How to Go Green: Bathroom Renovation

how to go green bathroom renovation photo

Photo credit: qmnonic/Creative Commons

Let's face it: the North American bathroom isn't the most glamorous of rooms. Ranging from staid and boring to downright dangerous, with slippery showers and water hogging toilet tanks and tubs set in a poorly ventilated, water-tight box, many modern bathrooms just haven't been designed as thoughtfully the rest of our homes.

This is an odd development, given that bathrooms are one of the most expensive rooms in the house to build, averaging about $10,000 a pop. Still, for all their expense, the design hasn't evolved too far beyond shiny fixtures and his 'n her sinks: many of us are still using the five-by-eight bathroom with the three fixtures -- toilet, sink, and tub -- all lined up in a row. And while it might help maximize space, having a dirty fixture where you deposit your waste (the toilet) next to two where you clean yourself (the sink and the tub) doesn't make for the healthiest environment.

Add to that all the water that literally can get flushed down the drain every day, the poor ventilation that plagues many a bathroom (that leads to poor indoor air quality), and all the energy that goes in to heating your water and lighting the room, and it might mean that it's time to update your abode's commode. Keep reading to learn more about turning your bathroom from dank and rank to green and clean.

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Top Green Bathroom Renovation Tips

  1. Waste Water Not, Want Not
    Saving water is the most important thing to consider when doing a bathroom makeover, as the toilet alone can use as much as 27 percent of household water. Although much of the waste is caused by bad habits, installing and maintaining water-saving bathroom fixtures is an enormously important step. Here's how: Start by installing low-flow showerheads and faucets; next, fix any leaks as soon as they happen (including continuously leaky toilets, which can waste as much as 300 gallons of water every day). A further step is to set up a gray-water system that collects water from the sink and shower and feeds the toilet and the garden. You can also read our How to Go Green: Water guide for more helpful ideas.

  2. Come Out of the (Water) Closet
    Given the amount of time each of us spends in the bathroom, we think we should all be able to enjoy it. So why do American bathrooms resemble closets? In a traditional Japanese bath, for example, the view framed by the window is an important part of the design of the bathroom. Make sure your bathroom includes windows, for natural light, the view, and ventilation. Forget the American dream of a bathroom for every bedroom (and then a powder room for the guests!). Put the toilet in a separate space to isolate bacteria -- it takes up just a little more space, and is almost as good as having a second bathroom as one person can be using the toilet while another is using the sink or tub.

  3. Don't Flush Resources Away
    Almost everything about our toilets is wrong: Drinking water is used for flushing waste, which becomes "black water," which contaminates the "grey water" waste that comes from everything else in the bathroom (and could otherwise be reused). Black water is hard to clean and flushes away valuable resources (see the Getting Techie section for further discussion of gray- and black-water). For example, urine is a valuable source of phosphorus, and poo could be composted into fertilizer if it weren't hauled off to the nearest water treatment center. Plus, toilets aren't designed around the way our bodies work: Sitting, rather than squatting, has been linked to hemorrhoids, constipation, and colon cancer.

  4. Build a Better Toilet
    So, the ideal toilet would be a squat-friendly, urine-separating, composting toilet (like the one I installed in my cabin) with a pop-up bidet. But since these can be hard to find these days, in lieu of this imaginary ideal loo, we offer these small steps to help you green your commode:

    • Replace the lid of the tank with a washing lid -- a sink on top of the tank -- where the water for the flush first goes through a faucet where you can wash your hands.
    • Use a no-flush urinal, for the men (and agile women) in your house.
    • Install a low-volume toilet or dual-flush mechanism -- that's one for, er... a number one, and two for a number two.
    • Get the lowest toilet you can find, with an elongated bowl then adapt it for squatting.
    • For sitting toilets, buy a toilet seat that can be removed for cleaning.
  5. Think About Your Sink Beyond the big step of purchasing a hybrid sink-toilet, such as the one mentioned above, where the grey water from the sink is used in the toilet bowl, there are many other options to consider when choosing the right sink. First, the sink vanity height should be at least 36 inches, which will allow you to stand up straight while you wash, which is easier on the back. Next, consider a kitchen-type faucet with sprayer, so that you can rinse the sink easily -- you can save water and wash your hair with it, too. Finally, consider the materials and layout of your sink: Hospital-plumbing brass sinks, which have big paddle handles that you can operate with your elbows (so you don't have to touch 'em with your dirty hands), and go with recycled and eco-materials, such as natural ceramic or non-toxic cement, for your hardware and sink basin.
  6. Cease Slippery Showers Standing barefoot on a curved, smooth surface, while adding water and soap might not be the safest way to start your day, but that's what many of us do in the shower each day. Instead, we recommend building a shower stall, separate from the tub, or just forget about the tub altogether, as taking a bath can use seven times the amount of energy as taking a short shower. Install a handheld showerhead so that you can aim it up as well as down, and put in grab bars; no matter what your age, people slip in showers a lot. Consider a molded fiberglass shower instead of a tiled one, as they are easier to keep clean. Avoid vinyl shower curtains -- either PVC-free plastic or even hemp is a good alternative -- and if you get glass doors, use a squeegee to clean them after you shower, which will help you avoid using chemicals to remove the scum that forms otherwise.
  7. Keep Yourself Out of Hot Water More than 10 percent of our energy bills typically come from heating up hot water. Although the best way to reduce that number is to use less of it for bathing, washing your hands, and doing household chores (such as doing the laundry in hot water), you can also consider these options:

