Green home remodel ideas for kitchens and baths

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | April 27, 2015

Think you know what products and materials are the greenest for your home remodeling project? What qualifies today as green or environmentally friendly may be different from the options you had available the last time you built or remodeled your home. But if you want a home that's as green as it can be, you need to keep up with the latest information about building materials and the impact they have on your home's interior environment as well as that of the great outdoors. According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), green builders and remodelers must weigh the following criteria for selecting products they use:

  • Are the materials and products sustainable, or do they deplete the environment of important natural resources?
  • Are they safe, or are they made with a process or materials that out-gases irritants and toxic substances such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde? Could they contain allergens, or worse yet, carcinogens?
  • Is water consumed in their manufacture and if so, how much? What do the manufacturers do to conserve it? If applicable, how well do the products themselves conserve water?
  • How energy-efficient are the products to source, manufacture, transport, install and use? Often, the closer the source and manufacturing plant, the greener the product because transportation creates a larger carbon footprint.
  • Is the product made from recycled materials? Can it be recycled or go into landfill?

Going green where building is concerned requires something of a minimalist mindset that less is more. Reuse and recycling are a big part of it. Many green experts stress the importance to the environment of reusing or refurbishing as many of your current products as you can and keeping them out of the landfills. New products are now developed to embrace this "cradle to cradle" cyclical mentality rather than the old linear cradle to grave approach. Interior designers committed to green design find innovative ways to incorporate elements of the homeowner's existing fixtures, furniture, decor and cabinetry by rearranging, refurbishing, and repurposing.

Every year building materials and products that fulfill many of the above green-building requirements become newly available. The development or discovery of these new and greener materials also raises the standard of what is considered green, even from just a few years ago. Few, if indeed any, of these green products -- new or older -- individually fulfill every one of the criteria perfectly. So if you are planning kitchen or bath remodel projects and want to go green, here are some of the current options that, imperfectly green though they may be, are definitely worth considering:

Kitchen and bath: green remodel ideas

Countertops. It's amazing how many countertop options there are today, especially when it seems like nearly everyone has granite. Granite, as popular as it is, sooner or later faces the same fate as Formica when the next big thing comes along. As for the assertion that granite countertops are green, a great deal of the granite found in today's homes comes from parts of the world where quarrying methods are questionable and negative environmental effects may be ignored.

As an alternative to granite, some of the most green countertop products are those made from recycled materials. Manufactured from 100 percent recycled HDPE, the plastic countertops by 3form have a minimal carbon footprint and are completely recyclable. Stylish Alkemi-acrylic counters reuse 97 percent recycled aluminum. And sustainable IceStone combines colorful bits of recycled glass and Portland cement to form a non-toxic, resin and plastic-free product made in the U.S. at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. The plant is powered by a recycled water system and lit primarily by natural light. Vetrazzo, another recycled glass countertop material, uses 85 percent recycled glass and 15 percent Portland cement.

Salvaged wood sourced from everything from old barns to old bowling alleys makes an excellent butcher block counter. If you want new wood, look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) -certified wood that is grown sustainably. Finally, Formica, which is making a comeback because of its durability and lower cost, is a laminate product made from recycled paper that is chemically bonded with melamine so that the latter material does not outgas. As for keeping it out of the landfill, it's a product with an incredibly long life span. If you ever get tired of it, the company encourages donating unwanted counters to schools and local organizations for reuse.

Bathroom fixtures. "In 2015 and beyond, expect to see an increase in the number of harder-core water-smart innovations, including composting toilets and graywater recycling systems," according to an article on current green building trends April 18, 2015, by Ryan McNeill for GreenHomeBuilder magazine. Motivated by the seriousness of the California drought situation, products like these, he predicts, are going to become more and more the norm.

Composting toilets may be a stretch for most homeowners unless the droughts worsen, but low-flush and dual-flush toilets have been around now for a couple of decades. They conserve water by using a fraction of the amount of water that older toilets do. The dual-flush system provides more water if you need it.

Toilets that integrate a sink into the design can further conserve water by saving and reusing the graywater from the sink to fill the toilet bowl for a flush. SinkPositive is an add-on sink that replaces the top of your toilet tank without your needing to buy a whole new combo toilet and sink fixture. It works with regular or low flow toilets and can save up to two gallons of water a day per household member. The touchless faucet automatically provides water to wash your hands when you flush.

Caroma, an innovator in dual flush toilets and other bathroom water conservation fixtures, integrates the sink bowl into the top of the toilet with its Profile Smart 305 model. The dual flush toilet uses either 1.28 gallons or 0.8 gallon per flush depending on which button you push. After flushing, the sink provides fresh, cold water from the supply line, which it then directs into the toilet bowl to be used for the next flush.

Flooring. Green flooring choices come in almost every type of flooring now -- hardwoods, engineered woods, cork, bamboo, slate, and even vinyl and carpet, the latter two being considered the least eco-friendly types of flooring. When choosing flooring for a bathroom, you are limited by what stands up best in an often watery environment. Kitchens, on the other hand, provide a wider latitude of options.

Beyond considerations of its effect on the environment at large, almost every type of flooring has been blamed for creating health concerns in the home environment due to either the toxic nature of adhesives used to install it or the materials in the product itself. Bamboo has been considered one of the greenest flooring materials since it became popular a decade ago because of its sustainability, but it too has become suspect. Smith & Fong Company, one of the most established suppliers of FSC-certified Plyboo bamboo flooring in the U.S., has had to respond to allegations about formaldehyde in their products, even with their adherence to California standards -- the strictest in the country -- and independent testing.

For green choices in hardwoods, look for FSC-certification or choose salvaged wood. Shaw Industries' EPIC engineered wood uses 50 percent less new hardwood than conventionally engineered wood. Its high-density core board is made from recycled post-industrial wood. EPIC has been certified "silver" by the Cradle to Cradle™ program for sustainability. Cork flooring is made from the recycled waste from manufacturing wine bottle corks. While cork grows only in the Mediterranean, it's considered sustainable because like bamboo, it grows very rapidly.

For bathrooms, slate is a top choice not only because it is green but because it fulfills all of the necessary requirements for a flooring that often takes a soaking. It doesn't get slippery when wet, and it's suitable for radiant heated floors.

Making choices for green home remodeling products is going to require you ask your contractors and/or suppliers a lot of questions. In the final analysis, it comes down to meeting the specific green criteria that are most important to you, whether that's sustainability, the future of the planet, or the well-being of your household members.

Photo credit to Nam Phan

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.