The Non-Toxic, Sustainable Building Materials I Used in My Home Renovation 

The prospect of home renovation is intimidating in and of itself, but when you are committed to using the healthiest building materials available, it takes the intimidation factor to a new level. I know because we recently completed a renovation on our new home—and even as a healthy home advocate I had my work cut out for me. As it turns out, many building materials marketed as “green”, “eco friendly”, or “sustainable” may be safer for the environment (often only marginally), but aren’t necessarily safer for humans. And to make it even more confusing and difficult (especially when trying to get your partner and/or contractor on board), manufacturers are adding odor blocking chemicals to products just so they can make the newly popular claims like  “low VOC” and “low odor.”

How to know what’s really in your building materials

There are two main reasons  identifying toxic vs. non-toxic building materials is so cumbersome: #1: misleading “green” marketing claims (like the “low VOC” claim mentioned above), and #2: the lack of transparency in labeling required for building materials. 

Unfortunately, the only ways to really know what’s in the material, is to become familiar with reading Material Safety Data Sheets (aka: MSDS) and/or call up the manufacturer to inquire about the specifics of what actually goes into their products. Luckily, I had Marilee to guide me through the process. I would confidently argue her knowledge from years of experience, level of detail, and degree of scrutiny is unmatched—especially when it comes to building materials’ impact on our health…and I’m excited to pass along what I learned to you.

How we completed a non-toxic home renovation

We were lucky that the interior of our home didn’t require extensive renovation, and on the exterior, we wanted a front porch and back deck with a screened in porch (Fun fact: we bought the home from an interior designer on the show Trading Spaces who had made some fab updates).

Here’s the list of non-toxic, eco-and human-friendly building materials we used

Non-Toxic Drywall—National Gypsum from Pyramid Interiors

Most drywall found east of the Mississippi River is made of synthetic gypsum, which may contain mercury and other heavy metals, biocides, and other contaminants that end up in the dust inside our homes. What you want is natural, untreated, non-synthetic gypsum. After calling a local drywall supplier to inquire, I found out that I would be able to get natural gypsum through  National GypsumPyramid Interiors in Jackson, MS was nice enough to truck in National Gypsum Board (drywall) from their Little Rock, AR location to their Memphis, TN location to their Jackson, MS location all without charging me or making me feel like I was asking too much (and my order was only $300.00). We used this for the fireplace project, where we replaced the 28 ft mirror with drywall and plaster. 

Non-toxic Drywall Mud/Joint Compound—from Murco

Premixed conventional joint compounds typically contain harmful chemicals including VOCs (volatile organic compounds)  and SVOCs (semi-volative organic compounds) that ride on household dust. (Continuously, not just when they’re fresh.) Murco M-100 and Murco HA-100 contain none of these harmful chemicals, are affordable, and can be found at your local hardware store. We used this for the fireplace project as well on the drywall.

Non-toxic Plaster—Vasari

Synthetic plasters typically contain harmful ingredients including SVOCs which can outgas for the life of the product. Vasari lets you achieve an amazing venetian plaster-look, goes on like paint with a natural bonding agent, and is 100% natural. We used Vasari plaster to cover the drywall and finish out our fireplace wall and mantle.

Non-toxic Interior & Exterior Paint—ECOS Paints and Sherwin Williams Duration

ECOS is a non-toxic baby-safe paint that has no VOCs and no SVOCs. Nearly all no to low VOC conventional paints contain biocides which are SVOCS  that ride on dust. Sherwin Williams Duration is a durable exterior conventional paint that cures to no odor very quickly. We used ECOS inside and Sherwin Williams on the outside addition.  

Caulk—Titebond Weathermaster

A no VOC, no SVOC caulk for outdoor use that comes in many colors. It can bridge up to a one-inch gap and is easy to find at your local hardware store. Titebond Weathermaster also can be used as an indoor paintable caulk. We used this for the inside fireplace area project and for custom built-in bookshelves, as well as on the outdoor deck and porch additions. 