    • Set up a solar powered water heater -- they used to be either expensive or just not very effective; now many companies are selling evacuated tube water heaters for under $5,000.
    • Install a waste-heat recovery system (pdf) that preheats the shower water with the warm water going down the drain.
  8. Ventilate Your Vanity Bathrooms are warm and damp, a perfect environment for mildew and mold. You can attack this problem with chemicals and bleaches, or you can simply keep the humidity levels down below their comfort zone. Every house or renovation should include the installation of a Heat Recovery Ventilator, or HRV; if you build to any kind of standard, you need fresh air intake. When you bring in fresh air you need to balance it with exhausted air, so take it from the bathrooms. This will ensure that there is a constant flow of air and continuous removal of excess humidity. Increase the air flow in your bathroom further by using a low power consumption fan (preferably remote installation, where it is mounted at the exhaust point rather than the intake point). Include a timer switch so it will turn off after the bathroom moisture has subsided.
  9. Don't Slip on the Floor We line cover our bathroom floors with big, shiny, pore-less tiles, often radioactive granite; just the thing to slip on. Use non-slip tiles including a tiled baseboard, and put in a floor drain - let it take away excess water when you get out of the shower, instead of a using a soggy bath mat that keeps releasing moisture.
  10. Select Mold Mitigating Materials Use materials that don't promote mould and mildew growth, are eco-friendly, and are easy to clean. In Japan, a lot of baths are lined with cedar and wood; cork and water resistant woods have natural mold inhibitors in them. For floors and walls go with recycled glass or ceramic tiles, Marmoleum (a good old fashed linoleum material), low-VOC paints, and natural plasters like American Clay, which absorb and release moisture, mitigating the potential for mildew. For countertops, consider those made from recycled glass cullet, or compressed, sealed, recycled paper, such as Paperstone and Richlite.
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Green Bathroom Renovations: By the Numbers

  • 50 gallons: Amount of water a leaky faucet wastes in a day.
  • 300 gallons: Amount of water a leaking toilet flapper valve can waste in a day.
  • 15,000 gallons: Amount of water you can save per year by taking a Navy shower (and probably a Japanese shower).
  • 1 billion gallons: Amount of water wasted per month from one leak in a New York water main.
  • $10,000: Average cost of a bathroom renovation.
  • $5: Cost of a low flow shower head that will cut your consumption by 45 gallons per day.
  • $5,800: Cost of a TOTO Neorest toilet, that "lifts its lid, inviting you to have a seat. Once you do your thing, a gentle blast of warm water cleans your bottom. This is followed by the toilet's air-dry function. And after you get up, the toilet flushes the ionized, self-cleaning bowl and deodorizes the air".
  • 40: Percentage of houses built with 1-1/2 baths or less in 1973.
  • 5: Percentage of houses built with 1-1/2 baths or less in 2007.

Sources: TreeHugger, How Stuff Works, US Census
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Green Bathroom Renovation: Getting Techie

Why the Design Matters
The definitive guide to bathroom design is Alexander Kira's The Bathroom, published in 1966 and updated in 1975. Kira examined the physical aspects of peeing and pooping, and how bad we are at doing it and getting clean afterwards. As Chip Rowe puts it in his review:

"He discusses why North Americans have rejected the European bidet as a way to clean the anus after defecation, and says that rejection wouldn't have been such a big deal if only we were better at wiping ourselves..."

Gray-water is the wastewater that comes from processes like bathing and showering. It isn't heavily polluted, but it's no longer safe for drinking or for uses such as crop irrigation. Because it is less polluted than "blackwater" (more on that below), it can be more easily collected and recycled in the home; a common method involves recycling greywater into the tank of your toilet, where, after the toilet is used, it becomes blackwater.

Black-water is the wastewater that comes from the toilet (after you use it) or from highly concentrated chemicals. In most cases, blackwater cannot be treated and reused in the home without a dedicated blackwater recycling system, so it's often piped off to a treatment plant and you flush it down the toilet. Most homes mix the two, making quick recovery for reuse very difficult; having separate grey and blackwater systems is a relatively easy way to save hundreds of gallons of water.

