When choosing to build or remodel your home, you will make countless choices about considerations ranging from location to materials to contractors to interior decorating. If you have made the choice to approach your home-building from an environmentally and/or socially conscious perspective, all of your other choices will be informed by this perspective.
What does it mean to build or remodel an environmentally or socially conscious home? The degree to which you choose to implement sustainable practices will vary depending on a very individual perspective on what this means. Some prospective homebuilders embark on the project hoping to use as many sustainable practices and materials as possible. Many find that the level to which they achieve this goal is complicated by cost or availability, yet they are able to make some choices along the way that tread more gently on the earth than a strictly conventional approach. It is possible to build a home that uses all non- or low-toxic materials and that uses local, sustainable materials and practices; however, choosing to implement even a few of the suggestions below in a new construction or remodel project will help ease the impact caused by our building activities.
For the environmentally conscious, one of the most disheartening things about building a new home can be the waste involved. Although this is especially true of remodels, the materials that simply can’t be reused on the jobsite can add up quickly. Whether you are clearing brush or remodeling a room, you will have to figure out what to do with the materials you removed.
The first thing you will want to do is plan. As long as you give yourself time, you should be able to find a place that will recycle or re-use the majority of your old materials. Check with your local waste management company or transfer station to see what they recommend for individual materials.
General Usable Materials: Resources like Craigslist (www.craigslist.com) and 2Good2Toss.com (www.2good2toss.com) can be great ways to find homes for your usable materials. On these sites (2Good2Toss is in Washington State only, but you may have a similar program in your region), you can post items that you are disposing of. People can then contact you to see if they want to take the items off your hands. Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org) is also a good place to get to know before and during your project, as they might take extra building materials and other usable items to use in building homes for families in need.
Appliances: For appliances and appliance parts, you may find a local appliance repair place that will take the appliance to fix and sell or use for parts before recycling the remainder. If you don’t have any luck with an appliance store, consider a metal recycling plant or a household hazardous waste site. Check with your local waste management company for locations.
Drywall: According to California’s Integrated Waste Management Board (www.ciwmb.ca.gov/ConDemo/), approximately 12% of new construction drywall ends up wasted. Considering the hefty proportion drywall makes in the materials used in new home construction, this is an important consideration.
One of the simplest ways to reduce drywall waste during new construction is to make your walls a standard size (the size standard sheets of drywall are made). This cuts down dramatically on the scrap generated through cutting. Also consider buying drywall that is constructed of recycled or synthetic materials. This cuts down on the environmental impact of the mining and processing of the gypsum that goes into the drywall board. Ecology Action (www.ecoact.org/Programs/Green_Building/green_Materials/gypsum.htm) has more information on this process, and offers a list of manufacturers of recycled and synthetic drywall.
For your drywall that does end up wasted, you may find that you have a drywall recycling plant nearby. Although new drywall is preferable to used, both can be recycled for a variety of purposes, including agricultural (soil amendment), pet products (flea treatment and bedding) and in manufacturing new construction materials.
Concrete: Scrap concrete is another thing that can be recycled if you can find a taker in your area. You might try landscape companies and other businesses that might be able to grind it up and re-use it or use it for fill. This may have the added benefit of cutting down on your otherwise very high disposal costs! You may also consider using broken concrete in the garden as pavers or for low garden walls.
Cutoffs: For untreated lumber waste, you may find people who would love to use it in their woodstoves. Also, woodworkers and other artists may be able to use scraps for their projects. Craigslist (www.craigslist.com) is a great resource for finding such people.
Cork: Cork floors come in a variety of patterns and colors. They can be as beautiful as hardwood flooring, but are much more sustainable and offer a variety of other benefits as well. Like hardwood, cork is derived from a tree, but rather than being the product of an entire harvested tree, it is actually the regenerating bark of the cork tree, which can be harvested over and over. Used frequently as an underlayment for wood, tile and other flooring, cork has a natural dampening and insulating effect for both sound and thermal transfer. It wears very well, and won’t rot, as it does not absorb moisture. To find out more about cork flooring and its availability, visit iFloor at http://www.ifloor.com/cat_12/cork-flooring.html, DIYflooring at http://www.diyflooring.com/cat_43/cork.html, and FastFloors.com at http://www.fastfloors.com/type_151/Cork-Flooring.htm.
To further decrease your impact on the environment, look for companies that take measures to create as little waste as possible and use the least harsh chemicals in the manufacture and installation of their products.
Bamboo: Bamboo is another rapidly renewable flooring resource. Bamboo grows rapidly, and is harvestable within well under 10 years. It wears well, and resists moisture absorption. Being manufactured in a wide range of styles, bamboo can look remarkably like wood floors, or can have its own unique, slightly exotic look. Look for bamboo that is harvested from plantations, rather than wild habitats. Eco Timber (http://ecotimber.com/flooring/Default.asp?id=5) is a good source for sustainable harvesting and manufacturing practices.
Eco Timber: (for reclaimed wood) http://ecotimber.com/flooring/Default.asp?id=3