Mother Earth Living

Remodeling Basics: Windows, Floors, Walls

Floors, walls, and windows are big-ticket items that can eat up a good chunk of your remodeling budget—and they comprise most of your home’s surface area.
By Debra Lynn Dadd
July/August 2005
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Pella doublehung energy-efficient windows let the sun in.

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To create the greenest home environment, choose sustainable, nontoxic materials instead of synthetics, which pollute indoor air. In addition, the windows you select can reduce your energy bills while boosting your home’s comfort level.


Gorgeous windows are more than a major design feature; most feature technology that makes them more energy efficient than older styles. Though expensive, they ultimately pay for themselves in energy savings. (Although energy-efficient vinyl windows are inexpensive and widely available, Natural Home can’t recommend them because vinyl manufacturing is extremely toxic.) Choose materials and energy-efficiency features appropriate for your geographical area. Certification programs, Internet research, and local advisors can help you pick the best.

Window Tips:

• For energy-efficient info: Efficient Windows Collaborative ( 

• Two labels help you compare: The Energy Star label for certified energy-efficient windows and the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) label for energy-efficient specifics. The NFRC label appears on all products certified to NFRC standards and on all Energy Star-qualified windows.

• Save fuel for shipping by asking a local manufacturer to custom build windows.

• Salvage yards are good sources of inexpensive windows, including energy-efficient designs and interesting old windows.

• Virtually all windowpanes sold today contain recycled glass (maximum 20 percent to ensure good visibility).


• Visually pleasing with natural beauty and elegance
• Renewable, biodegradable resource that can be sustainably harvested
• Low energy use in processing
• Generally unaffected by extreme temperatures and less prone to condensation
• Unlimited custom colors and designs

• Most is treated with preservatives that include toxin solvents
• Susceptible to shrinking and swelling; requires regular maintenance
• If not properly protected, may warp, crack, or stick
• Many brands are clad with vinyl or aluminum on th exterior, with bare wood on interior only.

Cost: $345


• More affordable than wood
• Contains some recycled material
• Three times stronger than vinyl; 43 times stronger than wood
• Resists deterioration
• Won't shrink, swell, split, crack, or rust
• Available in a palette of colors

• It takes far more energy to manufacture aluminum than to process wood.
• Is a poor insulator, allowing transfer of heat, cold and moisture

Cost: $115

Wood with aluminum-clad exterior

• Beauty of wood on interior, benefits of aluminum on exterior
• Less expenseive than solid wood

Cost: $185


Because new flooring can be costly in terms of money and resources, don’t replace it until it’s worn beyond repair. As an ­alternative, refinish wood floors and replace only damaged ­portions. Carpets can be renewed with a deep cleaning. If a floor is in good condition but you just can’t stand it anymore, remove it carefully and take it to a salvage yard to be reclaimed.

Make indoor air quality your number one flooring concern. Consider both the basic material and any special finishes or ­maintenance a new floor might require.


• Completely inert (no fumes)
• Very durable
• Cleans easily
• Some contain recycled content
• Local brands minimize energy used in transport.

• Filing and transporting is energy intensive

Cost: $1 to $1,000 per square foot

• Durable in high-traffic areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, entryways
• May be found at salvage yards for very low cost
• Choose a nontoxic grout sealer.

Natural Linoleum

• Made from renewable materials: linseed oil, cork dust, wood flour, tree resins, ground limestone and jute backing
• Last 30 to 40 years
• Often contains recycled content
• Cleans easily

• Manufactured in Europe; requires more energy in transport
• Linseed oil has slight odor that may irritate some people.

Cost: $4 per square foot

• Great for kitchens, bathrooms, family rooms, children's rooms
• Use only natural linoleum. (Toxic vinyl flooring is often generically called linoleum.)
• Comes in vibrant colors and is easy to cut, so can be used to make creative floor designs.


• Renewable resource
• Fairly durable


• Filler and finishes can be toxic.

Cost: $3 to $6 per square foot

• Great for living rooms, dining rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, stairs
• Choose prefinished floor strips, tiles with baked-on finishes, or unfinished wood with nontoxic finish.
• Check local salvage yards for reclaimed wood flooring.
• Can be installed with nontoxic wood glue.
• Look for wood that is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, salvaged or reclaimed.


• Renewable, fast-growing resource
• Wears well. (It's harder than red oak or maple.)

• Bamboo floors require lamination; some types use toxic, outgasing formaldehyde to create a solid surface.
• Importing wastes fuel.

Cost: $4 to $8 per square foot

• Great for living rooms, dining rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, entryways
• All bamboo flooring is a laminate, so it contains adhesives. Some may outgas formaldehyde. Ask to see lab tests or MSDS sheet and give the flooring a sniff test.


• Provides a warm surface underfoot
• Absorbs sound
• Reduces heating and cooling costs by improving R-value

• Synthetic fibers made from nonrenewable petrochemicals.
• Difficult to clean
• Can harbor dirt, dust, mold and pests
• Recycled synthetic-fiber carpet may release some odors.

Cost: $30 to $120 per square foot

• Works well in living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms
• Choose natural fibers carpets.
• Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Plus certification indicates carpet meets indoor air-quality standards.


• Take from tree bark, leaving tree standing
• Can last 50 to 75 years
• Resists termites
• Feels warm underfoot
• Provides noise insulation

• Has a natural odor that dissipates over time.
• Requires monthly waxing to maintain.

Cost: $5 to $10 per quare foot

• Great for any room in the house
• Comes in easy-to-install cork tiles and floating floor
• Weigh cork's advantages against its monthly waxing requirement.


If you’re building walls during a major renovation, standard gypsum board is fine to use—it’s nontoxic and made from recycled materials. The more important concern is what you put on those walls. Vinyl wallpaper and oil-based paint can outgas toxic fumes for months. Most major paint manufacturers now make low-VOC, water-based paints, and there are also natural paints made from plant resins (see “A Paint Primer,” page 72). You might also consider wood paneling or ceramic wall tiles.


• Standard type is nontoxic and contains some recycled materials.

Cost: $7 to $10 (4 x 8-foot board)

Joint compound

• Most conains vinyl or asbestos; read labels carefully.

Cost: $3 for 3 pounds

• Choose a vinyl- or asbestos-free brand.

Low-VOC Paint

• Readily available in retail stores
• Easy to tint to achieve most colors
• Easy to apply
• Priced only slightly more than other water-based paints.

• Made from nonrenewable petrochemicals

Cost: $16 to $37 per gallon

• Buy if indoor air quality is your primary concern.
• Minimal odor during application
• Dries quickly

Natural Paint

• Made from minerals and renewable plant-based ingredients
• Soft, earthy colors made from natural pigments
• Creates a natural-looking finish on walls

• Often isn't readily available (except via Internet)
• Plant resins in natural paint have strong odors and are slow to dry.
• Many brands are imported from Europe, so they expend more transportation fuel than domestic paint.

Cost: $32 to $70 per gallon plus cost of pigments

• Works best on unfinished wood, plaster, drywall
• Usually has an odor; check whether it's tolerable to you.

Milk Paint

• Casein-based paint made from milk and natural pigments
• Used in the Colonial period; gives historic look
• Low odor and nontoxic

• May not be readily available (except via Internet)
• Not suitable for high-moisture areas such as bathrooms or kitchens
• Comes in limited range of colors.

Cost: $45 per gallon

• Best for walls that are unfinished, porous or made from plaster, wood or earth
• Comes in powdered form, so you can mix up only as much as you need

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