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DIY: Retrofit Your Home For Sustainability

For Earth Day,  A Story Of Renovation

There’s Never A “Best” Time To Start

I started trying to reduce my waste at the absolute worst time. After college, a few friends and I decided to move into my grandparents’ former home, which was still filled with their possessions and in disrepair. With no jobs lined up and plenty of free time on our hands, we traded our first year’s rent in exchange for fixing up the place.

Although it took some time before we could move in, today we are happily settled (though we are still renovating). Our kitchen is tiled, the walls are painted, and most of the light fixtures are in working order. The house feels like home. It took a lot to get there.

First: To The Dumpster

Most of the first few weeks consisted of throwing things out. Proper disposal was key: we took old pesticides, oil based paints, and appliances to the local landfill, which has a hazardous waste disposal program. When we first started going through the house, it quickly became clear: we had no idea what we were going to do. If there were ever a lesson in how much we leave behind in our lifetimes, this was it. My grandparents weren’t excessive consumers, but they both grew up in poor rural families and apparently saved everything they ever owned. So much for reducing waste – we had to figure out how to dispose of old oil paint, ratty, stained carpet, and a plethora of rusty nails.

Fix The Foundation: Flooring

Throughout the renovation process, flooring was one of the trickiest matters. Our budget was “as small as possible,” but we had to do something. We learned the hard way – with mold and rot – that the base level of plywood does not make a good bathroom floor.

Old carpet, unfortunately, went in the trashcan, and I resolved never to install carpet in a future home. In hindsight, I learned that carpet can sometimes be recycled. However, if you have hardwood floors (like we did) beneath the carpet, it doesn’t make sense to put it in in the first place. If you’re going to install, smaller pieces are more eco-friendly, and remnants are available for a discount at many stores.

After the carpet was removed from the living room, upstairs, and kitchen (yes, kitchen), we needed to put something on the floor. I researched many options, including vinyl tile (the cheapest), but ended up settling on ceramic tile for the kitchen. Because I was putting something new in my home, I didn’t want the off gassing from vinyl (which is highly toxic). Vinyl is also toxic throughout its life cycle Linoleum was an eco-friendly option, but we couldn’t find a color we liked. Since the area we wanted to tile was so small, we decided it wouldn’t affect the budget too much and was the most viable option.

Next, we started fixing what we had. We restored the hardwood floors on the main level, though we just cleaned the ones upstairs. We visited a building materials thrift store, the Community Forklift, and bought paint for the peeling front steps and the upstairs bathroom. The furniture in the house was in great condition, but we put felt pads on the chairs and tables to protect the floors.

Personalizing Your Home.

Finally, we started to create a home we wanted to live in. The living room couch was fine, but we added a washable slipcover to adapt it to the colors we wanted. I started landscaping, tearing out weeds that had become small trees, and planting native and drought-tolerant species in the beds already in the yard. This year, I added cedar raised beds, chosen for their durability, and filled them with compost.

Throughout the renovation process, we threw out as little as possible and reused what we could. My grandfather had a host of building supplies in the basement, and the nails we used to hang pictures all came from his stash. When we were mostly finished renovating and needed some dishes, we went to the thrift store. I kept the bookshelf from the master bedroom and all of the old light fixtures. We refused to throw out anything useable and kept most of the old linens, though we took the extras to the thrift store.

An Act Of Remembrance.

For me, the renovation was as much an act of remembrance as it was restoration. I didn’t hold onto items that were no longer useful purely for remembrance, but every morning I use my grandparents’ old, stained teakettle to boil water. Some of the tools in the basement helped me start my first solo vegetable garden, and the small yellow lamp on my desk once belonged to my grandfather and now helps me write.

Reducing Consumption. 

Renovating the house only reinforced my commitment to reducing my consumption. I gained some incredible insight into my grandparents’ lives and learned bits and pieces of their stories I never heard when they were alive, and I’m living in the midst of their legacies every day. I wonder, too, who first owned the giant soup pot we found at the thrift store. Who did some of my cookbooks once belong to? And when and why did my grandmother buy those knee-high black leather boots with the three inch heels?

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl



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