How to remodel a bathroom for sustainability

10 common sense tips to keep it green.

New advances in sustainable construction have made it easier than ever for homeowners to renovate a bathroom the green way. But for Keith Vaughan, owner of award-winning D.C. firm Spectrum Design + Build, sustainability still boils down to the basics.

“Build it right the first time, so it doesn’t have to be rebuilt in five years,” he explained. “That’s the greenest thing you can do in a remodel.”

Vaughan has a set of go-to rules for remodeling a bathroom, the sustainable way:

  1. Many unwanted cabinets, appliances, plumbing materials, windows, doors and other architectural products can be donated or repurposed. “A lot of the appliances and fixtures that we replace in a bathroom are still usable, and can be appreciated by somebody else,” said Vaughan. Spectrum often donates to Community Forklift, a Maryland-based donation service for salvaged home supplies and fixtures.
  2. Items that can’t be donated don’t have to end up in a landfill—recycling services take care of larger unwanted items and other construction debris. Designbuild firms in the D.C. area can use Sun Services for green removal.
  3. Environmentally-friendly vendors can partner with consumers and with design-build firms to provide sustainable cabinetry for the bathroom. Vaughan works with Wellborn Cabinets, a green company that generates used scraps and wood dust from cabinetry to generate 20 percent of the energy that powers its facility.
  4. Low-VOC or no-VOC paints create a greener and healthier bathroom; VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds that can be harmful to the environment and have long-term negative health effects. This simple switch can be executed by homeowners or by a designbuild firm like Spectrum.
  5. Dual-flush toilets are a must in any green bathroom. “Almost every new build and renovation that we do incorporates these devices,” said Vaughan. Since nearly one-third of the water usage in the United States is due to conventional flush toilets, dual-flush toilets can make a real dent—they use only one to two gallons of water per flush, as opposed to a regular toilet’s three to seven gallons.
  6. Vaughan also recommended low-flow showerheads and faucets. “Search for the WaterSense designation,” he advises. “It’s a very simple switch to make.” WaterSense, an EPA partnership program, mandates that eligible showerheads use less than 2 gallons of water per minute; standard showerheads use 2.5 or more gallons per minute. The savings add up, both for the environment and for the water bill—families can save an estimated 3,000 gallons of water per year.
  7. Energy-efficient lighting is another simple switch that homeowners can make in a full or partial remodel. Incandescent lights are rapidly becoming obsolete in the face of better fluorescent and LED options. LED lights use about 10 percent of the energy to run and last far longer than traditional lighting options. A simple addition like a dimmer switch can also cut costs by reducing the amount of power a fixture uses.
  8. Good ventilation is necessary for every bathroom remodel, green or conventional. “Mold and mildew are major concerns in the bathroom,” explained Vaughan. “Bathroom fans should be left on for 30-45 minutes after using the shower to dispel moisture; an eco-friendly fan can make a big difference.” A green fan uses far less energy and is simple to install; “low sone” options are extra-quiet and some models can operate on a timer, to avoid running for longer than necessary.
  9. Natural gas tankless water heaters are a whole-house upgrade that can take a sustainable bathroom remodel to the next level. Rather than storing water and using energy to heat it constantly, a tankless water heater operates with coils that heat the water when needed, and use minimal energy when no water is required. “Tankless water heaters are an investment,” advises Vaughan. “But they can be a great addition if you’re looking for a device that benefits the entire home in addition to the bathroom.”
  10. A green design-build firm like Spectrum will always ensure that all fixtures in the bathroom, including the pipes, are properly insulated. “It’s just common sense,” Vaughan explained. “Sometimes the greenest thing is to build the components of the room properly. We always use safe insulation and check windows and doors for proper sealing. All these fixes save major energy and reduce heating and cooling costs.” Vaughan also noted that many of these commonsense upgrades are now included in building codes.
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