Choosing Eco-Friendly Building Materials

Living green with solar panels
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In an effort to take advantage of the public's enthusiasm for "green" building materials, a lot of products are labeled green even though they are questionable when in comes to environmental friendliness. Buying products for your green home remodel can be a challenge: how can you distinguish the genuinely eco-friendly building materials from all the questionable marketing claims out there. 

A good rule of thumb is to look for products made from natural, renewable materials as well as products with recycled content. Here is a brief list of sustainable building products for your home remodel, organized by category.

Flooring

  • BambooBamboo is actually not a wood, but a fast-growing grass that is harvested under cultivated conditions as a cash crop. Bamboo grows to harvestable maturity on only about five years, making it a very eco-friendly building material. 
  • Cork. Cork is a renewable material harvested from Mediterranean cork oak trees. The bark renews itself rather quickly after it is stripped from the trunks of the trees. Cork is an important renewable cash crop in some Mediterranean nations, so its use is both eco-friendly and economy-friendly.
  • FSC wood planks. FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization that seeks to make sure timber is harvested in an environmentally sustainable way that is also socially beneficial. When you buy flooring products labeled "FSC certified," you can be assured that it has been harvested with the best interests of both forests and citizens in mind.
  • Salvaged wood planks. Old wood planks salvaged from demolition jobs can make a great material for floors, lending them an antique charm. Salvage yards and architectural antique stores may stock large quantities of salvaged solid wood flooring and other wood planks. 
  • Natural or recycled carpets. A great many carpeting products are made from synthetic fibers made from chemicals, but there are also natural-fiber carpets available, including wool, seagrass, coir, jute, and sisal. Salvage companies may also carry moderately-worn carpeting from demolition jobs. 
  • Recycled rubber. A variety of flooring materials are available that are fabricated from recycled rubber products, such as old tires. Rubber flooring tiles or rubber sheet flooring can be a great choice for recreation or workshop spaces. Recycle rubber underlayment padding is also available for use under carpeting.
  • Recycled tile. Used ceramic tile may be available from salvage companies and architectural antique stores. The styles are often very unique. 
  • Linoleum. As an alternative to vinyl tiles and sheet flooring, linoleum is a more eco-friendly choice. Linoleum is manufactured from linseed oil resins mixed with wood and cork particles.

Paint

  • Low VOC paint. VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds, referring to organic chemicals such as formaldehyde, which can "outgas" into the air. VOCs are what give oil-based smell their unpleasant smell. Low-VOC paints have a smaller ratio of these organic compounds. 
  • Zero VOC paint. Some paints do away with all VOCs. They can be expensive, but may be the best choice for people with high sensitivity to VOCs.
  • Natural paint. Natural, or organic paints, use only natural earth materials and are biodegradable. A true natural paint is entirely free of petrochemicals, which are present even in most zero-VOC latex paints. 
  • Non-toxic stains and sealers. These products are made without VOCs and combustible materials. 

Walls and Ceilings

  • Recycled-content drywall. Drywall panels such as EcoRock are made with as much as 80 percent recycled materials. 
  • FSC wood framing. For structural framing work, you can opt for lumber that caries the FSC certification. 
  • Salvaged structural members. Salvage yards very often will have large quantities of 2 x framing lumber. If you are willing to pick through large quantities of lumber for good pieces, you can save a considerable amount of money while ensuring that no trees have been killed to remodel your house. 

Special Finishes

  • Recycled glass. A variety of countertop materials and wall and floor tiles are available that make use of pulverized and recycled glass. 
  • Grasscloth wallpaper. Most wallpaper is vinyl-based, but you can also use grasscloth wallpapers that use renewable grasses.

Caulks & Adhesives

  • Soy-based sealants. Most caulks use chemical acrylics, but for a eco-friendly alternative, buy soy-based sealants. 
  • Low VOC adhesives and sealants. As with paints, low-VOC adhesives have lower ratios of Volatile Organic Compounds such as formaldehyde and petrochemicals. 

Insulation

  • Soybean foam spray insulation. Instead of fiberglass batt insulation, a spray insulation made of soybean foam can offer the same insulating value. 
  • Shredded newspaper. Shredded and treated with fire retardants, shredded newspaper and other cellulose materials makes an excellent pour-in insulation for attic joist cavities. 
  • Shredded denim. Shredded blue jeans and other cloth materials also makes a good pour-in insulation for attic spaces. 
  • Recycled plastic. Yet another good pour-in insulation is made from pellets of recycled plastics, such as milk cartons. 
  • Sheep's wool batt insulation. As an alternative to fiberglass batts, rolls of sheep's wool insulation can be used to insulate wall cavities and ceiling cavities. Costing about $60 per roll, sheep's wool is a bit expensive, but has excellent R-value. 

Wood and Millwork

  • Salvaged millwork and trim. Salvage yards and architectural antique store often carry substantial inventory of wood trim and millwork, often in styles that are hard to find elsewhere. 
  • FSC wood millwork and trim. If buying new wood trim and millwork, look for products carrying the FSC certification. 

Roofing

  • Recycled metal. Look for metal roofing panels made from recycled aluminum, steel, copper, or alloys that combine different metals. 
  • Slate tile. Slate and other stone roofing products contain natural earth ores, and are chemical free. 
  • Clay tile. Roof tiles made from clay consist of natural earth ores that are baked; they contain no petroleum or chemicals. 
  • Fiber cement shingles. As an alternative to asphalt shingles, fiber cement is entirely free of petrochemicals. 
  • FSC wood shakes. If you are set on natural wood shakes for your roof, make sure to look for products that carry the FSC certification, which ensure that the lumber has been harvested in a manner that is environmentally and socially sound. 
  • Green roof. As a coming trend, green roofs integrate living plant material into the roofing surface. Green roofs have been popular in parts of Europe for decades, but are now becoming very popular all across the world. Green roofs have extremely good insulating properties. 

Exterior Cladding

  • FSC wood siding. If opting for wood siding, choose products that carry the FSC certification. 
  • Reclaimed wood siding. You may be able to find weather barn wood and other recycle siding materials at salvage yards and stores specializing in used building supplies.