How to be eco-considerate with finishes and fixtures when doing a makeover

Renovation expert Jen Jones shares how to integrate sustainable finishes into your home
Photography by Nic Gossage

When it comes to a makeover or renovation, you need to consider decorative wall claddings, floor coverings, windows, doors and tapware. Think about including sustainable choices here when you tackle your kitchen or bathroom.

The kitchen finishes that’ll help you achieve a sustainable house

When homeowners are considering a kitchen renovation, they often assume the price will be $20,000 to $40,000 or more, depending on size and spec, but only because we have been conditioned to rip out and fully replace kitchens, which is often totally unnecessary, especially if your layout is already functional.

1. Cabinets and benchtops

The carcasses – meaning the cabinets themselves, rather than the benchtops or door fronts – are more often than not absolutely fine. Even if there’s a bit of wear and tear or discolouration, you’ll barely notice when your food and crockery are stored within them.

Unfortunately, re-coating existing cabinet fronts is not the most economical process, and if you DIY, it’s probably only a short-term solution. However, replacing cabinet fronts is surprisingly affordable and will instantly transform the look and feel of a kitchen. The same goes for a new benchtop and sink – and don’t be afraid to check online marketplaces for the latter. I recently picked up a brand-new $800 sink online for $145. The seller had bought it for their renovation and decided it was too big.

Photography by Hannah Puechmarin

The social pillar of sustainability and how that relates to general wellbeing should also include the protection of those making or installing your selections. The impact of improper fabrication processes for engineered stone benchtops is a good example of this. The growing number of silicosis cases and the devastating prognosis for benchtop fabricators who have this lung disease have recently been brought to light. Choosing a low-silica benchtop and ensuring fabrication is done via a certified installer is a good way to vote with your wallet.

2. Tapware

Aside from choosing high-quality tapware that can withstand daily use, also consider whether the tap’s flow rate is aiding water conservation or not, and what the tap is made from. Tapware and hardware are possibly not the most environmentally friendly items to manufacture, so keep an eye out for tapware brands with other initiatives that make up for it, such as those that are carbon neutral and locally made (which means the company revenue stays in the local economy and the carbon footprint is smaller).

Photography by John Paul Urizar

3. Appliances

The best thing you can do is keep using your existing appliances and choose not to send them to landfills while they still have some life. You could sell them if you’re keen on an upgrade – students love a deal on a fridge.

If you need to buy something new, check its Energy Star rating. You’ll find that some appliances simply cannot be bought in a five-star option, such as freezers, but most of the time you can find whiteware with high ratings, which will be great for reducing your power bill.

Photography by Armelle Habib

Another consideration is your form of cooktop: electric, induction, or gas. Gas is not a renewable resource, and although I love cooking with gas, I can no longer bring myself to install or recommend gas hobs. However, induction is incredibly fast, which means that although it uses electricity, it needs a lot less than a slower traditional electric or ceramic cooktop.

Consider also the design of elements such as hardware, tapware and benchtops, because their lifespan could potentially be decades, so it could make more sense to choose something in a classic design or finish rather than something trend-based. Paint and wallpaper, in comparison, can be changed out a lot more affordably and sustainably, so these can be upgraded more often.

Opportunities to make your bathroom more sustainable

Much like a kitchen, a bathroom reno doesn’t have to be a full gutting and start-over. There are ‘tickle up’ solutions, though realistically they are generally more short-term. The reality of a bathroom update is that you can’t really replace a bath or a shower without also relining walls and treating floors.

It’s likely that at some point if your home is decades old, water has got through somewhere and damaged the canvas. Plumbing also has a lifespan, and the best time to replace your pipes is before you re-tile and/or replace walls and ceilings, not after.

With that in mind, from a financial point of view, I don’t recommend tackling a full bathroom reno unless you absolutely have the funds to do so. But by all means, polish your tapware and paint your walls and maybe even your floor tiles. New vanities and mirror cabinets can also help to elevate a space and can be repurposed if you do a full reno later on.

1. Fixtures and fittings

Of all the rooms in your sustainable house, a bathroom has the highest concentration of fittings and fixtures, from pop-up wastes and floor gullies to shower rails and mixers.

Photography by Will Horner

There are a lot of lower-cost brands on the market for all of the above, and unfortunately, in my line of work I see the lifespan of them, and it’s often not more than a couple of years. So while they may be more affordable upfront, they will end up costing you more down the line. Sure, they might be replaced under warranty, but in the meantime, you’ll have to go without the use of a tap, and even then you’ll have to cover the plumbing and other associated costs of any repairs or replacement.

