Upgrade your home: the complete guide to green and eco-friendly renovations for homeowners

An introduction to home renovation 

Rising house prices and spending plenty of time indoors has made a lot of homeowners reconsider how to best utilise their current space. For many of us, we can’t afford to keep moving home, nor are there enough houses on the market to guarantee homeowners a new property in the location they want, at the price they want. As a result, home renovations are on the rise. 

In this guide, we’ll look at the value of home improvements, the different sustainable options available for both large- and small-scale renovation projects, practical considerations, and financial considerations – such as the effect of renovating on insurance.

What is classed as a home renovation? 

The term home renovation can be used to describe anything from a fresh lick of paint to a complete overhaul of the layout of a property. Some people do differentiate between home renovation and home remodelling, with home renovation referring to simply updating the space and making it look new again, and remodelling covering larger, structural changes. For the sake of ease, we’ll group these two similar projects under the same umbrella. 

In reality, it doesn’t matter which term you use. Just make sure that you’re clear about the size of the project when looking around for quotes, rather than relying on having the same understanding of ‘renovation’ or ‘remodel’. 

The value of home improvements 

Housing is rarely cheap, but newly modernised homes can be particularly expensive. Choosing a property that needs substantial work to bring it up-to-date can be a good way to allow a buyer to purchase a home for less money, and then do the work gradually, as and when they can afford it. You’ll often find that these homes are listed as ‘homes with potential’, if the estate agent thinks they need work. 

Whilst the property ideally needs to be liveable in order to allow the buyer to both live in it and work on it at the same time, many people choose to put up with a less than ideal home until they can afford to renovate it to their own personal taste and requirements. Not only does this mean that the end result is their dream home, but the property is also likely to be more valuable due to appreciation, even with the money spent on renovations added to the property purchase price. It could also be more sellable due to the modern features that have been added. 

As well as making a property look more desirable, home renovations can also improve the property’s EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) rating. All properties for sale in the UK are required to hold a valid EPC when built, sold, and rented. The certificate lasts for ten years and indicates how energy efficient the property is, on a scale of G (least efficient) to A (most efficient). It also indicates the potential rating that the property could get if work was done. 

Research by Gov.uk has shown that a higher EPC rating leads to a higher selling price per square metre, which is a positive when it comes to justifying the cost of home renovations. The study also found that properties with C and D EPC ratings “appreciated at a significantly higher rate” when compared to dwellings with a G-rated EPC certificate, indicating that even improving your EPC rating by a few steps can add value to your property.

Sustainability and home renovation 

What is sustainability?

Sustainable development, according to the United Nations, is the idea that development should “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

The value we’re placing on sustainability across our lives is increasing, as we try to combat climate change and become more aware of the importance of our buying and lifestyle choices on future generations. In particular, Millennials and Generation Z (born between 1980-1996 and 1997-early 2000’s, respectively) are often known for their green activism, as they grew up against the background of a climate crisis. Therefore, it’s understandable that sustainability is particularly important to them.

Sustainable renovation options

Sustainable renovation focuses on both using more locally sourced, eco-friendly materials to replace existing ones when renovating, and actively making changes to allow a property to become more environmentally friendly. 

In theory, both should be increasingly important for homeowners, as Millennials and Gen Z begin to buy homes, and older generations become more aware of the importance of making sustainable choices. Right now, eco-friendly options are not always immediately the cheapest choice, but they do tend to be worth the investment for both the planet and your wallet after the initial purchase cost.

Let’s take a look at some of the green and eco-friendly renovation options available to homeowners. 

Large scale renovations

Insulation 

One of the best things you can do for your home is to insulate it correctly. Insulation is important for keeping the temperature right inside your home – both for keeping warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Choosing the material for your new insulation is the perfect chance to make an eco-friendly choice. 

  • Sheep’s wool is a natural fibre that is fire-retardant and good at moisture control, making it a great choice for insulation. It requires minimal environmental impact to make, and it is also allergen-free. It has a long lifespan and can be composted when it has gone past its best, making it an excellent sustainable option, as it doesn’t need to go to landfill.
  • Cotton is also a good choice, as cotton insulation is made from leftover denim that otherwise would have gone to waste, so you’re already using a recycled product. It is a natural insect repellent and is also non-flammable.
  • One of the most eco-friendly products available is cork. This panelling is actually carbon negative as the cork forests act as a carbon sink, capturing carbon dioxide from the air. These forests also act as a habitat for many different animals. It’s a natural, renewable and recyclable resource. 
Windows 

When you’re finished with your insulation, make sure that your windows are well-fitted so that none of your newly contained heat escapes. If you’re looking to go even further, you’ll need double or triple-glazed energy efficient glass, with sustainably made frames. 

