Data from Houzz surveys
Illustration: Michael Glenwood

In his watershed article for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Forum Journal, Carl Elefante, FAIA, wrote: “The greenest building is … one that is already built.” It’s succinct, to be sure, but it also drives to the spirit of one major debate under the umbrella of sustainability: Are the best buildings those that are designed with green materials and minimal energy usage in mind, or are they the existing ones that have stood the test of time and may be adapted to new needs?

Renovation, of course, is aligned with the latter option. But it raises a number of important questions about how to renovate sustainably. As new troves of data from Houzz indicate, it also raises a number of questions along generational lines.

The use of so-called sustainable materials, along with related mindsets, varies generationally in several intriguing ways. Millennials, for example, often do not renovate with sustainability in mind. According to the 2014 Houzz & Home Survey, they are the age group most likely to remodel with the goal of increasing a home’s resale value for an upcoming move.

“The study does show that millennials are more likely to move in the next five years than the baby boomers,” said Nino Sitchinava, principal economist at Houzz. “As a result, it is likely that millennials have less of an incentive to make durable choices in their current home than the older generation.”

That desire to improve and flip a home over a short period of time doesn’t lead to scrimping and saving on renovations, however. In the 2014 Houzz Kitchen Trends Study, price was listed as the least important factor when it came to product decisions for a kitchen remodel. Only 7 percent of surveyed remodelers were driven by the cost of their lighting fixtures; for appliances, cabinets, faucets, and paint, only 6 percent said price mattered most.

“Remodeling is a big-budget decision,” said Sheila Schmitz, editor of, “and value matters to everybody. But how you define value differs from person to person; people are okay with splurging on what matters to them. What I’m seeing is a move towards more personalization and what really works for the homeowner.”

A New Millennium of Homeowners

Millennials do appear, however, to be less invested in their homes in general. According to Sitchinava, they “tend to have lower homeowner rates, and, as a result, lower experience with what to do with a home in general.” They often lack the wealth of experience that comes with owning a home for several decades and, according to the Houzz & Home Survey, spent the least of all surveyed age groups on all types of remodeling projects over the last five years.

Millennials are also less critical of their homes when it comes to their health. The 2014 Houzz Healthy Homes Trends Study noted that 41 percent of baby boomers feel their home is not healthy, as compared to 29 percent of millennials.

“Younger people are more mobile and perhaps on their starter home,” Schmitz said. “They also tend to feel immortal. A baby boomer might be realizing that he or she is now part of the older generation, or be worrying more about risks for kids in the home.”

Enduring Materials Stand Out

Data from the Kitchen Trends Study did indicate an overall interest in the endurance of materials used across age groups. Stainless steel was by far the most popular finish for kitchen appliances (83 percent), and granite ruled the roost as the material most likely to be used in countertops (49 percent of suburban kitchens). It’s not surprising to see such conservative choices lead the pack, but what contributes to their popularity among both young and old?

“Durability and practicality,” Sitchinava said. “Most kitchen remodels outlast marriages. These choices are about what sustains, about the sheer cost of the remodel. With that in mind, these durable materials are just more reasonable, period.”

“Neutral but long-lasting materials are the perfect canvas for personalizing,” Schmitz added. “You can make traditional choices and then complement those; you don’t have to sacrifice your own style.”

Energy efficiency, however, does not seem to be a priority in renovation motivation. When the Houzz & Home Survey asked homeowners what motivated their most recent remodeling project, “Improving the look and feel of the space” and “Making the space more functional” far surpassed “Making home more energy efficient.” In fact, only 29 percent of millennials surveyed and 30 percent of all U.S. homeowners chose energy efficiency as pertinent in that regard.

At the end of the day, though, what’s worked before often proves more desirable than the flashiest, fanciest new options.

“I’m seeing a lot of nostalgia from millennials,” Schmitz said, “a lot of interest in classic design, and also a joy in the arts that our grandparents knew. Putting your clothes on a line, growing your own food—it’s interesting that new homeowners, in this regard, are looking back to a previous generation.”