The devil is in the details. When it comes to designing and specifying any home, whether it’s a new build, a complete remodel, or the renovation of a single room, keeping tabs on your own carbon and energy footprint can feel arduous. Big ticket items like flooring, windows, and furnishings are relatively easy to source when one is looking to keep their project sustainable and eco-conscious. You just need patience and, when necessary, a willingness to hold suppliers and manufacturers to account for their own carbon footprints and material disclosures.
But what about the small ticket items, like paint, lacquers, and other finishes? These can easily get lost in the mix, especially when accounting for large emissions typically associated with things like hardwood floor panels, stone and masonry, metals, concrete, and high efficiency double- and triple-pane windows. With such materials in the mix – both new and reused – the time will inevitably arrive when you need the requisite finishings to complete your sustainable build. And fair warning: those finishings can tip the scales on your desired footprint, often in the wrong direction.
So, what needs to be accounted for when it comes to finishes? To answer that, one must start with the pivotal question: what is the core purpose of sustainable and eco-conscious design in the first place? And the answer to that is profoundly simple: for the sake of our general health and wellbeing, on a personal scale, for our communities, and our planet. (If we lose sight of this core tenet, then all we’re doing is virtue signaling.)
Focusing on the smaller scale, the devil, in this instance, lies in volatile organic compounds, aka VOCs. VOCs are chemicals such as formaldehyde, methylene chloride, glycol ethers, acetaldehyde, and various flame retardants that are commonly present in many commercially available house paints. These chemicals (often the source of that “new paint smell”) emit gasses from liquids that evaporate as paint dries and pose all manner of indoor environmental quality concerns. Benjamin Moore, an industry leader in pioneering zero-emissions paint and other zero-VOC products, provides an excellent resource on VOCs, and this website provides a useful guide on eco-friendly paints, along with a list of specific products.
If you’re seeking alternatives to oil-based and/or latex paint products altogether, the market has you covered. But like all things market driven, the price of sustainability will impact your wallet. Milk and mineral paint offer no- and low-VOC options, respectively, but with the former being rather high maintenance, and the latter requiring longer dry times. Both are more expensive than the average gallon of name brand latex and are available in a limited variety of colors, but with good reason. In the case of mineral paint in particular, its overall durability contributes to its higher price tag, and the color issue stems from the fact that there are only so many colors in nature. Mineral paint is produced using natural pigments, which are mixed with a binding agent, typically an acrylic resin. The result is superior to most latex products and, short of using a product with zero VOCs, ensures optimal indoor environmental quality for your project.
Microplastics in indoor environments is a legitimate concern gaining much needed attention in the home improvement market. Airborne microplastics in indoor environments are generated by abrasion, heating, lighting, and general wear and tear associated with a variety of home products, such as furniture, carpets, paints, and floor finishes. When inhaled, fine particles of microplastics cannot be filtered out through the nose and thus, are absorbed into the lungs and bloodstream. This reality presents serious health concerns for everyone. And unfortunately, relatively little comprehensive research has been performed to date on the sources and impacts of nonbiodegradable microplastics in indoor environments. Instead, the emphasis has been on marine environments, given that an estimated 58% (or 1.9 million tons) of all microplastics that end up in the world’s oceans are derived from paint particles.
Regardless, concern on the part of (some) paint manufacturers is growing, and research to find clean alternatives is ongoing. One such possible solution involves the use of silk proteins as an inexpensive and “easily manufactured substitute” to microplastics in the manufacturing of numerous products. For the time being, though, when it comes to paints and other finishes, it behooves the consumer to seek out products with the lowest quantity of VOCs possible.
Of course, there is no rule that states a house must be painted or hardwood floors need to be finished with a polyurethane solution or otherwise. Applicable for both a home’s exterior and interior, the use of Accoya siding and paneling has been proven to be a highly sustainable and safe building product. Accoya, which has been commercially available since 2007, is a modified softwood lumber that’s been chemically treated with acetic anhydride (similar to a strong vinegar), lending the end product increased durability and high performance, with minimal environmental impact. And because Accoya products are sourced only from FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) forests, it’s an approved material for the construction of several green building certification standards.
For anyone seeking that extra layer of protection and high performance, the centuries-old Japanese tradition of Shou Sugi Ban (aka Yakisugi) is worth looking into. This wood preservation method comprises a process of charring the exterior of wood panels, which adds structural integrity to the lumber. It’s efficient, eco-conscious, and can be implemented by enthusiastic DIY’ers (with a little patience and careful planning). The only drawback to employing Accoya and/or Shou Sugi Ban in your project is that they’re both reliant on the use of virgin lumber. So, if you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint by using reclaimed and recycled building products, you’re out of luck with each of these.
If carbon sequestration and reducing your footprint are priorities, along with mitigating the health impacts associated with numerous materials and finishes, then it’s worth the time and effort to find those alternatives. Recycled glass, concrete, metal, stone, and masonry are all viable and environmentally friendly options to pursue, and often relieve homeowners of the burden of parsing out which finishing product is the lesser evil. In the case of wood, bamboo is preferable to virgin hardwoods, and thermally modified softwoods are preferable to hardwoods. More so, reclaimed and reused lumber (while more expensive, in most instances) is preferable to almost any example of virgin lumber, provided it’s been properly treated and re-engineered. This is because it maintains its capacity to sequester any carbon that’s released during the felling, transportation, milling, and manufacturing of new lumber. Happy finishing!