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.)

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.

Sustainable Fabrics from Neo Con

Reports are starting to come back from Neo Con, a design industry trade show featuring new products primarily for commercial design.  I love commercial design products for a number of reasons: first, they are durable since they are made to hold up in banks, offices and hospitals.  Secondly, OSHA has standards for indoor air quality that apply in the workplace, so products made for offices must be low emitting.  These standards do not relate to the home, so I have to research the VOCs for every home product I specify.  And finally, partly because interior designers are working to achieve LEED points, there are a lot of recycled content fabrics, and fabrics with other eco qualities. I was impressed by this series from Brentano.  It is made of wool, but it is significant how completely they have scrutinized the wool manufacturing process.  They even made sure that the soap used to wash the wool prior to weaving was biodegradable!  Plus it is a pretty, useful stripe that comes in a variety of colorways. Stripes are so great for pulling a room together- they add a little bit of pattern without dominating.

I also enjoyed seeing this fun two tone floral from Carnegie.  It is made of 100% POST CONSUMER recycled polyester, and is part of a very attractive Bright Side collection of fabrics.  I could see the Whimsey floral, shown here, in a retro sun-room inspired setting, and the polyester would perfom well in there.  If the bright + white is a little bold for you, how about the nice multi color floral, called Imagine?  It is also recycled Poly, and comes in a variety of quieter colorways.  I like the slight orientalist feeling of the pattern, it could go modern, or traditional.

I love being able to offer clients a variety of sustainable choices in fabrics, and the product development is going very quickly these days. So nice to not be limited to organic unbleached cotton!

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!

Green building- what do you do when you go inside?

I am teaching a class in early March that answers that question, on the SF peninsula, through Palo Alto Adult School.  I really enjoy making folks laugh and and at the same time become more conscious about their interior design choices.   Of course, it might be partly because I like people paying attention to me as if I have something important to say, but the fact is I am passionate about how many gorgeous and green home choices there are out there.  Why bother choosing a product that has toxic components, or requires yucky chemicals to maintain, or created a dangerous situation while being manufactured for you?  I have a favorite quote from Anna Lappe "every time you spend money you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want."  And this vote is one that is very carefully listened to by very powerful people.  I do see my class as an opportunity to give remodelers, designers, or homeowners the knowledge they need to choose wonderful healthy products.   I cover a lot of interesting topics, and usually get students excited about the subject. You can register on line or over the  phone,  or call  650-329-3752.

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!

I hate waste, and I love this company!

Before I was an interior designer I worked as a textile designer in the garment industry. I remember being disgusted by the amount of sample fabric that got thrown away. Often whole 40 yard bolts would be clipped for color reference and then tossed away. Fast forward 15 years to the present, and I just found a little company that seems to feel just the same way about the waste in the furniture industry. The Modern Fabric Store sells scrap fabric that is thrown away after custom furniture is upholstered. They will even go into the dumpster to avert waste! The amazing thing is that the "waste fabric" from a large commercial upholstery job can be from one to as many as 10 yards. They even separate out the fabrics that have environmentally friendly qualities, so they are easy to find on the web site. So get your thinking caps on and think of some cool project that needs a few yards of inexpensive and high quality fabric.

Come, let me fill your mind with information!

I wanted to let my regular blog readers, (you are out there, right?) know about a couple of Green interior design events coming up. They are all in the Bay Area, but if you can make it... great! First, I am teaching a one hour class on Green Interior Design at the Elephant Pharmacy in Los Altos from 3 to 4 pm, (not like it would be AM) on the 12th of April. I will cover the basics of interior issues, introducing the concepts of indoor Air Quality (IAQ), Evaluating the environmental claims of different interior materials and furnishings, and using certified wood. We will also look at a lot of green materials for different areas in your home. For more information to to: Elephant Pharmacy. The second event is an opportunity to see, and learn about, three great green buildings. Hidden Villa, an Environmental Education Center in Los Altos Hills is having a Sustainable building day on April 13th from 4-6. They have three green buildings: one earth sheltered home designed by Cornell Tam architects, featuring passive solar and extensive use or reclaimed materials, One straw Bale hybrid, designed by San Luis Sustainability Group, with stellar solar access design and solar H2O and PV in addition to other green materials, and finally a Arkin Tilt building featuring rammed earth, a geothermal system, strawboard ceilings, and reclaimed wood both decoratively and structurally. All of the buildings will be open with group leader available to explain their green features, and Hidden Villa also has a CSA garden, a children's garden, hiking trails and farm animals. It is a fun place to visit any weekend. I will be the docent in one of the buildings.

