How I renovated my house sustainably and saved money at the same time

The questions began shortly after the purchase of a run-down 101-year-old bungalow in Tarntanya, Adelaide last year.

“You’re going to put in a new kitchen, yes?”

“When are you going to rip out the bathroom and replace it?”

“You’ve got so much space back here, are you going to build an annex?”

My tiny 87-square-foot house, with its huge cracks and stained carpets, was certainly no palace. But in times of climate change, I couldn’t decide on a “flip-it” style renovation.

After all, I had lived in this house as a renter for years before buying it and knew the house had good bones. The furnishings weren’t flashy, but perfectly functional – why pull them out just because?

So I’ve chosen to be largely content with what’s already in my home – and instead invest in smaller and more lasting changes.

Ditch the carpet in favor of hardwood floors

My main priority in the renovation was to create a home that I can live healthier in, while reducing my reliance on fossil fuels for necessities like heating and cooling.

As a renter, I had always hated the carpeting in the house – it was dingy and made out of synthetic materials.

Then I stumbled across a recent study that found Australians breathe microplastics at home. Hardwood floors (along with regular vacuuming) was a suggestion to minimize exposure.

Knowing this, my first step was clear: I wanted to take out the carpet and vinyl flooring. (I was able to reuse some through my local Buy Nothing group.)

After learning more about floor coatings from the same study, I did a lot of research and found a modified plant-based oil to coat my floorboards. Then it was time to move on to some other fixes.

Plank floors were found under the existing vinyl floor in the kitchen.(Delivered: Koren Helbig)

Choose wall and ceiling color carefully

A qualified builder repaired the large cracks in my walls and was able to reattach several sagging ceilings.

I was finally ready to repaint. And so began another phase of research.

I wanted to invest in eco-friendly color options, but I also had clear ideas about color – my bedroom is green; My home studio is pink – and it seemed like the totally natural colors didn’t offer any color swatches.

So I settled on sample pots of regular paint from my hardware store while going through the arduous process of testing and thinking and testing some more before finally settling on colors I loved.

I was then able to get these paints in an ‘enviro’ brand of paint (with lower volatile organic compounds or VOCs) from a hardware store – all I had to do was ask.

Finding ways to improve passive heating and cooling

Koren chose a fireplace that also heats the furnace below.(Delivered: Koren Helbig)

Only my kitchen has air conditioning and despite summer temperatures regularly hitting well over 40 degrees, I have no plans to add more.

Instead, I rely on the motto: “Passive house, active people”.

Daily actions like lowering interior and exterior blinds and closing interior doors keep my brick home at an acceptable temperature in the summer.

But gently circulating air also helps people feel cool. So I invested in ceiling fans for almost every room — which total about $1,000 and will use very little energy in the future.

For winter heating I removed an inefficient gas heater, then retrofitted an existing chimney and installed a combustion chimney with a stove underneath.

This was a significant budget investment, but now I can use wood energy for both heating and cooking – in permaculture design this is called “stacking” or pulling two or more uses from one element in your system.

I also installed an inexpensive heat transfer system with vents in the ceiling. When winter comes, I can turn on a small fan and efficiently circulate the heat from my fireplace throughout the rest of the house.

Look for used items instead of buying new ones

The glass door was found free of charge when a woman was cleaning out her shed.(Delivered: Koren Helbig)

With the bones of my house now fixed, it was time to start decorating.

Instead of looking for new things that fit, I turned to online marketplaces and thrift stores for all my needs.

Similar to my approach to flooring, my focus was on natural fibers. With some patient searching I was able to find key items such as wool rugs and linen sets in excellent used condition.

When I look around my house now, almost everything is used or found – the TV, the couch and the coffee table; my bedstead, my bedside tables, my full-length mirror and my dresser; a pantry and my desk; even the light fixtures and a 1960s etched glass hallway door.

Of course there is still more to do. I would like to improve the insulation of the house, add a pergola for summer shade and better connect my rainwater tanks to the house and garden.

But little by little, despite my modest renovation budget, my home is becoming more comfortable and energy efficient.

Koren Helbig is a freelance journalist who practices permaculture and grows organic food in the backyard of her small urban home in Tarntanya, Adelaide.

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