in popularity with consumers, the building industry has birthed a slew of sustainable vendors -- and some that just aren't. Let the buyer beware: The green living magazine New Life Journal suggests that home renovators do some investigating before jumping at a green price tag. A lot of products marketed as green due to their energy efficiency ratings may use less electricity than some of their counterparts on the market, but may also be constructed out of wholly unsustainable materials or made in environmentally harmful ways. What may appear green might not be green at all. This is a marketing ploy known as greenwashing [source: Cramer].


Other companies have gone in the opposite direction. Traditionally toxic products that feature prominently in home remodeling projects, like paints and varnishes, are now appearing on the market in vastly less toxic forms. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), additives and ingredients that can prove carcinogenic in humans, are beginning to disappear from some housing materials. For example, bamboo flooring is becoming a popular choice among green remodelers because the plant grows quickly, decreasing the environmental impact of its harvest.

Contractors also are taking an increasingly Earth-friendly approach to home remodeling. They're gravitating toward environmentally conscious standards, like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, in the building industry. As the concept of green building hits its marketing stride, it makes good business sense.

Of course, there's also Craigslist and Old materials no longer wanted in one house can be salvaged to remodel another one. And what's greener than reusing old materials?


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Chait, Jennifer. "35 ideas for building a greener house." RiverWired. May 14, 2008. Accessed March 9, 2009.
  • Cramer, Maggie. "From nasty nest to green possibilities." New Life Journal. April 1, 2008.
  • Cramer, Maggie. "Is it really 'green' or just greenwashing?" New Life Journal. April 2008.
  • Grant, Alyson. "Think green when renovating at home." CanWest News Service. September 27, 2007.
  • Soens, Robert and Guokas, Jody. "Renovate or rebuild: an eco-conscious homeowners conundrum: green builders Robert Soens and Jody Guokas take a look at both sides of the puzzling problem." New Life Journal. April 2008.
  • Stiffler, Lisa. "If house has to go, at least it can go 'green' -- piece by piece." Seattle Post-Intelligencer. August 19, 2007. Accessed March 9, 2009.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "What's in a building? Composition and analysis of C&D debris." Accessed March 9, 2009.