Composting Toilets
Most of the money spent in developing suburbs is the underground infrastructure, the veins and arteries carrying water and waste. Yet most of our waste water need not go to the sewer, gray water from showers and sinks could be used in gardens for irrigation. The only water that is a problem is that from the toilet- so why don't we try and get rid of it? Perhaps we should have composting toilets in our houses. More on composting toilets for houses:
Thinking about Crap: Should Houses Have Composting Toilets?
Composting toilets: Ready for Prime Time?
Waste Not, Want Not: The Future of Toilets
A Brief History of Bathroom Design
The British, not being big bathers, gave us one version of bathroom design. When upper class Brits started installing indoor plumbing in the closets of their manor houses, they became water closets, or WCs. Since all the plumbing came indoors at the same time, it was often combined in one room, although the separate closet for the toilet was very common.

The Japanese, on the other hand, were very big bathers, and have been taking it seriously for a thousand years. They wouldn't think of putting a dirty toilet in a room where you celebrate cleanliness. The Japanese are right; toilets are dirty. One study by Charles Gerba showed that flushing a toilet sends airborne fecal coliform bacteria quite a distance, a lot farther than those toothbrushes in a glass by the sink. Yet in North America we squeeze them right between the sink and the tub, to maximize the dispersal of germs.

Here in the U.S., we made our bathrooms small; the five-by-eight bathroom with the three fixtures lined up in a row rules. Fancy finishes are costly; bathrooms are one of the most expensive rooms in the house to build, averaging about $10,000, and, in America, price per square foot rules. Prior to World War II, building codes demanded windows; that is why so many old apartment buildings have airshafts down the middle. Then the mechanical engineers and builders convinced everyone of the wonders of mechanical ventilation, which wasn't bad at first when it was designed as a central exhaust system that always ran, but which soon evolved into individual, cheap, noisy exhaust fans pushing air thirty feet to the exterior wall.

In the postwar boom, America became crazed with cleanliness, and our bathrooms came to resemble hospital operating rooms with their floor to ceiling tile and glass. Commercials sold us bowl cleaners, tile cleaners, and the like to keep everything clean, and air fresheners to keep it smelling fresh. Even as America boomed with new construction, into warmer climates and bigger houses, the bathrooms continued to be small, dark, superficially sterile, toxic closets that suck up water and energy in huge quantities, and whisk away water and useful resources through a pipe, leaving someone else to clean our mess.

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Where to Get Green Bathroom Renovation Products

Good Japanese toilets that work: TOTO USA
Composting Toilets: 
Envirolet has units with solar power.
Sun-Mar has a very clever rotating mechanism that really mixes the compost well.

The Swedish Multoa (in the States it is Biolet) slices, dices and anticipates your every move and movement.

Good used plumbing fixtures
Habitat for Humanity
Buildings Materials Reuse is an entire organization devoted to reused supplies.

Low Flow Shower Heads

There is a range of "green" plumbing fixtures available from Amazon.

Bathroom Fans
The ultra silent and remote inline fans from Broan are a good place to start.

Tubs and Ofurus
Japanese ofurus are available in California from the Tubmakers.

A big deep plastic tub called the Kyoto is available from Americh.
Australians get get one from the Japanese Bath Company.

Plumbing Brass
Hands-free plumbing brass for universal accessibility or hospital use is available from Kohler, American Standard and Crane.

Gore Design Co.
Countertop Materials
Trinity Glass Products
Floors and Tiles
Expanko Cork Tiles
Fire Clay Tiles
Paints and Wall Treatments
AFM Safecoat
American Clay

Many of these products are available through Bettencourt Green Building Supplies.

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Green Bathroom Renovation: From the Archives

Dig deeper into these articles about green bathroom renovation from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.

About Bathroom Design:
Bathroom Design Ideas: The 100 Mile Bathroom & Slow Design
Modular Bathroom Tile Designs from Design Glut 

All about toilets:
Guerilla Plumbing: Hack Your Friends' Toilets (NOT)
Integrated Washing Machine-Toilet
Mister Miser: The Amazing Folding Urinal 

Bathroom Water Saving
Core77's One Hour Design Competition: Water - Saving in the Bathroom ...
The Selective Flush - "If It's Yellow..." 
How Much Water Do You Need To Shower?
All about pee-cycling and using urine:
Pee-Cycling: Green Toilet Idea From Olde Europe
P is for Phosphorus (As Well As Human Urine)
I.P. Freely - On The Organic Cabbages
Waste Not, Want Not: The Future of Toilets 

