Green Building Materials, Part 1: Shopping at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Kongs
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The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.

Many factors comprise the “green” quality of any given building material. How was it produced? Where was it shipped from? Will it off-gas in my home? How long it will last, because sustainability in not having to replace materials matters, too. And, of course, all the answers to those questions must be weighed against how much the materials and its installation will cost in dollars and time. Let me use tile as a real-world (in my current world) example.

Recycled glass tiles are absolutely beautiful. The way the tiles glow, the eco-friendly qualities of most companies’ products, the long-lasting nature of the materials: I am smitten. I even ordered samples from one company, Fireclay Tile, in colors that matched the reclaimed floor tile we already purchased for our bathroom (keep reading), which makes the price tag (about $20 per square foot) hard to face. The truth is, when all the environmental and social costs are included, instead of ignored as with many products on the market, the final building materials’ price tag often ends up on the higher end of the scale. We feel strongly that, when we can, we are dedicated to spending the premium in order to not support the unsustainable nature of standard construction materials. I guess you could say we care about companies providing a livable wage to their employees and managing their waste in a responsible way, and other such details. In the case of the recycled glass shower tile, Tyler has an accountant’s good sense (lucky me?) and is not swayed by my proclamations of the tile’s unmatched beauty and the environmental responsibility we have to use recycled materials in our home. We’re still discussing options on this matter …  

Let’s compare that scenario with our recent score at the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. These stores, located across the United States, take in a building project’s excess materials, and salvaged items from remodels or demolitions. The stores are a fundraising branch for Habitat for Humanity as well, so the stores save space in landfills, provide a source for affordable materials, and put the profits from the sales to use rebuilding substandard housing in the local community. So, even though we’re not necessarily purchasing “green” or sustainably produced materials when we buy from a ReStore, we are making an eco-conscious choice, as well as one that has a lasting social impact on our community. Oh, and my expense-minded husband is a lot happier with the prices of these materials.

So far, we have found enough ceramic floor tiles for the master bathroom and the mud room. We also scored a free slab of granite that Tyler plans to turn into a countertop for our guest bathroom. The total price tag to date? About $120. The hardest part is just remembering to check in regularly, as the options in stock change daily. When looking for materials for bigger projects, like flooring, it can be a challenge to find enough of the same, or similar, tiles to complete a given area. But, if you’re creative and willing to search, ReStores are a great green building materials resource.

We hope to spend a few weekends at farm auctions, now that spring has sprung and bigger sales are more frequent. We’ve also found a promising distributor of sustainable building materials, such as FSC-certified bamboo flooring, that we’re excited to check out. Stay tuned!

Photo of porcelain tiles at Habitat for Humanity ReStore by Jennifer Kongs.

Next in the series:Moving Dirt to Build a Home and Gravel Driveway
Previously in the series:‘Perc’ Test: What It Is and How It’s Done

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!

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