Eco Home

When build­ing or ren­o­vat­ing, keep your home eco-friendly with these tips.

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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

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

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.

Paint

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.

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