Green Remodeling: The Finishing Touches

Some clients want their remodel built to green standards through and through. They want the result to be energy- and resource-efficient and built with locally available, sustainably harvested renewable resources that are non-toxic.

October 31, 2007

Adding recycled glass offsets the amount of energy-intensive cement used in concrete countertops and creates a durable, beautiful surface.  
Photos courtesy of PATH Partners

Some clients want their remodel built to green standards through and through. They want the result to be energy- and resource-efficient and built with locally available, sustainably harvested renewable resources that are non-toxic.

Others may be happy with a green top-dressing: building with conventional materials but finishing with natural fiber carpets and paints that don't off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Whatever the job, reaching the finish line successfully means identifying green finish materials. The first step is to identify your clients' green priorities. And if your clients don't have any yet, this could be a golden opportunity to make them glad they hired you.

Surface Dressing: Paints, Plasters, Stains and Sealants

Interior walls and surfaces are where going green can make the biggest impact. Most conventional paints, stains and sealants contain solvents to improve viscosity and speed drying time. These solvents off-gas VOCs from days to years. No-VOC products such as milk paint and clay plasters produce decorative results without compromising air quality (see Table 1 below).

An August 2007 industry survey put indoor air quality at the top of the list of green building benefits homeowners are willing to pay for. This is good news for you and your crew, because materials with fewer VOCs are healthier to work with.

"Building an energy-efficient home increases the need for non-toxic building materials," says Donna Bade Shirey, President, strategic planner and company visionary of Shirey Contracting, a Washington-based green building and remodeling firm.

"When we build anything new, we use structural insulated panels (SIPs), creating an airtight structure, so off-gassing is a big problem," says Shirey. The company therefore specifies low-VOC materials for all its jobs.

What qualifies as low-VOC? The varying definitions can be confusing:

  • EPA defines low-VOC as 250g/L for latex paints, 380g/L for oil-based.
  • For inclusion in the GreenSpec® product directory, 50g/L is the limit.
  • GreenSeal defines low-VOC as 50g/L for interior flat, 150g/L for other finishes.

Whichever definition you choose, always specify the lowest-VOC materials that fit the bill in terms of durability, coverage and available color range.

Cherry cabinets, quartz composite countertops and a recycled glass tile backsplash are all green in their own way, respectively highlighting the principles of local renewable resources, durability and resource efficiency.
Photo courtesy of Shirey Contracting

Paints may be touted as having zero VOCs, but include colorants that contain VOCs. For example, a white paint will be low- or no-VOC, but if you want a bright color, the amount of VOC-containing pigment added might bring it over the threshold. Ask your dealer if custom coloring will increase emissions.

Oil-based, water-based and beeswax-based low-VOC stains and sealants are just as durable and appealing as higher-VOC versions (see Table 2 below). Some of these products may take a little getting used to — for example, heating the oil- and beeswax-based finishes by placing the can in a pan of warm water eases application — but you should be up to speed within one or two jobs, and you'll have increased your skill base to include new materials.

Lay the Ground Rules: Identify Green Flooring Options

After paints and sealants, flooring materials make up the most square footage in a home. To be green, flooring must be durable so it won't have to be replaced or won't have to be replaced as often. This saves the energy of creating and transporting a replacement and keeps the original material out of a landfill. Green flooring options should also be easy to clean and repair, shouldn't off-gas, and shouldn't foster mold or other allergens.

One place to start is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which provides a third-party certification guaranteeing that the wood is grown and harvested using sustainable forestry practices.

Other materials to consider include tile; natural linoleum; textured and colored concrete; cork; bamboo and natural fiber carpets backed with natural mold- and mildew-resistant materials (see Table 3 below). If you need a high-VOC sealant, consider using factory-finished products.

"Sometimes we use bamboo flooring or reclaimed hardwood that is pre-finished in the factory so our workers and clients are spared the exposure to VOCs," says Shirey. "The off-gassing has already occurred by the time the materials are installed."

This kitchen features bamboo flooring, quartz countertops and solid maple cabinets.
Photo courtesy of Shirey Contracting

Old Mother Hubbard, What's in Your Cupboard? Non-Toxic Cabinets

Cabinet casings are usually built of plywood or medium density fiberboard (MDF) containing urea-formaldehyde that off-gasses. Cabinet materials can off-gas for years, affecting the air and possibly even the foods and housewares stored there.

Sealants are available that seal in those toxic gases, but you can go a step further and offer your clients cabinets made of wheatboard, bamboo laminate or FSC-certified pressed-board casings that use fewer toxic adhesives that substantially reduce off-gassing or avoid it all altogether. These materials generally cost more (see Table 4 below), but are installed much like conventional casing materials, so labor costs shouldn't increase much, if at all.

The 'Coolest Green Finish Material': Countertops

Green finish materials can really shine in countertops. Countertops usually account for a relatively low square footage, so you can consider more expensive materials; after all, they are used every day and highly visible.