Exterior Wood—Cedar and Pine

Natural untreated woods are best. Cedar is naturally rot and pest resistant which enables you to avoid pesticide-treated wood. We used cedar for all of the deck and porch flooring, wall and ceiling. We did use a copper (not arsenic) treated pine for the posts and joints, as pine is less expensive and we would not have direct contact, like walking on it barefoot. I believe we used the Preserve CA treated pine but I am confirming whether we did that one or the Preserve ACQ. 

Wood Stain—Seal-Once

This is a non-toxic tintable exterior wood sealer and it creates a flexible breathable barrier that allows moisture to escape from the wood, prevents water ingress, warping, and cupping while allowing the wood to age naturally and evenly. We used Seal-Once Nano+Poly on all of the non-painted wood for our exterior additions.  We also applied two coats of the clear Seal-Once Nano Guard to all six sides (front, back and four edges) of plywood used for our indoor bookshelves in order to help reduce formaldehyde emissions before painting. Additionally, we used their Nano-Guard for the brick ledge around our fireplace before priming and painting. 

Non Toxic Vapor Barrier— Tu Tuff 

If you plan to be at home during your renovation then the vapor barrier (plastic covering) used to cover your belongings should be Tu Tuff from Stocote. Tu Tuff is free of endocrine-disrupting plasticizers1 found in the typical poly brands. I actually did not know ahead of time to specify this and every time I came into the house, the plastic new-shower-curtain smell made me feel awful!

As someone who is sensitive and very much feels my body reacting to exposures, I am beyond grateful I took the time and effort to figure out what was healthiest and make special orders when necessary. That and the fact that we were planning to get pregnant after moving in! I know it can be difficult to get a partner or contractor on board, but I can’t stress how worth it is in the end! I also can’t stress enough how important it is to be up front with your contractor and have constant communication with him/her. Be sure to find someone that is willing to do what you request and not push what they’re used to using on you just because they’re familiar with it. Remember, this is your home where you live and sleep every day and night! Make it your safe haven!

BEFORE & AFTERS

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25448254

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29 Comments

  1. Your home is BEAUTIFUL!!! Love the updates and am very appreciative of you sharing what products you used for the renovation. Great work! Would you also ever share the products and brands of furniture you placed in the living space? They are also so beautiful! Thanks again for sharing and for all that you do!

  2. While ECOS is definitely one of the safest brands on the market (I haven’t tried KEIM paints but I hear good things), I still had reactions to the paint as it was drying. After 2-3 days, the area was mostly safe, but it really took a full week before I could close all of the windows and stop taking activated charcoal everyday. After it was fully dry, I did not have any more issues. Thought I would pass along to others who may also be chemically sensitive! Still one of the safest paints on the market and the color looks beautiful! The paint is thick, and never needs more than 1-2 coats.

    1. Anne! Thank you so much for sharing, glad it was able to off gas after a few days and you are feeling good!

  3. What is the cleanest material for countertops? Tile? Wood flooring (assuming it’s the sealer that’s the issue although is all engineered wood worth staying away from)? Any idea?

    1. Hello Carly. Thank you for your questions. Granite and quartz are great materials for countertops. Be aware that some orange colored granite could have radon, so be sure to ask the supplier if they’ve done testing. There is a very good engineered wood floor – it’s the UV cured Kahrs flooring. However, instead of using the Karhs under-flooring, we recommend Quiet Walk. For more info, contact Greenbuilding.com and connect with Joel Hirshburg.

