Reduce, Reuse, Rehab: Green Cleaning in Your Historic Home

Simple ingredients make gentle and environmentally friendly cleaners for historic homes.

Simple ingredients make gentle and environmentally friendly cleaners for historic homes.

Historic buildings are natural allies of the sustainability movement. They are typically long-lasting, built of durable materials, and designed for passive heating, cooling, and ventilation. Reusing old buildings cuts down on the landfill waste, carbon emissions, and gasoline required for new construction.

But, for a truly sustainable mode of living, it is not enough just to inhabit a rehabilitated historic building. The building must be taken care of – cleaned, maintained, renovated when necessary – in a sustainable way that will be as friendly to the environment and to the building’s users as is the building itself.
Modern chemical cleaners can be damaging to historic building fabric. Historic preservationists always promote cleaning historic buildings with the gentlest means possible. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation state “chemical or physical treatments…that cause damage to historic materials shall not be used” on historic buildings. In the cleaning of historic buildings, hand tooling and water are most often the first course of action.
Harsh chemical cleaners can erode brick, stone, marble, and wood—whether on the exterior or the interior of historic buildings. In specific reference to historic building interiors, the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings recommends limiting abrasive cleaning methods to “certain industrial warehouse buildings”, and even then, only when gentler means have first been attempted.
Original inhabitants of historic buildings did not have the potentially damaging chemical cleaners that pack grocery shelves today. People used simple, inexpensive cleaning solutions that were not only environmentally friendly, but also gentle on their buildings’ materials. For most daily household cleaning needs, homemade green cleaning solutions can be quickly mixed out of water, vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice, common ingredients original inhabitants would have used.
  • Vinegar is a natural disinfectant, deodorizer and all-purpose cleaner for everything but marble; its strong smell disappears upon drying. Mixing equal parts water and vinegar together yields a reliable cleaner for counters, stove tops, windows, appliances, toilet bowls, and bathroom floors. A half-cup of vinegar added to the rinse cycle of a load of laundry replaces fabric softener.
  • Baking soda is a natural deodorizer and the abrasive, anti-fungal agent in homemade green cleaning products. One tablespoon of baking soda mixed with one cup of warm water makes an effective cleaning spray for dissolving dirt, mildew, grease, stove-top rust stains, and even wax. Mix in the vinegar, and add some steel wool and elbow grease to create an all-purpose, homemade green cleaning solution.
  • Lemon juice is antibacterial, antiseptic, and a natural bleaching agent. Add it to the all-purpose water-vinegar-baking soda solution, or use it alone or with salt or baking soda to tackle hard water stains, soap scum, and mildew. It can also be used to polish brass and copper fixtures, as well as to bleach away stains from white fabric. Mix one part lemon juice with two parts olive oil for a natural hardwood furniture polish.
When using green cleaning products, keep in mind that they take time to work. For best results, allow the products to remain on the surfaces being cleaned for several minutes before washing or wiping them away.
Gentle green cleaning is considered to be such an important component of sustainable building maintenance that the U.S. Green Building Council has been incorporating green cleaning standards into its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) sustainability ratings system since 2003. With its accredited, thorough green cleaning program, LEED supplies a framework for inhabitants of historic buildings to clean sustainably and sensitively.
Many of the LEED green cleaning metrics provide benefits that are not only environmentally friendly, but also mild on historic building fabric. GreenEfficient, a green building facilities management company that specializes in creating and implementing green cleaning programs for LEED-accredited buildings across the country, includes the following in each of its green cleaning programs:
  • Shoe mats to trap outside dirt at the door. The use of mats can greatly decrease the amount of dirt and materials that, when repeatedly tracked over historic flooring, can cause significant wear and tear.
  • Microfiber dusting cloths and flat mops to capture dirt more efficiently. Regular dusting with soft cloths prevents the build up of dirt and particles that can accumulate and eventually destroy historic fabric while also limiting the use of moist cleaning agents that can encourage mold growth when used excessively.
  • Frequent vacuuming of carpets, which harbor mold. Mold is one of the most common enemies of historic buildings because it grows easily and quickly, irrevocably damaging historic fabric if left untreated.
Simple cleaning methods are not limited to solutions of vinegar and water; reusable products and personal habits can help in the environmentally sustainable cleaning of historic buildings. Prevent further dirt accumulation on your floors by removing your shoes while in the house. In addition to the microfiber dusting cloths, shred clean cotton shirts to use as dry rags. Decrease mold-breeding moisture by opening windows to ventilate a humid room.
In addition to the benefits of non-chemical cleaning on historic fabric, green cleaning reduces the amount of harmful toxins that endanger both people and the planet. Chemical cleaning solution ingredients such as chlorine, phosphates, ammonia, bleach, and added fragrances are hazardous, and for good reasons – according to the EPA, some induce headaches, dizziness, and visual disorders, while others trigger asthmatic and allergic reactions. Some chemicals, such as the formaldehyde often found in disinfectants, may even be carcinogenic.
Even more, chemical cleaning agents are devastating to the environment. Chemical cleaners washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet eventually end up in the soil or ground water, and from there work their way into the plants, animals and fish that we eat.
These inexpensive cleaning methods allow the “gentlest means possible” for the maintenance of historic buildings, while also decreasing the negative environmental effects of many modern chemical cleaners. To make the switch from conventional to green cleaning products, use up what conventional products remain and gradually replace them with green ones. Should you decide to replace all of your conventional cleaning products at once, dispose of them responsibly by contacting local recycling centers to determine the best method for the disposal of toxic cleaning agents. Then, mix up the homemade, all-purpose green cleaner, and start enjoying the benefits of toxic-free, green cleaning – you and your home will be all the better for it.

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