Welcome to Second Nature, a Q+A series with Jute founder, Ali Davin, that explores all things healthy living, with a fond emphasis on that thing she does best—interior design.
You’ve made the decision to renovate your home, and that’s super exciting. But there’s more to it than just designing your dream space. From demolition to construction, the materials and techniques you use can affect the environment inside and outside of your home.
Before you get started, here are some dos and don’ts to ensure the changes you make are good for the health of your home and the planet.
If you’re keeping walls up and doing a more minor renovation or addition, you want to test for mold, asbestos + lead because that affects how the demolition is done. If your home has mold or dry rot, you need to bring in a mold-certified remediologist that’s trained in its removal. Same thing goes for lead + asbestos. Trained teams will take steps to seal off and remove debris safely so it won’t go airborne.
Contractors are trained to remove lead, asbestos, and hazardous waste, but there’s only so much that you can hazmat out. We recommend that you HEPA vacuum every surface—the walls, the ceiling, everything—so that the toxic particles don’t adhere to your home’s surfaces and get trapped there forever.
Avoid Sheetrock wherever possible. Most is made from chemicals and is paperbacked so it’s prone to mold and rot. Plaster is the gold standard because it’s made of limestone, which is a natural, durable material. It’s twice as thick, a better insulator of both temperature and sound, and the lime actually pulls carbon dioxide out of the air, making it one of the most green building materials out there.
Real hardwood floors are ¾” solid wood that can be sanded down and stained over and over again for generations. Plus, there’s no glue used during install, so there’s nothing that’s off-gassing chemicals into your home. On the other hand, engineered floors consist of 1/8” real hardwood on top with 5/8” plywood, which can be a toxic mixture of formaldehyde and engineered wood. Engineered floors became popular because there’s a perception that we’re using less of the earth’s resources to make them. The reality is that you can use most only once as the top layer is so thin that it can’t be sanded down and re-stained for future generations. So when you renovate, you have to rip them out and throw them in the dump. That defeats the whole purpose.
Real wood is worth the investment, plain and simple. Manmade materials like OSB and MDF are soft and are not built to last. More importantly, those materials contain formaldehyde and are super toxic. Do you really want that in your home?
Any stone that was excavated from a quarry—soapstone, granite, marble, quartzite, limestone—is not going to off-gas chemicals. Engineered stone countertops are a no—they’re held together with a manmade resin made up of chemicals and dyes. Not only do they offgas, but since it’s an engineered material, if you demo your kitchen and remove it, it’s just going to sit in a landfill. Again, just because it uses less natural resources doesn’t make it good for the planet. For tile, I like natural stone, terracotta, clay, or anything that’s handmade with nontoxic methods. Always look for materials that have biodegradable properties.
Blanket, foam, spray, the pink stuff—it’s all made of polyurethane and mixed with flame-retardants, which, by the way, won’t prevent your house from burning down. Use denim instead. It’s upcycled from old jeans or factory clippings, and it’s great for your home’s air quality. It’s not cheap, but it’s the most sustainable choice you can make.
Do your homework to assess what toxins are already in your home.