Only a few years ago, environmentally sensitive home products were hard to find and even harder to afford. But as energy prices have risen and the green movement has become more mainstream, innovative materials, systems, and practices have become big business. Here are a few favorites of builders and designers.
New materials for floors and countertops are getting lots of attention because they truly mimic the look of other solid-surface countertops but are made from more eco-friendly materials. Paperstone, Sqauk Mountain Stone, and Richelite countertops are made of composite materials like post-consumer recycled paper or plastic resins; are monitored to ensure they don't release harmful levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)l and are formaldehyde-free yet look like regular, high-end solid surface countertops.
Other materials, like reclaimed wood butcher block countertops or glass tile surfaces, are also increasing in popularity.
For carpets, wool and other natural materials are good choices. Even mainstream manufacturers like Shaw and Mohawk are becoming more eco-friendly with carpets made from recycled products like old plastic bottles and organic materials like corn.
For wood flooring, rapidly renewable forests are becoming popular resources. Bamboo and palm look beautiful, wear well, and grow back much faster than old-growth forest trees, says Alex Pettitt, a green builder who put Durapalm from Smith and Fong in his own recently renovated house. “It's a gorgeous product made from trees that have quit giving fruit,” he says. “It's sustainable because they're managing their farms and using something that would have been a byproduct, and it's a beautiful material.”
For renovations, using reclaimed wood from its original site is a very eco-conscious way to manage your waste. LEED-accredited designer Sharon Patterson recently completed a green renovation of her home in Boise, ID, and used wood she salvaged from tear-down on the heads of the door frames as well as the new staircase to the addition. “The underframe of the stairs is reclaimed from the deconstruction, and the treads and risers are reclaimed from a barn just outside of Boise,” she says. “They're just beautiful. They have all the richness and history and texture, like the nail holes and the knots, of old wood.”
When framing new homes or additions, sourcing locally is often a good way to go when looking for bracing products. The best way to do this is by choosing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, says Jay Hall, acting director of the U.S. Green Building Association's LEED for Homes program.
Paints and Finishes
Many conventional paints and finishes create hazardous conditions for those using them, emitting VOCs into the home's air as well as creating problems when it's time to responsibly dispose of them.
Orit Yanai, a LEED-certified designer who specializes in green wall finishes, says not only do regular paints emit damaging VOCs, they're not good for walls, either. “Regular paints suffocate the walls,” Yanai says. “Earth-based paints let the walls breathe. They repel dust and pollen and are really so much better for your health.”
Pettitt agrees with Yanai, noting that while low- and no-VOC paints used to be inferior in quality and color selection, they now are ready for primetime. “I have a child, and I need to be able to have paint that wears well, looks good, and can be cleaned,” he says. “The new low-VOC paints can do that, and they have a great selection now, which they didn't used to.”
“It's an insulation you can feel comfortable with,” Patterson says. “There are photos of me and the contractor installing it ourselves.” The denim-insulated walls have an R-value the measurement that determines the efficiency of insulation of about 21. In the addition, Patterson chose an open-cell, soy-based spray foam from Biobased with an R-value of about 45.
Water is getting newfound attention as droughts have ravaged normally wet areas. Hall says it's time people became aware of the incredible amount of water the average home consumes.
“A typical home uses about 100,000 gallons of water each year, so there's a huge opportunity for homeowners to save water,” he says. Hall recommends water-conserving appliances like Energy Star-certified washers, dryers, and dishwashers, as well as low-flush or dual-flush toilets.
Yanai says she also loves to use earth-based materials like clay- and lime-based paints. “These are in very high-end homes, and they look incredible,” she says.
For wood and concrete stains, choosing soy- or other plant-based stains is a more environmentally sensitive move, says Patterson, who used a soy-based concrete stain for her home.
When Patterson did her “green” renovation, one of her favorite finds was a denim insulation from Ultratouch, which she used in all the original structure's walls. Because the sheet insulation is a recycled material and its flame retardancy comes from borate, an organic substance, it's a safe, eco-friendly alternative.
The Green of Green
All the experts agree, however, that as green products sell more, the price will continue to drop and the availability will increase. Pettitt says today's assortment of products is incredible. “One of my clients used to say 'It takes green to go green,' “ he says. “But now, many of these items are very reasonably priced. And with energy efficiency and conservation, you will make back what you spend.”