This Old House: Minus the Toxins

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Amy Levin sits on the porch of her newly rehabbed environmentally-friend town house i

Amy Levin sits on the porch of her newly rehabbed environmentally-friend town house with her two dogs Heidi Glenn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Heidi Glenn, NPR
Amy Levin sits on the porch of her newly rehabbed environmentally-friend town house

Amy Levin sits on the porch of her newly rehabbed environmentally-friend town house with her two dogs

Heidi Glenn, NPR
Living Room i

In the living room, Levin discovered a hidden fireplace when she gutted the walls Heidi Glenn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Heidi Glenn, NPR
Living Room

In the living room, Levin discovered a hidden fireplace when she gutted the walls

Heidi Glenn, NPR
Bedroom i

The bookshelf in Levin's bedroom was made out of recycled wood. Heidi Glenn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Heidi Glenn, NPR
Bedroom

The bookshelf in Levin's bedroom was made out of recycled wood.

Heidi Glenn, NPR
Peter Yost i

Peter Yost of Brattleboro, Vt.-based company Building Green with pieces of a salvaged black locust tree that Levin plans to use to create a room separator. Heidi Glenn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Heidi Glenn, NPR
Peter Yost

Peter Yost of Brattleboro, Vt.-based company Building Green with pieces of a salvaged black locust tree that Levin plans to use to create a room separator.

Heidi Glenn, NPR
Solar Panels i

Solar panels on the roof catch sunlight and heat the water. Heidi Glenn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Heidi Glenn, NPR
Solar Panels

Solar panels on the roof catch sunlight and heat the water.

Heidi Glenn, NPR

Realtor Amy Levin bought a historic three-story house last year in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington D.C., gutted it and rebuilt it.

But this isn't a standard renovation.

The realtor with LevinAllStars is seeking LEED Platinum certification for her home from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED is the most widely used set ofstandards for green building, and platinum is the highest designation. If she gets it, she'll be in the minority: There have been less than a handful of LEED platinum rehabs across the country.

On a tour of her home, Levin gave NPR's Robert Siegel a rundown on all of the special materials she used to "green" her home.

She bought a front-loading washer and dryer to cut down on water and energy use, and a double-flush toilet to reduce water usage. She bought recycled and recyclable materials that conserve energy. And she coated her walls with non-toxic paint that have low- or no- volatile organic compounds.

"When you make a home a lot more energy efficient it means you're keeping a lot of the same air inside the house," says Peter Yost of Brattleboro, Vt.-based Building Green. "So it's even more important that you not dump a bunch of chemicals into it. No-VOC or low-VOC means that as the material dries or cures, it's giving off a lot less complicated organic molecules into the air."

Yost, an expert on green building materials, came along on the tour to give his expert analysis of Levin's unique rehab. His company publishes Environment Building News and Green Spec, a guide to residential building materials for people who are concerned about the environmental impact of their homes.

The Tour

Levin's house has a modern but rustic look — exposed brick; open tread stairways to the second and third floors; blonde wood cabinets; and stainless steel fixtures in the kitchen. The shelves and moldings are often rough-hewn. And a lot of what she used is recycled, including the heart pine wood flooring, which is reclaimed from the original structure.

She used feld wood for the baseboards and window sills. The breakfast bar was made out of Mulberry. The cabinet in the kitchen was made out of wheatboard, an agro by-product.

Buying these cabinets is "something that you can do that's green that can be less expensive than going to order," Levin says. "Cabinets are not often part of a green process at all, from finishes to materials and all that other stuff."

Also in the kitchen, Levin bought concrete countertops that are a mixture of Portland cement, the most common type of cement, as much fly ash, an ingredient in cement Yost calls "environmentally damaging."

Fly ash is "very energy intensive to create and the fuels they use to calcine [heat] the material are among the dirtiest fuels that we use," Yost says. "So whenever you can replace fly ash, which is the combustion by-product of coal combustion, you're taking a waste material and it actually improves the performance of the concrete."

Behind the walls, Levin installed biobased spray foam insulation to conserve energy.

"I got my bill from the other house that I moved out of and my bills here are about half of what they were all winter," Levin says. "The focus on the payback is one of those things that I think we really have to be selling people, social consciousness is super important, but from a dollars perspective it's starting to become easier to show people that green pays."

The porch's floor and railing is made of a plastic wood fiber composite material.

"It sort of takes the best attributes of two very different materials," Yost says. "Plastics tend to contract and expand a lot. Wood rots. If you mix them together you get a lot less contraction and expansion and you get a more durable material in the wood. Both are generally reclaimed materials that go in the manufacturing process."

On the roof, Amy has a rack of evacuated tubes for her hot water heater an efficient way to catch solar energy. There is also a tankless, gas-heated backup. Adding in these costly elements, this is a $500,000 rehab project.

Of all of these green virtues, the greenest is durability, according to Yost. His advice? Install something that lasts a lifetime and consumes less energy rather than something that's more efficient in the short run, but has to be replaced several times.

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