Question

Our tiny bathroom is in dire need of an eco renovation. What are some things to keep in mind for this upcoming venture?

Asked by Mingle
Sacramento, CA

We live in a small bungalow house with only one tiny bathroom that has seen better days. We unfortunately need to gut this room and start anew; from the moldy ceramic tiles, to the bath("can't-get-the-stains-off")tub, to the leaky toilet. Needless to say, we feel over our heads with decisions. What is the best eco option for bathtubs? Which toilet uses less water? Not to mention we are on a very tight budget.... Please help!

Answer

David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

February 14, 2011

Green bathroom renovations, as you are discovering, can be both expensive and complicated, in part because nearly every building trade may be involved --

  • carpentry,
  • plumbing,
  • electric,
  • tile and stone,
  • painting,
  • maybe HVAC,
  • and who-knows-what-else.

And that’s assuming it’s just an interior renovation.

Levels of renovation

In your case, I suspect you will end up at one of these levels of renovation and the determining factors will be:

  1. the condition of the tub
  2. whether the mold on those tiles has gotten into the wallboard.
  3. And a third factor may be the condition of the pipes in the walls.

A "gut" remodel

If the wallboard has mold in it, you’ll almost certainly want to replace it (use cement board in wet areas), which means stripping the room down to its framing, a "gut" renovation.

  • Similarly, if there are problems with the existing pipes, that will mean opening up a serious part of the walls and/or floors to replace them.
  • And if there are exterior walls involved, that’s the time to take advantage of exposing the framing to upgrade the insulation.

Replacing rather than refinishing the tub

If you’ve found that you need to go that “gut” renovation route, then it will probably make sense to replace rather than refinish the stained tub.

In general, we want to avoid unnecessarily sending materials to landfills, and there are methods of refinishing scratched and discolored tubs, but how well they work and how long they hold up depend on what the tub is made of and how the work is done. The process also tends to involve some nasty chemical finishes.

The argument against replacing the tub, aside from the cost of the tub and the waste, is that, unless it’s freestanding, a tub gets installed before the wallboard, so removing and replacing it requires demolishing parts of the surrounding walls.

Economic and ecological decisions are often aligned

If you want to look at the project in terms of getting the most bang for your buck, the good news is that the economic decisions and ecological decisions often coincide.

Over the lifetime of the bathroom, your greatest financial savings will come from energy and water efficiency.

  • While the initial construction costs (as large as they may be) are incurred once, your utility bills -- and the environmental impacts of the associated consumption of electricity and water -- will be arriving monthly.
  • So whether you go the full renovation or the fixture and fitting replacement route, it will make sense to focus on that consumption.

Make sure you get a high-efficiency toilet (HET). These are the newer generation, with even lower water requirements than a low-flow toilet.

  • For homes, I often specify dual-flush models. (I’m not as fond of them for public bathrooms because the users may not be familiar with how to properly use them -– you know, which button to push when...)
  • As Molly McCabe mentioned in a recent post, look at the MaP ratings to research the best HET models (see "How do you figure out if a toilet is low-flow?" for more information).

The showerhead and the sink faucet should also be low-flow. Those are both easy to change, by the way, so we should all be doing that whether or not we’re renovating. (Most faucets accept a standard aerator that screws into the spout, cutting down the flow rate.) It doesn’t sound like one of your options will be a large tub, but of course those big luxurious models take a lot of water (heated!) to fill.

The other half of your utility bills, of course, is electricity and here, too, the eco paths are pretty simple: use energy-efficient lights and/or occupancy sensors. (Many building codes have specific requirements now; be sure to check yours.) Those sensors are much friendlier than they used to be; some of the early models tended to turn off if you were sitting still for a while, say, in the bathtub.

Using natural daylight and light colored surfaces can cut down on your need for artificial lighting. For lighting, LEDs are still fairly pricey to purchase, but if you can look at the longer-range picture, they will save you money later on when you add up electricity usage and bulb replacement costs.

Strategies for other design decisions

I don’t mean to suggest that your other design decisions (floor, walls, tub, sink...) are unimportant. Unfortunately, economy and ecological don’t complement each other as often here.

  • Some of the cool and beautiful eco materials we see in showrooms are also quite expensive.
  • There are, for instance, recycled countertop materials that I love, but which may be out of the budget.

One strategy: look for the areas that require smaller amounts of materials. For instance, floors are usually less square footage than tiled walls, so that may be the area where you can afford a bit of a splurge. If your bungalow bathroom can only fit a small vanity top, the positive side is one of those neat eco materials you see in the design magazines may actually be within reach.

So many of the material decisions depend on taste as well as cost that it is hard to generalize the best choices.

One generalization we can make: in ecological terms, the best material to use is usually one which already exists.

  • Salvaged flooring, cabinets, sinks, even paint, have dramatically lower eco-footprints than new materials that have to be mined or harvested, processed and transported, consuming a lot of resources and creating new waste.
  • Some salvage materials, like paint, may also be less expensive.

Lastly, we spend a fair amount of time in the bathroom so make it a pleasant, comfortable space. If it doesn’t work well or feel good, it’s more likely to be re-renovated sooner and that’s certainly not ecologically or economically desirable. 

 

For more information:

Read "Tips for Switching to High-Efficiency Toilets, Showerheads, and Faucets" to find high efficiency bathroom fixtures.

Read "Easy as 1, 2, 3: How to Recycle Grey Water" for easy ways to use greywater and reduce your use of fresh water.

Tagged In: green cost, water saving, low flow toilet, dual flush toilet

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