And finally I am teaching a two day class on Green Interior Design, through Palo Alto Adult School. I will cover the concepts of environmentally friendly materials selection, choosing products that encourage resource efficiency, avoiding Volitile Organic Compounds (VOC's) and improving indoor air, issues with upholstery and fabrics, and the right questions to ask to get a green interior design solution. You will learn so much about green interior design, get to see many green materials, and we will have time to answer specific questions about your homes. It is a two evening class on consecutive Wednesdays, the 23rd and the 30th from 7 to 9 pm. More information, or to register.

I hope to see you at one of these events. Feel free to contact me if you need any further information The image is of some very lovely energy efficient lights from Michelle Kaufman, available as a fluorescent fixture or LED

I want to ride my bicyle

This had been a simple change that creates positive ripples in a lot of directions: -Obviously there is that “Carbon Issue” The National Personal Transportation Survey (who knew there was such a thing?) tells us that 40% of all trips, 40% of all the times anyone starts a car up they are traveling under 2 miles! Isn’t that wild? I would say I take about 80% of those trips carbon free. This makes me feel good, and affects my overall carbon footprint. There is a great fact sheet including how much biking affects pollution at the California Air Resources board.

-We cannot all continue to drive all the time, and it is important to teach our kids to use other modes of transportation. When I bike with my kids to a store, or send them out to get on their bike to get to high school, I am teaching them that I am cruel and heartless because I will not drive them. Just kidding, I am really showing them that there are many fun and easy ways to get around. Biking seems normal.

-The more bikes on the road the safer it is for bikes on the road. If drivers have an expectation that they might see a pedestrian or cyclist on a certain street, they will slow down. I know it is frightening to get out there withouta stee; box around you, but if you learn the rules of the road, and wear proper safety gear, it is possible. I have never had a bike accident involving a car, and neither have my three kids. (Well there was that one time that my son rode right into a parked car, but no one was hurt and he is a little distractible.)

-My kids get themselves to school! I do not have to drive to or pick up from three different places every weekday. They just leave and come back on their own. They also have the confidence to ride to a friend’s house, or out for Jamba Juice. I am not their taxi service.

-My body is less saggy, especially those parts behind me that I sit on. (I think we both know what I am talking about.) This is a good thing, and is a reproducible effect on anyone!

-Hey, guess what, I save money on gas.

-I see my neighbors, I see the trees, I am out there in the world. When I am in a car I don’t notice the world around me nearly as much.

West Coast Green

What a wonderful trade show. It was way too big to get my hands around, figuratively speaking. There were 20 green building speakers in each session during the day. 20 speakers times 3 time slots, times three days. That is 180 speakers without the opening speakers or the 5:00 pm speakers. And 270 vendors of green building products. It was like the best restaurant you ever went to, but you cannot possibly try every dish. It gave me hope, and yet simultaneously made re-entry into real life difficult.

One of my favorite quotes was: "We will change, it is just a matter of how much pain we will endure before we choose to survive."

The speaker was highlighting the difficulty in changing lifestyles, traditional ways of building, and other human patterns. And yet we are at a point where change in human behavior is needed, unless we choose to suffer tremendous suffering, disruption and problems. I hope we can do it.

Decompressing after Solar Decathlon

News flash, Santa Clara University took third overall. ( I am, yet again, doing the victory dance as I write this. Wish you could see....)

It was a great visual experience being there, it was great to see so much design creativity in one place. My only regret is I could not get into all the houses. Each house has at least one truly lovely moment of design. I will show a few in my next few blogs. I loved this feature of the University of Cincinatti house, they reused metal as siding in a beautiful way.

My solar house is better than your solar house

As you might know from reading my blog, or if you know me, I designed the interiors for Santa Clara University's entry in the Solar Decathlon. I am excited, to the point of blogging twice in the same day, by the news that we are currently running 9th overall in the contest. They were the smallest University in the contest, got notification that they were in three months later than the other contestants, arrived at the site 3 days late due to two broken axels, and yet still were the second home completed, and are perfoming very well in the judging catagories. I am proud to have been involved.

