Greener Baths: Beyond Water Conservation

Green design is really about the relationship and respect between people and their environment. Good bath design works to combine function and the pleasures of indulging the senses. As environmentally aware designers, we are challenged to combine the two without compromising either. To do this, we must look closely at how we use energy, products and materials to enhance and/or create a healthy indoor environment and minimize negative impact on the environment. Having considered water conservation concepts in our last column, following are 10 steps specific to the bathroom to get us started on creating greener baths.

  1. Indoor Air/Water/Sound Quality. There are general actions like choosing low- or no-VOC materials and finishes or filters for the water and air in the bathroom. In addition, there are unique products and concepts for moving air, odors, moisture and bacteria from the bathroom, and for replenishing fresh air.

    Bath ventilating systems were among the first appliances to hone in on sound level, and today it’s possible to find products that are almost noiseless. Motion sensor controls and systems that cycle on/off automatically are making this process intuitive and more effective. This year’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show brought to the mainstream a number of toilet enhancements that help to filter and remove not just odors, and moisture, but bacteria as well.

  2. Heating and Cooling. It is no longer enough to assume that the whole-house heating system will be sufficient to maintain comfort in the bathroom. With oversized showers, some with no doors, and with the age boom raising the number of us who might take longer to dry and dress, supplemental heat has grown in importance.

    Along with the traditional heat/fan/light and heat lamps, today we are seeing more in-wall blow-dryers and the most popular, radiant heat systems that can extend into the shower area. Radiant systems have the added benefit of not blowing air around, which is good for those with allergies, asthma or sensitivities.

  3. Lighting. With interest and mandates to improve light sources and energy, lighting deserves our constant attention. Fluorescent lights in a more desirable color range are available in more shapes, with internal ballasts and bases that fit pin sockets, so we can replace traditional incandescent bulbs with them. While these carry a slightly higher cost, this can be offset by the huge energy savings, and there’s no compromise in quality.

    Occupancy sensor lighting eliminates problems with forgetting to turn lights off, and especially with a gradual on/off feature, they aid in comfort and safety as we age. It is also getting easier to find LED lighting options.

    Not to be forgotten, “passive” or natural light sources can also save energy use, and beyond windows, we can take better advantage of natural light through careful use of concepts including interior transoms, skylights and solar tubes. At this year’s K/BIS, Randall Whitehead did a wonderful job addressing this topic, and if you missed him, check out his Web site, www.randallwhitehead.com.

  4. Energy Use. Beyond changing lighting sources and design, our greatest opportunity to save energy is in how we heat the water, which accounts for 14% of the average U.S. household energy budget, or 20% of the energy used in our country. Tankless or “on-demand” water heaters can save 10-20% of that bill (www.PATHNET.org), whether whole-house or point-of-use.

    In addition, high-efficiency, tank-type water heaters that reduce costs are readily available, and when appropriate, an insulation jacket can be added (www.pmmag.com). Another aspect of energy use focuses on cleaner sources, and while not exactly mainstream yet, passive and renewable sources are being put to use in products such as a solar powered outdoor shower or a self-sufficient sensor faucet whose energy is generated by its water flowing over a small turbine. A great place to start is to recommend a home energy audit, and one place to initiate that process is the U.S. Department of Energy (www.eere.energy.gov).

  5. Reduce. Beyond reducing water and energy, designers can influence the size, number and uses of existing or new bathrooms. Consider remodeling existing space rather than building an addition. Look at ways to create privacy in parts of a bathroom, such as the toilet and tub/shower area, so that the bathroom can be used by multiple people. For example, many of our older home renovations in Connecticut have huge bedrooms and tiny bathrooms. We’ll pull the vanity area into the bedroom, freeing up space in the “wet area” of the bathroom, facilitating its pairing with more than one bedroom.

  6. Reuse. Minimizing unnecessary changes in plumbing locations and reusing existing cabinets, fixtures, fittings and more can be a way to reduce our negative impact on the environment. If your client does not wish to reuse these items, organizations such as Green Demolitions (www.greendemolitions.com) will remove and resell many of them, providing support for a charity and a tax write-off for your client.

  7. Recycle. More and more, the raw materials used to create products and surfaces in the bathroom are recycled, and we need to attend to this rapidly expanding opportunity. Examples include glass tiles and glass for sinks or counters, and in some cases, you can even choose based on the source of the recycled glass (www.IceStone.biz). There are many more examples and two good resources for our office are www.buildinggreen.com and locally, www.greendepot.com.

  8. Buy Local. Have you checked the route your materials take to arrive at the job site? Shorter distances mean lower transportation costs as well as less carbon emissions, and they sustain the local community. While the method of transportation will surely affect the net impact on the environment, right now, the LEED rating system gives points for use of products from within 500 miles of the job site (www.usgbc.org).

  9. Waste We Leave Behind. Beyond handling of construction waste, the bathroom offers several interesting “new frontiers.” Gray water, or the waste water from tubs, showers, sinks, washing machines and dishwashers, accounts for 60% of the outflow in homes, and plumbing systems are being designed to recycle this water for irrigation, toilets and exterior washing. While not legal in some places, surely we’ll see development of this as water gets scarcer. As for solid waste, even it may have value, as it is being converted into fuel…something to watch in terms of development and impact on our products and design.

  10. Rethink. Consider this the tip of the green iceberg. With the green movement being so topical, we need to sort out the worthwhile practices and products from the “green wash,” meaning collect and evaluate, and share that information with our colleagues and clients.

Read past columns on Planning & Design by Mary Jo Peterson, and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto the Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Web site, located at www.kitchenbathdesign.com.

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