Going Green Is A Shift Of Thinking

Opportunities for thinking green and eco-friendly exist in everything we do, every decision we make, and every material we need.  Being eco-friendly isn’t just about better cars, more efficient homes, and smarter recycling.  I have been reminded of this time after time over the years.  Getting a new couch.  Go green.  Buying good produce.  Go local – and green.

So here’s an anecdote for my point, compliments of a master electrician and engineer at the Portsmouth Naval Yard.  His job, among other responsibilities, is to make the yard as efficient as possible.  In the near future, the yard will be purchasing new elevators.  So let’s put in “re-generative elevators”.  In fact, re-generative elevators should be everywhere appropriate.  To put it simply, a regenerative elevator uses a pulley and counterweight system to power the elevator and brake it, ignoring the free engine called gravity.  Here’s an explanation from one of the manufacturers.

1) Loss: Anytime the elevator slows down, energy is created. In a typical elevator system, that energy is dissipated as heat through a device called a heat resister.

Gain: With a regen drive, the energy is captured and sent back to the power grid.

(2) Loss: Whenever an empty or lightly loaded elevator goes up, the motor spins but the elevator’s counterweight does most of the work.

Gain: A regen drive can allow the motor to essentially act as a generator, creating power that also goes back to the grid.

(3) Loss: When a heavy elevator goes down, the motor spins but gravity is doing most of the work.

Gain: A regen drive can again generate power to the grid.  (source: Habitat Magazine)

Have you ever thought about it.  The physics of this is simple.  It’s all a matter of finding the opportunities and those opportunities abound.  Many green enthusiasts are using their wood stoves to heat hot water by installing a system that runs through piping along the back of the stoves to heat the water tank.  Smart gardeners use the free and abundant gift of that fills rain barrels – rain.  Manufacturers like Richlite capture heat from their ovens and re-use it to heat their facilities during the winter.  Solatube daylighting systems use the light of the sun to bring natural light into a home that would otherwise require using electricity.

The point is that everything we do can be done in an earth friendly and convenient way.  It’s simply a matter of shifting how we think.

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Greenest Is Often The Easiest Choice

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.

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Green Renovation Tips For Asthma and Allergy Sufferers

More and more people suffer from asthma and allergies everyday.  You don’t need to be a doctor to know this.  School nurses ask for medical histories with asthma and allergy questions prominently placed.  Commercials advertising allergy medication fill tv spots hour after hour.  And children with inhalers dot our recreation field.  The statistics are somewhat staggering.  According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology the number of people with asthma (a chronic illness often precipitated by allergies) continues to grow.  In 2010 one in twelve people in the USA (8% of our populations/about 25 million people) had asthma, compared to 1 in 14 people (7% or about 20 million people) in 2000.  In 2010, 1 in 10 children had asthma.  And, in 2008 less than half of the people with asthma reported being taught how to avoid triggers.  With many of those triggers being related to environmental conditions (interior and exterior), it’s amazing how little thought the building community has put into the healthiness of homes.  Unless, of course, you’re talking about the green building community.  Because green building or sustainable building or eco-friendly building, however you wish to call it, concerns itself with the health of building occupants as much as it does about the environment.  These two foundations of green building – health and sustainability – go hand in hand.  When discussing the built world, what is often good for the earth is good for our health and vice-versa.  More

So, here are a few green building related tips and insights for people with asthma and allergy.

