5 Things to Consider for a Sustainable Renovation. It's Not Easy Being Green, but It's Also Not as Hard as You Might Think

There's nothing wrong with your house. Has anyone said that to you recently? Or have the images in shelter magazines, on Pinterest and in the endless stream of Instagram showcases convinced you otherwise? Articles across the internet tell us what's in and what's out. Yesterday we LOVED millennial pink and today we need to paint over it and buy all new accessories for the sake of the gram. Last year it was all about the white kitchen. This year - color, color, color. White kitchens - ew! Gah, it's enough to drive this interior designer bonkers. It's no wonder people get analysis paralysis. What if this doesn't look good tomorrow????? But it doesn't look good today, so I need to do something!

It's this cycle of in & out that has pushed me to eschew trends in favor of embracing classic, timeless design. Buy once, buy quality and enjoy it for years to come. That's not our culture though. People use "I just don't know where I'll be in five years," or "I don't know what I'll like in five years" as a reason not to buy or design something forever. They buy it for now. Meanwhile our landfills grow to capacity. In Seattle, our King County landfill has been there for two decades and the fight to expand it has raged on for years. And yet, we keep creating garbage. EPA estimated that 548 million tons of construction and demolition debris were generated in the United States in 2015, which is more than twice the amount of generated city garbage. It has to go somewhere, but….  

Photo Source: King County

We know renovating in and of itself isn't eco-friendly. We know it's greener than knocking down your house and starting from scratch, but knocking everything out of your space and starting from scratch is hugely wasteful. We know sometimes renovating is just necessary and unavoidable. My clients over in Kirkland discovered that their newly purchased, newly renovated 1970s home was filled with shoddy work that only revealed itself after they'd been living in the home for some time. The cheap cabinets are falling apart, there is insufficient sealing throughout causing major water damage. We have to take the rooms to the studs to fix the issues. It's heartbreaking to think of all the waste that the cheap, unskilled work is now creating. But on the bright side, my clients are determined to see their home filled with period-appropriate, quality materials that will last decades so they never have to go through a renovation again. They also asked me to review all of the options they have for sustainable products to ensure that their choices are as green as possible.  So I thought I would share what I shared with them with you, so you too can make your sustainable goals a reality.

 Five things to consider to sustainably renovate your home:  

1. Leave your house alone. It's literally my job to help people remodel, renovate and redesign their homes and yet still I sometimes say, step away from the hammer. In many cases, it's all a matter of aesthetics. We can work with what you've got rather than ripping everything out. So start from a place of rehabilitate rather than renovate and go from there. You may still end up with a brand new kitchen, but slowing your roll and approaching your home thinking "there is nothing wrong with my house" rather than "this is so 2017" will be better for the environment, better for your pocket book and better for our remodeling obsessed culture. But this is definitely not for everyone, including my Kirkland clients, so we'll move on.

2. Use a salvage yard. In Seattle alone we have Second Use, Ballard ReUse, and Earthwise Architectural Salvage and probably more. If you've determined that renovating is your path forward, contact a salvage yard who offers services to come remove items like sinks and cabinets, doors and windows. There is no sense in having your contractor demo and destroy what could be saved from the landfill and used in another project. Conversely, explore salvage yards for items to be used in your renovation. I've found and used several pieces from salvage yards in my projects (bowling alley lane for a dining room table, slab of wood for a desk, a trunk converted into a coffee table) and that's not even a drop in the bucket for how I could be using them. Let the circle of life continue by keeping an open mind in your project. We'll definitely be doing this for the Kirkland project and many more to come.


Use a salvage company to give your home castoffs new life. Photo Source: Second Use


3. Choose Eco-Friendly Materials - there are so many different green materials to consider when making selections for your home remodel. Let's review:

  • Wood flooring: when it comes to replacing the flooring in your home, wood flooring can be the best option for your needs. However, it's important to check that your choice is FSC certified. For background - FSC is the Forest Service Council, an independent non-profit seeking to protect our forests for the future. Their certification tells us the wood comes from responsibly managed forests. I was just sitting in an industry talk the other day where they reminded us that trees are a crop, just a 30-year crop. So if the forest is responsibly managed and harvested and replanted, that's a good thing. But if the wood is coming from endangered rain forests, try to be aware of and reject that product. To narrow down the options: Cork is the greenest option of all and is very budget friendly. You don't have to cut down any trees to harvest cork, and it requires minimal upkeep, is durable, and retains warmth. What's not to love?? Well, some people just don't enjoy the aesthetics of a cork floor, especially if you're looking to replace older damaged wood in your beautiful old Craftsman home. Bamboo is another great option - it's fast growing and strong and also budget friendly. We have to replace all of the flooring in the Kirkland project and I look forward to sharing what we end up with and why!