There are several eco-friendly options for your frames, and the best choice for your renovation will depend more on your preference and the style of your windows. 

  • uPVC (unplasticised polyvinyl chloride) windows are recyclable, and don’t need any regular maintenance, making them a great choice. However, they may not be a sympathetic choice for period properties, where wooden frames may better suit the overall aesthetic.
  • Wooden frames do require maintenance, but they also absorb CO2 and are made from natural materials. If you’re happy to keep an eye on their condition, they are an eco-friendly option that also allows you to maintain the character of your building. This can be particularly useful in renovations, where the properties tend to be older.
  • If you prefer a more modern look for your windows, you can opt for metal or composite frames. Composite frames consist of a timber core, which is then covered with a metal coating. This means that you get both the benefits of the timber frame, and the longevity of metal. Additionally, both elements are recyclable.
  • You can also opt for Low-E glass, which has a thin layer of metal oxide on the top of one of the layers of standard glass. This aims to reflect the heat back into the room, rather than letting it escape out of the window.
  • Placing windows in the areas of your home that are used the most will allow you to utilise as much natural light as possible, rather than needing to turn on the lights in the day. 

It’s worth investing in these eco-friendly options, and not just for the planet. Windows are rated from A to G on the Window Energy Rating scale. Energy Saving Trust states that if you had A++ rated windows, you could reduce your carbon footprint by a total of 405kg, and save around £115 per year, when compared with single glazing.

Heating 

Once you’ve insulated your house, the next thing to do is to take a look at how you’re heating it. Making sure that you have an energy-efficient, eco-friendly heating system is the first step. 

  • Heat pumps are a new, green way of heating that uses thermal energy. They are more efficient, safer and cleaner than gas boilers, and don’t use fossil fuels, meaning that they are much better for the environment. Combine this with a smart thermostat and split your home into zones for the ultimate eco-option.
  • The Government has also recently announced that they are aiming to make heat pumps the same price as gas boilers to encourage people to make the switch. They will also be offering grants from April 2022, so make sure you look at what's available to you.
  • You could also consider installing underfloor heating. This is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional radiators, because it means that the whole floor effectively becomes one large radiator. Whilst at first glance this doesn’t seem eco-friendly at all, it means that it can maintain a more constant temperature, so you use less energy than if you were regularly turning the thermostat up.  
Solar panels 

Solar panels are one of the most eco-friendly changes that you can make to your home, as they harness energy from the sun. With enough panels, you can power your home completely, and even store energy using batteries for when you need it, or sell it back to the grid, so it’s never wasted. 

Houses that run entirely off external elements are known as passive homes, and they’re a trend that can also help with keeping running costs low, by working with nature, rather than against it. If you’re looking to create a passive home from scratch, then make sure to look at the way the building is positioned, in order to best utilise the space. 

You shouldn’t need planning permission for solar panels, although it is always best to check. However, you will need to register them with your Distribution Network Operator.

Garden design 

Moving away from the design of the building of your home, a garden can be a good opportunity to make some eco-friendly changes. Planting a lawn can require a lot of water to keep it looking lush, and regular cutting, which does not support wildlife, and contributes to emissions via your lawnmower. 

Instead, make sure to use native plants – plants that are originally from the local climate – and wildflower beds in order to restore the ecosystem. Choosing these over far-flung species also helps encourage wildlife and restore some of their natural habitats. They can also help reduce erosion, as their roots are suited to the soil, and so hold it in place. 

If you have your heart set on a lawn, look for a seed mix that contains drought resistant grasses. These will offer a slightly wilder look than perfectly manicured lawn, but they require much less maintenance and water. 

Smaller renovations 

Sourcing materials 

Eco-friendly renovations don’t all have to be large projects. One of the best things you can do when updating your property is take care with where you are getting your materials from, and make choices that will last well into the future. 

Using recycled or reclaimed materials is good for reducing your overall product consumption and can often be cheaper, too. You can even source second-hand sinks, baths, and even full kitchens suites online, so get hunting as early as possible to create your dream home. 

When you’re having any internal building work done, make sure to discuss deconstructing with your builders rather than demolishing. By having this conversation before they start work, you can ask them to be careful with how they take out any existing materials, as then you can potentially reuse some of these in a new way. 

