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Renovating your kitchen or bathroom is a big investment, both financially and environmentally. More than $12 billion will be spent on 1.2 million bathroom and kitchen installations in the coming year in Australia, according to the HIA. It is also an opportunity – collectively kitchens and bathrooms use just over a third of your home’s energy and nearly 77 per cent of indoor water, so there is usually plenty of room for improvement. It is therefore worth spending some time planning and researching your renovation to get the best returns on your investment.
A tranquil, luxurious bathroom need not be a guilty pleasure if you know what makes them environmentally friendly. Aim for natural lighting, good cross-flow ventilation, and water-efficient toilet, shower and taps. Add solar hot water fed by rainwater, recycled timber and responsibly made tiles and you’ll be rejoicing in an eco haven of a bathroom.
Before launching into a full renovation, consider saving raw materials by extending the life of your bathroom with a minor update. Re-grouting tiles costs little more than elbow grease but makes an enormous difference. Even cracked tiles are not too hard to replace for a handy person. You can also give your bath a new lease of life by resurfacing it.
Tart up with tiles
Tiles are remarkably durable but have a relatively high embodied energy, especially if shipped from overseas. Try vintage or secondhand, or the newest eco-friendly tiles such as Sadlerstone, Huestone, Ecotech or Fibonacci. Eco-friendly tiles are often made from recycled materials, are air cured instead of fired in a kiln, and emit lower levels of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Choose tiles in a neutral palette that won’t go out of fashion and inject colour through less permanent fixtures such as paint or towels.
In hot water
Heating water accounts for one quarter of an average household’s energy use, so getting a more efficient hot water system is a great opportunity to cut power bills. If you have an electric system consider replacing it with a solar-powered one – it could reduce your bills by up to 90 per cent. Other alternatives are heat pump or instant gas, which produce significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than electric. From 2012 it will no longer be possible to install electric systems in existing detached homes, terraces or townhouses.
A water-efficient toilet is a must and could save more than 35,000 L of water a year. Toilets have come a long way from the original 12 L single‑flush model – now you can buy a 4-star toilet that uses as little as 3 L per flush. For even greater savings there are 5-star integrated hand basin cistern toilets that reuse your sink water – perfect for the small bathroom!
Installing a water-efficient showerhead is not only easy to do yourself, but could halve your hot water use, not only saving water, but also energy and money. If you think that means a spartan shower, you haven’t tried the latest models that combine air with water to create a luxurious shower while saving water.
While you are in the business of changing plumbing, consider installing a rainwater tank and connecting it to the toilet and washing machine. Although it costs more to plumb rainwater inside, the saving is an extra 20,000 L a year compared with using the same-size tank solely for watering the garden. Shower and sink water can also be reused by setting up a greywater system, or you could plan ahead for this in stage two: “Update the plumbing so that a greywater system can be installed a later date,” says Philip Alviano, Sustainable Building Advisor for the Master Builders Association of Victoria.
A healthier, sustainable kitchen is not hard to achieve if you know what to look for. Consider an energy-efficient fridge, a water-efficient dishwasher, low-VOC cabinets, low-impact benchtops and flooring made from renewable materials. Plan for longevity and “have a waste separation system built in,” Alviano says.
If your kitchen is still functional, try a minimum-impact update, such as a fresh coat of paint (low VOC, of course) or replacing just the bench tops or cupboard doors. Otherwise consider replacing cupboard door handles and repainting cabinets with a laminate paint.
Old appliances tend to guzzle water and energy – a fridge that’s more than 10 years old could be using three times more energy than a modern one. But over its total life cycle, manufacture and transport can account for more than half their energy use. An energy meter will show how efficient your old fridge is.
“Look for appliances that have high star rating in terms of energy and water use,” Alviano says. There are no star ratings for stoves, but generally gas stoves produce half the greenhouse gas emissions of electric ones. Ultra-efficient electric induction stoves are an exception, producing only 8 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than gas. As responsive as gas, they are also safer and don’t heat up the room to the same extent. Consider a convection oven, which generally use 20 per cent less energy.
“Purchase a quality product such as solid timber cabinets,” advises Mark McDonald, a joinery teacher at Gordon TAFE and specialist in sustainable kitchen cabinetry. Cheaper options such as MDF and chipboard emit toxic VOCs and have poor potential for reuse but it is now easier to get ultra-low-emission board (EO) from locally grown, sustainable forests.
McDonald recommends galley-style kitchens and the widest available drawers because less carcass material is required. “You are better off with metal drawer systems; they are much stronger and therefore last longer.”
He also suggests buying quality hardware such as that made by Blum. Not only is this hardware highly durable, but the company has implemented extremely high environmental standards in their factories. “Blum also make Inserta hinges, which make it easy to replace cupboard doors at a later date,” he says.
Floors and benchtops
You can’t go past the warmth and character of recycled timber for floors and benchtops. Other eco options for floors are tiles, cork, marmoleum or sustainably-harvested timber or bamboo with chain-of-custody certification. Polished and sealed concrete floors are a great way to use an existing concrete pad.
Look for engineered stone bench tops with recycled content, low VOCs and ideally made in Australia, such as Sadlerstone or Quarella. You could also try sustainable certified or recycled timber, or stainless steel which is recyclable and usually made of recycled content, as well as durable.
With a bit of careful planning and research it’s possible to renovate kitchens and bathrooms sustainably at little or no extra cost. To get the best outcome choose a green tradie – they will be aware of all the latest sustainable products. And don’t forget to check out the latest rebates for energy- and water-saving appliances.
For more info:
Green Plumbers: www.greenplumbers.com.au
Green Painters: www.greenpainters.org.au
Eco Smart Electricians: www.ecosmartelectricians.com.au
Green Living Builders: Check master builders websites in each state
Energy Rating of appliances: www.energyrating.gov.au
Your Home Renovators Guide: www.yourhome.gov.au
Ecospecifier (Eco products and material database): www.ecospecifier.com.au
Good Environmental Choice (Sustainable products certifier): www.geca.org.au
Living Greener (Lists rebates): www.livinggreener.gov.au