A Green Home Renovator’s Guide: Part 1

Whether your home just needs a touch-up or you’re feeling more ambitious, it’s a very good time to go green. Eco-homebuilding is expected to double its market share by 2013 to between 12 and 20 percent, according to the National Association of Homebuilders. Energy savings and improved quality of life are top drivers of this growth. And green products are getting the job done. “Many sustainable materials perform as well as, but often better than, traditional products,” says Sarah Beatty, founder of Brooklyn, New York, building suppliers Green Depot.

They’re also just as beautiful, if not more so, these days, and can be designed to please any taste. When Thom Filicia, interior designer on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, created a model apartment for Riverhouse, the new green luxury high-rise in New York City, his goal was an elegant, sophisticated design appropriate for an urban lifestyle (Leo DiCaprio and Tyra Banks will reportedly be moving into the building). Under his direction, everything from reclaimed wood to natural-fiber fabrics was styled with an innovative flourish.

“People think that when you go green, it has to look it, but not everything has to look like ‘hemp world’,” Filicia says. For Plenty’s first Home Renovator’s Guide, we’ve put together a list of building products that are healthier for you and the planet–the two complement each other, we’ve found, along with tips from green building and decorating pros. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which is certifying Riverhouse, now covers green home remodeling as well. For guidelines, go to the green home guide’s ReGreen. To find eco-building architects and contractors in your area, search: usgbc.org, greenbuilder.com, greenbuilding pages.com, coopamerica.org, and nahb.org. With those resources and the following product information, the dream green home is within reach.


Many popular countertop materials are not kind to the environment: Conventional solid-surface products are often petroleum-based, and granite mining scars the landscape. The following surfaces are more gentle on the environment but just as durable.

Squak Mountain Stone is made from coal fly ash, recycled glass and paper, and low-carbon cement. About $56 per square foot.

IceStone sparkles with flecks of recycled glass set in concrete and is manufactured in a day-lit factory in Brooklyn. It’s “Cradle to Cradle” certified for energy-efficient and socially responsible production, and healthy materials. $100-150 per square foot, installed.

• Colorful TrendQ Engineered stone uses up to 72 percent post-consumer material. $15-30 per square foot.

PaperStone, selected by Filicia for Riverhouse, is tough (originally used for skateboard ramps), stain- and heat-resistant, and Forest Stewardship Council approved. It resembles soapstone but is made from 100% post-consumer recycled paper and cashew-nut resin. From $40 per square foot, uninstalled.

• Its production is energy-and resource-intensive, but concrete does have some salutary ecological properties: A local fabricator pours it in place in a custom mold, so very little energy is consumed by shipping, and there’s almost no waste. Erika Doering, a Brooklyn designer, gussied up her concrete counters with glass from her building’s recycling bins.

TIP: Have your contractor check with manufacturers before cutting composite materials to fit, to minimize splintering or cracking.

Stock cabinets are frequently made from formaldehyde-laced fiberboard or plywood. A healthier route: Start from scratch with low-VOC materials.

• For cabinet boards, Environ makes Biofiber from wheat stalks (agricultural waste), and Dakota Burl from sunflower-seed hulls.

• For veneers, bamboo has become popular; but Rick Hilton, green building specialist at the Rainforest Alliance, says that increased demand could lead to, “clear-cutting natural bamboo forests.” Best choice: bamboo with the FSC label.

• Kirei (pronounced key-ray), is VOC-free and made of sorghum stalks from which the edible parts have been harvested. Its striped pattern resembles tropical wood.

TIP: To protect standing old-growth forests (and pandas) ask for FSC-labeled bamboo.

Not so invigorated by new paint smell? You might be sensitive to VOCs, which off-gas for weeks after paint is applied. VOCs like ethylene glycol can trigger skin rashes, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. From paints to countertops and more, with every decision, we asked: “Will this have off-gassing? What is it made of?,” Filicia says, noting that he chose low-VOC paints and materials for Riverhouse.

• AFM Safecoat’s new zero-VOC Ayurveda Essence line is intended to help you find balance through colors that suit your personality. From $38.90 per gallon.

Yolo Colorhouse divides its no-VOC palettes into categories like air, grain, and petal. There’s also a “little Yolo” line, and tinted or white primer. Yolo, $39.95 per gallon, little Yolo, $10.95 per gallon.

Envirosafe’s no-VOC paint comes in fast-drying satin, flat, and semigloss finishes. $29-$45 per gallon.

Mythic Paint has no VOCs and is also, the company claims, free of carcinogenic chemicals. It comes in subtle earth tones. About $38.95 per gallon.

• For a timeless, gentle look, the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company’s Safepaint combines milk protein and lime with pigments. It arrives as a powder and you add water. $45.95 per gallon.

