Renovating a home can feel like such a fresh and healthy start -- until you start worrying about issues like the environmental impact of newly harvested or wasted materials, the off-gassing of newly introduced toxins, and more. Fortunately, you can take steps to make any remodel more friendly to both the planet and your own health. And well-planned green renovations can even save you money.
Plan Your Eco-Friendly Remodel
The time to begin thinking about the environmental aspects of your remodel is during the planning phase. Consider the environment when you hire professionals, decide what to do with demolished materials, and choose materials.
Hire green-savvy professionals. If your remodel is a serious undertaking, like redoing an entire kitchen or adding a family room, you most likely will hire a host of professionals, such as an architect to design the project, an engineer to review your plans, and a general contractor to manage the construction.
Hiring the right professionals is your first opportunity to make environmentally friendly choices. Begin by asking friends and neighbors with remodels you like for the names of professionals with experience doing green remodeling. When you meet with professionals, ask to see examples of their work and to explain what makes it environmentally friendly. Experts will know more about the toxicity and sustainability of certain products, as well as how to take advantage of natural light and heat, reduce consumption, and lower energy costs.
Consider what to do with demolished materials. While you're planning how to demolish what you have, think about what you're going to do with it. The less waste, the better. Consider whether you can reuse or repurpose old materials -- for example, by turning the brick from a non-functioning fireplace into a backyard path. Also, figure out how to resell or donate any usable materials -- local salvage yards may be happy to receive them.
Choosing materials. The planning stage is also when you'll decide what materials you want to use. Look for products certified by The Greenguard Environmental Institute ( www.greenguard.com), the Forest Stewardship Council (www.fscus.org), or Cradle to Cradle (www.mbdc.com/c2c/). All have undergone rigorous certification procedures to test for environmental impact, described at www.BuildingGreen.com. And those same salvage yards may have doors, windows, tiles, doorknobs, and other materials from either demolition or left over from other new building projects.
Look also at environmentally friendly substitutes, many of which won't cost more that their less friendly counterparts. For example:
- Linoleum instead of vinyl. According to Greenpeace, vinyl is the most environmentally harmful plastic out there, and it's made with substances (dioxin and phthalates among them) that can contribute to serious health problems, too. True linoleum, made from linseed oil, is a better choice.
- Low or no-VOC paints. Regular paints release toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but non-VOC paints are now readily available. Also, look for low or no-VOC sealers and caulks.
- Bamboo, cork, or reclaimed wood instead of carpet or hardwood. Carpet is a particularly bad choice if it emits VOCs, as most do. If you must have carpet, seek out products certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label and Green Label Plus programs, which have low VOC emissions. Also consider eco-friendlier options to carpet or hardwood like cork or bamboo, both of which regrow quickly. Costs will be comparable because much of the expense is the cost of installation.
Special Considerations, Project by Project
Here are a few of the most common remodeling projects, along with some specific advice on what you can do to make them eco-friendly.
Remodeling a Kitchen
Kitchens are high on most home remodelers' wish lists. If you're remodeling yours, here are some ideas for making it green:
- Choose Energy Star rated appliances, which will use less energy and often don't cost more. Check with your utility company, too: you may get a rebate on your purchase. And federal tax credits are sometimes made available, as also described on the Energy Star website.
- Put in formaldehyde-free cabinetry to avoid releasing environmental toxins. Better yet, go for wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which will be sustainably harvested.
- Install a beautiful alternative to shiny granite: recycled-content glass countertops.
- Get a water filter instead of buying bottled water.
- Take advantage of natural light with well-placed windows, skylights, or sun tunnels.
- Keep the refrigerator out of the sunlight and away from the oven, where it gets hot and must work harder.
Remodeling a Bathroom
Bathrooms are another place where remodelers have plenty of opportunity to make wise choices. Eco-friendly ideas include:
- Replace toilets with low-flow models.
- Install tiles made of recycled content.
- Use flow reducers on the shower and sinks so you're using less water.
If you're adding a new room to your home, you can pay attention to these particular possibilities:
- Don't add more than you need. Consuming less and covering up less of the land is always eco-friendlier.
- Install ceiling fans to keep warm air down in the winter and to provide cool air in the summer.
- Install insulation in the walls and attic to prevent heat transfer.
- Strategically place windows, shades, and overhangs to take advantage of the sun's heat.
For tips on other ways to make your home eco-friendly -- without spending buckets of money -- see Nolo's article Go Green at Home, Save Money. To learn more about green considerations when buying a home, remodeling a home, or just living in your home, get the book The Essential Guide for First-Time Homeowners, by Ilona Bray and Alayna Schroeder (Nolo).