From flooring to insulation, paint to siding, experts tell how to maximize your eco-friendly investment with the best products in the biggest home-construction categories.
By Marilyn Lewis
You want your home to help — not hurt — the environment. Bless you.
Your great-great-grandchildren (and mine) thank you.
Now, you could use a little help deciding which of the gazillion “green” products really are best.
What’s most eco-friendly differs widely, depending on your location, your climate, your project, what’s locally available and on the expertise and customs of local craftsmen.
It’s a good bet, though, that a material is green if it:
- Saves water or energy;
- Replaces toxic chemicals with safe, healthy components;
- Conserves natural resources;
- Is salvaged;
- Or uses recycled material or agricultural waste.
When building or remodeling, you’re always making trade-offs, balancing one environmental benefit against another — and against your budget. Ann Edminster, a Pacifica, Calif., green building consultant and architect, suggests concentrating on greening your biggest purchases, the ones that consume the most material. These are where you’ll have the greatest effect — for good or bad — on the environment.
Despite all the choices in green materials these days, some generally get higher marks than others. We sorted through the pros and cons with experts. Here are their recommendations:
While it’s costlier to invest in sustainably harvested wood products, they — and locally salvaged wood — are the basis of any green home, says Alex Wilson, executive editor of Environmental Building News and author of “Your Green Home: A Guide to Planning a Healthy, Environmentally Friendly New Home.”
One easy way to find sustainably harvested wood is to look for products bearing the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) logo. This shows that the wood was grown and harvested without depleting, poisoning, injuring or eroding land, wildlife or human communities. (You can see a PDF directory of FSC-certified wood suppliers here.)
You can get any type of wood farmed to FSC standards, but the FSC stamp matters most when you are buying exotic hardwoods like teak, mahogany, rosewood, ebony and cherry, which are grown in the tropics where logging of rain forests is rampant. In North America, softwood forests (cedar and fir, for example, which are used mostly for framing in the United States) are better managed, so while the FSC designation is still important, it’s less critical.
Your home’s foundation
Making cement, the binding agent in concrete, requires temperatures hot enough to melt rock, about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, sending huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Green builders substitute fly ash, an industrial byproduct, for some cement. The bonuses are that you decrease the amount of cement you use and the concrete becomes stronger and less permeable. Ash also makes cement creamier and slower to set, says Bruce King, author of “Making Better Concrete: Guidelines to Using Fly Ash for Higher Quality, Eco-Friendly Structures.” “Any good ready-mix supplier should know how to work with it,” he adds. The total cost of a project will be roughly the same.
Wilson recommends two affordable green foundations:
- Pre-insulated, precast concrete panels are weather-tight sandwiches of concrete and insulation. You get great insulation for the money and you eliminate the concrete waste typically generated at a building site. These precast panels work for both slab-on-grade foundations, popular in the West, and basement foundations, common in the Midwest and East.
- Insulated concrete forms are foam insulation pieces that are assembled at your building site. They’re stacked like building blocks with a hollow core into which concrete is poured. The surrounding foam insulation is left in place and covered with siding or wall treatments on the home’s exterior and interior. “You end up with a well-insulated foundation,” says Wilson, “and some people are building entire houses with these.”
“Insulation is the gift that keeps on giving,” says green-building consultant Edminster. “For a one-time investment in material, you are reducing the energy consumption of the building over a lifetime.” The higher fuel prices go, the cheaper your investment will seem.
Insulation comes in many different forms and materials, including batting, slab foams and stuff blown between walls. It typically includes recycled glass. Greener alternatives include cellulose, mineral fiber, recycled bluejeans, recycled newsprint or a mineral insulation called air krete. The greenest insulation is cellulose, Wilson says. It’s also the most affordable. Installers can be found in most metro areas.
Still, your primary concern should be to get the highest “R factor” (resistance to heat flow) possible, Edminster says. The higher the number, the more efficient the insulation. “If I had a choice between an R3 per inch insulation with recycled content versus the R7 per inch without recycled content, I’d go for the R7 hands down,” she says, adding that “there is almost no such thing as too much insulation.”
The same pay-now-and-save-later philosophy that works with insulation also applies to windows, which let about a third of a home’s heat escape. Each increment of insulation adds significantly to the cost. Buy the highest performance possible within your budget, Wilson says.
The independent National Fenestration Rating Council rates windows on the basis of five different attributes: their level of insulation (known as “U-factor”), air leakage, condensation resistance, UV blockage and solar heat gain (a window’s ability to block heat from the sun). (See how to read an NFRC label here.)
U-factors range from 0.1 to 1.2; the lower the number, the better the window’s insulation. Experts recommend choosing windows with a U-factor of 0.3 or less. But if the rest of your home is insulated to a level of R30 or higher, match it with windows rated 0.2 or less, says Wilson. These so-called “super windows” use glazing, coatings, gas fill and air spaces to achieve a glass so tight it can outperform a well-insulated wall.
You can also match a window’s glazing to its exposure to the sun. For example, east- and west-facing windows can cause overheating, so get windows with low solar heat — rated about 0.6. South-facing windows, on the other hand, can help with passive solar heating, so keep the number above 0.75.
Judge siding according to its durability and ease of maintenance. If you’re using wood, buy FSC-certified wood that is vented and primed on all sides, even the cut ends. Fiber cement paneling, widely available and affordable, earns points for durability and for holding a finish, but it loses points due to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to create the cement.
