Introducing a new Blog: Seeking (stylish) Suburban Sustainability.

This blog grew out of my desire to walk my talk.  I am an ordinary Mom, with a greater than ordinary desire to minimize the effect that my family has on the environment.  As I try and do the right thing, save energy, and minimize my family’s exposure to chemicals, I have developed different practical solutions.  I get so excited when I discover new ways to do things, but feel that these stories aren't really right for my bog on Sustainable Home.  That is a place where I talk about my green design practice, interior design, green architecture, and furnishings.  But I also wanted to write about trying to be sustainable in day-to-day life. So I have decided to start a sister blog.

Many people quote Gandhi's  "Be the change you wish to see in the world."  Often I think that people interpret this quote to mean that they must be strong enough to make change happen in this world through their own effort and force of will.  This is not the case; the story that this quote came from is about a mother, like me.

She brought her son to Gandhi, who was so revered that people often came to him for advice on many things.  She was worried for her son's health because he was overweight and would not stop eating sweets.  She asked Gandhi to tell her son to stop eating sweets.  Gandhi said to come back in two weeks.  She was surprised but complied.  In two weeks she came back and Gandhi spoke directly to her son, clearly and compellingly asking him to respect himself and his life enough to eat healthy foods and give up sweets and sugar.

"Why did I need to come back?" She asked.

"Well Madam," he answered, "I love sugar, pastries and candy.  Before I could ask your son to give these things up, I had to know that I could do so myself."

I have worked in my professional life to educate people on green building, and it's tremendous potential to save energy while making homes healthier, and saving building owners money.  But I am also a suburban housewife, mother of three, PTA volunteer who loves sewing, painting, hiking and gardening.   I want to be able to do all of the things in my life, but am conscious that every activity has some kind of effect on the environment.  So I am always seeking creative solutions to do things in an eco way.

If I can do it, with all the ordinary problems of getting my kids to school, shopping for groceries, doing lots of laundry, and entertaining: then I know that it is possible.  Before I ask anyone else to change their life, before I tell people that they should be greener, I green my own life. I have found that few of these changes require any sacrifice, and in fact many of them have paid off in increased fun, better health, and a more beautiful life.

Which brings me to another detail.  I love good design!  I am obsessed with glamour, charm and elegance.  I love my job because I can work with beach cottages, formal homes, warm modern kitchens, and funky vintage living rooms.  My clients are a constant source of inspiration.

I am not willing to sacrifice my style to be green.  So this blog is called “Seeking (Stylish) Suburban Sustainability.”

Seeking- because it is a process, there is always more to do, but even the first step makes a difference.

(Stylish) – Because what is the point of life without glamour, style and beauty? I rest my case!

Suburban – because that is where I live, and the suburbs have the reputation for being very un-sustainable.

Sustainability – because we need to figure this one out, or we will all be in deep doo-doo.

Hope the new bog is useful and interesting to you, dear reader. I am pleased as punch to start writing it. Future blog entries at this site will continue to be about green design, furniture and architecture. You will soon be able to click through to S(S)SS at the button above on this site, or go directly there now at: ('my green house', in French.)

Teaching- part of the job- Class coming up in April

One of the most difficult things to manage in the design business is delivering unpleasant news to a client.  I think everyone who does this work wants to solve problems and create great results, but sometimes bad news..... happens.  Recently one of my sources of organic towels discontinued a color, while I had an order in for that color, and without emailing me.  Yikes! The only way to handle it is to tell the client the truth, and to provide a solution as part of the message.  I spent a rather intense afternoon on the internet finding organic cotton towels in that exact color, before calling my client!

Being an interior designer with a green specialty means that you are always bringing up unpleasant realities.  The cabinet shop that is cheapest might use a formaldehyde containing wood product,  the mahogany flooring that the client likes might have been poached out of a rainforest, the wallpaper might contain vinyl and encourage mould growth in the walls.  It adds a level of complexity because I have to deliver lifecycle information about the products used in interior design, while still creating the visual, functional and emotional atmosphere a client wants in their home.  I love designing homes, and collaborating with clients, but sometimes I feel like the Grinch when I bring up some yucky environmental effect associated with a product.

