Monday, October 19, 2009

Renovation Education...for you and your contractor

Two years ago, our family embarked on a renovation to make our upstairs family bathroom liveable for tall people (and for people who need to breathe--it was not ventilated), which turned into a complete kitchen renovation, adding another full bath and mudroom, all within the original, modest square footage of a 1915 house. Oh, and we increased the deck from about 10'x10' to 10' x 20.'

I was on a green mission with this reno and tried very hard to find a contractor who could get on board with me. The contractor we chose had a very good reputation and was referred by several people, but he knew pretty much nothing about eco-friendly construction. Once he understood my passion about it, he agreed to work with us as long as I did the research. It seemed like a good plan at the time; well, really, I didn't find any other options. So we started the planning process.

I found an amazing resource on green business practices for contractors (from Building Green), edited it to the basics and gave it to him. Not sure if he ever read it, but I think by the end, he was realizing I was not the only homeowner looking to be greener...and he appreciated that I'd pushed him.

To say it was a labor of love is just the tip of the iceberg. It was expensive, time-consuming, frustrating, scary, nerve-wracking, complicated, detail-intensive and did I mention expensive? He laid out a plan with the standard "allowances" for fixtures and all, but it was not quite in line with the choices I had in mind. In the end, I bought about $20,000 worth of stuff through an interior designer I met and bonded with, another $15,000 on my own and the rest through the contractor (yes, there was more!).

Looking back, I'd like to share my thoughts on the materials we ended up with and decisions we made. First, the "green" products we chose:

  • SolaTube sun tunnel: Love it. We got it with the light kit for evenings and it's just great. It's installed through the roof and obviously needs to be in a sunny spot.
  • Dual-flush toilets: We chose Sterling, an affordable Kohler line. They're fine, but do get a little dirtier than other toilets. If you can afford Toto, they have a special non-marking finish that would be worth the investment.
  • Reuse of materials: We pulled the tub out of the upstairs bath and used it in the new bath off the mudroom. We re-used an old pantry door in that bathroom, too. All our interior doors were refinished or painted and reused (original chestnut solid core doors--why wouldn't we?!). We kept our existing refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave.
  • Benjamin Moore Eco-Spec paints: All our primer and paints were very low-VOC and required only one coat in all cases. If we were doing it now, we'd use BM's Natura line.
  • SpectraLOCK PRO grouts: This epoxy grout is high-performance and GreenGuard certified to be low-VOC.
  • Energy Star windows, sliding glass door, exterior light fixtures & dual-fuel stove: These were all smart choices. The windows and door were Pella's mid-range line--not the architectural stuff, but not contractor grade either. A big investment, but we got a tax credit on this part.
  • Plastic Lumber 's LeisureDeck for decking/railing: I just tried to link to it and found out they no longer do decking. I had to get it shipped to my contractor, but it was much better than most options at Home Depot or Lowe's. It was made almost entirely of recycled soda bottles. The color options were standard. Maintenance is really just cleaning it from time to time. One drawback--it does get really hot in the summer on bare feet.
  • Low-flow faucets: We had low-flow kits installed on all our faucets and both shower heads. You can't really tell. The only place it doesn't make sense is for the tub filler.
  • AMS Safecoat Polyureseal BP: Best stuff on the market. We redid our hardwood floors with it when we moved here three years ago. We used it in the remodel to coat the stain (which was not eco-friendly, but we were not around while it was off-gassing). Both contractors who used it were skeptical, but ended up loving it. It does carry a premium price tag.
  • Greenguard-certified drywall: We were able to get Georgia Pacific DensArmor Plus, which is nontoxic in terms of offgassing (low-VOC). An easy decision and not expensive.
  • KraftMaid Cabinetry: Full disclosure here, I got a good deal on these because my client at the time repped this line. I still did my research, calling the plant and speaking to a product specialist, who insisted that they were green but that they didn't have them certified because they couldn't figure out what certification really mattered. Lame excuse. I'm sure they are not the worst out there, but the packing boxes and custom inserts (like the pull-out pantry) absolutely reeked. I love the look and the price, but if you're really sensitive, go for all-wood custom cabinets. Period.
  • Recycled or donated old cabinets, radiators, fixtures, etc., many to Habitat for Humanity. I went around before the demo and put sticky notes on everything we wanted to keep and where they were supposed to store them.

Now, the less green choices and why:

  • Granite Countertops & Marble Bath Surfaces: We loved several recycled options that were less hard on the earth (Eco-Terr slabs, IceStone & Enviroglas), however, when it came to price, ease of fabrication, resale value and maintenance, granite and marble were the best choices for us. We could have done soapstone instead of the granite in the kitchen, but I doubt it would have been more local and there were no remnants of anything to be had (I did try that route, too).
  • Conventional Water Heater: We pushed and pushed for an on-demand water heater, but the plumber and the contractor insisted we would hate it because our gas line was so far from the upstairs bathroom...and we'd be wasting a lot of water running it to get it hot. We finally capitulated and added a second 40-gallon heater. We are still bummed about this decision.
  • Slate Floors/Backsplash in kitchen and mudroom: One thing we really wanted was stone floors in this area. Slate is a building material consistent with the period of our house. I know there are quarries in Pennsylvania, but I was basically told it's not sold here. Where they are shipping...what it looks like...I could never find out. So we chose China Multi-color tiles that hopefully will last 100 years, rather than tile someone would rip out in 20 years, and again in 20 years, and again, all contributing to solid waste issues. We LOVE this floor. It's the standout of the whole project and really works in our house.
  • PEX Plumbing Lines (out only): We paid for copper in, but were basically told there was no other option except PEX for the rest of the plumbing. I did some research, but could not make headway on this one and decided maybe it was not a battle to fight.
  • Bathroom Tile: I wanted recycled tile, but the price tag was crazy. Triple or four times the cost of standard ceramic, porcelain or glass tile. So we got new tile. Bummer, but we simply could not justify the price tag.
  • Most of the Lighting: Our recessed light fixtures were chosen more than halfway into the project, and honestly, I was getting beaten down. The ones we got are probably not energy-efficient, but we figured we'd use eco-friendly light bulbs in them. We also installed low-voltage undercabinet lighting, which is halogen, so not great, but we use them sparingly and they do make a huge difference when working in the kitchen.

All in all, it was quite the learning experience. I am glad we don't have any other renovations planned anytime soon. But I can already see that eco-friendly options and knowledgeable contractors are increasing in the region. In fact, a co-worker just built a "green" house that would be LEED Gold, if he filed and paid for it (not an inexpensive proposition). The contractor (Haubert Homes) did it for a reduced fee scale, in order to get the experience and learnings under their tool belts.

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