  1.   Many of the products in our homes harbor safe-havens for the very creatures (dust mites) and organic matter (pet dander) that cause allergies and trigger asthma.  The number one culprit is carpeting.   If you have asthma and allergies get rid of the carpet.  Allergy triggering matter and fibers get locked in carpeting, especially synthetic carpets, and dust might love to cozy up inside the tufting of your rug.  Use hard surfaces for floors.  Better yet, consider Marmoleum flooring, a true, 100% natural linoleum flooring that looks a hell of a lot better than that toxic vinyl flooring.  Marmoleum is the only floor that has been designated as Asthma and Allergy friendly by the Allergy and Asthma Association of America.  That’s because Marmoleum has anti-static and bacterio-static properties that make it a hostile environment for dust mites.  If you insist on carpeting make sure it is wool, such as Bio Carpet from Earth Weave.  Wool fiber will release those triggers when you vacuum the floor, but synthetic carpets (carpets made from recycled bottles included) hang on mightily to anything the falls into its grasp.
  2. Many of the materials used in building a conventional home are laden with toxins harmful to your health.  Pressed woods, such as the plywood on the shell of your building, the boxes of your cabinetry and engineered flooring contain urea-formaldehyde, a widely known carcinogen.  Conventional paints and the finishes used for flooring, furniture, cabinets and trim work are loaded with VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds).   Fortunately, the building industry, driven by consumer demand, is moving towards healthier products.  Zero VOC paints are available in nearly every paint store and construction materials such as Advantech sub-floors are made without urea formaldehyde.  Building new  sans these toxic elements (or renovating with healthier materials) prevent your immune system from being burdened by toxic chemicals, leaving you healthier to deal with asthma and allergies.  Many doctors and scientists around the country believe that the increased rates of asthma and allergy are the result of a toxic environment that contributes to conditions that make people more susceptible to these sicknesses, (without actually being the direct cause).  New finishes such as Vermont Natural Coatings Poly Whey are extremely low in VOC content and very durable.
  3. No matter how much you build health into your house, you need a means of venting out the allergy causing matter you create and bring into the house. While conventionally built houses are very leaky, few ventilate properly.  The air in our homes, according to the EPA, is 3 to 5 times more polluted than urban streets.  Many homes cook with natural gas and propane.  Many driers run on these same fuels, as well.  Furnaces, not properly vented can exhaust inside.  Additionally, our homes are laden with spray cleaners, perfumes, and all that stuff Dad keeps in the work room.  Even our own exhalations contribute to stale air.   New homes should be built with air to air exchangers that vent out stale are and replace it by pumping in outside air, such as the Venmar EKO.  Existing homes can use simple, though very effective air purification systems to clean the air such as the Austin Air Healthmate.  No matter where you live, it is vital to keep the air in your house fresh.
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Taking Care of Your Wood Floor

In a previous post I made a big point out of stating that the best finish for your floor is a pair of slipper.  I have probably said it to every flooring customer in my store asking a lot of questions about the durability of a product.   Several other question and answers fit the same line of conversation.  People hear a lot of different opinions about various materials and those opinions involve into question posed to sales persons such as me.   In reality, simple black and white answers rarely work.  Not all bamboo is the same, nor is all wood.

Both materials get graded for their quality and clarity, range from A+ Clear Boards, D+ or better decking boards, to rustic, character and knotty.  Quality of the raw material, as well as construction at the mill, determines a lot about materials.  So if one company’s bamboo starts to come apart should you assume that all bamboo his this problem?  Not at all.  In addition to the raw materials a flooring manufacturer begins with, how they put convert that material into a finish product has a large impact on the finish quality.  How precisely does a company mill a board?  To what moisture level are materials dried before being made into flooring?  What sort of glue is used in an engineered floor?  All these factors effect the quality of the finish product, in some cases far more so than the specific species of wood or bamboo being used.  Wood is perfect at being wood.  Bamboo is perfect at being bamboo.  How companies choose to utilize these materials is their choice, but consumers should know this too.

With all that said, even the very best product, such as Eco Fusion bamboo, still needs to be cared for properly.  Bamboo will always behave like bamboo and will react to the conditions you provide for it.    So, getting around to that question about how durable a floor is, the true answer is: it depends! Do you wear shoes in the house or slipper and bare feet?  Do you have a good mat to clean pebbles off your feet?  Have you got any pets?

In addition to wearing slipper, socks or bare feet at home, another good way to care for your wood floor is to not install it in the wrong place.  The most common area for a wood or bamboo floor to fail is the mud room entry way.  This is wear muddy, snow covered, pebble cling boots first enter a home.  This is wear wet jackets drip and dry.  If you have wood here, wood is going to behave exactly as it should in such a place.  The best thing to do is install a tile pad in common entryways.  Tile such as Fireclay Debris Series can handle the abuse.  Another option is to cut out the existing wood or in new construction leave an area without the flooring materials, trim the borders with a reducer and set a heavy duty mat such as a coconut coir door mat with rubber backing.  This is what I have done at my store.  After two and a half years, the bamboo flooring and the mat still look great.  (Keep in mind, this is not a cheap mat, but it looks great and it will not suffer from the conditions).
That’s all.  If you want your floors to last, be practical and understand the nature of the product.