I love teaching about green interior design because I get to share all of the information about green products, but without bumming a client out because I am telling them they shouldn't buy something.  Most people will never be in the situation where they are hiring a design professional, but I still want them to know about sustainable design.  I feel especially strongly about environmentally friendly interior design when there are health issues with conventional products.  No one should have formaldehyde in their interior wood products, it is a known airway irritant, mutagen and carcinogen, and is easy to avoid.  But if you don't know the right questions to ask, you might bring this pollutant into you house!

It is great because I can help people who are doing their own design make healthier choices.

Anyhow, this is all to introduce the fact that I am teaching again in April:

Here is the link to look at the class or sign up:
2 wks · Apr 21–28 Wednesday · 7 – 9 p.m. Palo Alto HS Rm 306 · $40
Kirsten Flynn,LEED-GA, CGBP, Allied ASID,
Green interior design helps you create a home that reflects your great taste and your care for the planet. This two-night course covers environmental issues associated with most common interior materials and furnishings, and allows you to see and touch building materials that are as gorgeous as they are green. Kirsten Flynn owns the design firm Sustainable Home, teaches on the Peninsula, and recently designed the interiors for a totally solar house featured in the Solar Decathlon.

The #1 reason why having a budget will be good for your project- It will be greener.

People are surprised when I say I love working within a tight budget in a project.  I truly believe it improves the resulting design.  And one of the ways that it does so is by making the project greener.

Interestingly enough, the reasons that support this statement are almost duplicates of the reasons below. If you think carefully about your project, and spend your limited budget on those features that truly matter to you, (as in reason #3 below) you are likely to create a space that will make you happy for a long time. One of the most important characteristics of a green project is whether it has longevity. It you like, and can live with a design for a long time, you are unlikely to remodel again in the short term. This minimizes how often you will need to consume more products, and throw away old ones, because you are tired of a room design.

I also think that when you have been creative with reuse in finishing your design space, (as in reason #2 below) the resulting project is more that just visual. It also has a great story which resonates beyond the way it looks. “Remember how we found that chair by the side of the road, and had it refinished?” “Did you know that marble used to be on countertop in a bank?” These stories add richness and meaning to a space, in addition to being both creative and green.

100 % recycled Mosaic

Also many of the most creative new materials in architecture and design are green. Most of the market is stagnant, and is not innovating.  But green design is lively and stimulating, even in this down economy. New green products are being introduced contstantly and they are interesting, stunningly beautiful and exciting. It is easy to select them just because or their visual qualities, but they also add a green story to the mix, “That tile used to be a car windshield!” Carefully selecting the new green materials and furnishings allow me to do design that feels fresh and interesting.

And, finally, as I have said before; size does matter in green design.  If you have a budget, you are likely to select the smallest possible scope of work.  This means you will focus on making those changes that will truly make you space more functional and enjoyable.  This targeted approach will benefit you the most, with the smallest investment.  It will also use less natural resources, and create less waste.

So the greenest project is the one that has a small (but realistic) budget.  Read on to the older blogs to see the other reasons that a limited budget is a GOOD thing for your interior design project!