"Countertops are the coolest green finish material," says Brittany Williams, architectural team leader of the LEAF House, University of Maryland's entry to the DOE-sponsored Solar Decathlon. Countertops in the LEAF House are made of cement with high fly-ash content mixed with 40 percent recycled glass from a local reclamation site. The result is a locally sourced material with high-recycled content that sparkles.

Recycled glass and pigmented concrete combine to form a durable, resource-efficient surface material that shines like a jewel, proving that green products come in all colors of the rainbow.
Photo courtesy of Icestone

To be green, countertops should be durable, stain- and scratch-resistant, and food safe. To have broad appeal, they should be beautiful, too. Some traditional materials, like tile and natural stone, already meet these criteria. The building materials industry has responded to increased demand for green products by creating more countertop options, from recycled glass tiles to quartz-based polymers to paper-composites (see Table 5 below).

Paper composites, like Richlite and Paperstone, are made of recycled paper and resin. They are a popular choice at Shirey Contractors where, Shirey says, "clients love the fact that they're made from recycled materials and they're beautiful. They're also relatively easy to install."

Product VOCs Color range Washable? Cost and Coverage Notes
Conventional paint Yes Extensive Yes, some flat finishes will show smudges From $20/gallon up 400 sq. ft./gallon Studies have shown 50% of VOCs still off-gass after 1 year.
Low-VOC and zero-VOC paints Zero to low Extensive Yes, some flat finishes will show smudges Low-VOC paints cost about as much as conventional paint. Zero-VOC costs about $30/gallon at 400 sq. ft./gallon These paints are now widely available and work like conventional paints.
Milk paints None Extensive,varies by brand Yes, smudges may show due to matte finish Around $20/gallon not including pigments; 320–400 sq. ft./gallon Milk paint is a traditional paint made of milk protein (casein), lime and clay. It creates a matte finish that can be top-coated with transparent sealants to increase washability. Generally sold as a powder to be mixed on-site; should be used within days to avoid spoiling.
When purchasing powdered pigments, be sure they don't contain lead.
Clay plaster None Extensive, mainly earth and pastel tones No, unless sealed with a washable topcoat $50–$100/50lb. bag; 50 lb bag covers 80–120 sq. ft. in two coats Clay plaster absorbs and releases moisture to regulate interior humidity. Emits negative ions thought be beneficial. Application thickness: 1/32 inch
Lime plaster None White Somewhat Self-mixed; 250 lbs. of mix costs about $10; 120 sq. ft. in one ½-inch coat A very durable traditional plaster, lime plaster reverts to limestone as it cures. Lime is extremely caustic, so wear protective gear. Color usually applied as fresco or tinted lime wash. Application thickness: ¼–½ inch
Other plaster (Structolite/veneer plaster) None Must be self-mixed Somewhat $17–$26/50 lb. bag; 50 lb. bag covers 80–120 sq. ft. in two coats Readily available at home supply stores, these plasters are typically gypsum/lime/chalk blends. Generally topped with primer and paint.
Coverage listed is average. Coverage depends on surface porosity and application technique. Cost listed is representative.
When working with plasters, wear a dust-mask while mixing to avoid breathing fine particulates.

Product Off-Gassing Durability/Scratch Resistance Repairable Cost/Coverage Notes
Water-based sealants No, or days Less than oil-based finishes Yes; buff and reapply $80/gallon/350 sq. ft. If applying over oil-based finishes, do test patches. It may peel.
Oil-based: plant oil (linseed, tung, etc.), plant waxes 1 day – 2 weeks Comparable to high-VOC finishes Yes; buff and reapply $30/gallon/200–400 sq. ft. Often used to seal in sub-surface off-gassing. Natural oils take longer to set up than conventional products. Some products labeled as linseed oil or tung oil have off-gassing solvents added; check the label. Heat oil by submersing can in warm water for easier application.
Beeswax No Excellent to good, depending on product and application Yes; buff and reapply Food-grade paste available for $6 for 50 gram/120 sq. ft. Used to seal butcher blocks, wooden toys and milk-painted surfaces.
Heat oil by submersing can in warm water to ease application.
Stains 1 day – 2 weeks Depends on variety Yes; can be retouched $40/gallon/300 sq. ft. Generally covered with transparent finish.
Coverage listed is average. Coverage depends on surface porosity and application technique. Cost listed is representative.
Oil-based sealers with 380g/L VOC meet NAHB low-VOC criteria. Water- and wax-based versions are lower-VOC. Most conventional products in this range are highly toxic and should not be used on-site in a green remodel.

