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Best products to use for a green remodel

California’s leading green building expert offers guidance for buying eco-friendly materials

In this remodeled Eichler home, the carpet was removed and replaced with Marmoleum, an environmentally friendly flooring that comes in sheets and tiles.
Photo by Daniel Dent

Ever wonder if that sheet of plywood or tile sealer that you’re using in your home renovation is bad for the environment or your family? We did the research to assemble a cheat sheet for purchasing more "green" building materials and finishes. For help, we queried Amy Dryden, director of policy and technical innovation at Build It Green.

Build It Green is a California-based nonprofit that has a history of working with the construction industry to formulate green building practices and certifications "that will work on the ground," says Dryden. "The organization started at a time when there were not green building standards for residential construction."

That ingenuity paid off in 2010, when Build It Green saw their guidelines get rolled into the California Green Building Standards Code, the first statewide green building code in the United States.

The term "green" can be confusing, so Dryden cleared it up: "Green building is defined as community benefit, energy efficiency, indoor air quality and health, and resource and water conservation," she says. "It’s a really holistic approach to a building so we can maximize the benefits."

The materials and finishes guidelines here tend to meet two of these criteria—healthy air quality and reduced impact on natural resources.

A note on VOCs:

These days, if we’re talking about air quality, we’re often talking about VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. According to the EPA, "VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects." Higher concentrations of VOCs are typically found indoors, which is worrisome since we spend so much time inside.

"When we’re thinking about VOCs, we think about reducing the source of them, and mitigating whatever you have through ventilation and filtration," says Dryden. (If this article has you worried about your indoor air, buy plants: This TED talk, How to Grow Fresh Air, explains how specific plants improve indoor air quality.)

1. Flooring

Refinishing existing floors will be the "greenest choice." If doing so, apply water-based, low-VOC sealers and stains. The Green Product Directory, a product database compiled by Build It Green, provides this guideline: "For clear wood finishes and wood stains…use products with less than 250 g/l of VOCs."

If replacing flooring, the following options are all considered more environmentally sustainable: cork, bamboo, natural linoleum such as Marmoleum, and hardwood. For carpet, look for ones that contain recycled content and/or the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus logo. The latter denotes that the product has been independently tested and found to produce low-VOC emissions.

If going with vinyl, pick one that does not contain phthalates, which are known endocrine-disruptors that are also potential carcinogens. (Both Lowe’s and Home Depot have phased out of selling flooring containing phthalates.)

2. Paint and wall finishes

If you can only buy one green product, paint is a great choice, since it covers so much surface area in the home. Choose a low- or no-VOC variety to avoid exposure to off gassing while the paint cures and always ventilate the area well. (The highest period of emissions is when something is drying, with emission levels tending to reduce over time.)

Consumers can identify the actual VOC content via the label or the technical data sheet, rather than taking manufacturer or salesperson claims at face value. According to The Green Product Directory: "True low-VOC paints and primers contain less than 50 grams per liter (g/l) of VOCs for both flat and non-flat sheens."

Paints and primers with 5 g/l of VOCs or less are considered to be no-VOC. You can also buy recycled paint in some states. Clay plaster is also an alternative wall coating. It’s a durable, completely non-toxic natural plaster finish made with recycled and renewable content.

3. Lumber

The ideal lumber is sourced from forests that are managed sustainably. This means neither the natural ecosystem nor its surrounding community is harmfully impacted by logging practices. In the United States, choosing wood certified by the FSC, Forest Stewardship Council, ensures this. Another good option for finish work is salvaged or reclaimed wood.

4. Hardwood plywood, particleboard, and MDF

Hardwood plywood, particleboard, and MDF (medium density fiberboard) are all sheet goods used for a wide variety of building purposes, from structural to interior cabinetry. Traditionally, the adhesives or resins in these products could possibly contain formaldehyde, which is part of the VOC family and has associated adverse health effects. Since 2009, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has sought to reduce formaldehyde emissions via the Composite Wood Products Regulation.

When purchasing unfinished sheet goods, look for the following language: "California 93120 Compliant for Formaldehyde" or "California Phase 2 Compliant." The Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association (HPVA) and the Composite Panel Association (CPA) also both certify and label products that meet lower emissions levels.

Even better are goods that meet the Ultra Low Emission Formaldehyde (ULEF) or No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) requirements. Columbia Forest Products makes plywood that is both FSC-certified and formaldehyde free, and manufactures particleboard and MDF with no added formaldehyde upon request.

5. Cabinets

The Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association created an Environmental Stewardship Program to help identify manufacturers making cabinets that use pressed wood products with lower emissions. Their website allows you to search for ESP-certified manufacturers around the country.

6. Construction adhesives and caulk

The Green Product Directory recommends using caulks and construction adhesives that contain 70 grams of VOCs per liter or less, which the label should identify. You can also look for a product to be certified by GreenGuard or search their product database for suggestions. GreenGuard certification guarantees that the product has met rigorous standards for low-VOC emissions.

7. Insulation

ReGreen, a series of green remodeling guidelines created by the American Society for Interior Designers and the U.S. Green Building Council, recommends using insulation that has recycled content and is formaldehyde free.

For a loose fill variety, there is GreenFiber Cellulose Blow-In Insulation. It’s on the Declare list and available at Home Depot and Lowe’s. For batt insulation, there is the Ecobatt brand, as well as Bonded Logic UltraTouch Denim Insulation, the latter made from recycled jeans.

Find more recommendations at Build It Green’s product directory.

8. Tile and countertops

First, consider environmental impact in production of countertop and tile products. Look for tile with recycled content, such as those from Fireclay, Hakatai, and Oceanside Glasstile, or a sustainably-minded product line from a manufacturer, such as Ann Sacks’ Eco-Thinking.

For countertops, quarried stone has quite the environmental toll, so consider counters made from rapidly renewable, reclaimed, or recycled materials. The Green Product Directory has a round up of suggestions, everything from Wilsonart Laminate to Cosentino’s ECO line, which is composed of 75 percent recycled materials.

For installation purposes, use a low-VOC sealant, preferably water-based and containing 100 grams of VOCs per liter or less. For tile, avoid mastic glue and epoxy grouts with high-VOC levels. The Green Product Directory advises to instead set the tile with Portland cement-based thin-set mortar.