Why having a budget is good for your design project, Reason #2- You will be more Creative

The current economic situation is challenging, and is causing folks to reassess their spending priorities. I actually think this might be a good thing for the design projects that still are going on. There are gorgeous products in the world, and it is easy to fall in love with high end materials. But in a sense, when you have the ability to purchase picture perfect items for every area of your home, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to solve your design problems within a set of limitations. A budget creates a challenge, when redesigning your home, and one’s mind functions better when solving challenging problems. Which brings me to the number two reason why your design project will be better if you are working with in a tight budget:

#2- You will be more creative! When you buy expensive products for your home, everything is beautiful because a staff of designers has done a wonderful job creating that item. I love high end design, but think that it is fun to take some of the creativity back from those designers. After all why should they get all the fun? You budget forces you to purchase expensive products sparingly, which frees you up to do creative problem solving. I use wallpaper on plaster walls in older homes, because it is so difficult to keep cracks from showing up as the house shifts (especially in earthquake country) but it can be expensive, $80-120 a roll, is not unusual. How about this idea, using old newspaper or pages from a book? Selecting a used addition of a favorite novel would add a layer of personal meaning to your walls.

Even on high end projects I always use vintage pieces of furniture, they add additional charm. But expecially for wood items like end tables, or dressers, they represent significant savings over buying new, and are always higher quality than new items of the same price. I love selecting an item that reminds a client of a special time in their life, lunch in grandma’s kitchen might be evoked by a vintage painted table, or their groovy professor’s house by a mid century end table ($85 on craigslist). So, by paying attention to a budget, a bunch of creative options come into view for creating a more personal space.  Wood pieces are easy to refinish, and vintage shapes add a unique touch to a home. If you have a Craigslist organization locally, that is a great place to look, and the best bargains are always at tag sales.

Over all, having limits on your budget gives you the freedom to think creatively about your design direction. Solutions are not just handed to you (for a price,) it takes work. But once you start thinking creatively you will end up with a design solutions that are more personal, more fun, and save you money.

Why having a budget is good for your design project, Reason #3- You will appreciate what you get

In the current economic climate many people are facing a gap between what they want and what they can afford. It is easy to see this as a beastly problem, or even a reason to throw up your hands and avoid needed design changes, (Please, not this!) But the reality is that every project has a budget. Even clients who have the ability to select more luxurious materials and furnishings end up bumping into dreaded compromises. Most people cannot afford everything they desire, and perhaps that is a good thing. Interestingly enough, I have found that many of the projects with strict budgets end up being the best designs when finished. I actually like working within a budget, it gives a structure to the many decisions that need to be made when redoing a space. So, to give hope as we enter the economic recovery (we are recovering, right?), over the next few blogs I will give you the reasons your design project will be better if you are working within a budget.

#3- You will appreciate your finished project more. As you work though a project, especially a remodel, there are many little things that you must fit into your budget. Many of them do not offer that much of an opportunity either to splurge or to economize- a 2x4 stud costs what it costs- but for many items there are solutions in a range of costs. Working within a budget causes you to consider the lowest cost item for each choice, in addition to the first pretty thing you fall in love with. You might want a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen, and think that Lanka hand molded tiles are fabulous, rich with variation. This might be the detail that will make your heart sing each time you look at it- but your budget will make you aware that the machine made tile is 1/3 the price. If you backsplash is 60 sf, and the cost savings is about $6/sq.ft, you will probably have one of two reactions- either “That handmade tile is so delightful, it was so worth the extra $360 out of my budget.” Or,“I am so glad I could afford that gorgeous modern faucet, because of the money I saved on the tile.” Either way, you are happier with the final result, because of the research that your budgeting made you do. The reality is that there are lovely products in every budget category, and that expensive things are only worth it if they add value that you appreciate. A budget forces you to be conscious of what you truly love and value in design.

Who knows stuff? Evaluating green building professionals.

image is from cover of LEED for Homes Reference Guide I am very excited that I have just passed my LEED Green Associate exam.  But, I realize that this is only exciting news if you know what the heck it means.  As in any profession, there are any number of alphabet letters one can put after one's name.  Some mean more than others.   If a homeowner is planning to hire someone to work on their home, it is good to know what the letters mean.

