Areas where heathier options were chosen
* Floor material: Solid 3/4 inch Red Oak, 3 1/4 inch planks (Select and Better)
* Door materials: Solid core fir and pine (versus MDF alternatives)
* Trim materials: Paint-grade and stain-grade pine (instead of MDF/plastics)
* Window materials: Solid pine with clad exterior, and fiberglass with fir-veneered interior
* Cabinet materials: Solid face front cherry, 3/4 inch ply cabinets (vs. MDF boxes)
* Hardwood floor surfacing: AFM Safecoat Polyureseal - sealer, gloss, and satin
* Wall texturing compound: Murco Hypo-allergenic texturing compound
* Cabinet and door finishes: Safecoat Polyureseal (sprayed) from AFM
* Window and door sealant: Window and Door Phenoseal - Gloucester Manufacturing
* Sink caulking: Kitchen and Bath Phenoseal from Gloucester Manufacturing
* Primer: Transitional Wall Primer and New Wallboard primer from AFM
* Countertop gluedown: used caulking instead of epoxy for such a small counter
* Wall and ceiling paint: Safecoat Satin wall and Cabinet and Trim Enamel
* Trim and bathroom paint: Eggshell wall enamel from AFM.
As one can see from the above list, we did use a fair amount of products from AFM. The products combine healthier ingredients while maintaining industrial-strength properties and standard application techniques.
Areas where we missed our goal but learned for the next project
* Wood putty: Putty is used generously in the course of finishing hardwood floors, especially on the first sanding. We discovered a healthier product called TimberMate only after the floor team had already used standard products which have warning on the package indicating that they contain chemicals known in the State of California to cause cancer. At least they were sealed with a healthy finish!
Wood putty/filler pre-sanding
* Top ply for the cabinet. The cabinet maker used a waterproofed ply, which clearly contains some petroleum product between the layers. Consolation comes from the fact that it is covered by the granite top (which does have its own issue as described below).
* Paint colors. We used mostly tints in the category of 'off-whites' in AFM color options terminology, sometimes at half tint to keep the house light and avoid yellows that were too strong. These AFM 'off-whites' turn out to have a pastel appearance. In retrospect, we could have used paints in the 'shades' category of the AFM color deck and requested some of those colors in a half tint. Still, the result with our current color choices is not unsuccessful, and does maintain an uplifting tone in the house.
* Timing of termite inspection: This should be a first part of any renovation. We should have done this when we first cleared the house, removed insulation, and removed floor and some wall surfacing! The 'tenting' process involves putting gas toxic to the termites into the house so that it permeates everything. For this option, we should have inspected and tented if necessary, while everything was outside the house! We are researching other options using less chemicals, including electronic and 'baiting' techniques in which case the termites themselves carry the toxic 'bait' to the nest. This could be an interesting approach for the especially problematic subterranean type of termites, for which traditional approaches involve placement of toxins in the soil.
The areas where availability of healthier options is still limited
* Vapor barriers for hardwood flooring: The standard is craft paper which contains petroleum between sheets of paper. Often floorers will use the 'felt' material designed for roofs, which is thicker and one would expect contains greater amount of petroleum product.
* Wallboard joint compound: The non-allergenic texture compound worked very well for texturing but as a joint compound may not be flexible enough and more subject to cracking. However, this was a one-time, rushed evaluation. Perhaps different joint tape may help.
* Plywood glues in cabinets: Avoiding MDF, cabinets without some ply would be expensive: the glues in the ply are suspect. Based on a review of the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet), the glues used to assemble the cabinet parts in our case seem to be relatively safe, but it is worth examining the MSDS for the glue used by any particular cabinetmaker.
*Sealant for the granite countertop: We had little chemical detail on this petroleum based product. It should be redone every six months to a year, so perhaps some better solutions can be found before the next application.
Our efforts to build with less toxic materials without creating an unfamiliar dwelling space were successful, and created a warm and inviting environment with especially attractive surfaces through the use of natural materials, clear and low-VOC finishes, and space and light optimization.
With a greater budget and willingness to be less contextual with the original architecture, additional design issues in an older home such as this one could be addressed. Increasing space and further enhancing daylighting, which we will pursue on the interior when we modify the kitchen.
Additionally, new furnishings and landscaping purchases can also be approached with this perspective: healthy fabrics, woods, mattresses, plants that do not require complex fertilizers to thrive, etc.
There is an appealing payoff to the diligence and persistence required to understand the composition of many of today's construction materials, find healthier alternatives, and get contractors comfortable with alternatives which are less-familiar but better-understood from a health viewpoint.
At the conclusion of a project such as this, one internalizes a new way of looking at all elements and subcomponents put into a home: with an eye for our health.