For renovators, it’s not easy being green, but it's not impossible, either

By Mayra David  | April 18, 2017 - 12:59PM

Almost every day, a New Yorker calls Joel Hirschberg’s Iowa-based Green Building Supplies with a cry for help.

“I’d say 10 to 15 percent of our call volume comes from New Yorkers. They call about their apartments that have that chemical smell and they ask me what they can do to get rid of it,” he says. Hirschberg’s store specializes in eco-friendly building and household supplies, and their website has become a resource for the green-curious.

Hirschberg says that peoples’ good intentions to take on an environmentally sustainable renovation—or add some green updates to their apartments—are often tempered by a dearth of easily accessible and reliable information and renovation professionals willing to go green, and the perception that eco-friendly makeovers cost significantly more than a typical one, when in actuality, they don't. In fact, he says some sustainable building materials are close in price and comparable in performance to conventional ones. Take paint, he says: Because the demand for low- or zero-VOC paints has increased over the years, a gallon of zero-VOC may cost only marginally more than a gallon of conventional paint. But the extra cost is offset by the lack of noxious fumes that may cause discomfort, especially  to those who are sensitive to chemical off-gassing, like those suffering from asthma. (Off-gassing is the emission of noxious chemical gas.) It's similar to the way LED lighting may cost more upfront, but pay off in savings because they use (according to the DOE) 75 percent less energy and last 25 percent longer than incandescent lighting.  

Thinking of embarking on an eco-friendly renovation? Here, six steps to a green makeover:

Step 1: Due diligence is a must.

Independent rating systems, like the very well-established Energy Star rating for energy efficiency in appliances, for example, make purchasing much easier for eco-minded homeowners. But it's smart to look a bit deeper.

“You have to do a lot of research into the materials you use," cautions Hirschberg. "In our store, we do life cycle assessments so we can be sure about what we offer customers.” Life cycle assessments, also known as life-cycle based, or cradle-to-grave assessments, examine not only at a product’s use, but its origin in raw materials, sourcing, manufacturing, installation, use, and even repair and disposal. Only when it proves to be environmentally responsible at all stages will Green Building Supplies approve it for sale, accomplishing much of the legwork for consumers. “After a while, most people just want to get on with their renovation. So they’ll stop researching and say ‘that’s the best I could do,’ says Hirschberg.

Other retailers of green building supplies employ a similar tactic: Green Depot (which has a location in Brooklyn), for example, has come up with their own “Green Filter,” a set of symbols to signify how a product is designated as green (the “conservation” symbol means an item is rapidly renewable, among other things). The symbols are displayed next  to each item on their website. They award these designations according to their own standards.

But while such labeling can be a helpful guide, it’s incredibly important to make sure labels aren't just clever marketing.

“Just because something has a 'green' label on it doesn’t mean it is a truly green product," Hirschberg warns. "They could just be ‘greenwashed’,” he says, referring to the unethical way corporations promote themselves and their products as eco-friendly, when their manufacturing and sourcing practices may be antithetical to true environmentally safe initiatives and indeed, the product itself may be only minimally ‘green-based’, if at all. Terrachoice’s famous report, “Sins of Greenwashing,” gives the following example: aerosol cans (such as for cleaners or spray painting) may include the reassurance that the product is free of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s. In fact, this information is irrelevant today, since CFC’s have been banned since the late 1970s. This kind of labeling may give the wrong impression that a product is a more eco-friendly option than others. That report has since been updated and Terrachoice has joined UL Environment, which is responsible for the environmental certifications ECOLOGO and GREENGUARD mentioned below.

Step 2: Find an architect or contractor who understands your green vision. 

One of the biggest challenges is finding contractors who are willing to change from their conventional practices. “You really have to do research there and dig to find a contractor who is willing to work with green supplies and methods,” says Hirschberg.

John Opperman, executive director at Earth Day Initiative, a NYC-based non-profit that creates awareness for environmental issues and finds solutions through partnerships with entities like schools and the mayor’s office, says that unfortunately, while there are certifications for buildings (for example, LEED or Passivehouse), there are no industry standards or certifications for professionals in residential home renovations. Consequently, there aren’t many—if any—truly comprehensive lists of “green” contractors, architects, and other build industry professionals. (Green Home Guide’s “find a pro” may be a start.)

