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Going Green In Home Renovations

Jan 16, 2008
It's hard to pick up a newspaper today without reading another alarming headline about the impact global warming is having on our planet. This growing concern has caused a number of our clients to ask how they might be more environmentally-conscious in their home designs and renovations.

I have to be honest and tell you that it takes a lot of green to "go green," so it often becomes a choice our clients make for ethical reasons rather than financial ones. Environmentally-friendly materials and products can bring long-term energy savings, but the initial costs of green materials may be nearly double that of traditional building supplies. Yet it is important to remember that going green can entail something as simple as lowering your thermostat setting to something as elaborate as installing a water filtration system to recycle household grey water.

Regardless of the scale of your renovation and despite the fact that the notion of going green is still relatively new, it is possible to go green in every room of your home thanks to a growing number of environmentally- conscious products, materials and installations. Demand from the commercial building sector has resulted in the growth of visionary companies, including Going to Market and Bettencourt Green Building Supplies to name just a few, which specialize in green and develop and promote several different environmentally-friendly materials and green products for the home.

At this point in time, however, many green materials have not yet made it to the consumer market and retailers do not necessarily see that green can be an incentive to their customers, so you have to look harder to find these materials - either by looking carefully at content labels or by specifically asking for them. They are out there, though, so since bathroom renovations are popular for many homeowners today, let's take a look at the ways you can go green in the bathroom without sacrificing the luxuries consumers look for in this private getaway space:

* Floors: There are scores of rich floor surfaces available, ranging from those made of renewable bamboo and cork to carpets and tiles made from recycled materials such as rubber, glass, and plastic.

* Walls: A growing number of manufacturers are developing natural-based paints and clays as an alternative to latex and oil paints as well as mold-proof sheet rock. There are also many other environmentally-friendly wall surface materials to choose from, including translucent glass tiles, formaldehyde-free fiber panels made from agricultural waste products, and man-made stone products.

* Vanities and Counters: Thanks to commercial farming and harvesting techniques, elegant wood vanities don't have to come at the expense of old growth forests, and soy-based glues are replacing formaldehyde adhesives in furniture plywood. Recycled lumber is available - at a price - for both cabinetry and floors. And a growing number of manufacturers are creating beautiful stone and tile counter surfaces made of recycled content - even paper.

* Plumbing Fixtures: In addition to low- flow and dual-flush toilets (which provide stronger water flow when needed), many toilets and tubs manufactured today feature porcelain that is made of up to 50 percent post-recycled content as well as super-slick surfaces that will save on frequent use of bleach cleaners. If you are doing a major plumbing make-over and remodeling several baths at the same time, look into water timers that can divert cold water to a recycling system until the warm water has reached the faucet (thus savings many gallons a day), or change your plumbing feeds altogether to a direct piping system such as PEX.

* Heating: Long-considered luxurious extras, things such as radiant floor heating and heated towel warmers are actually environmentally-friendly design choices. Unlike traditional room radiators which line (and tend to heat) the outside walls of a room, radiant floor heating warms the entire room and everything it touches, from floor tiles to tubs and shower floors. Many of our clients are surprised to learn that electric radiant heat pad floors are not exorbitantly expensive and ultimately offer more energy-efficient heating.

* Lighting: Although halogen lights are always a better choice than traditional incandescent lights, they do tend to produce a lot of heat, so look for Xenon, compact fluorescent and LED lights (which produce low voltage from tiny semiconductor chips). One of the common complaints about these lights is their color, but advances are constantly being made to make these light sources appear softer and warmer.

* Fabrics: Of course, when selecting towels and rugs, you can't go wrong with the plush, natural content of 100 percent cotton fabrics, but bamboo spun into a soft fabric is another alternative. Also, there are a number of mold-proof hybrid fabrics that were originally designed for outdoor living that are moving inside as shower curtains and liners as well as upholstered seating for moisture-laden bathrooms.

* Proper Installation: Don't forget about opportunities to go green with some of the mundane, but necessary, bathroom accessories including fans and vents. By installing separate and timed fan and lighting switches (including a separate fan in the shower stall), you can run only the fans that are needed and eliminate wasted electricity and heat. Also, don't forget to insulate exterior walls properly and install double-paned windows that resist moisture and minimize heat loss.

* Choose a "Green" Contractor: Talk to your contractor about your desire to go green. Question him or her about their interest in green materials and construction techniques. In general, check your contractor's commitment to recycling and eliminating wasted materials. Ask that old fixtures and cabinets be recycled, if possible, and that demolition debris be separated so recyclable materials can be reused.

*Repair, replace, sustain: Although most of what I have discussed to this point refers to new materials, I would be remiss if I didn't address another important facet of going green: the value of repairing and/or refinishing existing materials to help reduce the amount of waste going into our landfills. Renovations that sustain the things we already have through facelifts and some good old-fashioned TLC are as valuable to the environment as those that involve the latest eco-friendly products. For example, floors and other hard surfaces, including cabinets and countertops, can be refinished if they are structurally sound. Energy-saving elements, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, can be incorporated into existing fixtures rather than buying entirely new pieces. Regular maintenance on existing appliances and systems can ensure they operate at maximum efficiency and minimize energy use. When you make a commitment to use things until they are no longer operational, you can contribute as much to our environment as those who choose the latest green products.

For the truly environmentally-conscious homeowner, the opportunities to help the environment are growing every day and it is getting easier to be green.
About the Author
Kaja Gam offers interior design in New York. Recently featured on HGTV.com, Kaja is famous for designing rooms that are comfortable, functional and make a distinct statement about your personality. Sign up for Kaja's free e-zine today at http://www.kajagamdesign.com.
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