Product Durability Will Repairs Show? Cost Notes
Reclaimed wood Depends on species Depends on damage and skill of craftsperson Highly variable based on company and whether you reclaim yourself Reclaimed wood is recycled but can be toxic during sanding, depending on where it came from. Wood reclaimed from rivers and lakes has very attractive grain.
Tile: ceramic, glass, recycled glass Very durable No Highly variable, from $5–$500/sq. ft. depending on tile Grout can off-gas. Low-VOC grouts and sealants are available. Locally produced tiles are often available.
Natural linoleum Durable, resilient, 25-year warranty Yes $3–$5/sq. ft. Linseed oil off-gasses aldehydes for months; some find odor pleasant. It requires a smooth dry surface for adhesion. Made from linseed oil, pine rosin, sawdust, cork dust, limestone, natural pigments and jute backing; all renewable, widely available materials.
Cork 1-year warranty Yes $3–$7/sq. ft. Provides heat and sound insulation: Rapidly renewable material.
Bamboo Very durable; 30-year-life-time warranties offered Yes $4–$6/sq. ft. Wide range of quality available. Request non-formaldehyde version. Rapidly renewable, but most comes from Asia.
Concrete Very durable Yes; virtually impossible to match original color $45–$130/cubic yard depending on color and finish (Equivalent to $5–$15/sq. ft.) Coloring and polishing concrete slab for use, as finished floor reduces material use because no sub-floor is needed. Provides thermal mass in passive solar design. Hard walking surface. Concrete made with conventional cement emits large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
Natural fiber carpet Varies; can be as durable as synthetic carpet. Probably $28–$60/sq. yard (Equivalent to $3–$7/sq. ft.) Sometimes includes natural mold and mildew resistance. Non-toxic benefits reduced if installed over high-VOC sub-floor.
Recycled content carpet Said to be more durable and colorfast than virgin-fiber carpet Probably Comparable to conventional, virgin-fiber (typically polyester, nylon and olefin) carpet Made of old carpet, plastic soda bottles and other textiles, recycled content carpet has a similar look and feel as virgin-fiber carpets but includes post-consumer waste.
The Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label identifies low-emitting carpets, carpet pads and floor-covering adhesives.

Product Durability Cost Notes
Conventional pressed-board Average $12–$25/8' × 4' sheet. Much more (in the $100s) with hardwood veneer Readily available. Exterior-grade products off-gas less than interior-grade.
Wheat board (wheat grass pressed and glued into particle-board) Stiffer than particle board; durable $52–$69/8' × 4' sheet (½"×¾") Moisture resistant, lighter than conventional pressed-board and costs less for shipping. Wheat is a rapidly renewable resource.
Bamboo laminate From very durable to less than average $1.99 sq. ft.; equivalent to $63.68 for an 8' × 4' sheet Bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource. A wide range of quality is available. Seek local sources.
FSC-certified pressed board Average More than conventional pressboard FSC-certification ensures sustainable forestry techniques are practiced in growing and harvesting trees that comprise at least 30% of the product.
When choosing cabinet casing materials, indoor air quality overshadows durability and local availability as a green concern. Urea-formaldehyde (UF), a common adhesive for interior grade pressed-board products, off-gasses for many years. In many cases, even products made of wheat or bamboo are available in three versions: regular and low- or zero-formaldehyde. For healthy indoor air-quality, request non-formaldehyde products every time.

Product Stain Resistance Needs to Be Sealed? Scratch Resistance Repairable? Will Repairs Show? Cost Notes
Paper composite Good Yes Good Yes No $28–$90/sq. ft. Buffing can cause color variations; should blend in with time. Usually includes recycled paper.
Fiber cement Good Yes Good Yes No $20–$40/sq. ft. Can be made to look like almost anything; often includes recycled paper.
Concrete Good Yes Excellent Yes Yes $65–$130/sq. ft. Can be recycled; very durable; many colors available.
Concrete w/recycled glass Good Yes Excellent Yes Yes $95–$145/sq. ft. installed Weaker than natural concrete; very beautiful.
Tile (glass/ceramic) Good Yes Good Yes No Glass $22–$60/sq. ft. Ceramic $5–$10/sq. ft. Endless varieties; local producers are common. Grout may stain over time. Relatively high maintenance.
Granite/native stone Excellent Yes Excellent No $50–$100/sq. ft. Buy from a local quarry if possible.
Stainless steel Excellent No Excellent Yes Yes, unless entire surface is rebuffed $100–$200/sq. ft. Limited aesthetic options.
Solid surface: quartz/resin Excellent No Excellent Claims never to need repair N/A From $100/sq. ft. and up Wide range of colors and finishes available.
Solid surface: plastic/resin Excellent No Good Yes Yes From $70/sq. ft. and up Wide range of colors and finishes available. Slightly softer than quartz-based composites.
Wood Poor to good Yes Adequate Yes Yes $25–$100/sq. ft. Can be used as chopping block. Relatively high-maintenance.
Solid surface and stainless steel products are listed here because they do not off-gas, are extremely durable and allow for integral sink units, avoiding potential moisture issues at joints. Their production, however, is energy intensive and can be environmentally harmful.

Author Information
Kelly Cutchin writes about better building practices on behalf of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). PATH is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Learn more at



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