GREEN BUILDING 101: Materials & Resources, Part 2—The Great Indoors

by , 05/21/14

In our last Green Building 101 post, we delved into the LEED-H criteria for sustainable residential materials and resources. Now that we’ve given you the low-down, it’s time to get specific. While the variety of options and applications in this category can be overwhelming, it happens to be one of the easiest avenues for going green at home. From decking and roofing to countertops and indoor paints, these are the places where the decisions are yours; and they matter. Read on for tips, resources, and product recommendations that will guide you towards beautiful materials that ensure a safe, healthy home.

Use Low- or Classified Zero-VOC Paints, Wood Finishes, Adhesives, and Caulks

Even if you’re the master of DIY home projects, and you craft a beautiful dining room table with the eco-friendliest wood, choosing conventional paints, adhesives and finishes means that your final touches taint the entire effort by emitting harmful gases. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) seep into the air in your home or mix with outdoor pollutants to create ground level ozone (smog). We’ll be talking more about the air-quality aspects of VOCs later in the series, but for now, it’s good to know how to avoid slathering toxins on your walls, floors and furniture.

When you shop around, you’ll see labels indicating “Low-VOC” and “zero-VOC” paints, meaning they contain a reduced number of grams of VOC per liter (under 150 grams for low-VOC and under 5 for zero-VOC). The majority of common paint brands now provide these kinds of alternatives, and some manufacturers, such as AFM Safecoat and Bioshield have built their businesses around the greener choices.


Water-based wood finishes, such as waterborne urethane or acrylic, also have decreased toxic compounds, but still provide comparable durability to their standard counterparts. You can also find paint with recycled content which keeps remainders out of the waste stream, cuts down on new production, and generally costs less. One great resource in the USA is the Seattle-based Environmental Home Center, which is a little like an Eco-Home Depot. They have a great website with clear information and competitive pricing. Another to check out is Build It Green.

Many conventional interior grade composite materials, like carbon fiber and engineered wood, contain urea-formaldehyde binder, which has been classified as a Toxic Air Contaminant by the California Air Resources Board due to its potential to cause cancer. It’s now fairly common to hear about formaldehyde-free fiberboards, and those are the ones you want to look for.

Re-Use, Recycle, Use Rapidly Renewable, and Choose Third-Party Certified Products

We put a lot of emphasis on the “R’s” in our last installment. In areas that call for conventional plywood or finished materials, such as cabinets, trim, doors, shelving and window frames, you want to be certain your products didn’t come from clearcut virgin forests. As it turns out, reclaimed lumber is often higher quality than new lumber, and grasses such as bamboo and straw (the stalks of wheat, rice, and barley) make a great MDF (medium density fiberboard) alternative for the cabinetry and built-ins; bamboo can be harvested in 3-5 years, and straw-based MDF is derived from an annually renewable waste product.

Many companies now offer farm-grown domestic and exotic hardwoods, bamboo, recycled palm and wood, agricultural byproducts like kirei, formaldehyde-free products, and woods from FSC-Certified sources. One such company is Terramai, which has created a niche market for sourcing reclaimed old growth wood for new applications.

Put Something Good Under Your Feet

When it comes to flooring, all of the points in the first two sections still apply. We cannot stress sustainable wood harvesting enough, and you can also find some great resources via the aptly named Eco-Friendly Flooring company.

Cork, though not local in most parts, is a rapidly renewable, harvested from the outer bark of the oak tree and regenerates within 10 years. Bamboo and its younger cousin, Plyboo, are also rapidly renewable and particularly elegant, while Linoleum is a mixture of natural ingredients like cork, wood flour, and linseed oil. Though it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between linoleum and vinyl flooring, the ingredients tell all. Both are resilient, but sheet vinyl and VCT contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a chemical that has been linked to many health concerns, and has horrendous environmental impacts during both conception and disposal. For more on this, check out the award-winning documentary Blue Vinyl, which investigates the life-cycle analysis of vinyl at a very personal level.

And then there’s carpeting…

Ideally, your rugs and carpets would come from 100% natural and renewable resources, with biodegradable backing. If this is in your budget, Nature’s Carpet and Shaw may be of assistance. For conventional carpets, look for those with high percentages of recycled content from wool, cotton, nylon or recycled plastic bottles. Ray Anderson, founder of Interface Carpets has changed the carpet industry at a global level by creating modular carpet tiles that can be mixed and matched, easily replaced, and recycled. Both the design and the industrial manufacturing of Interface’s products have been inspired by biomimicry and the patterns and processes of nature.

Cover Your Surfaces Wisely, from the Inside Out

For countertops, floors, and backsplashes, you can utilize recycled content tile, such as Sandhill Industries and Vetrazzo, which contain up to 70% recycled glass and other materials. There are also a number of cementicious countertops available with recycled and post-industrial by-products, like those of Wilsonart, as pictured above. Icestone is made of recycled glass and concrete, and Richlite is actually recycled paper compressed into a warm, durable alternative to stone. LEED-H qualifies environmentally preferable counters with minimum 25% recycled content.

With concrete being so abundantly used both inside and out, LEED-H has required minimum 30% fly ash or slag substitute for cement, the dominant ingredient in concrete. Cement production is a prime contributor to greenhouse gasses, while steel production produces a by-product called slag, and the burning of coal produces a post-industrial waste known as fly ash. Both fly ash and slag provide high-quality cement-substitutes, and while both may take longer to cure, the end concrete product is stronger.