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Whole Systems Thinking Leads To Efficiency

As the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of a sustainability organization in Newburyport, I listened to the post talk discussion among its members.  I overheard a builder present at the event sharing his efforts to build green with a commonly expressed concern – “it just more expensive to build green”.   It is a concern frequently expressed in the building community, but not necessarily grounded in fact.  Others present questioned his assertion; not the validity of it, but the ambiguous nature of the statement.  “How much more expensive,” an architects.  “Ten percent, twenty percent?  Or less.  When you just say more expensive it translates to the general public as a significant cost increase.”  The builder couldn’t put an exact number on it, but his guess was 5 to 10 percent.  According to studies done by McGraw Hill, a major publisher of building and construction magazine and texts, the actual cost of building a LEED certifiable residence is + or – 2% compared to conventional built homes.  This builder, new to green design, lacked a sense of whole systems thinking while his heart was in the right place.  His experience was that if you simply swap out the fiberglass insulation for spray foam or paper cellulose, then the cost will rise dramatically.  Indeed it will.  Simply swapping these materials will at least double the cost of insulation.  But green design demands whole system thinking.  One common element of green design is a more open floor plan that leads to less labor and building materials, as well as a reduced demand for heating energy.  With whole systems thinking, more money spent on one facet, such as insulation, is offset by the design that allows much smaller heating systems.  Perhaps a wall hung boiler will be used in a first floor closet, eliminated the need for a complete utility room in the basement.

That whole systems thinking is a process that continues step after step.  Since I began with an example of heating equipment, let me continue on the same subject.  Assuming you have designed your house for super-efficiency, you may find that your houses heating and cooling demands are so low that more common heat systems such as a furnace or wall hung boiler don’t accurately enough match the btu requirements of your home.  Such systems use a single unit to cover all of the homes demand.  In contrast, an air source heat pump may allow you to better tailor fit your house’s energy demand by adding the heating heads (elements) that work in increments of 8kbtu to 15ktu.  All of this leads to potential savings in the overall heat system.  The the  same efficient unit such as the Mitsubishi Mr. Slim will also provide summertime cooling.

The same thinking can be applied to windows.  Granted, it would be great for all of us to have windows with thermal values of R-9, but few of us can afford that.  Does it make sense to spend $80k on R-9 windows that meet passive house standards or when you can go with a $40k package of high quality R-6 windows from LePage.  Windows are the weakest part of your thermal wall.  Doubling the cost for an increased r-value of 3 just doesn’t add up.  And there are other factors to consider.  Does the R-9 window have an equal fenestration rating for air infiltration as the R-6 window?  Is the R-9 window built as well, and thus as durable as the R-6 window?

Ultimately, the way to get people to understand the value of green building design is to get them to understand whole systems thinking.  It’s easy to appreciate and it just make sense in the end.

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Avoid The Green-Do Gooder Arms Race

Some of the things us tree huggers do to live by our principles can be strange and potentially contradictory.  My own experience this morning is a fine example.

Currently I am working on a set of stairs and fencing for a walk up from my driveway to the backyard.  I want a stain/sealer for the new cedar that is durable, maintains the natural look of the wood, and is easy to re-coat.  After doing the research, the best option for buying it from a local business was to drive down to Portsmouth (8 miles) and pick up a gallon of the chosen sealer (Penofin).  I waited until I had multiple reasons to put the car on the road and drove the 8 miles south to Portsmouth, instead of driving that distance when it was convenient just to pick up a gallon of stain.

