Here's a lovely renovation using the healthiest materials, and as few of them as possible.
We show a lot of new homes that are "green" but we don't show a lot of renovations, particularly in apartments. There are real limits to what you can actually do, as the walls and the services are pretty much fixed. But this recent project built by Greening Homes (and designed by Sam Sacks Design) in Toronto is an interesting object lesson.
But they did add blinds to cut down heat gain, and put in Energy Star-rated appliances and LED lighting throughout.
Greening Homes writes that "healthy indoor air is essential for healthy families, especially kids, as we spend 90% of our time indoors. It is important to minimize sources of potential indoor air pollutants and use active and passive technologies to ensure proper ventilation." So all the finishes are zero VOC and the sealants and caulks are all Red List Free.
Typically, adhesives and sealants have high VOC emissions and can cause headaches, tiredness, dizziness, and vision impairment and can continue to be emitted for up to 5 years post-application. EcoLogo certified construction adhesive, sealant, and hydro-silicones contain zero-VOCs and are non-toxic.
Even the drywall is carefully chosen – "locally manufactured in Mississauga [a city just west of Toronto], EcoLogo certified recycled content drywall has a minimum 99% recycled content guaranteed with 16% post-consumer waste. Typical drywall contains only 5 - 13% recycled content, with manufacturing facilities often out of province."
Countertops are made of recycled paper (Richlite), cabinets of formaldehyde free plywood, butcher block constructed with wood glue and finished with zero VOC Rubio Monocoat.
In the bathroom, walls are American Clay plaster, the bathtub was refurbished.
About the only thing that isn't green in this apartment is the Castor light fixture made out of old burned-out fluorescent lights; they are still full of mercury. But the light source in the middle of it is LED.
Full Disclosure: Greening Homes renovated my house. I learned that working this way isn't cheap; there is not an item on that list that doesn't cost more than the stuff you get at Lowes or Home Depot. Careful waste diversion and sorting costs more than just throwing it in a bin. Patching a wood floor probably costs more in time and money than laying a new one.
But this is where the construction and renovation industry has to go: Restoring instead of ripping out, using healthy materials, getting the most out of the least.
Some day the condo owners are going to have to do an energy retrofit of some kind and it won't be pretty, or they are going to have to pay a whole lot of money to heat the place with green electricity, but this is a problem every loft building in the City is going to have to face. When you add up all the upfront carbon that would come from replacing it, the fact remains that the greenest building is the one already standing. It's also often the nicest, too.