Choices, Choices, Choices
The materials you choose for your new home can made a huge difference for years to come. Some good ideas and why.
When I was building our home, my first consideration was energy and water conservation. With high thermal mass, radiant heat in the slab, photovoltaic and thermal panels, passive solar heat, a wood stove, rain barrels and a cistern with a shallow well pump, those decisions were very straightforward. Then came the multitude of other decisions that impacted not just the appearance and comfort of our home, but also the maintenance and replacement trouble and cost. Here I will share my decisions and reasoning.
First I wanted to minimize plastics and other petrochemical products. I wanted things to last for a long, long time. In addition, it was important to me that both day to day care and long time maintenance be minimized. I wanted to eliminate not only VOC, but all painted surfaces. Really, it always comes down to the surface – how to finish floors, countertops, window sills, walls, ceilings inside and siding, roof and driveway outside and even the landscaping. I will discuss each surface, options and reasons for the final decisions.
Floors – being gardeners with dogs and having radiant heat, the floors needed to be good conductors as well as easy to clean. I considered different types of tile, terrazzo, and polished concrete (the slab). I chose a combination of commercial porcelain tile and dyed and polished concrete. The tile is 24”x24” and rectified (squared sides rather than sloped) to minimize grout. It is skid resistant, needs no wax or special cleaning agents, is easy to dust mop between vacuumings and is reasonably priced. The polished concrete was used in the back of the house and closets where “the messy work” is done, - laundry, mudroom, dog feeding, etc. Both surfaces are beautiful and conduct the heat in the winter and keep cool in the summer.
Walls – Most new houses use sheetrock, joint compound and paint for the walls. My interior walls are mainly concrete with some framed walls out of the sunshine. I wanted the concrete to be exposed to the sun and warmth of the room, so I chose to cover it with stucco (another concrete product and really my only option). It is a permanent wall covering, beautiful out of the bag and needs no maintenance. On the framed walls I used untreated, tongue and grove white pine, except for the closet where I chose cedar. I also used the same porcelain tile on the walls of the bathroom and backspace of the kitchen. There is a beautiful stone wall behind the wood stove that adds beauty and interest to the room and also more thermal mass. The final wall covering, used in both bathrooms and laundry room is formica. It could adhere to the concrete walls, provides a smooth and easy to clean surface and comes in a very large variety of colors.
Ceilings – sheetrock is also the choice of many for ceilings. It is very difficult to install because of its weight and painting is then necessary. I was told by several contractors that the white powder that is a result of sanding the seams will be a pollutant in your house for years. There is no sheetrock in the house. I again chose white pine nailed to the scissor trusses for the ceilings in the main rooms and pine again for the flat ceilings of the bathrooms, closet and laundry room. In the three years we have lived in the house, the pine has darkened and gives a softness and beauty to each space. It also improves the acoustics of a tiled space.
Countertops and window sills – For these there are many options: granite, formica, solid surfaces, wood, etc. I settled on Corian solid surfaces for the countertops and three window sills. I choose it for its beauty, ease of cleaning – especially by the sink which is inset with no seams – ease of repair, length of service, ability to renew and seamlessness. On the windowsills, I did not have to worry about spots from watering plants and it gives a very fresh look to the windows.
Driveway – One of the decisions that I am most pleased with is choosing pervious concrete over macadam for the driveway. Pervious concrete allows the water to penetrate the surface (at a rate of 8-10 gallons/minute/sq. ft.), but provides a firm surface for walking and shoveling/snow blowing. One huge advantage is there is no need to coat it with petrochemicals every year or two. It is attractive and cool on bare feet.
Siding, trim, windows – Here again there are many choices, but once ease of maintenance and environmental impact of production and eventual disposal were considered, the choices were easy. Vinyl anything poses huge problems both during production and disposal. Wood is high maintenance. Aluminum was a viable option, but not one I explored except for the solarium. I found that fiberglass for windows and doors, while having high embedded energy, had the advantage of ease of care, very long life, beauty and a similar rate of expansion/contraction to glass. This assures that the seal is less likely to break. My siding choice was fiber cement board. It will take some care, - every 15-20 years it needs to be painted. I am hopeful that with deep overhangs, protection from the worst of the weather and keeping it dry at ground level, even that maintenance will be minimized. It washes extremely easily and looks like new. Even though I live in a wetland, there has been no mold. The final decision was trim. Here I did choose a petroleum product, Azek, a man-made plastic “wood”. It is beautiful, simple to wash, the same color throughout and guaranteed for life. Painting trim is probably one of the hardest jobs and here this will never need to be done.
Roof – Because I wanted to catch the rain for many uses (irrigation inside and out, flushing the toilet and a utility sink) and I did not want particles of asphalt in that water, I chose a metal roof. The painted metal is guaranteed not to need paint for 50 years and will last 200 – 300 years with very little maintenance. It had the added bonus that the rack for the photovoltaics could easily be clamped to the seams, avoiding penetrations through the roof. The new paints act to keep the roof cooler and also the house.
Landscaping – The final outdoor decision was to have all the plants in the small yard be food or medicine bearing. That meant no grass which is a tremendous energy saver, both fossil fuel and mine. Fruit trees and bushes bloom beautifully in the spring. Many medicinal plants are also ornamental. Strawberries are a beautiful ground cover and with walks and stepping stones breaking up the gardens, the final effect can be lovely, even if not the norm. We are trained to appreciate rolling, green, carpets of lawn and neatly trimmed evergreen scrubs. This is pleasing to the eye, but does not foster the diversity that plants and animals and even insects need for survival. A beautiful culinary herb garden is just that – beautiful.
With so very many choices, it is wise to set your priorities with energy, the environment and your taste in mind, then you’ll have fun with it and enjoy your new home for many years to come.