Earth Day Initiative is currently working on a database of professionals who have experience working on eco-friendly home renovations. Opperman says that while the pros could not be certified in green renovations, they would be ones who are willing to and/or are experienced in tackling a green renovation. Meantime, he says the best way to find a green-minded renovation professional is to tap into your own network. “Talk to friends or neighbors who may have undertaken such a renovation.” Opperman, who is also a licensed real estate broker, started Green Real Estate, a guide that seeks to connect apartment seekers with green apartments in NYC.

Next, he says, check in with green-minded people online: “Go on forums, and talk to people there, find recommendations. And you could also contact content writers who cover green topics exclusively to get information on sourcing or help with research.”  

Step 3: Use green supplies.

There are also established, independent certification organizations who certify widely available products and give them their stamp of approval. Of these, the recognized gold standards in green products are Green Seal and Ecologo (the aforementioned Energy Star would be another).  Look out for their certification marks on product labels on anything from flooring, to windows, paint, and cleaning products. Earlier this year, Green Seal’s standard for paints (GS-11) was added to the EPA’s "Recommendations for Specifications, Standards, and Ecolabels for Federal Purchasing." According the EPA, “in general, the recommendations give preference to multi-attribute (in other words, life-cycle based) standards.”

“I would say it is generally true, certainly not always, that green building supplies are a bit pricier," says Hirchberg. "But it’s wrong to think it costs you more.” That's because, he says, the benefits of committing to the work and the upfront expense can far outweigh the costs to your health and comfort, especially for those with asthma or chemical sensitivities, which may also translate to a financial burden if you try to remedy the problem. For example, Marmoleum Composition Tile (MCT) is a bio-based 100 percent linoleum flooring which independent, life-cycle based certifications deem to have the “lowest environmental footprint of any manufactured flooring”. MCT may cost more ($3.56 per square foot), for instance, than the synthetic Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT) many confuse it with (less than a dollar per square foot), or the wood flooring that is thickly coated in shiny polyurethane (around $45 per gallon). “But it will not cost you your health or comfort with exposure to off-gassing, as is the case with conventional floorings, woods and sealant," says Hirschberg.

Off-gassing is likely what is causing the majority of those obnoxious smells New Yorkers call Hirschberg to complain about. There are several products on the market that can seal in hazardous chemical gasses and help with the odor issue. AFM Safecoat’s Polyureseal BP is a non-toxic alternative to conventional polyurethane that will seal in off-gassing chemicals will cost you around $95 for a gallon at Green Building Supply.

Environmentally friendly paint and caulk are also worth looking into, since these are used frequently and in large quantities, and are often the culprit of off-gassing. As mentioned before, paint manufacturers put a competitive price on their eco product lines, and these paints perform at least as well as conventional options. There are certifications and countless product reviews online to help homeowners decide on the right can of “green” paint. But Hirschberg also warns not to rely too much on standard certifications marks because those standards can sometimes be lower than one’s own.

For example, you may not want just zero-VOC paint, you may also want it to be sustainably manufactured and packaged. In such cases, you may want to find a product that has been put through a life-cycle assessment and deemed as green as it can be. ( took a poll of 10 green building suppliers and got a unanimous recommendation for AFM Safecoat paint. Green Depot also offers a Green Seal-approved line of paint by Colorhouse that's sold in 70 percent recycled cans with 100 percent recycled labels printed with soy-based ink. Both brands can cost up to around $50 for a gallon. This is comparable to a gallon of conventional premium paints by big-name brands like Benjamin Moore.)

Step 4: Re-use, reduce, re-cycle.

Products aren't the only considerations, of course. Employing eco-friendly methods can make a big impact when trying to achieve a greener renovation, too. For instance, using or keeping already existing materials can make a huge dent in what we send to landfills during our renovations. “I’d never tell people to trash their old flooring to replace it with more eco-friendly floors. I’d tell them to install on top of the existing floor,” Hirschberg says.

And not everything has to be bought new: Reusing is the oldest form of being ecologically, and economically, friendly.

Cammi Climaco of Big Reuse, a nonprofit that salvages usable building materials, appliances, furniture, cabinetry and more from demolition sites, often exasperates her co-workers. “They’ll look at me and go: Stop, we don’t have the space! But I’ll still take stuff.” The goal is to create an alternative method of “materials diversion” from landfills, “and hopefully inspire the city to require recycling and reuse for construction and demolitions waste," she says. “People have this idea that when they are moving into their new house, everything needs to be new. It's something in the psychology of shopping and ownership. Kitchens are a great example. Often, in order to increase the value of a home on the real estate market, people will put in a kitchen then the new buyer will pull it out, without it being ever used, and donate it to us, appliances and all," she says.