I will explain some of the qualifications that a green building professional might have:

The exam I passed is the first qualifying level for green professionals administrated by the USGBC.  The USGBC is an agency that has the goal of promoting energy and resource efficient and healthy buildings.  To achieve that goal they have created a building program called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.) A building, of almost any type, can be LEED certified, and a building professional can be LEED accredited.  Different LEED building evaluation tools are available for different types of buildings: LEED Commercial Interiors, LEED for Homes, LEED Green Building Design and Construction, and a product for the Green Operations and Maintenance of existing buildings.   Similarly architects, designers and builders can be credentialed in different areas.  My goal is to be a LEED Accredited Professional in the LEED for Homes product.  I first had to pass the LEED green associate exam.  So if you are hiring, the LEED AP is someone who has shown high level of knowledge of a specific LEED area, and a LEED GA is someone who has the basic knowledge. One cannot take the LEED AP exam in a specific area until you have worked on a LEED project, so I cannot take the Homes exam, yet!

LEED is a very tough rating plan, the training is very specific and challenging, and it does not apply to some building types.  There is a cost to track all of the green characteristics of the project, although there is also a marketing premium to having a LEED building.   There is another organization in California, that has as a goal developing a more accessible rating and training system: Build it Green. Both of these organizations have qualities in common: they both train architects, designers and builders on green building, they both educate the public on the benefits of green building, and they both have building rating systems. They work closely together to create training and rating systems for all parts of the building industry. The buildings rated by Build it Green are called Green Point Rated, and the buiding professionals that have been through the trainings are either Certified Green Building Professionals (CGBP) or Green Point Raters.  I am also a CGBP, and look forward to being an Advanced CGBP at some point.  Green point raters have the job of going out and evaluating a building to see if it qualifies under Build it Green's green building standards.

There also is a training track that has to do with home energy optimization.  As more and more companies got into the business of insulating, installing windows, etc.,  it became clear that a homeowner could waste a lot of money on the wrong enhancements, without realizing any energy or cost savings.  The Building Perfomance Institute offers training in testing home energy performance, and evaluating the appropriate building retrofits. If you are hiring a contractor to do an energy audit in your home, insulate, or weatherize your window, you should check that they have BPI qualifications. Here in California there is a local organization that does training and education within the state, the California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA.)

I realize that this seems like an Alphabet soup of possible letters that a person could have on their business card. The bottom line is that if you are hiring someone, especially in the new field of green building, it is helpful to know that their level of commitment to green building matches your goals for your project. At minimum it is nice to know that they have the appropriate qualification listed above. It also is helpful to ask a professional how long they have been working in this field. Some have only started marketing themselves as 'green' recently once it became more popular. If you are strongly committed to lightening the environmental footprint of your project, it is good to pick a design professional that shares that level of interest, and had been exploring this field for a long time.

If everyone is famous for 15 minutes, is this 1/3?

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed for a blog radio program called 5 minute Eco, as part of How You Eco.  It was an interesting experience to try and focus my usually blathering thoughts down to a concise length.  I was asked to explain what a green interior designer was, and still leave room for my top three green tips!  I managed to get into the correct time frame.  I found the concept intriguing, get smart people to talk about their green field for 5 minutes, kind of a bite sized green interview show. I like the fact that the experts are selected for this program by a team that knows something about green.  It makes me nervous how much advertising is being directed towards this market, and so much of it is greenwashing, (claiming a product is green, to gain marketing advantage, without actually making it ecologically friendly.  One example would be the claim "all natural ingredients.")

To be honest, it is kind of the wild west out there as far as green claims go. Many companies have decided that in this down economy a green claim is their ticket to the green cash! More than ever, I would suggest that a consumer who is interested in environmentally friendly products find out if the product has a verifiable claim to that title. FSC certification for wood products is one example of a third party certification. This means that the manufacturer did not certify their own product. Other third party certified claims include: LEED certification for green building, Green Guard which certifies whether a product is contributes to good indoor air quality (IAQ), and Green Seal with certifies a variety of products including construction products. Another example of a claim that must be verifiable would be organic or recycled content. If a label says that your paper is 100% recycled, 30% post consumer- that must be true. Be careful that the claims for any product are not vague, and unverifiable, and you can be sure that your green purchase is really making a difference.

