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.