Mother Earth Living

Shower Tunes: A Green Bathroom Remodel

What makes this bathroom remodel sing? An Austin green builder explains.
By Robert Zirkel
July/August 2004
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Glass-block walls and hints of red accent contrast with black and white tiling and amenities to revivify this bathroom. Ceramic tile can be a green, low-cost, remodeling alternative.
Photography By Alan Pogue
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Several years ago D’Ann Johnson purchased a two-story, L-shaped Victorian house built in 1876 on a hill across from the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Originally built as a finishing school, the house had endured some ill-conceived remodeling experiments and fallen into disrepair. As part of an overall rehab, D’Ann asked me to remodel three of the home’s bathrooms, including a master bath with fourteen-foot ceilings. D’Ann described the room as “a bad plan, poorly implemented, and only partially completed.” The room included a raised plywood floor, a sunken tub, an uninviting tiled shower, an unfinished sauna, an open plywood loft of indeterminate purpose, and a lot of unused, unusable open space.

D’Ann wanted to incorporate as many green building elements into the remodel as possible, within her budget constraints. We found an early opportunity to utilize the green concept of reuse/recycle during the demolition process when we discovered the original longleaf pine flooring was still in place under the plywood floor. We removed the boards to use again as flooring and trim in other parts of the house. We also donated the old bathroom fixtures to the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

A bathroom is more than a place for personal grooming—it can be a nurturing retreat. Here’s how we created a special space for D’Ann.

Nontoxic tiling

D’Ann chose ceramic tile for the bathroom floor. Tile floors are durable and compare favorably in cost with other green flooring alternatives such as prefinished bamboo plank flooring and natural linoleum. Ceramic tile is the least susceptible to moisture damage, has relatively low environmental impact in manufacture, and is available in a wide variety of materials, colors, dimensions, textures, and styles. D’Ann chose a hexagonal white tile with small black diamond accent tiles at the corners and stripes at the borders for the tub surround, wainscoting, and countertop.

Tile was also the best choice for the countertops and the walls surrounding the tub. Cultured marble countertops and fiberglass tub surrounds, though inexpensive and easy to clean, aren’t recommended because their manufacture contaminates air and water and they can outgas harmful contaminants after installation. For the open side of the jet tub, we installed glass-block walls instead of a shower curtain or a glass shower door. Even with the shower going full blast, very little spray gets through the opening onto the tile floor.

The best way to install tile for tub surrounds and countertops is the old-fashioned mudset method. After installing moisture-resistant sheetrock (“greenboard”) on the walls, the tile installers apply a thick layer of mortar, or “mud,” to the walls. (Mortar mixes and thinsets are all fairly nontoxic as long as you’re careful not to breathe in the dust.) The tiles were applied with cement thinset. Fortino Rodriguez, an experienced tile installer in Austin, prefers this method to the more standard procedure of installing tiles with thinset over cement backerboard because he believes it’s the strongest, longest lasting, and least likely to let moisture penetrate, lessening the possibility of rot or mold.

Rodriguez recommends against using grout sealer on bathtub and shower walls; he says it won’t prevent moisture from penetrating the grout, but it does trap moisture in the wall. Other tile installers disagree. Like many choices in remodeling, this is a matter of the homeowner making a decision based on a contractor’s and subcontractor’s recommendations, his or her own research, and, finally, intuition.

To install the tile floor, we glued cement backerboard over a wooden subfloor. We used a low-VOC adhesive and ring-shank nails to fasten the backerboard to the subfloor and installed the tiles using thinset. Using larger tiles reduces the number of grout lines, and darker grouts are easier to clean and maintain. Whereas conventional wall-tile adhesives can contain toluene, benzene, naptha, and other dangerous solvents, Rodriguez likes to use Laticrete White Multi-Mastic 15, a water-based product, for both wall tiles and gluing backerboard. This product does contain ethylene glycol and mineral spirits, but it’s water soluble and relatively safe. Another safe tile adhesive is Safecoat 3 in 1 by AFM.

Light and ventilation

Natural daylight not only saves energy, but also adds an element of warmth to bathrooms. Ventilating skylights work well in bathrooms, and windows can be opened for ventilation in good weather. Where privacy is a consideration, use windows with frosted glass. In addition, vent fans help eliminate odors and remove moisture-laden air. Vent fans should always be ducted to the outdoors, either through the roof or a wall.

In D’Ann’s bathroom, two glass-block windows high on the interior wall adjacent to the loft provide natural light; eventually she plans to install an awning window on the exterior wall above the tub. We mounted a vent fan/light combination in the lower ceiling over the commode. The high ceilings also help disperse moisture.

Cabinets

The current trend of dropping a sink into an antique chest of drawers and using it as a bathroom vanity can be considered a green option as it’s an example of reuse. If you’re choosing conventional cabinets, however, avoid those made with particleboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which outgas formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. Most cabinet shops will use plywood instead of particleboard if asked. Exterior-grade plywood is best; interior-grade plywood glues can have considerably more formaldehyde than exterior grades. Wheatboard, also known as strawboard or wheatsheet, is an MDF made from wheat straw with a nontoxic binder instead of formaldehyde. Strong and easily machined, it’s an excellent choice for cabinets and holds paint well. Wheatboard with a hardwood veneer is also available.

When D’Ann remodeled her kitchen, she used recycled longleaf pine lumber for her cabinets. She wanted to do the same in the bathroom but wasn’t able to because of budget constraints. She bought the pressboard vanity cabinet at Home Depot. We provided plenty of ventilation after cabinet installation so that the formaldehyde could outgas.

Saving energy and water

Every bathroom remodeling project should include energy- and water-saving devices. Low-flow commodes are vastly improved over the older models. At 1.6 gallons per flush versus the old standard of 5 to 6 gallons per flush, the water savings is obvious. D’Ann replaced all the commodes in her four bathrooms with water-saving models. For the master bathroom, she chose a round Kohler toilet, primarily because it was available in black. Other highly rated models include Toto’s Drake, Kohler’s Santa Rosa, and American Standard’s Colony toilets. Many municipalities provide residents with free low-flow fixtures or provide rebates. Austin does both—the Universal Rundle/Crane model is provided free, and twenty-eight other models are eligible for rebates. Austin also pays $30 toward the cost of installation. D’Ann wanted to select her own model, so she chose the rebate option.

Low-flow showerheads use 2 to 2.5 gallons per minute, compared to 6 gallons per minute for conventional showerheads. Again, current models are greatly improved over the earlier versions, which reduced water flow to a light drizzle. Most low-flow showerheads aren’t advertised as such, but the flow-rating is usually indicated on the package. In addition to the environmental benefits they offer, low-flow showers can offer savings in water and energy consumption of between $90 and $320 over ten years.

The Price-Pfister tub/shower faucet kit that D’Ann chose included a 2.5 gallon-per-minute showerhead. She commented that it was like getting the faucet kit for free. Bath, shower, and sink faucets should have brass or ceramic valves; plastic valves wear out and need replacement much sooner. If possible, the shower wall containing faucet pipes should be contiguous to a closet or another area where an access panel for future replacement or leak repairs can be unobtrusively installed.

Bathroom remodeling usually entails removing existing plumbing fixtures, and sometimes the old fixtures have been leaking inside the walls or onto the floor for a long time, causing rot or water damage that becomes visible when the fixture is removed. Homeowners should also be prepared to encounter corroded plumbing lines and inadequate wiring. All bathroom outlets are required to be ground-fault interrupt (GFI), which prevents electric shock from water contact.


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