Also, please listen to my interview, and see how I am trying to make a difference!

Does Size Matter?

  Window seats add storage and comfort

I am encouraged that we seem to be having a backlash against huge homes. I don't want to bash them, but they make me sad for so many reasons: * Most importantly I do not think giant homes function well as a places that make the folks living in them happy and comfortable. If, as Le Corgusier says "A house is a machine for living." I think these big homes are in-efficient machines. If I ask a client to describe a place that make them happy, they often describe a home that fostered both relaxation and human interaction. They decribe places that had nooks for reading in, a room where everyone gathered to cook or socialize, and the word "cozy" often comes up. I have NEVER has a person mention a large space, one that was echoing or impressive. And yet these large homes are built to impress. - They take more resources to build, heat, light and cool than smaller homes. - They force you to furnish them, PAY for them, and clean them- Lets face in, new homes sell by the square foot, and every square foot needs to be taken care of. Does your house own you, or do you own your house? Sometimes the extra room can feel like a burden rather than enriching your life. In any case, I enjoyed coming across the following survey for folks to take to see if their house is too big.  It is written by Sarah Susanka, who wrote the Not So Big House series, and this is my favorite question:


■  Is your house so large that you can coexist with other household members without running into them?

YIKES, is it?

Great quote, is it an extreme stretch to relate it to design?

Ok, I really love smart people, and especially smart people who can encapsulate a complex thought into clear quotation.  I just came across the following quote: "Environmental degradation is an Iantrogenic (physician induced) disease induced by economic physicians who treat the basic malady of unlimited wants by prescribing unlimited growth... Yet one certainly does not cure a treatment-induced disease by increasing the treatment dosage."  Herman Daly

Doesn't that totally capture the concept?

This resonates with me particularly because I have always felt the tension between what I do for a living: help people purchase things to make their home more beautiful and functional, and what I feel is one of the root causes of environmental problems: consumption.

I have had to do some deep reflection on whether I can feel good about my interior design work, given my core beliefs, and have come to a good place with it.  It is clear to me that desire for beautiful things is an essential part of human nature and is not going to go away.  It is also clear that a badly arranged home, filled with objects that do not function, or give pleasure, makes people want to do some thing or buy some thing to make a change.  My role is to help that change, (whether it is rearranging the existing furniture, or undertaking a major remodel), actually meet the needs of the owner when it is complete.  If I succeed in doing so, the person will be happier in their home, and not have as much desire for continued change or purchases.  

Now I very well might be taking interior design a little too seriously with the above analysis, it is basically about making your house pretty, but it is a decent goal to make a person feel happy when they open their door and see their living space.

A simple thing to do for the environment.

Hey, did you ever wonder if the simple act of lighting up your house when you are reading or working makes a difference in the environment? I know, we all feel like we have been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders with the compact fluorescent bulb concept. Yeah we get it, and we get it that we should turn out the light when we leave a room. But perhaps the niggling thought enters your head on occasion, "how much difference can it possibly make?"Well one small thing you can do this weekend will both- help to answer that question, and send a message to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. On Saturday March 28th, at 8:30 pm local time, 2009, people all around the globe will turn out their lights and other electric items for one hour. The Earth Hour goal is to have one BILLION people switch out their lights for that hour to send a message to the climate change conference that we are concerned about energy use as it relates to global warming. Almost as a side effect, previous Earth Hours have let us know whether turning out a few lights can make a difference in global warming.  According to WWF Thailand, Bangkok decreased electricity usage by 73.34 megawatts, which, over one hour, is equivalent to 41.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Toronto saved 900 megawatt-hours of electricity. 8.7% was saved if measured against a typical March Saturday night.  Ireland, as a whole, had a reduction in electricity use of about 1.5% for the evening.

