When building or renovating, keep your home eco-friendly with these tips.
The best choices for non-toxic wall coverings
Words Melinda Williams
When you imagine your dream home, the living areas are usually the centrepiece of your vision. You picture yourself relaxing in front of a TV show after a hard week at work, sitting around the dining table with friends or family for a meal, or lying on the floor playing a board game with your kids.
The living space has to play a wide range of roles. It’s usually the first area that you bring visitors into, so naturally you want it to be beautiful, welcoming and comfortable. At the same time, because it’s heavily used, it needs to be practical, easy to keep clean and durable. The design decisions made here often set the tone for the overall interior design of the home, so it’s worth considering how the materials, lighting and furniture style you choose might flow through to other rooms.
Once a series of formal rooms used for entertaining guests away from the rest of the house, today living spaces are informal and multi-functional. Modern layouts are usually open-plan or ‘broken-plan’ (separated into different zones through the use of stepped floor levels, room dividers, or arranged around a central courtyard). Many owners of villas, bungalows and Art Deco houses choose to open up and extend the traditionally small, separate living rooms to modernise, add light and floor space, and improve the indoor–outdoor flow.
From an eco-perspective, since it’s an area where you spend a lot of time, it’s essential that it’s easy to keep warm in winter and cool in summer, and that the air quality is excellent. The living space usually acts as a transition zone between indoors and outdoors, taking advantage of the best views with large windows, so it makes a big contribution to how connected to nature the house feels. The furniture you buy for the living spaces will be investment pieces that are expected to last a long time.
Wallpaper might seem like a natural eco-choice, since it’s made from a renewable resource, but the glues and vinyl coatings used on some papers can contribute to poor air quality in the home, and prevent moisture from ‘breathing’ through plasterboard freely.
There is an extensive range of beautiful patterned and textured wallpapers available in New Zealand. Some wallpapers are literally made from paper (ask for paper that is sustainably forested, or contains recycled content) and cellulose, but in other cases, the papers are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), or have a PVC backing or coating to make them more durable or able to stand up to wet cleaning. PVC prevents moisture from moving through walls, which can cause mould build-up. To combat this, wallpapers may contain fungicides.
Other types of eco-friendly specialist papers exist — fibreglass wallpapers, which use woven glass fibres, quartz and lime to create a strong and sometimes textured wall covering, bamboo wallpaper, and grasscloth, which is woven with natural reed and jute fibres.
Ask your wallpaper retailer to recommend a water-based adhesive with low- or zero-VOC levels if this is suitable for the type you’ve chosen, and whether the wallpapers have been printed with environmentally friendly latex-based or water-based inks.
Plasterboard or drywall, best known in New Zealand as GIB or Gibraltar board (named to suggest that it’s as dependable as the Rock of Gibraltar), is the most common interior finish. Plasterboard is made from compressed gypsum plaster sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard, usually made from recycled paper. Gypsum is a naturally occurring mineral, calcium sulphate dihydrate, which is mined in Australia and shipped to New Zealand to be made into plasterboard by Winstone Wallboards. This is an energy-intensive process that produces greenhouse gases. So although plasterboard that doesn’t contain synthetic additives or fibres is a non-toxic product in itself, it has a high embodied energy cost. Considering that 100 billion square feet of plasterboard is produced around the world every year, it’s a building material that makes a significant contribution to climate change.
Clean-waste plasterboard left over from building is highly recyclable, so any offcuts or waste should be returned to the manufacturer for recycling into more plasterboard, composting or even being converted into an agricultural soil-conditioning product. Even better is careful planning to minimise waste in the first place. Plasterboard that has been painted with environmentally friendly paints may also be able to be recycled. Conventionally painted or papered plasterboards probably can’t be, and have to be disposed of in landfill. As much as nine per cent of landfill waste is thought to be waste plasterboard.
There is some imported plasterboard available in New Zealand, although the majority is manufactured here. After Hurricane Katrina in the US, issues arose with some imported plasterboards manufactured in China, which were shown to release high levels of corrosive and irritating hydrogen sulfide gas. Although there don’t seem to have been any similar issues here, locally made plasterboard is a better environmental choice . Specifying 13 mm-thick plasterboard (instead of the standard 10 mm) will add insulation value to walls, particularly internal walls.
Wood is an eco-friendly building material when it is sustainably grown, thanks to its renewability and carbon-sequestering qualities.
Modern commercial paints are highly synthetic, often containing a complex mix of petrochemicals, heavy metals, fungicides, formaldehyde, polyurethane and other chemicals. They are typically made up of solvents (liquids), resins (binders for adhesion and durability), colour pigments (especially titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) and other chemical additives that require large amounts of processing. The production process for conventional paint is hugely wasteful, consuming large amounts of energy and fossil fuels, and creating toxic waste products that are difficult to dispose of safely.
People often talk fondly about that ‘new house smell’. Unfortunately, that smell is a heady mix of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – gases that have potential to cause short- and long-term health effects. Most of New Zealand’s major paint companies, such as Resene and Dulux, now offer a range of water-based low-VOC and VOC-free paint formulations. These are better for indoor air quality, although they may still contain many synthetic ingredients and petrochemicals. These paints are harmful to the environment if disposed of incorrectly, so never pour them down your sink or into a drain. Return leftover paint to the manufacturer, check whether your local council has a hazardous waste disposal programme, or search for a local chemical waste management company to take care of it for you.
Modern natural paints are now available in a beautiful range of shades and finishes, and if applied correctly, will last as long as synthetic paints. Better yet, the manufacturing and disposal processes are considerably better for the environment. As you would expect, there’s a price premium for natural paints. New Zealand’s largest natural paint company, the Christchurch-based Natural Paint Company, uses china clay, chalk, waxes, plant oils and tree resins to create their interior and exterior paint products.
Recycled paints are available in New Zealand through EnviroPaint. The range of colours is more limited than you will find in a new paint range, but the price is very comparable to new paint (and sometimes lower), making it a good eco-solution for those on a budget. Make sure to look for recycled paint with low-VOC levels.
Extracted from Eco Home by Melinda Williams, published by Penguin NZ, $45.