• Benjamin Moore’s Aura line meets California’s strict low volatile organic compound (VOC) standards and ranked third in performance among 21 green and conventional paints in a March 2008 Consumer Reports test. $54.95 per gallon.

TIP: According to Paul Marquis of Green Home Solutions, milk-and-clay-based paints often don’t need a primer. However, they should not be used in humid bathrooms or basements, which are more likely to support mold growth.

The fading, yellow wallpaper in your grandmother’s kitchen is most likely toxic PVC vinyl, which can also trap moisture, encouraging mold growth. Nowadays, one can choose breathable, natural materials.

• The wallpaper paste should be chemical-free, too. Try Ecofix.

• Brilliant, hand-printed, natural fabrics and grasscloths from Brooklyn design studio Twenty2 can vitalize a room. $32 per yard.

Juicy Jute grasscloth from Phillip Jeffries is not only a renewable resource that provides great texture but it also comes in vivid vegetable-dyed hues. About $28 per yard.

Innovations carries PVC-free wallpaper but only sells “to the trade,” so ask a decorator pal to order.

TIP: Choose wall-coverings, flooring, and other products that are free of PVC vinyl, a non-recyclable plastic that can release phthalate chemicals, linked to hormonal and respiratory problems.

When it comes to flooring, you can have it all: Beauty, strength, and sustainability. To help preserve old-growth trees, choose products certified according to FSC standards as coming from well-managed forests. Look for the distinctive tree logo.

• Made from plantation-grown trees that no longer bear fruit, Coconut palm floors from Smith and Fong have a distinctive grain, and the tongue-in-groove planks can be installed like a traditional hardwood floor. Smith and Fong also sells FSC-labeled bamboo flooring. Coconut palm, $11-12 per square foot, installed; bamboo, $7-9 per square foot.

• The wood in reclaimed floors, which may come from a defunct warehouse, barn, or pickle-barrel factory, among other places, may not be perfect, “but that’s part of its character,” says Emily Fisher, an eco-minded developer in Brooklyn. Try Conklins barn wood or Mountain lumber.

• Marmoleum, or true linoleum (not to be confused with vinyl), made from wood flour, jute, flaxseed, and linseed oil, is a retro-modern green choice. It comes in tongue-in-groove planks, which can be laid over almost any existing floor and clicks together without the use of glues. About $6 per square foot.

• Cork flooring from Globus is LEED-qualified, made from the recycled waste of bottle-cork manufacture, and comes in deep, rich colors. $5.60 per square foot.

TIP: To find local old wood, check the yellow pages for demolition contractors and salvagers, says Matt Ford, a Houston designer who put a recycled gym floor in a new house.

Conventional carpet glues, backings, and treatments can off-gas toxic formaldehyde (classified as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA), toluene, and xylene. The following all-natural or recycled carpets are VOC-free.

• Get creative with recyclable carpet tiles from Flor, which can easily be replaced and returned to the company when worn. $12-14 per tile.

Fibreworks makes carpets from jute, a soft plant fiber, with a variety of borders. $60 per square yard.

Loomful of Hues sells wool rugs handwoven by Jeanne Heifetz. $1,800 for a 4 x 6 foot rug.

• Carpets made of sisal, which comes from the agave cactus and is durable and easy to clean, are available from Eco Rugs. From $678 for an 8 x 10 foot rug bound in cotton.

Earthweave offers Bio-Floor undyed-wool carpets in different hemp- and cotton-blended weaves, using rubber and jute as backing. About $100 per square yard.

TIP: Take care: Spills, including water, can stain some plant-based carpets; wool is easiest to clean, says Wyatt Whiteman, owner of Natural Fiber Carpets & Rugs.

Tune in to Part 2 for more eco-friendly companies, providing materials for: Walls, Ceilings, Framework, Roofing, Insulation and more. If you know of any outstanding products that we’ve left out, please let us know!

Plenty is an environmental media company dedicated to exploring and giving voice to the green revolution that will define the 21st Century. Click here to subscribe to Plenty.


Cheryl B.
Cheryl B7 years ago

Thanks... very helpful info

monique r.
monique r7 years ago

I think this article is trying to cover too much in too little space. I would have found it more useful to have comparisons between different flooring choices: price, use, soundproofinng, durability...

Nuraini A.
Nuraini A9 years ago

i'm planning my future home and these are good tips! although maybe some of these things i might not be able to find where i am. definitely will have rainwater catchment and solar power generation - i like the idea of being immune to utilities cost fluctuations. i'm trying to design it to be cool inside, in order to be able to not have air-conditioners at all. and lighting efficiency as well.

Mystie R.
Mystie R9 years ago

Are these 'green homes' designed so that they have minimal use of energy?

Michael T.
Past Member 9 years ago

We offer green products at http://www.replacementcounters.com and they are a big hit.