It was junk pick-up day in our neighbourhood a few weeks back. Doing our nightly rounds with the dog, we were a little shocked by the number of laminate countertops being thrown out. We counted at least four different households disposing of laminate counters in our small neighbourhood of 40 houses. This brought us back to one of the original triggers that set us thinking about the need for a more sustainable countertop solution in the first place.
When Yannick was working as a cabinet maker in Ottawa 10 years ago, he was appalled when he was sent back to an apartment block to replace damaged laminate countertops that he had installed less than a year earlier. From a cash flow perspective, this ‘buy cheap and replace’ approach makes sense, but from a sustainability perspective, it’s pretty awful. It screams of our disposable culture, where it is easier, and often cheaper, to replace something rather than fix it.
We often think about breaking free of this disposable culture in the context of everyday purchases – making fewer trips to Dollarama; buying fewer, better made clothes etc. – but what about in the context of your built environment, i.e. your home?
The U.S. Green Building Council recently launched the Living Standards Campaign to better understand and help shift the way we think about green buildings in the context of climate change and sustainable living. When we talk about climate change, we don’t often think about buildings, and when we do, it is generally in the context of energy consumption. But the materials that we choose and how we care for them have an impact as well.
Here are a few things to think about as you build or renovate your home:
1. Homes require care and maintenance. A recent survey of millennial homeowners in the US found that many had regrets about buying their homes, largely because they didn’t realize how much maintenance a home required. No matter how perfect and shiny a new home or countertop or piece of furniture looks at first, everything gets dirty and has the potential to break at some point. Any product that promises to be entirely maintenance free or indestructible is probably over-promising. The questions to ask, then, are what kind of preventative maintenance is required and how easy is it to repair something when it breaks. When you are shopping for home finishes, appliances or systems, don’t flinch at maintenance requirements. Ask questions and educate yourself. Weigh the pros and cons based on your lifestyle, but don’t think you’ll get away without lifting a finger. Budget time and money for maintenance and take care of your home. Case in point: A laminate countertop can last for decades if well taken care of, but once damaged, it can be difficult to repair.
2. Think ahead. It’s common practice for new homeowners to choose cheaper finishes at first, with the intention to upgrade later. This makes financial sense and sometimes we don’t have a choice. If you are going this route, though, plan ahead to minimize wasted energy and materials (and money!!) when you decide to make the change. For example, if you’re installing laminate counters, but want to upgrade to stone (or concrete!) eventually, make sure your cabinets are built to hold stone from the start. Solid wood cabinets are better for the environment and the air quality in your home, anyway. And be sure that your laminate counters are attached in a way that makes it possible to remove them later without breaking them. If you’re using a tile backsplash, place a grout line between the top of your counter and the tile so that you can cut away the counter without damaging the backsplash. If you take good care of the laminate tops, you can donate them to a charity such as Habitat for Humanity when you’re done with them (they even pick up!). You may not love them, but you can bet that someone else can put them to good use if they’re still in good condition.
3. Beware of trends. Before you design your home according to the latest trend, remember that trends change much more frequently than you can afford to remodel. Trends are great for inspiration, but do your research and spend time figuring out what YOU want – in terms of both aesthetics and function - so that you aren’t tempted to replace perfectly good materials once your chosen trend has passed (or once you discover that the look you fell in love with is not, in the end, very practical…think white countertops!).
If you are someone who likes to change things up, choose neutral and versatile finishes (like concrete!) that can adapt to different decors over time. Remember, though, that while changing up your decorations and accent pieces might be relatively cheap, it still represents more materials, more energy, more consumption.
4. Consider hiring a professional. Professionals cost money, but so do mistakes and wasted materials. We’ll save the hazards of DIY project management for another time, but here are a couple of reasons to think about hiring a professional from a sustainability point of view:
5. Product life cycles. Those focused on cracking the code on sustainability are increasingly talking in terms of life cycle assessments and the concept of a circular economy, encouraging us to look at where products come from, what it takes to make them, how long they last, and what happens to them at the end of their useful life. Embodied energy, which looks at the total amount of energy required to make a product, from raw material extraction to transportation to market, is one thing to consider. This article from the Australian government includes an excellent set of guidelines to reduce the overall embodied energy of your home. Of course, buying local is high on the list. Here are some of our other favourites: Design your home to last. Don’t overbuild – a bigger house means more materials (and cost!). Choose durable, low maintenance materials that can be easily reused or recycled. And stick with standard sizes where possible. Not everything has to be custom-made to be beautiful!
6. Ask questions. Of course, there are many factors beyond sustainability that affect decisions about your home. Cost, aesthetics, design constraints, function, lifestyle and family composition all come into play. But whatever your ultimate priority, we hope that we have helped you to see that there is always room to think about sustainability, and it doesn't always require big trade-offs. Figure out what’s most important to you – maintenance, repairs, durability, product life cycles - and ask questions, lots of them. Not only will this will help you make choices that you can feel good about – that fit with your values, your needs and your style. It will also send a message to suppliers that customers do care about sustainability when it comes to building their homes. Supply follows demand!
I’ve been meaning to sit down and write this piece for a few weeks now. The kick in the pants came last week when we discovered that one of the laminate vanities in our new house – less than 5 years old – needs to be replaced already due to water damage: a combination of failed silicone around the sink and children who manage to get more water around the sink than in it. Out with the laminate, in with the concrete – once and for all.