  • Carpeting: Carpet made from natural, renewable fibers tend to be the most environmentally friendly and include sisal, seagrass, coir, organic cotton, jute, organic wool and bamboo. ... Recycled carpets are another eco-friendly option. There are a lot of options, but some are uncomfortable, I'm looking at you, sisal and jute, others are more expensive, hello organic wool. I'm partial to wool because I love that it's naturally liquid repelling thanks to lanolin, but beyond the carpet, make sure it's backed with a natural-fiber material attached with a non-toxic adhesive, use recycled rug pads, and tack down instead of using adhesive. The party bonus to all of that is that you'll save yourself and your loved ones or other residents of your home years of exposure to VOCs that cause indoor pollution. Side note: I know we all hate those shoe-free households, but did you know you can track in more than just dirt with your shoes? Carpeting is notorious for trapping toxic lawn chemicals, VOCs, and allergens tracked in from outside. All the eco-friendly carpet in the world can't protect you from what you bring in.

  • Counter Tops: Quartz and marble and even still granite counter tops are all the rage. And for good reason. I love a stone counter top. But have you seen the pictures of the quarries those stones all come from? That's a little harder to palette if you're into mountains staying mountains. Consider instead recycled materials such as mirror, glass, porcelain, earthenware and vitrified ash. Block wood counter made from reclaimed or windfall wood are also a beautiful option. If you consider reclaimed wood, however, be aware of the source and how it may have been treated as the chemicals used in some older woods would be less than ideal to have in your house.

  • Tile and Linoleum: Recycled tiles, ceramic or porcelain are all lovely materials to add life and spice to your remodel in an eco-friendly way. And linoleum is a great option for a durable, sustainable and healthy colorful floor made of recycled glass tiles, which are ideal for modern bathrooms and kitchens. It's not your grandma's linoleum - natural linoleum floors are also hypo-allergenic and biodegradable.

  • Kitchen Cabinets: Composite recycled wood kitchen cabinets made of sustainable and non-toxic materials are the best way to go, but if you would like to go with more of a solid wood construction, just make sure the wood is FSC certified.

  • Appliances: Drawer dishwasher, energy star rated appliances, induction range rather than gas (cooks faster & more efficiently), speed cooker oven/microwave combo. Yes, you absolutely want to ensure your appliances have an EnergyStar rating, but also ensure that the brands you choose build ethically and sustainably. I'll dig more into that in another blog post.

  • Furnishings: Natural, durable fibers with no chemicals, sustainably harvested wood frames, vintage where possible. Need help determining the best eco-friendly furniture lines? Check sustainablefurnishings.org to see who has eco-friendly practices and what they do. One of my favorite furniture makers has a Gold rating and I’m proud to continue using them for beautiful environmentally sensitive furniture. Vintage is definitely the best way to go because you are helping the circle of life. I love to make sure there is at least one vintage piece in every room. We have to get away from the disposable furniture mentality. So make sure you are investing in pieces will last that you can sell and give new life rather than resigning yourself to use a piece for the length of its short life and then throw it away. 

Lee Industries Showroom - an eco-friendly furniture line to-the-trade. Photo Source: Lee

4. Chat with your Tradespeople - Have an open conversation about your desire to be a green as possible in your project with your designer, your contractor and anyone else that you hire. Not only can your designer make recommendations each step of the way, but your contractor may be able to switch out some of the building materials he normally uses for more eco-friendly options - FSC certified MDF or plywood, for example.

5. Work within your Budget - you will find that some eco-friendly items are more budget-friendly while others are less so. Cork flooring? Budget friendly. Organic wool carpet? Less so. But hopefully the highs and lows of each of the items can come into balance and provide you an overall budget appropriate selection of eco-friendly renovation solutions.

So there you have it. My tips and tricks for starting your own sustainable renovation project. I know i’m a little preachy - but we have to all be stewards of the planet. So take your time and do it right! And if you need help, I’m here for you in Seattle & beyond!

Me on a recent trip out to Earthwise Architectural Salvage in search of some goodies for a project. Photo: my main man, Joe