Archive for Walls

Bathroom Makeover: From Vinyl to Recycled Tile

One of the most fun aspects of renovating a home is shopping for materials that will take a room from conventional to beautiful. The vinyl tile in one bathroom is from the 60’s and completely worn. Vinyl flooring (or polyvinyl chloride – PVC) can contain harmful lead, phthalates and other toxins, as found in a study from the nonprofit So replacing it with something healthier is great for kids, who tend to spend a lot of time crawling and playing on the ground.

Because older vinyl or composite tiles can also contain asbestos, I had these tested. The lab evaluated both the tile itself and the mastic (adhesive). Thankfully, both tests came out clear, and it was time to demo the floor. The tiles came up easily, a welcome surprise.

Big box home improvement stores have a wide selection of ceramic and porcelain tiles, but many are manufactured overseas without recycled content. After plenty of searching, I found Florim USA tile at a local, family-owned store. It’s made in the USA, has 40% pre-consumer recycled content, and is certified by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). At about $4 a square foot (uninstalled), it’s an affordable “green” option. Other great choices are Oceanside Glasstile, which I’ve used (and loved) in a previous home and stunning Fireclay Tile, made in California.

For the tub surround, I found a treasure trove of neutral wall tiles at Green Demolitions, similar in concept to Habitat for Humanity resale stores. The tiles are inherently recycled since they came to this nonprofit store as leftovers from someone else’s big project. They were a fraction of the retail cost and are in-the-box new. All proceeds go towards charity, so it’s a win-win way to renovate. With the vinyl out and the recycled tile in, this bathroom space just got a little healthier.


Like to learn more? See info on vinyl floors and kids’ health at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Getting Winter-Ready: Denim Insulation

By Erin S. Ihde, MA, CCRP

With winter here and many parts of the country already in blizzard mode, it’s been time to get the Healthy Home Project ready, too. Houses a century ago weren’t built with insulation, so there were a few places where it was needed. The question is, what type of insulation is good for the planet and good for us?

Home insulation has long been associated with health hazards, from the asbestos insulation popular decades ago, to the fiberglass insulation stocked in home centers now, which still requires protective gear during installation. (The EPA has a great resource for protecting your family from asbestos insulation if that’s an issue in your home).

After reading up on it, it seemed like recycled blue jean insulation from Bonded Logic was the #1 choice for this project. However, the big box stores don’t stock it in-store, though some have it online. Wait times can be an issue when ordering and my contractor needed it…yesterday. When work crews are being held up because they don’t have materials, that botches up the budget, too, and makes “green” items impractical. So I tried to find the insulation locally, which led to a bit of an adventure.

Green Depot sells Bonded Logic, so I went to their NYC showroom (which is beautiful and just makes me dream of every possible green project imaginable), to place my order. (Note: the store does have a drop-ship program for some states and calling to order is also an option). One thing to keep in mind is unlike the insulation at big box stores, Bonded Logic doesn’t come with the option of an attached vapor barrier. So, if a vapor barrier is needed, it’s also necessary to buy a separate plastic sheeting product called MemBrain from CertainTeed, a permeable moisture barrier. The permeable part might seem insignificant, but it keeps the insulation “vented” so that it can breathe, meaning it will help protect it from ever getting moldy if it happens to get wet.

Easy enough, right? Green Depot placed the order, which I was then to pick up at a distributor about 20 minutes from home. The logistics of picking up product from a large distributor was new for me…first I went to the front office, waited in line and showed my paid receipt, then drove back through a huge lumberyard, had the receipt stamped when the insulation arrived from the warehouse, and was on my way. Insulation being very bulky, not much fit into my car…which meant multiple trips. It also meant different pickup times as the distributor only stocks certain R-values, and one had to be ordered as there wasn’t enough in stock. The R-value means the insulation value of the product. The higher the R-value, the better it will protect against the cold. Different applications require different R-values, depending on where it’s being placed.

Things got sticky when it was time to order the vapor barrier, as it wasn’t in stock. The rep started to get plastic poly sheeting, which wasn’t what the manufacturer recommended. Once I explained, it turned out to be not in stock at any distributor on the East Coast…super stressful when the project is being held up and supplies are needed.

Having gone this far, it was hard to turn back, and I really wanted to see how easy or hard it was going to be to get the rest of the supplies. Was I the only one ordering this stuff?  I decided to just ask. Apparently, yes… Due to the downturn of the economy, the rep explained, his customers just stopped ordering it a couple years ago. Bonded Logic is several times more expensive than conventional insulation, so I could definitely understand. Going “green and healthy” isn’t always easy or convenient, but the bottom line is, I can’t ask a contractor to work with a material that I wouldn’t want to work with myself. And if I was doing the installation, I’d want to work with the safest product possible.

So, I called Bonded Logic customer service, and they were amazingly helpful. The issue got sorted out and a few days later, the insulation was in!  Maybe having gone through that, the next person who orders will have it that much easier.

Bathroom Reno Part II

This bathroom, like most projects, evolves with its own momentum. The last post was before eight-plus hours of wallpaper scraping, which I’m grateful is over given the current heat wave in the Northeast. My contractor followed up with two layers of skim coating to get the old bathroom walls smooth again. Keeping things clean during days like this is a bit of a blur, but my secret is Seventh Generation wipes. They’re free of toxins, and come in handy at midnight when it’s time to clean up the wallpaper reno, and every second lost means less sleep.

