Sustainable home renovation: a personal guide

Sustainably-minded writer Fleur Britten shares her experiences when it comes to balancing eco ideals and home renovation

fleur britten eco decorating
Mary Flora Hart

If our architect had had his way, we would have tipped most of our house straight into the skip. First in would be the still-functional 1980s Whirlpool spa bath, followed by the perfectly serviceable kitchen, with disco spangles glinting in the vinyl flooring and black quartz worktops, then the (over)imposing fireplace clad with Barratt Homes-style beige bricks.

fleur britten eco decorating
Victoria Adamson
We only moved into this house a month ago – an upside-down modernist property built in 1959, it has seen better days (probably circa 1990). Brimming with new-home giddiness, we, too, fantasised about what could be. Admittedly, the place wasn’t going to win beauty contests any time soon, but the level of destruction that would come with gutting it gave me serious eco-anxiety – how could we justify it for the sake of our own style whims?

Environmentally speaking, modernising a property can be problematic, because conventional materials are not generally produced with the planet in mind– you only need to do a lap of a DIY superstore to see that. What’s more, in my experience, contractors and designers are not in the habit of suggesting there claimed/refurbished/full-fat-organic alternative to clients.

Perhaps it doesn’t occur to them, or maybe it’s because it can be awkward, slow or unfamiliar. If you’re committed to updating your house as sustainably as possible, you need to go out of your way to do so, be that practically or financially. So we decided to frame it as an exciting challenge that we could afford to take our time over.

Whether we could actually afford it, though, was another matter. Quotes for ground-source heat pumps came in at £30,000-plus, and our gas boiler still worked a treat. To end its life prematurely didn’t feel particularly eco either, so for now we’re making do with extra layers and hot-water bottles.

Swapping out the old nylon carpet the colour of mulched tomatoes for one made with undyed wool from British sheep – the gold standard of sustainable carpeting – might have made us feel smug, but it would both blow the budget and consign acres of synthetic carpet to landfill.

So we’ve decided to bide our time and gamble on the trend carousel stopping at tomato tones sometime soon (surely only a little way after mustard yellow and salmon pink, and we’ve all eaten our words on those). Failing that, there is always carpet-dyeing, which, when professionally done, costs about one-third of a new one.

Fortunately, we can balance out the budget by buying secondhand and, in the spirit of going out of our way (because secondhand is usually less straightforward), this would be the rule for our new kitchen. It’s actually a buyer’s market on eBay right now – just think of the bragging rights of acquiring a full set of solid-oak kitchen units for 99p (true story, though sadly not mine). But unless your construction talents stretch to rectifying the inevitable nasty surprises, it is high-risk (triple-check your measurements, try to go for standardised fittings and view in-person before buying).

If we chicken out, the backup is the decidedly more upscale Used Kitchen Company, which sells ex-display and pre-loved units from the likes of Plain English, Bulthaup and Poggenpohl, as well as used appliances. Plus, we can atone for the eco crime of ditching our old kitchen by selling it on to others through the same channels.

Similar opportunities exist for bathrooms, although I think people sense something of an oxymoron in the idea of ‘secondhand sanitaryware’, so the market is less established. Still, lunchtimes spent browsing Liberty’s home accessories have given way to trawling West One Bathrooms’ clearance pages and searching Gumtree for bathtubs and vanity units. Honestly, it’s no less gratifying.

While we play the long game on these bigger investments, we’ve been making simpler changes, such as whitewashing the house – that giant brick fireplace has been transformed from a blight into a feature. Sourcing environmentally friendly paint is easy enough, but I refuse to buy new brushes, rollers and trays (even Eco Union’s recycled-waste ones)when most homes have a full set gathering dust.

Borrowing, however, has to be delicately navigated, because refusing to buy into consumerism might just appear a bit stingy. I’m sure to repay loans from neighbours with chocolate and always return things cleaner than when they were received.

Sometimes, cost-benefit analysis has had to be ignored for the sake of saving things from landfill. For example, the rusted balustrade that will take so many hours to sand down might be cheaper to replace, but it feels wrong not to give it a second chance.And sometimes, we’ve just agreed to adjust our expectations. When the family all piles into the spa bath (saving water, see?), everyone’s having too much fun to care about suboptimal aesthetics.

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