Thoughtful Living: a guide to right-minded bathroom revamps
Thinking of ditching that avocado suite you’ve inherited? We’re here to help you ensure your tubs and tiles are as low-impact as possible
Along with kitchens, bathrooms are up there with most expensive parts of a renovation project, per square metre – so you want to get them right. Nowadays, however, ‘right’ doesn’t just mean choosing the taps you like the most, it means making sure you’re considering the planet’s future too. We know that sounds like a lot to shoulder, but it’s not as difficult as you might think, as long as you know where to start. And we’re here to get you going, with our tips, tricks and little black book of names to know, all of which should help you on your way.
But first: what is the key to lasting bathroom design? Lily O’Donnell, of Catchpole & Rye, says it’s about “investment in well-designed well-made key pieces that you love”. Implicit in that, she continues, is an effort to source ethically produced and, if possible, British-manufactured things.
We’re all familiar with the concept of repairing, reducing, reusing and recycling (or upcycling) – but it bears repeating, even when it comes to bathrooms. Do you really need a whole new basin or could you just repair it? Is your old cast-iron bathtub really that tired or does it just need its enamel patching up? Could you regrout your tiles, rather than replace them? Asking yourself how much you really need to do can be a valuable exercise.
What’s the importance of it all? Well, our bathrooms are, perhaps unsurprisingly, places of great waste. As well as all the water that goes – quite literally – down the drain every day (an eight-minute shower uses around 96 litres of water), bathrooms are also partly to blame for the landfill crisis we’re now faced with, with the average renovation producing around half a tonne of construction and demolition debris. With all this in mind, we’ve come up with some ideas to help to you create a new bathroom with greater conscience.
What should you furnish it with?
As you know, we’re big fans of a bit of salvage. By reusing something that’s had a life before, you’re not only going to ensure your schemes aren’t going to look like every other #inspo post, you’ll also be doing your bit to help the planet. Salvo has an incredibly helpful directory that can help you find your local reclamation yard, as well as its own marketplace, which is worth exploring.
Don’t just limit yourself to showers, tubs and taps either; a glass-fronted cabinet can make a sophisticated alternative to a standard cabinet, while slabs of marble or old dressers can be reworked as basin units; a good plumber should be able to help you. Lily emphasises how important it is to look for things that will stand the test of time, rather than those that follow fashions. Instead, “things that can be more readily updated – such as paint colour and wallpaper – are where to indulge your love of a particular trend”. See our pieces on natural paint and low-waste decorating for more ideas.
If you are into suites in shades of avocado and shell pink (seriously, no judgment – they’re having a moment), Brokenbog should be your first port of call. Its Hampshire warehouse has perhaps the largest collection of vintage and discontinued coloured sanitaryware in the world (they’ll also take unwanted pieces off your hands).
Materials should be taken into account if you are buying new – not least when it comes to bigger items, such as baths and basins. Something to consider might be Claybrook’s ‘Marbleform’ products, which are made using leftover marble, ground into a dust and mixed with resin. As well as saving smaller scraps from going to waste, it also results in more hardwearing pieces that should last longer than cheap plastic alternatives.
What should you put on your walls?
Again, there’s a wealth of salvaged and reclaimed tiles you can plump for when it comes to redoing your bathroom, but there are also increasing amounts of interesting materials that can be considered in a mindful bathroom renovation. Claybrook’s reclaimed terracotta ones work well as they’re good at retaining heat, while encaustic designs, which are poured into moulds and left to set over time, avoid the use of energy-guzzling kilns.
If recycled materials is what you’re after, Alusid is one to watch. The British company takes materials otherwise destined for landfill – all within 120 miles of its Preston factory – and turns them into tiles, using low temperatures to bind, rather than toxic chemicals.
More broadly, when choosing tiles, it pays to pick thinner ones, which cost less to transport. If you are going to go for natural stone or marble, be sure to find something quarried as close to home as possible. Materials from further afield not only contain more embodied carbon, but their ethical and environmental cost may be harder to quantify.
Side note: when laying tiles, try to get them as close together as possible so as to use less grout (a plus on the black-mould front too). And, if possible, use a solvent-free grout or adhesive.
Not all the best wall surfaces are modern developments, by the way. Tadelakt, a type of polished plaster, has been around for around 2,000 years. Associated with Morocco and made using natural lime (on which we’ve written before), its name is “derived from the Arabic meaning ‘to knead’ or ‘massage’,” Nanette Stahley of Mike Wye, a merchant of sustainable building materials, “and it was originally used to waterproof cisterns for the storage of drinking water.” It’s not only extraordinarily impermeable (it’s comparable – “if not superior to” – the cocciopesto mortars used by the Romans for the construction of aqueducts and baths), it’s low-maintenance and requires no silicone sealants.
Natalie Morrison, whose house we featured and are now selling, plumped for tadelakt as she required an entirely natural finish for her toxin-free family bathroom – though “no imported tiles and grout to clean was a win too.” She and her husband booked one of Mike Wye’s “exceptionally reasonable and digestible” classes and loved it. “We felt so empowered that we could achieve this incredible skill as layfolk”.
And what about underfoot?
When we visited the Bull Inn in Totnes recently, we were wowed by the natural lino-like flooring installed in its bathrooms. Forbo’s ‘Marmoleum’, which is biodegradable, is made up of linseed oil, jute and wood flour – all of which are rapidly renewable. It’s CO2-neutral from cradle to gate; that is, no offsetting is needed to compensate for its production. It’s also antibacterial and contains no phthalates, the chemical compounds found in PVC, exposure to which is thought to be linked to a rise in ADHD cases. It comes in more than 90 colours too. Heaven.
We’re also big fans of cork of floors: beautiful, warming and water-resistant, “it’s nature’s wonder material”, says Tara Bridges of Recork, a Kent-based company specialising in this regenerative material. It comes from the cork oak, the renewable bark of which can be harvested every decade or so without harming the tree. With its honeycomb-like structure, it’s brilliant at trapping heat – helping you keep bills down – and offers a bit of springy comfort too, as well as noise insulation. But don’t just take our word for it; it’s been used since antiquity (albeit in bottles rather than bathrooms, as Lilly Wilson of the Cork Flooring Company explains).
Cork can promote better health too. “It has very low levels of VOC emissions compared with other common materials,” Tara explains, drawing attention to the harmful compounds associated with them: irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, allergies and asthma, central nervous system symptoms and liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer risks.
Incidentally, it’s not just for floors; cork walls are popular too. But, as Tara reminds us, if you’re using cork in a bathroom it’s worth remembering it’s not 100 per cent waterproof and therefore will need sealing. Lilly emphasises this, adding that, when it comes to bathrooms, using tiles rather than single sheets could be beneficial, as they’re glued down and won’t expand or contract over time.
If you’re lucky enough to have original boards underfoot, we beg you keep them. But if the need for new is too great – and you’re still wedded to a wood-like look – might we suggest bamboo? More durable and more rapidly renewable than timber, it’s a smart choice in more ways than one.
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