  4. Kelly, thank you for sharing your experience and information with us. There is a company called The Green Design Center-Building for Health located in Waukesha, WI lead by Andrew Pace and his wife Emily. Andy is the founder of the oldest healthy building supply company in the U.S. He has a podcast called Non-toxic Environments where I listen to him answer the many questions he receives and to keep consumers educated about safe products for their homes. He also provides consultation services to test for the cause of why people are becoming ill in their homes. He is the leading expert on the topic of Human Health vs Environmental Health. He also developed a green building product rating system especially for those individuals who suffer from allergies, asthma and chemical sensitivities. We have used Safecoat primers and Safecoat paint for all the walls in our house. Regular paint can off-gas for 5 years after it is applied. We have also used the Safecoat caulking compound. Manufacturers often hire labs to test their products and then receive Gold Seals of Approval and put these labels on their products. Independent labs test the same products and find harmful toxins. Thank you for reminding your readers, for their own safety, to read product labels, the MSDS sheets and to call manufacturers.

  5. What a stunning renovation! And, thank you so much for sharing the details. I will save this for future reference. I know a lot of time and effort went into this part for sure. It’s great to know we really do have healthy options!

  6. Wonderful article. Thank you for sharing what you have learned.

    Have you discovered an insulation that is non-toxic? I need to replace my roof insulation.

    Thank you.

    1. Hello Tammie. Thank you for your question. This is a very complex question. The answer depends where in the country you live, if the attic area is a conditioned space, and if the insulation will be in the floor or in the roof line. Let me know and we’ll try to give you some direction. Thanks!

  7. Thank you ! i know how hard this info is to get. What are your suggestions for a kitchen remodel? We don’t want MDF or formaldehyde and likely other items you know of that I haven’t thought of. We could paint cabinets or replace? Also countertop, likely quartz, but what about the adhesives or sealants? Also tiling backsplash, I will use your grout, but also adhesive here too…Thank you and best wishes

  8. Hi Kelly, I am chemically sensitive and am trying to furnish a living room. Can you share info on the coffee table and the sofa? Thank you kindly.

    1. Hi Gloria. Thanks for reaching out to us. Kelly says, “Sofa is Cisco Brothers. Coffee table is probably 6 years old from World Market. I’m looking for a new one. Things to look for would be solid wood, or glass or metal. The upholstery or manufactured wood are more likely to cause reactions. Some wood stains can be strong too so it may need to be aired out. I had to air out the World Market one.”

  9. We have been searching for a long time for leather couches that are great quality and that arnt going to be chemically off gassing in our home. Please let me know if you have any recommendations for companies like that. We realize we might have to pay much more But have no idea where to look to find one. Leather is all we are looking at due to our kids severe allergies and eczema.

    1. Kelly’s couch is Cisco Brothers but she bought it from Kathy Kuo Home because it was much less expensive.

  10. This is so helpful! We’ve been using ECOS paints as we renovate our home and love it so far. What about with carpets? My husband wants to replace our carpets but is there such thing as a “safe” option for this or are hardwoods the best way to go? thank you!

    1. Yes here are some safe carpet options! Organic Weaves Shop (expensive but wonderful), Nature’s Carpet, Shaw Carpets, Hook and Loom, Rugs Done Right. Hopefully that helps!

  11. Hey, this is awesome! This is extremely useful to owners who are sensitive to materials, health and personal preference-wise. They look really refreshing and nice to live in. Thanks for sharing! -Mariella

  12. I would like to thnkx for the efforts you have put in writing this site. I am hoping the same high-grade website post from you in the upcoming as well.

  13. I really appreciate this post- thank you! I am building a new home and would love more guidance. Is there another resource you can refer me to that I can look into for materials? Also, would porcelain for tile be considered toxic? Thank you!

    1. Porcelain tile is fantastic! The only thing you need to look for in tile is to make sure that it is lead free and no biocides and microban. As for resources, Marilee recommends the book Prescriptions for a Healthy Home. The 4th edition is coming out soon. She did say that there is some research you will still have to do, but it is a very comprehendible book. Mary Cordaro is also a great nontoxic building consultant as well!

  14. Hi! We are currently remodeling our bathrooms (both children and master) and I was wondering if you had any opinions on bath tub construction? Are their any materials you would recommend to use or stay away from? Thank you!

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