We have just started a small renovation at home, which has exposed the finer details of building that I hadn’t before considered. Let me begin this post by saying I am fully aware that I may be overthinking things!

We renovated our bathroom a year ago and it happened really quickly, from a quote to demolition one week later.  I didn’t get the opportunity to think through how I wanted the process to go from both an environmental and healthy product perspective.  I remember walking in to see cans of foam that were being sprayed under the bath to hold it in place and wondering what is that made of??? It was a real eye opener for me and I was determined this time around to be involved in product selection.

The laboratory work I did when study environmental science has increased my awareness of the hazards attached to even the most common chemicals you would see in your house.  This along with a lengthy bout of ill health in my 20s, which increased my systems sensitivity to products, influences the choices I make when purchasing and using products.

This project has several challenges; a small budget, a desire to be as environmentally minded as we can, in addition to a focus on using products I was comfortable with my children being exposed to. 

Given the small scale and budget of the project we are restricted to what we can do environmentally, it is our intention to install solar panels at a later date. Our main focus has been utilising as many recycled products as possible, particularly in the kitchen.  I am getting the sense that our kitchen is going to be a massive fail or win and at this stage I have no idea which it will be.  We wanted to maintain the integrity of the house, which is a cottage, so instead of ripping out the old woodstove fireplace which would have made much more sense we decided to open it up.  This is financially risky for us as it would mean an additional expense of re plastering if the fireplace was a flop.

We have listed useable items on eBay not as a money making venture more in hope that these items could be reused by someone else.  We have salvaged as many materials as possible to be re-used in our renovation.  We have also taken our old appliances that weren’t in good enough working order for resale to be used as scrap metal instead of them going straight to landfill.

The next challenge I set myself was to avoid laminates and as many volatile organic compounds (VOC) as possible, as these compounds are emitted as gas from certain solids and liquids and can have adverse health effects.  I believe there are low VOC laminates available, however, I settled on reclaimed wood as a more suitable alternative.  So here begins our eBay and Gumtree searching mission. We were lucky enough to pick up some amazing second-hand timber that we hope will be excellent for the kitchen bench tops. We have also decided to try and source antique sideboards to use as our cabinetry.

I found an amazing pendant light, which was the exact colour theme I was looking for on eBay and I am now hooked on finding as many items to reuse as possible.  There will be lots of sanding, painting and tweaking involved but I am really excited to see how it all comes together – as I said it may be a disaster. I will post some photos in the future either way. Now bring on antique wardrobes and sideboards for our remaining laundry cabinetry!

I have also been considering what the remaining building products are made of and I have found it challenging to source alternate natural products.  In my quest to find out this information I came across a profession I had never heard of before – a building biologist! This interesting job includes electromagnetic field testing, air sampling, building, moisture and mould detection and building inspections.  I spoke to a couple of building biologists to see if they could offer some advice on the alternate building products I was trying to source.  They seemed to work primarily on what is inside the house not so much with what the house was constructed out of.  I also spoke to a couple of environmental building organisations; however their focus is primarily the environment and didn’t incorporate the health aspects of building so I was back to the drawing board. 

In our small renovation here are just some of the things I started to question:

What’s the subfloor made out of – the purpose of this flooring is primarily as a safety precaution for the workers, understandably, with a benefit of offering better insulation.  I wasn’t too keen to use this product as it is made from resin enriched particle board. Instead we opted to use it temporarily for safety reason and then lift it before our timber floor is laid.  We have compensated with a thicker timber floor board, which we are currently trying to source second-hand and thicker floor insulation.

Insulation is also a concern as I wasn’t keen to have fibreglass insulation, particularly in the flooring insulation as it was exposed directly to the environment. The names of some products are misleading and after some research we have decided to go with wool insulation.  Now sislation is something else entirely again. This is the silver foil that you may have seen being wrapped in the walls and ceilings of new homes.  It is usually a laminated aluminium foil; I am still yet to find a replacement product for this purpose.

The list just goes on – facers and plinth boards are usually made of treated timber, even though I don’t think they use arsenic anymore I’m still not comfortable using treated wood around the house as I don’t know what chemicals are used in the treatment. Cement sheeting, beams that are laminated, paints and varnishes that are low or no VOC are all things that we weighed up when selecting products for our renovation.

I did warn you that I have over thought this! However, I found this an interesting and challenging process.  Did you know that a lot of doors and even skirting boards are made out of MDF now? I didn’t. MDF is bonded with a synthetic resin, in some cases formaldehyde, which is a possible carcinogen so this is definitely a concern for me – my youngest still likes to bite random things!

I am far from an expert on this subject and I often go with my gut when making decisions on products but it’s definitely something I’m interested in learning more about as we work our way through the renovation.  Fortunately our poor builder is very accommodating and there are some amazing things out there waiting to be repurposed and recycled.