I also got a call from one of the students who was around when some of the officials toured. She said that Congressman Mike Honda loved the bathroom I designed.

News that make me happy

I sometimes avoid reading the news because I get frustrated and angry. I think I have have an over active outrage gland. The other day though I came across news of a lovely thing going on in San Francisco. Live music, storytelling for kids, community building, recycled materials, interesting aesthetics, there is nothing not to like about this project. Please click through on the links, and learn more.....

"The Panhandle Bandshell is a full-scale, traditional bandshell constructed out of reclaimed, recycled and repurposed materials, located in San Francisco's Panhandle park, just west of the Clayton Street crossing, where it will be open for non-amplified, acoustic neighborhood performances from June 23 to September 3, 2007."

ok, let's talk countertops, really....

The last entry got me thinking about just how many Eco counter tops there are! First of all, please visit your local salvage yard, I can guarantee that they will have slabs of granite, marble, and corian, ready for reuse! This is nearly always a workable choice for bathrooms, since even if the Kitchen slab was damaged in removal, the bathroom is so much smaller.

Next, in no particualar order are other "green countertops."

Richlite, not FSC but local to me.

Slate Scape, much like Richlite above, or Paperstone below

Paper stone: The only wood fiber/ paper based one that uses FSC product.

Squak mountain stone: Cement paper based, very good customer service.

The most local option to me is Vertazzo, . this has large random chunks of glass.

Bottle Glass, it is made by Fireclay tile, a local tile manufacturer that also makes the Debris series recycled Spanish tile. It is a very tightly grained, cement like option. Great company! new product, so no pictures on web site.

Enviro Glass, you can specify the size of the glass particles and they are cast into a polymer, rather than cement so they do not need to be sealed. They are in Texas. you can pick your mix of glass colors.

Vitra Stone, another closely grained cement based company out of Colorado, that also makes sinks. They use ceramic cement and recycled glass. Owner is Ryan, very nice, and very responsive.

Ice Stone is made in Brooklyn and stocked in San Raphael. Very production ready business, if you order standard color.

Then there is Bioglass as mentioned below,

and two recycled content plastic sheet materials: Yemm and Hart: I love their products, but their plastic countertop has a low melting temp. Better for a bath then a Kitchen

and 3form, only 30-40% recycled, but gorgeous. Again, wouldn't use it as a Kitchen counter top.

Yes there are a lot of choices! Why use anything that does not have a green quality?

In which I confess to being a green domestic godess... at least in the Laundry

First of all, the energy savings. After the refrigerator, the dryer uses the most energy of all your appliances. The only reason the refrigerator is the energy hog winner is that, unlike the dryer, it is on all the time. Second, the clothes wear out more slowly. Basically your dryer is beating your clothes to smithereens every time you use it. That is what lint is- clothes smithereens.

Third, less ironing. When clothes are hung up on the line they are flat, when the are in a dryer they are wadded up in a little ball. It stands to reason they would need more ironing when they come out of the dryer.

The clothes also have a unique, fresh smell. I have no idea why, but especially for your sheets, it is really pleasant.

And finally, it makes me slow down and spend a few minutes outside in my garden. Like many moms, and small business owners, I have a hard time taking a moment during the day to really be aware of the world around me. Whole days can pass without my thinking of one thing beyond my 'to do" list. When I take the time to hang up a load of laundry I have to slow down for 10 minutes. I have to stand in the sun, on my lawn, and feel the sun on my back. My mind can wander, because pegging clothes on the line is a simple task, and yet I am occupied enough that I stay in the moment.

You know, I think this last might be the most valuable benefit of drying my clothes outside.

I love these creative little textile companies

There are some really fun printed organic fabric companies springing up in the last year or so. One that I just discovered is Oliveira textiles. They have some great classy prints for home furnishings,

Mod Green Pod mades groovy designs in both fabrics and vinyl free wallpaper, and recently started a kids line,

Harmony Art is a wonderful company, organic textiles in weights that could be used for bedding, home sewing and perhaps some light upholstery. The founder is the kindest person, and is very supportive of the industry, and also has a fun blog.