Remember the counter-culture movement of the 1970’s – Birkenstock sandals, organic gardening, macrobiotics, "The Mother Earth News"? Well take a look around now — it’s hit the mainstream in a big way.
Going green is a national pre-occupation these days and there’s good reason for it. If Al Gore is correct, time is running out fast in the race to preserve the planet, and let’s face it, we Americans are the greatest energy hogs on earth.
Simply go to the website www.myfootprint.org and take the ecological footprint quiz (it’s very simple and takes about two minutes); you will discover that there are 4.5 productive acres available to sustain each human being on the planet yet the average American lifestyle requires a whopping 24 acres. See what your score is — it’s a sobering experience to realize what a disproportionate share of the world’s resources we consume.
Waste not, Want not
The disparity is so great, it hardly seems worthwhile to even try to take steps to reverse the situation, but as they say – "every journey starts with a single step" and small steps add up. If you are planning a renovation project, this is the perfect time to incorporate green products and practices. Thinking green means thinking for the long haul – this is nothing new but it’s something we may have forgotten. If you need a new roof – choose a roofing shingle that will last 50 years. Yes it will cost more upfront but it will save the cost of replacing the roof two or three times and it creates less waste – fewer shingles and less labor. Materials that last use less energy in the long run.
Using reclaimed material is another time-honored principle of thinking green. What can you save – is there material from your demolition phase that you can re-use? Can you recycle the kitchen cabinets in another configuration, can you salvage lumber, metal or stone? The more you can save and re-use the less waste you create. If you have useable material that’s of no use to you – see if you can donate it to Habitat to Humanity or other organizations. Visit salvage companies – see what you can find; buy reclaimed lumber. Architectural salvage and reclaimed lumber doesn’t mean second rate; floors made from old barnwood are prized for their beauty, and architectural salvage can add unique character to your project.
Use local renewable sources of material whenever possible. It saves on energy required to ship goods long distances. Sustainable products like cork, which is harvested without destroying the tree, and bamboo, which replenishes fast, are good choices also but you have to weigh the sustainable aspect against the cost of shipping it from Asia where most of it is grown.
Go easy on the VOC’s. Did you know that a typical new house is one of the most toxic living environments on the planet? Formaldehyde is used as a preservative/binder in many wood products and in composites that are used in kitchen cabinets. New carpet, paints and other coatings off-gas high levels of VOC’s for months or even years. Choose eco-friendly non-toxic paints and coatings and pick woven carpets made of wool or other natural fibers. If you like wall-to-wall carpet – find wool carpet that is made with non-toxic glues.
Fortunately, lead paint and pressure treated lumber (which was laced with arsenic) are now banned but if you disturb older parts of your home during renovation – be sure your family, especially children who are most vulnerable, and workers are protected from potentially harmful effects of lead paint and asbestos which may be present. It is usually not harmful until it is disturbed and the particles become airborne.
While you’re at it, take a break from the toxic cleaning products– you want products that are labeled non-toxic, chlorine-free and biodegradable. Many are available these days; if you are ambitious you can even make your own from simple ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.
Connect with Nature
Healthy environments are a priority and I applaud efforts to use natural materials and employ sustainable building techniques, but that’s only half of the story. The crux of the matter is that, as a culture, we have veered way off course in terms of working with the natural environment. We have lost the joy of living in harmony with nature. Rather than planting shade trees to moderate our indoor climate we crank up the air conditioning and waste more energy. Start thinking about your home and the site on which it is located as being intimately connected. Notice where the breezes come from and how the sun travels across your property during the different seasons. Where would you benefit from having a shade tree or a pergola with a deciduous vine that cools in summer but allows the warm sun to penetrate in winter? Put windows where you want natural light and/or passive solar heat and if you buy new windows, be aware of the "performance ratings" for the product and how best to apply it to your situation. Do you want to incorporate a large stone mass like a fireplace or a stone floor that acts as a "thermal mass" which will retain heat during the day? Can you capitalize on the prevailing breezes to naturally ventilate your home in summer? Can you grow a few vegetables for your own consumption?
It’s green to think small. Carefully plan the most efficient use of space for your lifestyle – maybe you don’t need to make a large addition – maybe you can reconfigure the existing space to work better for you. The smaller your home, the less energy to heat, cool and maintain it.
Keep in mind that small steps are better than no steps at all to help the planet and create a healthier living environment for you and your family.
It’s not always easy finding sympathetic contractors when you want to go green but they do exist; Absolute Remodeling Corporation in South Salem, NY, www.absoluteremodeling.com, is dedicated to greener construction projects. The Environmental Construction Outfitters of New York located in the Bronx, www.environproducts.com, sells eco-friendly building materials. www.energystar.gov is a government based website offering information on energy conservation and products.
Every renovation project presents it’s own challenges and believe me I know that taking on a renovation is a challenge in itself. Building green requires even more fortitude and effort – you will need to do some research, to be creative in finding ways to recycle and re-use, to be resourceful in finding local renewable sources – but the rewards are well worth it. You will be doing yourself and the planet a much needed service!
Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY