Sage K. Saskill’s house in South Park started out at a petite 560 square feet, which he’s expanded by building additions and parking a school-bus-turned-office out back. His latest project, a loft made of reclaimed wood in his daughter’s room, is nearly done.
Like many families with people working and learning from home, Saskill wanted to provide an extra space to escape to. And he wanted to do it in an ecologically friendly way.
Pandemic-inspired home projects — backyard offices, basement remodels, lofts, kitchen upgrades — are a great opportunity to try out greener building materials and techniques. Prices for sustainable materials are becoming more comparable to conventional products, local experts say, and are likely to save you money in the long run thanks to better energy efficiency and a longer lifespan.
Here are some innovative green products to consider, as well as other means for making your home project more eco-friendly.
Saskill, the architect behind S.A.G.E. Designs NW, has made a career of maximizing small spaces. His claims to fame include designing Seattle’s first permitted straw-bale structure in 2008 and getting the first backyard-cottage cargo-container permit in 2016.
“I like to experiment on myself, so I can tell my clients what works and what doesn’t,” Saskill says. “It looks good on paper, but does it work?”
In his own house, he used denim insulation (made from recycled blue jeans) in the walls of an addition. It’s held up great, but he wouldn’t use it again — the material was too hard to cut. He also put in a heat pump water heater — a great idea, he says, but “I don’t love it. It’s noisy.”
He put in a clay floor that absorbs heat and feels good, but it required an extraordinary amount of labor on his hands and knees. “I haven’t tried to talk any clients into that yet,” Saskill says. “I call it a mud floor and people just scratch their heads.”
The good news, however, is that there are many eco-friendly products that have become popular and mainstream, increasing selection and lowering the price.
“A lot of the items, it’s not more expensive; it’s just making the right choices,” says Tadashi Shiga, principal and founder of Evergreen Certified, a Seattle company that helps residential builders with green-building certification. “Over the long term, it can mean cheaper because it can last longer. And later on, if you want to sell the house, the green-certified homes get more on the marketplace.”
Even a small move, such as selecting low-VOC or no-VOC paint, makes a difference — especially in a small space where there isn’t a lot of air volume.
“People are spending more and more time inside their homes,” says Laura Elfline, co-founder of Mighty House Construction in West Seattle. “Now, in the middle of a pandemic, that’s even more true. So it’s more important to have toxin-free spaces in your home.”
More options for green building materials include:
Siding: Use reclaimed wood or wood that’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Pick a species that’s grown in the Pacific Northwest, like cedar, so less transportation is needed. Consider recycled metal for siding and/or the roof.
Insulation: Instead of spray-foam insulation, which uses a chemical reaction, consider fiberglass that contains recycled material, or cellulose insulation made from recycled denim or paper. The latest insulation trend is wool: Insects don’t like it, it’s hydrophobic, it cleans the air and it’s completely renewable.
Flooring: Bamboo is a good alternative to hardwood because it grows quickly (it’s actually a type of grass). Marmoleum is a bio-based natural linoleum to consider for wet rooms. Cork comes from the bark of a cork tree; you don’t kill the tree to harvest it. It is naturally insulated for a warm feel, reduces noises and is biodegradable. If you want hardwood floors, check that the product is FSC-certified and finish it with a zero-VOC stain.
Countertops and cabinets: There are many countertop options that are more gentle on the Earth. Quartz, a manmade material that’s stain-resistant and durable, is already very popular. There are also counters made of recycled paper, recycled glass or wood that is sustainably harvested. The eco-friendly trend in cabinets is formaldehyde-free plywood boxes with sustainably harvested wood doors.
“In small spaces, you can choose any of these and it’s not going to be as big an investment as a whole house remodel,” says Emma Zimmerman, marketing specialist at Model Remodel, a design-build contractor in Queen Anne. “Literally, we have a choice with every single thing that we buy. Better to buy the good stuff whenever possible.”
Reducing and reusing
On HGTV shows, demo day is always a big, exciting event — but one that sends lots of material to the landfill. Carefully disassembling and deconstructing materials to salvage them for reuse takes more time, but the process reduces waste and the need to buy more product.
In a Columbia City basement remodel, Model Remodel turned dated wood wall paneling into modern sliding closet doors. The company also used cork flooring and low-VOC paint on the project.
Before you throw something out, think about whether you can reuse it. Before you buy something new, check out the treasure trove of materials at reuse stores. In the Seattle area, these include Ballard Reuse, Second Use in Sodo and Tacoma, and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
“If we were to give one single recommendation to homeowners who want to build a more eco-friendly space, it would be to go first to a reclaim or reuse store,” Zimmerman says. “Using something that’s already out there is 10 times better for the environment than buying something new.”
Building for the long term
In 2019, the Seattle City Council eased regulations on basement apartments and backyard cottages in hopes of creating more urban density and affordable housing. In 2021, those units can be a godsend for parents trying to work from home or families that need to house additional members.
“There’s been a big boom with permits and people building in their backyards. This is probably one of the biggest opportunities in Seattle for this generation,” Shiga says. “Even though [the project] is smaller, it’s important to make it so it’s sustainable. It’s comfortable. It’s durable. It’s healthy. It lasts a long time. Tiny and mighty.”
Shiga, a third-generation Seattleite, lives in the same house his grandfather bought 110 years ago. No matter the size of the space you’re building, he says, make sure it’s built well, using durable materials and good construction practices.
“The most important thing is design to last,” Shiga adds. “It’s no good to use recycled materials [if they] are going to be torn down in a decade. We would like it to last generations.”
Elfline has heard from clients who want to create a space for work or school, and later turn it into a guest room for visiting relatives. She encourages people to be thorough in planning their space and to research their product choices — not just grab stuff off the shelf at a big-box store.
“What makes the most sense so you’re only doing things once?” Elfline says. “Part of sustainability is using materials less. The fewer times we can remodel a space, the better.”