There are a lot of decisions to make when you renovate.  From the design of the space to the finishing materials, you want a house that works for you and your family.  Working with an architect or a designer can help, but ultimately you have to decide what goes where.

I finally found an easy way to make those decisions.   Using sustainability as the deciding factor.   It’s not that I am “granola green”.   My love affair with green has come slowly and selfishly as I learn how important indoor air quality is.  Modern homes have become air tight for energy efficiency, but modern building practices and materials bring in a staggering number of chemicals that off-gas into our airtight homes.

Labor costs make it impractical for us to re-use much of what we tear out of an existing home, but in Canada we have the luxury of craigslist, kijiji, freecycle and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore that help to reduce consumption and waste.   The old appliances in my house in Toronto found a new home at my daughter’s school, my basement laundry area has sliding doors reclaimed from ReStore (at only $20 each vs. $35 for new!), and I re-used the mirror from my upstairs master bath in the downstairs powder room.

Livingroom, Paperstone countertops

PaperStone countertops.

The colours in my Toronto house are bright and beautiful…and they didn’t smell when they went up on the wall.  These days, it is simple to find non-toxic paints at your local Rona or paint store.  That ‘freshly painted smell’ is not something you want to drift into the (tightly sealed) air in your home.  Why buy toxic paint?  Yet go to your home improvement shop and the shelves are full of it.  Yes, cost is a factor.  But the $1-2 per gallon difference is worth it in my book.

The warm fuzzy feeling of carpeting under your feet is cozy and inviting.  But that eerie ‘new carpet smell’ can be eliminated if your carpeting and underlay are made of natural fibers like wool or cotton.  My builder recommended cork flooring for the basement and I love it.  It has the same sound absorbing qualities of carpeting, is soft and comfortable even in bare feet, and made of naturally re-growing cork.  Real wood floors (FSC certified of course) are gorgeous as well and you can ask for water-based sealants to keep them that way.

Formaldehyde has found its way into many of the building materials that are common in new builds and furniture.  MDF, plywood, particle board and drywall, sealants and glues all have it.  I heard a recent CBC radio report that there is even formaldehyde in consumer branded baby shampoo.   Some formaldehyde is naturally occurring, but a lot of is actually added to these products.  It reminds me of hormones in meat…I’m fine with hormones that are naturally occurring, but keep the added stuff away, please.  I eat less meat these days, but I buy the good stuff and as demand for the good stuff increases, prices will come down.   These days building materials can all be bought in versions without the added formaldehyde (it’s called “NAUF” – no added urea formaldehyde).   Just like the health benefits of non-GMO beef are worth the added price, for me, the health benefits of NAUF products rate high on my list.

FSC wood cabinets no added urea formaldehyde MDF interior

Cabinets made from FSC wood, with no added urea formaldehyde interior MDF.

I didn’t know about these things before I moved to Canada last year.  I had renovated before using conventional building materials and furnishings.  It wasn’t always so easy, but these days there are ‘green’ products everywhere because most commercial construction buildings adhere to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.  You may work in a LEED office building and not even know it – but the materials and energy efficiency in your office mean the air quality is better at work than in your house.  Thanks to the LEED standards, the construction industry has come up with new materials to meet the standards.  LEED isn’t perfect – but it has created demand for (and lowered prices of) sustainable and healthy building materials.  This means they are also becoming more available (and affordable) for consumers.  Many of us just don’t know we should ask for them.

So how did ‘doing a green renovation’ make my reno easier?  It gave me a common denominator.  Something upon which I could base all of my decisions.  Rather than “this year’s colour” or “what’s in fashion”, I based my decisions on “what’s the healthiest and best option for my family”.  When deciding which architect and contractor to use – I went for ones that had truly green credentials.  Turns out they were also incredibly honest and conscientious people to work with.

Balmoral PaperStone countertop

Close up of PaperStone countertop

When choosing appliances, I only chose Energy Star rated appliances.  I thought all appliances were Energy Star, but they aren’t.    That helped narrow the choice, and then the rest was up to size and shape and cost.  When deciding which countertops to use, I experimented with one of the newer materials: Paperstone.  It’s made entirely of recycled paper.  Mine’s jet black and cut into a tear-drop shape to fit my breakfast nook perfectly.  It’s stunning and I don’t have to worry about whether or not it might be leaking radon like my old granite countertop did.

Stainless steel countertop in Kitchen, Cork tile backsplash from Jelinek cork

Stainless steel countertop in kitchen, cork tile backsplash

And yes, I do feel good about my reno.  The builder minimized the waste created rather than just ‘tearing it all out’ and responsibly managed what could be re-used or re-cycled.  My old cabinets went to ReStore instead of landfill.  The crew came to work on public trans or bikes and brought their coffee in re-useable containers.  Did I do a green reno to help the planet?  Nope.  I was entirely selfish about doing it for my family.  It turned out it that making every decision based on sustainability was actually easier (less is more) and I am happy I did my part for my kids’ future on this planet.

A green reno can be easier.

Bettina Hoar has become so passionate about sustainable design that she has partnered up with Amanda Levey to create Toronto-based studio called Sage, specializing in helping others integrate sustainable design, architecture and living into their homes and offices (

BEC Green

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