Revving up for a home remodel? Build a better home while protecting your family’s health by choosing less-toxic building materials and taking extra care during construction. Follow these tips for safer remodeling from start to finish.

1. Identify existing lead paint hazards. If your home was built pre-1978, it likely contains lead paint. Contractors are required by law to be certified in lead-safe work practices to protect your family from lead poisoning. Learn more about lead paint and renovations here.

2. Check your home for asbestos before any home remodel. Asbestos is found in many building materials including “popcorn” ceilings, insulation, and older vinyl flooring. Visit the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency website to learn about testing for asbestos, safe handling, regulations and removal. Hiring a certified asbestos abatement contractor to remove any asbestos is strongly encouraged.

3. Assess mold and moisture issues. Remodeling may expose hidden mold, or perhaps your renovation project involves removing water-damaged materials. If you have mold issues, the first step is to find and eliminate the source of the leak or water penetration. If the affected area is larger than 10 square feet, the EPA recommends hiring a professional mold-abatement contractor who knows how to remove materials while containing spores and minimizing exposure. Consider any potential moisture issues when choosing building materials to prevent hidden mold growth and future damage. This is especially important when renovating basements. Learn more about mold for your home remodel here.

4. Find designers, contractors, and suppliers with direct experience in sustainable, healthy home building. Green building products are continually introduced in the market, so you need experienced professionals who can guide you through the best choices for safer building materials. Use resources for tips on how to hire a green home remodel pro. If you’re in the Puget Sound area, the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild has a directory of professionals. 

5. Shop for safer building products using a healthy materials checklist. Avoid products made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride/vinyl) such as vinyl windows, flooring, or siding. Find alternatives to vinyl building products here. Phthalate chemicals used in flexible vinyl, and heavy metal stabilizers are additional harmful ingredients you can avoid by choosing PVC-free. Seek no or low VOC (volatile organic compounds) products when purchasing paints, finishes, adhesives, composite wood products, insulation, and flooring. Look for products with “no added formaldehyde,” or that meet California 01350 standards which sets limits on emissions. Other chemicals of concern to stay away from in building materials include halogenated flame retardants used in some foams and insulation, and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) found in stain resistance or water repellency treatments.

6. Look for third-party eco-certifications. There are dozens of green building product certifications, yet no single certification covers all health and environmental issues. Look for third-party certifications that are awarded by an organization that is independent of the manufacturer and of the manufacturer’s industry. Examples include GreenGuard and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The Healthy Building Network’s Healthy Materials Checklist gives an overview of these and other certifications.

7. Take safety precautions seriously. A building product that claims “safe for pets and children” or “no-VOC” may still contain hazardous chemical ingredients. While these products may be safer than traditional versions, safety precautions are still important. Always use personal protection as directed such as respirators, adequate ventilation, and containment of dust to minimize exposure.

8. Choose durable, low-maintenance building materials. When possible, avoid materials that require regular maintenance (painting, retreatment, waterproofing, etc) that may involve harsh chemicals. Quality materials that will last years are better for the environment.

9. When using salvaged building materials, make sure to test them for lead paint and asbestos if necessary. Call a local test lab for instructions on how to safely gather the samples for testing. For lead test labs, look under “Laboratories-Analytical or Laboratories-Testing” in the yellow pages. For asbestos testing, search under “Asbestos-Consulting and Testing.”

10. Advocate for healthier building materials if your school or office is remodeling. We spend 90% of our time indoors, and the majority of that time in homes, schools and offices. Advocate for healthier building materials to protect air quality and occupant health in all of those spaces. The more manufacturers recognize that the public wants healthy, sustainable building products, the sooner these products will become more affordable and available.

Image courtesy of flickr user Derrick Coetzee