I have said this before on the Greenovations blog and here I am to say it again: home improvement projects can easily lead you astray from the greenest choices, even when those choices are the easiest. My near complete summer project is a perfect example.
Our home has a drive under garage while the main level of the house sits on the ground one flight above. As a result we have a six-foot high retaining wall to the side where the backyard is. For two years that retaining wall and the steps going up it to the back yard and deck have been a cause of concern. That wall was also our first home improvement interest, though many other projects have preceded it as we have deliberated over how to improvement. The problem with this wall and stairwell has been threefold. First, the top of the wall, which is only 6 inches higher than ground level in the backyard, had no fence. Though our kids were quite good about steering clear of the wall, visiting children were not. Secondly, the stairwell passing through the wall was far steeper than what is considered safe. It was made of precast concrete and clearly brought to site for the wrong application. Clearly, it didn’t bother the original empty-nest owners, but for a family with children this was another safety hazard. Finally, the whole set up was just plain ugly. So what to do?
We considered many options. These included tearing down the concrete wall and rebuilding it with stone and properly designed steps; filling the stairwell, closing it off with concrete, and applying veneer stones to the face while adding a short path around the low side of the wall to the back yard; rebuilding the wall with architectural masonry blocks; and so on. None of these options and the cost involved were feasible for my wife and I (admittedly, with more cash, the rebuild with stone idea would have been a go). In hindsight, we realized that we avoided adding a tone of concrete to the landfill and calling for more resources extracted from the earth to build it with energy intensive non-renewable stone. (For those who don’t know, concrete is one of the most energy intensive, CO2 creating materials on earth.) Finally, we settled on what you can see on the picture to the right. Rather than created more waste for the landfill, we worked with what we had. Using a hybrid of stair stringers and boxes, we built a base frame to reconfigure the stairwell for a safe and comfortable incline. We (meaning me) then built the steps using sustainably harvested American red cedar. For fencing, we used the same material, choosing a simple modern style that we feel gives the set up an architectural design – one that was planned from the beginning of the home construction project. Finally, the wood was finished with low VOC Penofin penetrating oil. The end result, is a new stairwell and new fence with very little waste (scraps for our fire pit and a bed for my daughters doll) made from a renewable material. As well, doing much of the work myself, the project cost only 1/3 of the other proposals. And while it require maintenance, I believe this is true of most good project. That said, I took my time and carefully followed every possible step to ensure a long and durable life for what I built. The easiest, most cost-effective, appealing choice was the greenest choice and I built it to last.
* The project is not complete yet. I will be applying a finish coat to the concrete in the coming weeks to give it that refined look.