Renovation Nation: what is the toxic cost?

We are suckers for new countertops and open-plan architecture, and TV shows sometimes make it look oh-so-easy to do yourself!  Renovations come with a toxic cost, however, when you consider the materials you are removing and the new ones that get installed.  We hope you take these into consideration for the health of your family and the workers (maybe yourself)!

First of all, renovations take time.  Time for demolition, time for installation, and even with good planning in this era of supply delays, time to source materials: it all adds up to a period of inconvenience when renovating your primary residence.  Where do you live in the meantime?  Although moving to another building is the safest option, not everyone has the ability to move out during the whole renovation.   Sometimes the budget does not allow for a temporary move-out.  Sometimes your home is just the location you need to be to work and be together.  Whatever the reason, you can safely live in your home while undergoing renovations, by taking precautions.  This article has many excellent tips for keeping the toxins from renovation out of your living space. We would add: make sure to use a HEPA air filter with charcoal component in your living space, so that any dust and VOCS that sneak through the cordoned-off areas or ventilation is picked up by the filter.

  1. Plan for success!  Even if you are hiring a contractor, research the availability and costs for techniques, tools and materials that will make the job less toxic.  For example:

  • If the home under renovation was built before 1978, have it inspected for lead paint and asbestos, and budget for professional removal agents for these materials.

  • If major mold issues (such as from a leaky roof or prior flooding) are a factor in the renovation, ditto on hiring professional mold rehabilitation services!

  • This primary-care doctor, wife and mother knew that she had to prioritize materials because time and budget did not allow her to research everything.

  • Drywall, paint, and even the plastic that is used to partition off the renovation from the living area, all have hidden toxins.  This renovator did her research and found that non-toxic choices don’t always need to cost more!  Here are some common materials that need your attention so that you can make low-VOC choices for years of healthy living:

    • Structural Building materials: treated and laminated wood, metal and other materials

    • Insulation, drywall and compound (check out this list of chemical-free building materials)

    • Paint, Stains and finishes ( has safe choices for this and the following categories)

    • New flooring

    • Fixtures

    • Furnishings and decor

  • Budget time and money to move all furnishings, clothing, cooking and food items that will not be disposed of, out of the construction zone.  Although it seems like a chore to pack up all of your dishes and cookware if only the floor or ceiling in your kitchen is replaced, it’s much less work than cleaning all of the cookware AND the cabinets when you notice toxic dust on them after the renovation.  Even furniture protected by plastic can have accidental gaps and cuts when drywall workers and paint sprayers are at work.  Renting a storage pod or packing the garage are two options to keep the rest of your house navigable.

  • Plan for delays.  Whether it’s weather-related or supply-chain related, if you can source materials ahead of time, do it!  If you don’t have the storage area, try asking friends and family for space. Make sure to acknowledge their contributions during a “reveal” celebration party or offer to visit and stay in the new room(s) they helped to create.  

  • Take the weather into consideration.  If you live in a cold climate, renovating during the summertime allows for open windows to vent dust and VOCs.  If you live in a warm climate, renovation during cooler months may make sense for the same reason if open windows can replace air conditioning.

  1. Demolish with care.  That seems like a tall order for the demolition crew ready with their pry bars and sledgehammers, but it’s up to the manager to make sure that partitions are made, ventilation is secured (including taping off vents in spaces under renovation and using carbon filter media in other ones), and boundaries are respected.  I know an inexperienced contractor who sanded down the drywall in one bedroom, only to open the door to a “snowy” living room coated with fine dust, all because the ventilation was not secured.  If you are able, planning a vacation for your family during the demolition phase can remove the stress of noise and toxins piling up in and outside the house.  Besides the obvious dust, here are some hidden toxins that can get stirred up during demolition:

    • Mold, lead paint and asbestos (don’t mess around– call in the experts for these)

    • Leaves from the attic

    • Unconventional wall and ceiling insulation: some older homes may have sawdust, shredded newspaper, cellulose, vermiculite, urea formaldehyde foam, and asbestos (also used in wiring insulation)

    • Animal excrement and carcasses (rodent, bird and bat poop can carry a number of bacterial or fungal diseases)

    • Chemicals used to strip furniture or flooring can be very toxic.  If you are saving your kitchen cabinets or other built-in furniture to change the surface color (a process called resurfacing), research your options on ways to minimize and avoid harmful chemicals (and dust). Check out 2 tips from a renovator who has stopped using chemical strippers altogether:

      1. How to create a raw wood finish with paint (no stripping or bleaching required)

      2. Dixie Silk Mineral Paint: best no-VOC cabinet paint

  2. Rebuild with excellence.  Here’s some tips that help make the job sustainably healthy for everyone:

    • Insist on using masks and safety equipment like glasses, boots and long clothing for dirty jobs.  If you and a few friends are doing the demolition, let them know you care about their health by supplying respirators and safety glasses.  If a contractor is doing the work, since you can’t control their workers, make sure they are licensed, bonded and insured.

    • Clean up daily with the right tools.  Making sure that the vacuum is exhausted out a window or using a dedicated HEPA vacuum for construction avoids piles of dust that get disturbed the next day.

    • Plan for and communicate the schedule, including utilities outages.  Coming home to a warm fridge adds to the stress of living through renovations, so if you will live in, talk with your contractor about the schedule and ask him/her to keep you apprised of delays.  

    • Be focused but flexible.  Unforeseen costs inevitably turn into compromises and substitutions, so be prepared to negotiate on some things in order to keep healthy priorities at the top.  If you encounter mold or toxins that require extensive rehab, sometimes in-store designers can help keep the budget under control by offering substitutions on decor.

    • Do it for yourself and your family.  Many times home-reno shows “recap” the numbers by calculating “equity” into a home with the value of such improvements on the local housing market.  However, not everyone in the local housing market values the healthy choices you make in your home, so don’t count on a higher resale value because of your choices.  I thought this was one of the most valuable points that this doctor and mom made in her post. 

If you know that this is the right time to renovate and you’ve done your homework on healthy ways to do it, we wish you the best experience and outcome!

Photo by Milivoj Kuhar on Unsplash