Decoration 

When decorating your rooms, opt for companies that offer Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified wallpaper. This means that the materials are from well-managed forests or are recycled, which is more environmentally sustainable. 

If you prefer paint, look at eco-friendly, natural paints. These do not contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which contribute to global warming, or ingredients that harm the planet to obtain. 

Eco-friendly electrical appliances 

When you’re fitting out your updated home with new appliances, make sure that you do your research first. Choosing energy efficient appliances can both benefit the planet and reduce your energy bills, especially if you consider that your fridge and freezer will be running for 365 days per year. 

When purchasing your new products, take a look at the sustainability credentials of the company that produces it, as well as the energy efficiency rating of the item. The ratings run from A to G, with A being the most efficient. You may see some older items have an A+++ to G-rating, but this has been replaced with the new system to make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions. 

Water saving devices

If you’re replacing your bathroom fixtures and fittings, you have the chance to save water. By choosing a low-flow showerhead, you can reduce the amount of water that you use for showering at the source, rather than just trying to have a quicker wash. 

There are two options for a low-flow showerhead: aerated, or non-aerated. Aerated heads work by combining the water with room temperature air, so the water that comes out in the shower is similar to rain, rather than a jet. The non-aerated option uses a restrictor to allow less water through, and also pushes it through small holes, so that the water comes out under higher pressure. 

You should also look to replace your toilet with a low-flow version, which uses less water to flush. These dual button toilets are fairly common now, apart from in older style homes, making this an easy eco-swap.

Practical considerations 

The best major renovations are a masterclass in project management, either by the owner or a professional contractor. From establishing access to keeping the project on schedule, renovating is a rewarding but time-consuming experience. 

Let’s take a look at some of the practical considerations you’ll want to think about before you commit yourself to a total overhaul of your home. 

Seasonal considerations 

Whilst you’ll be aware that your renovation plan is likely to be dictated by your availability, your contractor’s availability, and your funds, you might not have considered which season to do your work in. However, thinking about this can make a difference to the overall carbon footprint of your project, as well as save you money. 

Completing work in the drier, summer months can mean that you get more daylight hours, which reduces the need for the lights to be on inside or having big floodlights on the site. It’s also warmer, which is useful when you’re working inside, as you can open windows and doors without quickly losing heat. You can also leave these open to dry out rooms, rather than needing to turn the heating on.

Schedule of works 

Firstly, you’ll need to outline and agree on a schedule of works, so that you can make sure you are on track. This is also useful to make sure that everyone has everything that they need – it’s no use starting major work, only to find out later that you could have got a grant for it, or starting the interior, only to find that an exterior fault means a wall needs to be rebuilt. 

When you’re talking to your contractors, make sure to mention that sustainability is important to you early on in the conversation. By looking at the plans together, you might find that you can find ways to reduce your carbon footprint in the building process, as well as with the materials that you’re using. For example, let them know if you’re happy to receive all your paperwork by email, as this cuts down on paper usage. You can also make sure to discuss how any waste product is going to be disposed of, and if it’s possible to recycle any of it, as otherwise you might find that it all just goes to landfill. 

The schedule of works will depend on the scale of the changes that you are having done. If you’re just choosing to update your home in an eco-friendly way, this will take a lot less time than buying a home that needs to be renovated just to be habitable. You are also unlikely to need to contend with pressing concerns like damp or drain problems. 

However, all renovation projects should establish timelines for exterior works first, followed by interior works. For interiors, split these plans up into several parts: 

  • First fix. This covers the first pieces of interior work that are generally permanent, such as carpentry, door linings, wiring and ventilation.
  • Plastering. This is important because underfloor heating will need to go in just after this stage before the floor screed.
  • Flooring. Make sure to leave time for the screed to dry out, especially if you’re using timber flooring in order to avoid swelling caused by any remaining moisture.
  • Second fix. This is when you’re almost done – the doors go in at this stage, as well as kitchen and bathroom units, plug sockets and radiators.
  • Finishing touches. All the things that tidy up the look and feel of a property, including painting, tiling, glass installation, and carpet.
  • Snag list. Walk around and check over any work that has been done by external contractors before you sign off on their invoices. 

Living arrangements 

If your renovations will be on the larger side, or happening all at once, you may need to consider moving out temporarily whilst they take place. Otherwise, make sure that you are aware of any major changes, such as being without electricity, heating, or even your kitchen. Having an accurate schedule of works will help you pre-plan for these unavoidable moments. 