The major green advance in siding, however, is not in materials but is a still-uncommon installation technique called rain screen detailing. It can significantly extend the life of both the siding and the paint or stain applied to it by adding air space behind the siding, which keeps it from retaining moisture. The technique can boost the cost of an inexpensive siding job by 10% to 20% and adds a smaller percentage to the cost of a high-end siding job.
Metal roofing — particularly galvanized steel or alloy — is emerging as a terrific green choice. Metal’s 50-year life span compares with 15 to 20 years for asphalt shingles. One exception is copper, which is durable but requires a lot of energy to manufacture and which can leach trace amounts of copper into lakes and streams, harming wildlife.
If you live in a hot region, look into getting a “cool roof” (the Environmental Protection Agency’s term for heat reflection). These feature reflective tile or coated metal, available in light or dark colors. The coating reduces summer demand for electricity, particularly in cities where masses of dark asphalt and buildings suck in and shoot out heat. Cool roofs add about 75 cents to $1.50 a square foot to a roof’s average price.
Applications of reflective “elastomeric” coating can be done on an older roof, but the process is tricky and is usually confined to low-pitched commercial buildings, not homes, says Nadav Malin, editor of Environmental Building News.
“In my book, the hands-down best flooring is all wood, either FSC or salvaged,” Wilson says. Milling lumber uses less energy than creating highly processed materials like tile, brick and cement.
For kitchens and baths, however, Wilson favors tile and stone because they’re highly durable and emit no chemicals. He also likes genuine linoleum (as opposed to linoleum made from synthetic vinyl) because it doesn’t emit gas and is made from organic materials. At $3 to $6 per square foot, natural linoleum is also among the more affordable green choices (cork, at $4 to $16 per square foot, is another).
FSC hardwoods will cost $7 to $15 per square foot not including installation, while tile and stone can vary from $5 to hundreds of dollars per square foot. Lyptus ($6.50 to $8 per square foot) is an environmentally friendly eucalyptus hardwood product from Weyerhaeuser that is gaining in popularity. It can be finished and stained to a surface comparable with exotic hardwoods.
Moderately priced options include concrete (with added recycled industrial ash, recycled glass and other materials), which can start as low as $4 per square foot (installed) for a simple slab and run to between $35 and $150 per square foot for staining or integral color, sealing and stamping, and bamboo ($4 to $12 per square foot). Mature, dense-fibered bamboo makes excellent, durable flooring, but poor quality bamboo has caused problems for some homeowners when it buckles or does not assemble properly. (This BuildingGreen.com article explains how to tell good bamboo from bad.) Also, most bamboo flooring comes from China, where poor factory conditions and toxic chemical adhesives are problems, so work with an experienced green supplier who vouches for the product.
Counters, cabinets and trim
FSC wood is, as Edminster puts it, the “Holy Grail” for cabinets and trim.
For counters, however, you’ll need to focus on durability. Nothing is more durable than stone, including granite, marble and slate, but it may or may not be green, depending on how it is mined and how far it must travel to reach you. Use stone, metal and other precious materials with the expectation of holding on to them for the life of your home, says Edminster. Whatever you get, invest in neutral colors for enduring appeal.
Some newer products are proving to be good alternatives to stone and metals:
Paperstone (starting at $30 per square foot), a composite of wastepaper and low-toxin resins available in 13 colors, is growing in popularity. Its low-luster surface is reminiscent of linoleum but it has the depth of stone. Company founder Joel Klipper invented the material as a surface for skateboard ramps.
“I’ve beat on it myself and I’ve spoken to Starbucks, which is installing it inside and out (in cafes). . . . I’d say it’s got to be pretty durable,” says Malin, who added that he’s had no personal experience with the product.
Squak Mountain Stone is a composite made from portland cement, fly ash and recycled magazines and glass ($40 to $60 per square foot.). While it can mimic limestone or soapstone, its surface includes pocked and pitted areas, so it is likely to absorb stains even when sealed. “If flawlessness is your thing, this is not your product,” says inventor Amee Quiriconi. The surface reflects its use. “Some call it patina. A lot of people call it character. Sometimes those rings remind you of something, like a party you had with friends.”
Many big paint manufacturers have responded to health concerns about emissions (called “out-gassing”) with lines of “low VOC” (volatile organic compound) paint. You may pay a premium for them, but they are the best green choice. They’re also one of the easiest green materials to include in your home.
To reduce your consumption of any paint, you’ll also want to look for the most durable variety. Consumer Reports’ tests on interior and exterior paints are excellent sources of information. And remember, your technique can make a difference: Exterior paints and stains last best when they’re applied to well-ventilated siding. “Why House Paint Fails,” an article at the forest products lab site, explains how to make a paint job last.
- Locate FSC-certified products by filling out the Forest Stewardship Council’s online product query, which broadcasts your request to the FSC supply chain.
- The EPA’s EnergyStar site helps identify energy efficient doors, windows and skylights and points you to rebates and tax incentives on all kinds of building products and appliances.
- GreenFloors.com’s primer explains what makes flooring green.
- The National Association of Home Builders’ green guidelines offer guidance on using green building materials.
- Compare prices for green building materials at the Seattle Environmental Home Center.
- Learn more about energy efficient windows at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory site and use the National Fenestration Rating Council’s directory to research products.