Envelope Your Building Wisely

Choosing exterior surfaces—cladding, siding, roofing, decking—is a bit like getting dressed; the possibilities are endless, but those key environmentally-preferred items listed above should be applied to all. Of the many siding options, FSC-certified or reclaimed wood, recycled metal, fiber cement board, and durable, recyclable materials, such as stone, brick, and stucco, are preferred over virgin wood, metal, or plastic.

Roofing materials such as tile, slate, fiber-cement, recycled plastic, and metal, are durable and can provide additional fire protection. Cool metal roofs may also contribute to LEED points. For decking, LEED-H requires minimum 25% recycled content. Trex decking is an easy alternative to raw wood, as it contains reclaimed wood particles and recycled plastic, and is more durable than wood decking.

A few years ago, choosing environmentally preferred products usually narrowed building options and didn’t necessarily yield a desirable aesthetic, but today, manufacturers and suppliers are picking up on consumers’ demand for healthier products that retain a high level of style and design. It’s an accelerating market, and by purchasing within it, you support its growth. Soon we may not need an alternative home store for our green needs, because they’ll be filling the shelves where everyone shops.

Stay tuned for tips and recommendations for indoor environmental air quality.

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  1. Tommylandz ツ™ September 23, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    In appearance fiber cement siding most often consists of overlapping horizontal boards, imitating wooden siding, clapboard and imitation shingles. Fiber cement siding is also manufactured in a sheet form and is used not only as cladding but is also commonly used as a soffit / eave lining and as a tile underlay on decks and in bathrooms. Fiber cement siding is not only used as an exterior siding, it can also be utilized as a substitute for timber fascias and bargeboards in high fire areas. >>

  2. Artificial Grass December 10, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    We fit many lawns but have only installed one composite deck in a project. But I have to say I was really impressed with the concept of it. My father in lawns decking never looks great and after working with composite I think its a good choice.

  3. willatcgr April 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Speaking of composite decking – some manufacturers are EPA Greenscapes certified. It’s important to do your research on so-called “green” home improvement companies.

    Here are some more resources for care and maintenance for composite decking (applies to all brands) –

  4. reclaimed wood November 30, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Viridian reclaimed wood products is another smart choice for FSC certified wood products. They produce reclaimed flooring, panleing, tables and veneers. All of the wood they use is salvaged from old shipping crates from overseas. The reclaimed wood is gorgeous!

  5. diamond July 25, 2009 at 7:56 am

    what eco/human friendly cushioning materials are available to use in the manufacture of cushion foam for sofas, lounges chairs etc?

  6. cassb1 September 4, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    All Weather Decks carries a full line composite decking materials for the best choice in eco-friendly outdoor enjoyment! Read all about them at:

  7. abdulrahman April 17, 2008 at 5:31 am

    i need your catalogue

  8. Jason February 17, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Sealwize of Kansas City offers environmentally friendly zero volatile organic compound sealants for exterior wood and concrete driveways that come with a 30-year warranty. All Sealwize of Kansas City products are solvent free, water-based, odorless, non-flammable, harmless to the environment and people, and fire retarding. Additional information is available at There are other Sealwize distributors/applicators across the country.

  9. flo July 17, 2007 at 10:12 am

    What a blessing your website is! We are in the process of moving back to NC, I am an NCSU grad ’72 and always promised myself I would retire here. But my allergies are many and I hope to combat them by builin g green. We want to build an extreem garage/house metal building which I designed with add on possibilities. I need to pick materials NOW! Economical would be great and we would be willing to work with builders and suppliers needing the exposure . All advise is welcome!
    God Bless you.
    E. Vale

  10. Inhabitat » Blog ... August 13, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    […] You can view all of the competition entries on the Changemakers site, and even “review” the ideas as they come in. To date, a proposal from a Canadian team to build low-cost housing using waste wheat straw is particularly apropos, as we recently mentioned waste straw as a sustainable material in Part 2 of Green Building 101. […]

  11. hannah August 4, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    what is the most green option for cleaning indoor air if you live in a humid environment (so can’t really open windows) ?…thanks, hannah

  12. Inhabitat » Blog ... August 2, 2006 at 2:42 pm

    […] A smart designer will specify paints, adhesives, sealants, furniture, wood sealants and other products with a low or no VOC content to help ensure the health of the occupants. Last week’s Green Building 101 segment provided myriad examples of materials and resources to help create a healthy environment. […]

  13. Christine July 28, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    We have been specifying locally grown wood (from managed forests) and I think that is a great alternative to traditional wood and far more sustainable than bamboo carted in from China.

  14. Lorenzo II July 28, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    In addition to fly ash and slag as concrete additive, you could also add-in broken glass as part of aggregate admixture (sand & gravel). Glass has a density equivalent to stone.

  15. Sterling July 27, 2006 at 8:29 pm

    Many of these components are more important to making a building green than the first things which pop in to many peoples minds (energy and water use). Thanks!

  16. Bill Brewer July 27, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    Another valuable addition to a green home is a built-in central vacuum system. The motor is up to five times more powerful than a conventional vacuum. So it captures more dust, dirt and allergens and completely removes them from the living area.

    A recent clinical study found that using a central vacuum can improve allergy symptoms 40- to 60 percent. Most green building programs recommend or even require central vacuums, especially in homes with carpet.

  17. fred July 27, 2006 at 2:00 am

    this series of green building 101 is very informative. Even though I have studied industrial ecology in the past, this is a nice series to refresh my knowledge… with some good LEED cues

    great !

  18. Lise Tillman Vranches July 26, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    Very informative for the average consumer, like me!

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