Material Concerns: Choosing Eco-Friendly Products for Your Home
Ask Byggmeister Performance Manager Rachel White, Production Manager Cador Pricejones, and Products and Finishes Coordinator Karin Mahdavi what renovation consumers should know about choosing eco-friendly materials and you better pull up a comfy chair. From PVC to paint, air quality to energy efficiency, they are passionate about helping people make informed decisions about what they use inside and outside their homes. This crew will even talk dumpsters if you want to go there.
Are clients truly more green-minded now?
Karin: Yes. Definitely. They are more mindful structurally and about window types and making the home energy efficient. But not about every product category, especially as the decisions become more detailed along the way. It's like going from boulders to marbles. Clients start off making huge decisions about the home's layout and structural issues, and then it comes down to tile choices.
Rachel: Byggmeister's top priority is what impact the product is going to have on the occupants' home for the lifespan of that product — issues like durability, energy and water use over time, can it be recycled, and does it give off dangerous chemical gasses.
Some building materials release dangerous chemical gasses into the home?
Rachel: Our understanding of materials' health impact is evolving rapidly. Just one example of what we know now is that in composite woods used in cabinetry, like plywood panels and MDF, the wood components are glued and that glue contains formaldehyde, which has been classified as a carcinogen.
Is the customer aware?
Karin: We have had many clients over the years that aren't, so we have to be educators. When I work with a client, it's on an esthetic level, bringing life into their homes, so I talk with them about the products I know — 'This uses an LED light bulb that you will probably never have to replace,' or 'This has X amount of recycled content and no formaldehyde.'
How do you find alternatives?
Cador: We're still on the journey with all of this and are constantly asking more questions of our suppliers. Suppliers will say that there aren't any formaldehyde-free options....
Rachel: But some have the phenol-formaldehyde, which is less concerning....
Cador: So, that's what we look for.
Rachel: But you know many of these decisions are behind the scenes. Do we really need to talk with a client about structural plywood and the trade offs of choosing one kind over another?
Cador: The choices that go into a simple remodel — it's crazy, so we often make the decisions about using the best materials and it always serves the client better every time. It's like the disposal company we use. They recycle versus just taking everything to the landfill. The client doesn't need to know that. It's just the way we do things and it doesn't impact the bottom line.
What are the most common misconceptions about building green?
Karin: On the design side, it's that green products are very plain, not pleasing to the eye, which is just not true anymore. There are so many great material choices and more every day, like recycled glass and recycled porcelain tile, and wood harvested responsibly. You can have anything you want in terms of esthetic style. The other perception is that it always costs more.
Rachel: For certain products it's true and for others it's not. Appliances have made huge progress in efficiency and Energy Star rated products have advanced to the point where they are cost competitive.
Karin: Even faucet choices — most manufactures offer a water-saving version at a comparable price.
Cador: There are lots of non-green choices that are much more expensive. Talk about tile, some of the prices can be crazy and it's nothing to do with green factor.
Rachel: Yeah, but it's also about impact. Using recycled tile versus an energy-efficient floor plan and addressing the building envelope — the tile is like icing on the cake?
Building envelope? You're slipping into geeky industry speak.
Cador: We're talking about exterior walls, windows, doors, the structural and insulated components that separate the inside environment from the outside environment. We put a lot of care into a good wall that is well-insulated and air-sealed, and good windows that can remain untouched for 50 years or more.
Rachel: Admit it — you are installing more PVC windows than you'd like, right?
Cador: We aren't greenwashing here. Sometimes PVC may be the best choice for a house.
What are the issues with PVC products?
Rachel: From a lifecycle perspective, their manufacturing process is extremely polluting and at the end of a product's life it can't be recycled. It releases toxins again when incinerated. Off-gassing is also a concern and PVC shows up all over buildings, like in plumbing.
What else can you use?
Cador: In plumbing, cast iron and copper, but they are more expensive. We've given options for cast iron and some of our clients have made that choice.
Rachel: I have cast-iron plumbing. It's quieter, so that's another selling point. For windows, people choose PVC because it costs less and is more durable than a wood window.
Cador: I wouldn't say it's more durable than a wood window. This is New England and there are plenty of houses with 100-plus year-old original wood windows. They can last five-times as long as a PVC window. The selling point is efficiency. They are more energy efficient.
Rachel: So, cheaper and higher performing, but extremely polluting.
What about finishes such as paint?
Karin: Our goal is low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints. Thankfully, the industry has improved a lot in that category. Benjamin Moore has a VOC-free line now and there are also floor-finishing options that are water-based. That's harder because people really like the oil-based polys.
Cador: That's a decision where the client really needs to be part of the conversation. Very often, we are matching existing floors in the house and those were finished with an oil-based product. We are trying to steer them toward water-based, but it is harder to match that way.
Rachel: The perception is that oil-based is better in higher traffic areas.
Cador: And, actually, our suppliers say that's not true anymore. They are doing commercial spaces in water-based polys and they hold up. They have a different look because the finish doesn't build up with the same thickness, but the build-up doesn't actually help with wear, it's just what people are used to seeing so clients think they need another coat when they actually don't.
Karin: That's a tough one because it's such a messy job redoing floors, so clients only want to do it once.
Cador: And, they want to go with what they know has worked before.
Rachel: We just have to be educators to make sure they understand the tradeoffs and help them make the decisions.
Has any client said they want to do a remodel using green products across the board?
Rachel: That's my house! Everything from paint to wood choices and plumbing is low-emissions, energy-saving. That was the project where I ended up working for Byggmeister after being a client first.
Cador: That's Karin too.
Karin: I started my project with Byggmeister in 2001 and started working with them in 2002 after that first one was finished. Cador did it in reverse. He was part of Byggmeister and then became a client. I tell Paul all the time — we're like Hair Club for Men!