Amid this, it was time to address mold in the bathroom closet, which looked like it had been there for years and thankfully no longer active. I called in my environmental service company, and they didn’t think it was anything harmful, as the area was completely dried out. Cutting out that section of wallboard, he advised, would eliminate the issue, and the need for having it tested to confirm just what kind of mold it is.  The room would need to be draped with plastic to avoid dust migrating elsewhere in the house. He gave me specific instructions on how to ‘DIY’, and thankfully my contractor team took it on. The EPA has specific how-to’s on treating and eliminating mold that are a go-to source for dealing with this potentially health-compromising problem. When more help is needed, getting a certified mold-abatement firm to assess the situation is a next step.

With the prep finally done, it’s time to prime and paint the bathroom walls.  I’ll be using eco-friendly Ivy Coatings Primer and eggshell. The glossier top coat will be more mold resistant than a flat finish. The inside of the closet, where the mold was, I covered with Benjamin Moore Regal Satin left in the basement from the previous owner. Most BenMoore paints are mildew-resistant and low-VOC according to newer formulations that deputed just a few short years ago. If it was an unhealthy paint or varnish, it wouldn’t be worth re-using it for the possible health risks involved, but recycling better paints can be good for the planet, and for us. The Freecycle Network is a resource for recycling (and accepting) paints and as the name implies, it’s all free.

Getting Unstuck: Wallpaper Removal

The Healthy Home Project house came with its fair share of outdated wallpaper, from the 60’s.  This weekend I’m working in the bathroom, removing a blue metallic flowered version.  It’s quite a learning experience, but more manageable when broken down into simpler steps. 

Is wallpaper healthy?  Most wallpaper today is made of vinyl, one of the most toxic plastics produced and rife with phthalates (pronounced tha-lates).  These chemicals are used to “soften” hard plastics to make them pliable.  The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxicity & Exposure Assessment for Children’s Health details the dangers for kids, including developmental abnormalities such as cleft palate and skeletal malformations.  Phthalates can act as endocrine disruptors as well, altering the body’s hormone system.  Vinyl wallpaper is easy to clean and cheap to buy, but spells trouble on the health front.

Phthalates can show up in unexpected places, migrating from the everyday products we buy – even those on our walls – and into the environment, like house dust.  If it’s vinyl wallpaper from the 70’s or before, it may also contain asbestos fibers, so it is essential to consult a state-certified asbestos consultant for testing, preferably one who comes highly recommended from a trusted realtor, home inspector or other homeowners in the area.  If you’re renting, be sure to understand your rights and options to avoid any exposure issues for your family.


 Though vinyl by itself is a tough and flexible material, asbestos, a tiny fiber-like substance that can easily break apart and float in the air, was once added to vinyl to make it stronger and long lasting. These asbestos fibers are so tiny that they cannot be seen by the naked eye, yet they become incredibly dangerous when introduced into the lungs through inhalation.  In the late 1970s, when it was made widely known how toxic asbestos was, vinyl wallpaper was no longer manufactured using asbestos, but products containing the deadly mineral continued to be sold through the 1980s.  Older buildings may still have asbestos-containing wallpaper on their interior walls.  (

The American Lung Association states, “If you know or suspect there is asbestos in your home or workplace, leave the material alone if possible.  Asbestos-containing materials are safe as long as they are in good condition and not disturbed.  Fibers are unlikely to become airborne unless materials are cut, ripped or sanded.   If you need to remodel, remove or clean up asbestos, be sure to hire trained professionals.”

Thankfully this blue metallic wallpaper is so old that it pre-dates vinyl, so it’s simply layers of paper with a glue backing. The top metallic layer peeled right off, and in fact, all came down in about an hour during the kids’ sleepover.  

This afternoon I’m tackling the tough stuff…the undermost “glue” layer.  I sprayed it down with water and it hardly budged, so I turned to a product from Green Depot called Pure & Simple Wallpaper Remover, made from natural materials including clay, starch and wheat.  Following the directions, I mixed a tablespoon (1/2 oz.) in a quart spray bottle of warm water. Working around the room with spray bottle in one hand and sponge in the other (to keep the excess from dripping), each section got a few minutes to soak in.  The next step is to go back to the starting point, using a scraper.  The glue backing is coming off well and a few hours from now, this bathroom will be unstuck from the 60’s.

Creating Calm with Color

If home is where the heart is, it’s also where stress can harbor.  There are simple elements – many low-cost – that can do wonders for the sense of calm we crave at home, and color is a key player.

A specific hue can energize us, remind us of a happy memory of a beach or vacation spot, or go in the other direction and add to a sense of stress or chaos.  WebMD has some great ideas on how to match colors with a room’s purpose, maximizing “color psychology” to bring a sense of calm, comfort or productivity.  The ancient Chinese practice of fung shui can also be used to bring tranquility to a space, including the colors incorporated in a room’s design.

A color consult is free at most paint stores, though it’s best to go during off-peak times for better service. Different stores have varying levels of expertise, so checking out a few can be a first step to finding a good fit and narrowing down the myriad of hues available. For an accredited professional who will come to your home, see the  International Association of Color Consultants North America for a listing.

For The Healthy Home Project, I chose calming neutrals for common spaces, the master bedroom and home office. Neutrals provide a soothing backdrop for furnishings that can change with trends or seasons, saving time when I want to change things up down the road.  The rooms are arranged using basic feng shui principles, including plants and plenty of light to bring a sense of growth. I let the kids choose their own room colors, which are energizing and playful. They appreciated having ownership in the process, and it just might add some momentum to keeping their fun spaces clean.