And you know, snuggling in the dark, or having a glass of wine by candlelight, sounds like a pretty good thing to be doing this Saturday night!

Start Global Worming

  a commercial worm bin

Ok, this is not a glamorous design blog, it is about garbage, and worms.  However, I think there is a beauty to economy and efficiancy, and worms are gloriously efficient at devouring the worst sort of trash, and giving you rich soil in return.


Did you know that worms help reduce greenhouse gas emissions of Methane?  Neither did I, until I watched this cute little movie from Dodo Films.  I have long been a fan of composting,  I have two compost bins, a compost tumbler and a worm bin (that is a serious fan!).   I even got my worm bin as a Christmas present from my mother.  (Thanks Mom.)  Worm composting is a great way to make the yuckiest, smelliest trash (food waste) into something fantastic.  

The reasons that worm composting is my favorite way of processing organic trash are:

- They can deal with a lot of potato peelings, half their weight each day

- They are good for lazy composters- (Me!!!)  don't let them drown in the rain, or freeze (not likely in the Bay Area) or roast in the sun- throw in some food waste and shredded newspaper once in a while and- Woila!  No turning, no thermometers.

- They can be in a plastic bin indoors, practical even for apartments or condos.

So give a red wiggler a chance, you might find that you are making less trash, and saving money on soil amendments.

Water, Just try to live without it.

California has a small problem; we have a great climate, natural beauty, used to have a decent economy, and an ever increasing population.  Most of the state is what you would describe as semi-arid, which in practice means not enough water to grow rice, or have big green lawns, or an ever increasing population.   But we do have all those things.

Since we do, conservation has to be part of the plan, since we do not have enough water to use it wastefully.  There are so many things that are crazy in the way we use water.  Why do we have to use tap water for landscaping, it actually is worse for the plants.  Why use drinking water to flush toilets?  I really never, and I mean NEVER intend to drink that water!!! 

Well I was excited to see this new local award program that rewards people who have done outstanding work at changing (reducing, of course) their water use.  They are called the Silicon Valley Water Conservation Awards- I will be very interested to see who submits for this award, and especially who wins.

If you happen to have a great water conservation project in the Bay Area, please apply!

Live and learn, Sustainable Home is teaching this fall

I am teaching again in October through the Palo Alto Adult School.  The class is two evenings, two hours an evening.  Here is a class description, GREEN INTERIOR DESIGN-THE NUTS AND BOLTS

You love to create a beautiful home, but you worry whether the paints, furniture, and flooring you choose are healthy for you and the environment.  It's time to look into green interior design, a new approach to home decorating that reflects your great taste and your care for the planet. This two-night course covers the environmental issues  that are associated with  common interior materials and furnishings.   In this class you will see and touch building materials and fabrics that are as gorgeous as they are green, and you'll leave the class with a solid understanding of how to select materials for home interiors and the theory behind green building.  Your instructor, Kirsten Flynn, owns the design firm Sustainable Home and specializes in environmentally responsible interiors. She teaches on the Peninsula and recently designed the interiors for a house featured in the Solar Decathlon, an international solar home contest.


If you entertain at all over the holidays I have one word for you: Vintage, vintage, vintage! (Ok, that is one word repeated three times for emphasis.) Truly, this is another green lifestyle choice that improves the quality of your life. These beautiful hand embroidered German napkins are selling for under $3 each on Ebay right now, and aren't they prettier than paper? Better yet, save the shipping by going to your local thrift shop benefiting the hospital auxiliary or the Cancer Society. You know your money will go to a good cause, and the linens, (or glasses or serving platter) add charm to your event. Don't even get me started on my love of vintage china..... If I sound gushing, it is because I really love giving older items a new life. New products take a tremendous amount of raw material to be produced and get shipped to you. Vintage item are often better made, cheaper for similar quality, and have a smaller effect on the world. Plus, they are much more unique than new retail. Be chic, buy vintage.