About Composting Toilets:
TreeHugger Tips: Hacking a Composting Toilet
Hot Poop on Composting Toilets
Thinking about Crap: Should Houses Have Composting Toilets ...
Composting toilets: Ready for Prime Time?
TreeHugger Tips: How-to Manage Humanure Composting
Composting Toilets Work, Even in Antarctica
Clivus Multrum at the Bronx Zoo
About Japanese Bathing
Save Water; Shower Japanese Style 
Extreme Conservation Japanese Style
About Bathroom Lighting:
LED Chromatherapy in your Bathroom
Find Your Way to the Bathroom with LED Encrusted Tiles : TreeHugger
About Showers:
TreeHuggerTV: Green Your Shower
Navy Showers : Water Saving Goes Hardcore
Getting Ready for Earth Day: Save Water When You Shower 
WoW Shower
Ripple Products Shower Timer
Stop Wasting Hot Water in the Shower with the Road Runner ...
Reliance Water-Saving Shower Delivers Perfect Temp : 
Be Green, Get Clean: Belvisi Solar Shower
About Bathroom Cleaning and Chemicals:
Which Eco-Cleaners Really Work? : TreeHugger
What Lies Beneath a "Healthy Skin" product
Product Review: Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day 

Potty Humor:
Save Water, Shower in Your Suit
Restaurant Built Out of Toilet parts
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Further Reading on Green Bathroom Renovation

The Bathroom Alexander Kira
This is the single most important document explaining how we poo and pee, how our fixtures are so poorly designed; it's a must for anyone designing a bathroom.
The Japanese Bath by Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto
Get down and dirty with this excellent guide for Westerners explaining the whys and wherefores of Japanese bathing from an American point of view:

"In the West, a bath is a place one goes to cleanse the body. In Japan, one goes there to cleanse the soul. Bathing in Japan is about much mor than cleanliness, though cleanliness is certainly important. It is about family and community -- the washing of each other's backs before bathing. It is also about being alone and contemplative, time to watch the moon rise above the garden. The idea of taking time and care with one's bath in Japan is as important as taking time and care with the cooking and serving of a meal. There is also a ritual to taking a Japanese bath, a prescribed order of rinsing, washing, and soaking that is passed down from one generation to the next. The Japanese Bath delves into the aesthetic of bathing Japanese style--the innate beauty of the steps surrounding the process along with sixty full-color illustrations of the light and airy baths themselves. A Zen meditation, the Japanese bath cleanses the soul, and one emerges refreshed, renewed, and serene."

Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water-Closet
You'll get everything you wanted to know (and maybe more) in humorous review of the history of the toilet:

"Who would have supposed that the Romans had insulated hot water pipes? That Queen Elizabeth I had a valve water-closet? That Louis XIV had cushions in his bath? That sponges have sex? Clean and Decent, says the author, "is meant to entertain, even if scholarship does keep breaking through." Engrossing and amusing, this classic illustrated history of the bathroom and water-closet, first published in 1960, suggests that more may be learned about the past from lavatories than from battlefields."

Poop Culture: How America is Shaped by its Grossest National Product by Dave Praeger
This guide to poo is scatalogical and full of sh*t:

"The mastermind behind, first-time author Praeger takes a scatological and sociological look at what we so thoughtlessly leave behind. As the title might suggest, Praeger isn't one to mince words (his tone is captured well in the opening line, "With enviable ease, poop slid out of the mechanical anus and onto the conveyor belt below"), but neither does he let the subject matter devolve to sophomoric humor. Instead, Praeger meticulously excavates the politics of poop, societal attitudes toward it and how both affect our culture and everyday lives. Propelled by a keen nose for trivia, Praeger chronicles everything from the rise in epidemics that led to better sanitation practices, culminating in the widespread adoption of the toilet, to the use of feces in art. Readers will also learn about the history of toilet paper, why toilets weren't commonplace in England until World War I and how to use a bidet properly. Happily, Praeger keeps things light but respectful throughout, even in a discussion of scatological satire; as such, his enlightening guide may very well represent the ultimate in bathroom reading material."

Small Bathrooms/Petites Salles de Bains/Kleine Badezimmer edited by Simone Schleifer
Learn why smaller is better in this thorough guide.

Web resources:
K+BB Green, a blog for the green kitchen and bath design business.

Poop Culture, the blog to go along with Dave Praeger's book, listed above.

Other Articles of Interest
SCIENTIST AT WORK: CHARLES GERBA; On Germ Patrol, at the Kitchen Sink

How to Go Green: Bathroom Renovation
Let's face it: the North American bathroom isn't the most glamorous of rooms. Ranging from staid and boring to downright dangerous, with slippery showers and water hogging toilet tanks and tubs set in a poorly