After running those errands and returning to York with my gallon of stain/sealer I discovered (via the web) that Penofin had come out with a “zero VOC” version of the product I just bought.  Damn, I cursed myself, I wish I had know about that.  Reflexively, I considered returning the gallon to the store I bought it from in Portsmouth and picking up the green version at a different store (that stocked it) in a different town nearby.  Why?  To be true to my green principles, of course!  But after a little thought, I decided to stick with the low VOC product.    After all, would using the zero voc product provide enough environmental benefit to outweigh the carbon emission created by driving to Portsmouth to return the product and later driving to another town to get the “green” stuff?  Certainly not; but this type of flawed decision-making happens among us tree huggers, now and then.  Our hearts are in the right place, but sometimes not our minds.

This type of decision-making is very similar to the decision made when people drive 10 miles out-of-the-way just to save $4 on a given product.  It occurs among consumers and manufacturers.  It is an effort that focus on the ends far more than the means.  Customers of mine will drive 35 miles to pick-up AFM Safecoat paint.  Safecoat is a great product.  I think it’s the best.  And I love the business.   But if there is a good quality zero VOC paint at a shop in your home town, wouldn’t buying that be a more sustainable choice?

My point is simple.  Good green choices are the result of looking at the big picture.  Supporting truly green manufacturers supports a more sustainable future and helps the growth of an eco-friendly economy and an eco-friendly world.  But sometimes the ends don’t justify the means.  Picking up one gallon of paint (no matter how much it benefits my business) because it is the “greenest” paint doesn’t justify the means (traveling 30 miles in a car) to getting it, unless you need it for health issues and there is no option where you live.  It’s important to see the big picture and not get caught up in the green-do-gooder arms race that focuses solely on the green merits of a product and ignores your means of accessing the product.   Good balanced decision-making – a combination of planning, patience and a little research – will very easily lead you to a sustainable lifestyle.

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10 Minute Architect Comes To York

Need Design Help?

Just ask an Architect….Free!

Local Architects and Builders Offer Free Design Help

In this economy, protecting your investment is critical, and its even better if you can get free advice on the subject. Greenovations Eco Building Supply is sponsoring “10-Minute Architect”, a free design clinic on Wednesday, July 11th at their store on 470 US Route 1 in York, Maine.

The free design clinic is offered to homeowners and commercial property owners who are considering when and how to use an architect or builder for a project, or just want some design and construction guidance. Participating architects and builders believe this clinic will also allow others to see how building professionals play a valuable role in their community.  The clinic, first created and sponsored by the Portland Society of Architects, has been put on with great success for 8 years in Portland, Maine.  Participants in Portland have commented that it was an “incredible opportunity to talk to architects” and that it helped them “in considering building alternatives, determining the scope of their project and figuring out the feasibility”.  The interaction proved enjoyable to the architects as well who thrived on the opportunity to do what they do best, solve problems.   The PSA has graciously offered their guidance to Greenovations to support this community event as it grows into southern Maine.

“We will have some of the most experienced, highly educated architects and builders in the region,” says Christopher Ring, the principal at Greenovations and self described building science geek.  While all the participating professionals donating their expertise have years of high quality building expertise, Ring notes that “the built environment demands continual education and all of our participants are not only experts, but also continual learners who constantly stay abreast of evolving building design concepts and techniques.”

Dubbed 10-Minute Architect, the clinic actually allows attendees to spend up to 20 minutes with participants, discussing issues such as basic layouts, project budget feasibility, permitting issues, construction techniques and more.  Participants donating their time include Paul Fowler, LEED AP, Principal at Adapt Design; Shannon Alther, AIA, and Principal at TMS Architects; Christopher Redmond, Designer/Founder of Little Green Homes; Peter Robie, Founder of Eco Sound Builders; and Marc Hovde owner of Hovde Construction.  “We want encourage people to understand the value of smart building and the positive impact it can have on the community, the world at large and themselves”, says Ring.  Pre-registration is encouraged but walk-ins are welcome.

What: 10-Minute Architect, Sponsored by Greenovations, an Eco Building Supply

Who: For homeowners and commercial property owners

When: Wednesday, July 11th,   4:30-6:30pm

Where: Greenovations, 470 US Route 1, York, Maine

For sign-up and more information e-mail: greenovations@maine.rr.com

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