(According to the Department of Sanitation: Bulk and construction debris generated by hired contractors or fee-for-service personnel on home repair or renovation projects are considered commercial waste and therefore the responsibility of the contractor to arrange for appropriate private disposal.)

But not that many contractors know about places like Big Reuse, and homeowners often fight to make sure items are demolished in a way that they can be sold and re-used. So it can be an uphill battle for the eco-conscious renovator. Sometimes they even have to pay to get the “junk” transported to one of Big Reuse’s sites.

Calimaco says that often, if an owner can’t transport their appliances or furniture themselves (and many do!) they will hire a junk removal company like Junkluggers. “The owners pay them and we will take everything that they want donated. People do this who really get it. They really want to help the environment. They want to be part of the Zeitgeist.” If a donation is  valued over $1,000, Big Reuse will come in to collect and demolish the items in a way that preserves them for re-sale at their stores.

And it’s not just a matter of disposal. While many understand the value in recycling their own trash, fewer people take salvaged materials to build with in their own homes.

Climaco says most people are, indeed, hip to the use of trendy salvaged materials, like reclaimed wood, vintage furniture, and antique trim (which you are welcome to hunt for and buy at either of their two locations). “But that’s just the beautiful stuff. There’s that, but there’s also functional stuff, and they’re not even always used items!” Contractors will, for example, donate a few boxes of never-used subway tile leftover from a project where the owners bought extra in case of breakages. They may also get unopened cans of paint, or other renovation staples.

Step 5: Prioritize your greening. 

Buying Energy Star appliances or installing water-saving bath features, are also important for the environment (and your monthly bills). But if you are on a tight budget and want to cull the eco-friendly projects and features to the most essential, Hirschberg says always go for health and safety first: Invest to improve your indoor air quality.

“Think of your large surface areas: floors and walls," Climaco says. "Then your cabinetry and counters.” As we mentioned above, it pays to invest in non-toxic paints and sealants, and to build with green, sustainable lumber.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood is a good place to start (usually available at most building supply stores). And stay away from plywood or particle board, which off-gas because they are manufactured using glues and toxins, like formaldehyde.

As for countertops, there are a number of materials that are certified safe for indoor air quality, like Cambria Quartz, which also recycles their manufacturing water. For even stronger eco-cred, did you know there are countertops made from paper? Paperstone is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper and Richlite is made from 100 percent recycled paper that is also FSC certified to be biodegradable and renewable. These countertops are non-porous, naturally anti-microbial, and frankly, look great

Step 6: Change our collective attitudes. 

As mentioned above, sometimes the difficulty lies in finding the right pros - contractors who are willing to go the extra step to work with these things. “You do have to clean some things off, sand them, paint them, to make them work for you,” Climaco says. “Design builders are into it. They design projects and build them out themselves.”

But regular contractors are harder to convince. And in New York, they don’t have the incentive to change. “There is so, so much work," she says. "Bed-Stuy, Flatbush, look anywhere, all you see is construction and renovation.” All the more reason that New Yorkers—owners and contractors alike—need to be educated and made aware of the impact of their choices, she says.

Both Hirschberg and Climaco believe people can be incentivized to make more eco-conscious choices when renovating. Big Reuse will issue tax forms for deductions for any donations they accept, for example. And, she says, at least at their stores, the price-point is so low that it may enable a much-needed but nearly cost-prohibitive renovation for some. The low prices can also help off-set any premiums they have to pay a contractor to work with second-hand materials, which they often sell with steep discount. “Once they see the savings, it’s harder to argue. A Sub-Zero fridge lasts years and years. That’s thousands of dollars [in savings].”

Hirschberg, who says contractors are the number one detractors in green building, tries to win them over by sometimes offering them a free gallon of paint, caulk, or other product, so they can try them out and learn to work with them.

And sometimes it's about waiting until you can buy the right materials, too. “Wait until you can afford to buy the good stuff. If you really want something, wait so you can do it right, and not have to pay with your health, and our environmental health, down the line," he says.

But education is necessary across the board.  “NYC’s construction and demolition industry throws away nearly 7 million tons of building materials annually! These materials clog our landfills, release carbon into the atmosphere, and create an artificial need for more materials to be manufactured," says Climaco. Her organization is planning more outreach and educational programs for the NYC community in the future and part of that should be about simply “stopping the culture of shopping and consuming.”

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