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Founder and president of BuildingGreen and author of Your...

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Alex Wilson on Building a Green Home

Alex Wilson on Building a Green Home

Alex Wilson has plenty of experience when it comes to creating a green home. He is the founder and president of 23-year-old BuildingGreen and works with architects and builders across the country on green building efforts. Wilson is the author of Your Green Home and co-author of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings. An avid paddler, he has also written a series of Quiet Water Canoe Guides to the Northeast for the Appalachian Mountain Club. Wilson is an instructor at the Boston Architectural College and sought-after lecturer on green building products and practices. He served on the board of the U. S. Green Building Council until 2005, and currently serves as a trustee of the Nature Conservancy’s Vermont Chapter. In this interview, Wilson explains what to look for in a builder, why all building materials are not created equal and what you can do now to create a more energy-efficient dwelling.

What is important to do in the first 30 days of creating a green home?

First is to reduce energy consumption. Among the easy strategies for the first month are replacing the incandescent light bulbs that are on for the most hours each day with compact-fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). You can also have an energy audit done to find out how your home can be buttoned up. Contact your utility company or state energy office to find out who can provide this service. Some utility companies and energy offices offer these audits for free, and some weatherization companies do the audit at no cost, hoping to make their money with the weatherization work that will follow.

Second is to reduce water use, which can also save a lot of energy when you replace fixtures or appliances that use hot water. Third is to eliminate any moisture problems in the house, which is a major cause of both indoor air-quality problems and durability problems in houses. To eliminate moisture problems, fix any roof leaks that allow rain to get in the house, bring in a foundation drainage expert if moisture is getting into your basement or crawl space, and provide bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans to ventilate moisture from showering and cooking.

What are some of the barriers to creating a green home?

The biggest barriers are probably a lack of awareness of the benefits of a green home and not knowing what to do. These are the issues I address in Your Green Home. One of the greatest emotional benefits of a green home is the greater sense of security one has living in a home that won’t cost an arm and a leg to heat and won’t make your children sick.

What are the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to creating a green home?

They focus too much on materials. Green products and materials are important—ceramic tile made out of recycled glass, cotton insulation, and so forth—but issues like energy savings, water savings and indoor air quality are usually more important. While the materials may be most visible, it is these less obvious features that actually do a lot more to make a home green.

How can people know if the air quality in their home is good or bad, and what can they do to improve it?

Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to know for sure whether the air quality in your home is safe. Some contaminants, such as radon, can be tested for relatively easily [with a kit available at most hardware stores], and moisture problems are fairly easy to identify.

Indoor air can be five times as polluted as outdoor air and a leading cause of respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies. Problems include mold that results from moisture problems in houses and chemicals that may come from materials we use in building houses and products we put in our houses. Among chemicals of concern are phthalate plasticizers used to make certain plastics soft—that’s the smell of vinyl shower curtains—flame retardants used in certain plastics and foam insulations to prevent burning, and formaldehyde from the particleboard used in kitchen and bathroom cabinets. The radioactive gas, radon, that can seep through a foundation walls or concrete floor slabs, is considered the number-two source of lung cancer—after tobacco.

The simplest strategies for ensuring good indoor air quality include getting rid of moisture sources, as I mentioned, avoiding materials and products that introduce pollutants into the house—such as formaldehyde-releasing cabinets—and installing a mechanical ventilation system to exchange stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air.

How important will wind and solar power be for the future of green building in residential spaces?

I think renewable energy sources will be very important. My first recommendation with energy is to implement energy conservation and efficiency features—that’s the low-hanging fruit. Then, if you have some budget remaining, by all means install a solar water heating system, photovoltaic [solar electric] panels or even a windmill. In some states, there are some very attractive financial incentives for installing renewable energy equipment.

What role do repurposing materials play in creating a green home?

When you salvage used building materials you reduce the environmental impact of building. Any time you can reuse an existing product or material it’s that much new material that doesn’t have to be manufactured and that much waste that doesn’t have to be landfilled. That’s a good thing.

If people are hiring a contractor/builder to create a green home, what specific questions should they ask?

Ask about experience with green building. In talking with builders and contractors try to gauge their level of knowledge about energy conservation and green building. Ask to visit some green projects they’ve been involved with.

To gauge their understanding of green building, tell potential builders or contractors that you want a really well-insulated house—for example, in a cold climate, walls should be insulated to R-40 or higher—and see what the reaction is. If a builder tries to talk you out of super-insulated walls and tells you that [insulating] with R-19 fiberglass batts is perfectly adequate, I’d keep looking for the right builder.

When buying an existing home, what should people look for in terms of green living?

Inspect for lead paint, radon gas, unsafe combustion appliances, mold, unsafe wiring and so forth. Then, think about—and get professional advice on—how that house can be remodeled into a green home. Creating a truly green home may require adding three or four inches of foam insulation to the exterior walls (and extending roof overhangs and window framing) along with replacing windows and insulating the attic; all that can be expensive and with some homes it will be extremely difficult.

What do you see as the future of green living? What will homes look like in 10 to 15 years?

This will depend a lot on what happens to the price of energy. If prices keep going up at the rate of the last five years—think about $100 to fill up your car—I think we’ll see a lot more focus on location and how people get around. There will be an effort to find alternatives to private automobiles, and this will create denser, more tightly knit neighborhoods with services that are closer.


What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

I think about what that change will mean to my children and grandchildren and the world they will inherit.

The best thing about change is…

…it’s different from the status quo. Our way of life and our consumption of resources in America are not sustainable. We need to come to grips with this, and we need to make fundamental changes.

What is the best change you have ever made?

I guess that would have to be 21 years ago when I had my first child. I was able to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It also helped recommit me to doing what I can to make the world a better place.

For more information on Alex Wilson, visit www.buildinggreen.com.

Posted: 3/21/08


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I know about recycling, and energy saving, but I live in an apartment complex that was built in the 1890's. How can I find out if there is a mold problem? I have COPD and would love to find out if this is something I need to be concerned about. Thank you for your good articles, by the way.


thank you so much for posting this. I have decided to print it up. We live in a neighborhood where we have 3 different trash bins. One, for every day trash, one, for greenery and other plant debris,and one, for recycling. I have been learning so much about what is recyclable, what's not,and about keeping the load clean and not polluted. It's been a very interesting and rewarding learning experience.