You should also make sure that you have the right type of insurance for your situation, which we’ll look at in the next section.

Financial considerations 

Green mortgages 

Making eco-friendly changes to your home is not just beneficial for the environment, but can also save you money in the long run. Green mortgages are offered by some banks and they reward you for making these sustainable choices for your home. 

Green mortgages work in different ways, depending on the mortgage lender. Some banks offer a lower interest rate when you buy an existing eco-home, as well as potentially lending you more money. Other lenders offer the same when you make improvements to your current home that improve its EPC rating. These are generally available on properties with an A or B EPC rating, on two year or five-year fixed term deals. 

Green mortgages are available through a limited number of providers at the moment, but their existence alone indicates that it is important to consider the EPC rating of your home. Whilst it can seem odd that mortgage lenders would choose to offer you more money at a better rate, they are relying on the long-term benefits of you taking out a mortgage with them. 

As you will probably have smaller monthly outgoings as a result of saving money on bills, in the eyes of the banks this means that you are more likely to be able to meet your monthly payments, making you seem a more secure choice of person to lend money to. Additionally, sustainable homes are more future proof – and if eco homes are going to be more desirable in the future, then in turn they will hold their value as an investment for the bank. 

Home insurance 

The condition of your property can also affect your home insurance. Older homes, with potentially outdated electrical systems, and hard-to-source materials can mean that you might pay a higher home insurance premium, as it would cost more to rebuild. Do bear in mind though, that any property renovations that significantly increase the value of your home can also increase your premium, as they affect the rebuild value of your home. 

On the other hand, modern homes are more likely to have sophisticated security measures, which can also be put in as part of a renovation. These features are desirable to an insurer as it means the house is harder to burgle, and so can mean that they look on you more favourably. 

Remember, it’s important to let your insurance provider know that work is being carried out. You may pay slightly more for your insurance whilst you’re renovating, as the chances of an accident happening during building works is higher than if the house was just being used for normal activities. 

Unoccupied home insurance 

Unoccupied home insurance covers you for a period of time, usually around 30 days, when you own a property but are not living in it. If you’ll need to be out of your home for more than 30 days, ensure you buy a policy which covers you to leave the property vacant for the length of your cover.

If you’re planning large scale works that require you to move out of your home whilst they are completed, it’s important to both tell your current insurer and also look at getting unoccupied home insurance. This is because standard home insurance usually requires you to live in a property for a certain number of days in a set time to make the insurance valid. 

To make sure that you get the right cover, make sure you inform your provider about the work that you’re planning to do upfront, as sometimes structural changes are not included and you’ll need to add this to your policy. 

Generally, this type of insurance will cover: 

  • Fire
  • Floods
  • Storms
  • Theft or attempted theft
  • Vandalism
  • Water and oil damage
  • Impact damage 

To try and get a lower premium, consider installing extra security, such as strong locks and burglar alarms. These measures will reduce the chance of a break in, and so insurers may view your property as at lower risk of a claim and reduce the price of the policy. 

Accidental damage insurance 

Home renovations can involve multiple people and lots of moving furniture. It’s possible that an accident may happen – a TV falling off the wall or someone putting their foot through the floorboards, for example, are both easily imagined scenarios, but would result in an extra bill for you. 

There are two types of accidental damage insurance, so make sure to get the type that is right for you. Buildings insurance accidental damage policies cover damage to the structure of your home as well as permanent fixtures and fittings. Contents insurance accidental damage covers your personal belongings such as furniture and electronics. If you’re putting all your personal belongings in storage whilst you renovate, you’re likely to only need buildings insurance.

Useful links 

Government study into the effect of EPC ratings on house prices:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/an-investigation-of-the-effect-of-epc-ratings-on-house-prices 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:
https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/ 

An overview of eco-friendly insulation options:
https://www.tinyecohomelife.com/best-eco-friendly-insulation 

Energy Saving Trust – In-depth guide to Heat Pumps:
https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/advice/in-depth-guide-to-heat-pumps/ 

Energy Saving Trust – Solar Panel Guide:
https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/advice/solar-panels/

Energy Saving Trust – Windows and Doors guide:
https://energysavingtrust.org.uk/advice/windows-and-doors/ 

About the Forest Stewardship Council:
https://www.fsc-uk.org/en-uk/about-fsc/what-is-fsc 

Government’s plan for lowering the cost of clean heat:
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plan-to-drive-down-the-cost-of-clean-heat