More and more choices in Countertops

One of the most positive things I have see in my years of researching green materials for interiors, is that increasingly mainstream manufacturers feel that they must have a green story to compete.  It used to be that green counter top materials were made by small producers such as Vetrazzo or Paperstone, who just wanted to do the right thing.  Now the big manufacturers are putting out green countertops products. One of the great things about this is that it offers the consumers some options that are easy to order, and have a reasonable price. I like quartz based countertops anyway.  Many consumers know them by their trade names: Zodiaq, or CeasarStone.  They are green because they are low maintenance,  low emitting, durable, replace a product that would have to be mined, and are made of one of the most plentiful minerals on earth.  Now many of the manufacturers of Quartz countertops are creating products with recycled content.

Constantino has made a separate line of green countertops, called ECO.  The eco line is made of 75% recycled content including glass, mirrors, porcelain and stone scrap.  My favorite is White Diamond, and I must admit I am not a huge fan of the ones with the mirror fragments.  They are just too sparkly.

In Ceasar Stone I love the Smokey Ash, it is a warm black that I would love to use in a kitchen.  That particular product is 15% recycled, but the their recycled colors range up to 40%.

Zodiaq also makes a line of recycled content solid surface countertops.  Their color range is just lovely, and functional.  I love Flax,but it is well worth checking out their whole color range.

Slabs for countertops are heavy things, so one of the things you should think about is where a product is manufactured, and how it is shipped.  Ocean Freight has one of the lower carbon emissions per ton, and so slabs that are shipped directly to a port, then stocked there, have a pretty low carbon footprint.  Ceasar Stone is made in Israel, Constantino is made in Spain, and both are shipped to the port close to where it will be used.  Zodiac is made in Canada, more local, but shipped via truck which is higher carbon per ton per mile.  So if you live near Canada, Zodiac would have the lower carbon footprint, and if you live near a sea port, or in the EU, you might choose one of the other two.

I do feel that it is worth mentioning one other choice.  Cabria quartz surfaces do not have a recycled content.  However they are made in North America, of N. American quartz, and thus neither the materials or the finished product have to travel far if you are in USA or Canada.

OMG I am such an eco geek!!!!!! AKA I like toilet talk

If you have ever asked yourself, as I have frequently, “how the heck can I pick the best performing and most water efficient toilet?”  help is at hand. What??!?!?

You have never asked yourself that?  You have never given it a bit of thought?

Well, then I am a bigger eco geek than you, because I got all excited and HAD to blog today when I found this guide. It is a independent test of all of the low flush WC’s, or at least a place where you can download all of the tests and reports.  It is test data divided into single flush gravity fed, single flush pressure assist, and dual flush, so you can download the testing for the kind of toilet you want to get.  The research is sponsored by Canadian government agencies, and water conservation agencies and water utilties from the states.  This means the testing and results are free of industry influence.  Apparently the results are accurate due to the fact that “A soybean paste having similar physical properties (density, moisture content) to human waste was used in combination with toilet paper as the test media.” (Some one did that research, and then wrote that wonderful line as part of their report, I love scientists!!)  It is so good to have real data to help you in making such an important decision!!

And when you replace your old water waster, don’t forget to recycle it, it could be made intoa solid surface countertop, and they are actually pretty nice!

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.

Copenhagen, do we dare to hope?

Sometimes I do not know why I get so worked up about things, it would be a lot easier on my blood pressure to just live my life, do my design work, and not get involved. But my mind is a lot more like the bumper sticker that says "If you are not outraged, you havn't been paying attention." I cannot change the part of myself that seems compelled to get active.The reality is that we all are going to have to take action to try and mitigate the effects of climate change, the only difference is when. Will change be forced on us after the first wave of climate induced human migration? Or will we wake up and move in a positive direction to shape the best future possible? Some times I do not know the answer. But, as my french teacher said, as I tried to tell her I did not know how to say in French the thing she wanted me to say: "Mais il faut qu'on essayer." It is necessary that one tries. Check out the Hopenhagen web site, they are trying to get folks to register their support for a real climate change agreement at this month's meeting in Copenhagen.

Keep it Real, even when saving energy or "Windows XC" (extra cute)

Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana I love the integrity of architecture from different periods. Each style of home reflects the concerns, the dreams, the optimism and the fears of the period when it was built.  An important consideration, when remodeling, is to be true to the architecture, the feeling, the gesture of the existing building.  I don't think remodels should be a slavish imitation of the preexisting historic style, but all should be a cohesive and appropriate addition.  Sadly, this does not always happen.  I think this is a valid consideration even when undertaking upgrades to increase the energy efficiency of the structure.  A good remodel will ensure the building will have value for another 100 years.  How green is that?  A bad remodel can make a building seem worthless, a tear-down.

Therefore,  I was pleased to find a great guide to selecting appropriate the appropriate steps to weatherize older buildings.  The information is very interesting and complete: how to evaluate when to restore a window and when to replace, how to identify the style and detail in your existing windows, and what energy credits might be available.  Most people want to do the right thing to take care of their older home, but just are not aware of the details.

The reality is that most of the energy of heating a home is lost through the walls, roof, floors and drafts.  Insulating and stopping leaks is both cheaper and more effective at saving energy than replacing windows.  Replacement windows can take many years to pay back their cost, and might make your house look as funky as a glamourous starlet on Oscar day that decided to wear their down jacket with their ball gown.  Details matter!

Highly efficient - and beautiful, just like me! (JK)

LED lighting has been growing by leaps and bounds, just as I had hoped it would.  I feel so proud, like a mama who is able to report "I know they had a lot of potential, just look!!!" Well take a look at this gorgeous new fixture series from Boyd!  It is designed for LED lamps, and individual pendants can be combined on one ceiling plate into a larger clustered fixture.  As an added benefit, Boyd is a San Francisco company, so if I specify these fixtures I am supporting the local economy.