Tapware is something that is handled every single day and it needs to withstand wear and tear. A good quality tap and associated fixtures should last at least 15 to 20 years. What it shouldn’t be doing is falling apart or losing its coating within two or three years.

This is yet another reason not to embark on a bathroom reno unless you’re confident you can afford the worst-case scenario – a full replacement, with high-quality products.

2. Tiles and other finishes

There are a multitude of issues to consider when it comes to tiles – the material, the manufacturing process, the durability… It’s really up to you as the buyer which of these you prioritise, and they all have a narrative that can be brought back to sustainability.

Photography by Hannah Puechmarin

If your budget is tight, it’s best to invest in high-quality tapware and reduce the extent of the tiling, rather than the other way around. If you’re not planning to tile your walls floor-to-ceiling, you should, from a maintenance point of view, at least tile the skirting around the immediate wet areas, or go halfway up the wall, if you can.

It also pays to make sure the paint finish is suitable for a wet area, to mitigate unnecessary wear and tear. Don’t be afraid to also consider options such as polished plaster, which is a mineral clay-based product, and panelling such as a wet-area v-groove board. The latter, in particular, is more cost-effective than tiling, but more elevated than plain old painted walls. It’s all about striking a balance.

3. Lighting

It’s possible that lighting is an area to compromise on when compared with other areas of your sustainable house. Energy-efficient light bulbs and quality workmanship are important, but as lights aren’t usually in arm’s reach, they won’t experience the same wear and tear as things like tapware and hardware.

Photography by Nikole Ramsay

If your existing light fittings, such as recessed downlights and wall sconces, are looking a bit tired, consider etch-priming and spray-painting them, or use air-based clay to make new shades. There are plenty of options to upcycle light fittings and invest the savings elsewhere.

4. Flooring

When it comes to the environmental impact of a product, the first consideration is where it’s made, and from what. For example, a New Zealand wool carpet made locally will have a much smaller footprint than a synthetic one that’s imported – not to mention that wool is arguably a renewable resource, whereas synthetic-based products are often made from petrochemicals. Yuck.

Photography from Getty Images

We do, however, live on a group of islands in the middle of nowhere, and not everything can be made here. Certainly, elements of most products will be imported, but local manufacturing and/or assembly is a great start.

If the finished product is coming from abroad, is it from Europe, Southeast Asia or the Pacific? The latter two are a lot closer, which will mitigate the impact on the environment of travel to New Zealand. If it’s an engineered plank, check what the backing is made from, and if the veneer is FSC-certified. Or perhaps it’s a cork tile from Portugal, which is a far more easily renewable material than timber.

5. Windows, doors and the flow-on effect

When it comes to windows and doors, there’s nothing more sustainable than repurposing what you’ve got. This diverts joinery from landfills and saves the carbon emissions from new joinery manufacturers. This could mean stripping and repainting existing timber joinery or etch-priming and painting aluminium. It depends on what’s in your home and whether it’s beyond repair or restoration.

Photography by Prue Ruscoe

The other consideration is how the condition or design of your window and door joinery impacts the energy efficiency of your sustainable house. If your existing joinery is poorly sealed and single-glazed, you could be losing 20 percent of your household’s heat through it. This can be mitigated by a good-quality thermally backed curtain, improving the integrity of the joinery is often a sound investment.

Consider that the loss of heat reduces the energy efficiency of your sustainable house, which in turn makes it harder to maintain a desirable temperature, putting strain on your heating and cooling sources, which might already be derived from inefficient resources. This all translates to a much higher power bill.

We’re lucky in New Zealand that a lot of our mains power comes from renewable sources, such as wind and hydro, but it doesn’t all, so the more we can reduce our draw on mains power or substitute it with solar, the better.

Photography by Dave Wheeler

Circling back to joinery, one way to improve the integrity of yours is to look into secondary, retrofit or double-glazed options. Secondary glazing is generally a short-term solution, but a reasonably economical one, whereby a second layer of glass (or, ideally, recycled acrylic, to mitigate the risk of condensation forming) is installed against the existing glass. It’s about one-third the cost of full double glazing, but similar in effectiveness.

Retrofit double glazing, on the other hand, is when the existing glass is removed and replaced with a new double-glazed panel at about half the cost of full double glazing – but you might be limited by your existing joinery unit.

Full double glazing means replacing the entire window or door unit, which is why the investment is so much greater – but it does open up the opportunity to consider options such as PVC joinery, which provides better thermal insulation.

Words: Jen Jones

Read this next: 5 simple ways to make your kitchen more sustainable

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