Additionally Cree lighting has come up with a nice lamp that has a color rendering index of 92 with a light color of 2700 Kelvin!

I know it is a little geeky for me to get excited about a CRI number, but for years the reason given by many for not using efficient lighting was that they didn't like the color quality.  (But I guess they were ok with wasting energy and contributing to global warming.)  Actually, to be absolutely honest, I had the same complaints and have spent far too many nights reading novels by the faintly greenish, or bright blue white light of various high efficacy lamps I had purchased to test in my own home.

The new Cree recessed cans deliver in the range of 50-60 lumens per watt, which qualify them to be considered Hi efficacy under CA energy code.  They also avoid the primary problem of fluorescent lamps (bulbs) because they do not contain mercury.  And they do this with great light color and superior color rendering, better actually than a typical incandescent bulb.  Now that is living up to your potential!

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!

The Walls, part 2, or What are those holes doing in my house?

A couple of Blogs ago, I started to talk about everything that Walls do for us.  In most of the country it has been cold, cold, cold and I am sure you have been thinking about whether or not your walls are doing the important job of keeping you warm!  Well the walls might not be your problem, so long at they have some insulation in them.  Windows are wonderful at transferring heat out of a house.   Wait, let me back up a step.  According to the laws of thermodynamics heat wants to move towards cool.  It moves faster if the material that it is moving through is conductive of heat, and if there is a big temperature difference.  So let's use that information to look at a wall on this frosty morning.  Hmm very cold outside, kind of warm inside, separated by a wall made of plaster, air space, wood and stucco.  Cold also separated from warm by a single pane of glass in the window.  Heat is lazy, (like me) what path is it going to take to the outside?  Even an uninsulated wall is less conductive than a window.  This is why people often get the advice to replace windows with double paned windows, if they are having problems keeping their house warm.  So what is wrong with that?

Well, the advice is good, but windows are really expensive.  Insulation is cheaper, and if you own your house should be the first step.  But what if you are a renter, or have little budget in these tough economic times?


I have long been a fan of honeycomb blinds.  They are not sexy, they are sort of the white cotton panty of the window covering world.  But perhaps a more accurate analogy would be the performance base layer of window coverings.  I am a very visual person and there is nothing much exciting about honeycomb blinds, except the fact that they get out of the way when you are not using them.  But an inside mount blind, fitted fairly close to the frame of your window, cuts down on drafts and improves the thermal performance of your window.  Most studies I have read put the improvement at at around 2 points improvement in the R value, depending on the existing R value of the window.  For a couple of hundred dollars per window, this is a nice patch if you are doing triage on a cold leaky house.

 Your other inexpensive tools in a drafty house are: strippable caulk around leaky windows (this is designed to be removed when you want to open the window again.) and weatherstripping around doors.

Back to Building Basics- Give your walls some respect

One of the basics- the biggest difference your house makes on the environment is by the energy it uses. We just got our first big rainstorm of the year here in N. Ca, and that got me thinking about wall systems. (Have I ever disclosed to the group that I am totally a green building nerd? I mean I am addicted, I am not even close to being in recovery, and I am ok with it.) We count on our walls to hold our buildings up, and never think about how many functions they provide to a dwelling. They are structural, yes, but they are also your first defense against the big bad world.First, water is the enemy of the wall, especially the wooden wall. A good contractor will think through the path that a drop of water would take down each piece of flashing and vapor barrier. Overhang, of course, will help keep the water off of the wall in the first place but a good builder will be as careful with every detail as if the wall had no overhang protecting it at all. Secondly, keeping a house cool or hot takes energy, why not help save energy and money by insulating? Insulate a lot, in fact. Insulate like a crazy person, exceed whatever standard is required. It will save you money, decrease the carbon footprint of your home, and you will be more comfortable. Insulation is very reasonable, compared to other energy saving upgrades. Detail makes a big difference with insulation, as it does with wall systems. A gap in the insulation around a pipe, blocking in the wall, or a power switch or outlet can decrease the R value of that entire section of wall. Fill the gaps, and put an insulation gasket behind your switch plate. Many local contractors can take a thermal picture of your wall from the outside to show you just how much heat you are losing through your walls.  My friend Lorna is one that can help you out in the Bay Area. The picture shows a small house before and after insulation!  What a difference! Walls are boring. When you spend money on insulation, or when your contractor takes the extra time to detail the flashing around the window the house does not look different or more beautiful. But think of it this way, Your walls should do more than just hold up the roof, they should be a cozy blanket around your house that keep you warm and dry. Make sure the details are right and they will be able to keep you comfortable.  And did I mention you should insulate?

Sustainable Energy Week

So this coming week, January 28th thru February 3rd, is Sustainable Energy Week in Europe. The EU has set very aggressive renewable energy targets, and I am sure there will be lots of informational conferences and seminars. Road trip, anyone? Oh yeah, the carbon footprint of flying might be a bit of a problem if I flew to europe to get information every time I felt like it. Sometimes it seems a bit frustrating, there is little I can do as an interior designer to affect the GHG (green house gas) footprint of the homes I work on. (Warm window coverings are great, but only go so far on a leaky structure.) So in thinking how I can celebrate Sustainable Energy Week, I decided to do some more research about conservation. Conservation is more cost effective than new energy source development anyway. So I have decided to check out some LED light sources. I will be buying and installing some "A" lamp replacements, the standard light bulb, over the next week. I will let you know how I like the light quality.

Although they are still expensive, they are available. Here is one source: C.Crane.

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.