Archive for the ‘Energy Efficiency’ Category

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Surprise: My Orange House is Pretty Green!

February 8, 2012

A confession here: I had been feeling a wee bit disappointed lately, thinking that I had lost the only opportunity I would ever have to build my dream house. I have been visualizing green houses – straw bale houses, earthships, container houses, houses with grey water systems and green roofs – for a long time.

The author's house in Carbondale, Colorado

My house does have a green roof, but it’s not the kind on which sheep can safely graze.

But for reasons of purse and practicality, my main squeeze and I bought a modest, three-bedroom, ranch style house, circa 1983, in a quiet neighborhood here in Carbondale, Colorado, down the road from Aspen. Not a “green house” to my way of thinking.

But we’re working on greening this little pumpkin-colored house, working to save water, natural resources and energy.

The first thing we did before moving in was to have an energy assessment and thermal imaging done to show us where it was leaking. Those photos, as you will see here, have tales to tell.

Truth be told, I have written about this topic long enough that I already knew what the photos would show. Heat leaks out of an uninsulated roof, old-style single-paned windows, an uninsulated floor, and any holes in the walls. (Such as the dog door that we immediately asked our contractor to close.)

A thermal image of the living room ceiling. It's easy to see where the heat is going. We sent the contractor into the attic - which is and was insulated - but sure enough, there was a big gap in the insulation right where the photo showed it would be.

We immediately added spray-foam insulation and a moisture barrier to the crawl space under the floor, and we added insulation and weather-stripped in all the places where the images showed heat escaping.

The change was dramatic. The house felt drafty before, and the day after the insulation went in, it felt cozy and snug. (At least until you approach one of those leaky windows.)

I also closed and insulated those ubiquitous five-inch-in-diameter-holes-in-wall that you will find under sink vanities. Those monster holes that allow small water pipes to enter the house? Why, oh why do contractors cut holes three times as big as the pipe and then fail to fill them? This is third house where I have conducted this particular operation after feeling a very noticeable draft on my feet while brushing my teeth!

We’re planning to replace all the leaky windows with efficient ones, and to also improve the daylighting by adding a skylight, but we need to wait until finances improve for that. Our contractor, Tim Rafaelson, recommended that we replace all of the coving along the floors, and all the trim around the windows for thermal reasons. I was dubious. But Tim had me put my hand next to the old trim, fancy routed strips with a tongue and groove pattern that was very good at catching dust, and the draft was easily felt. You can also see the cold in the thermal image of the window. Replacing that trim, foam-sealing the gap between the wall board and the door or window frames, and then tightly attaching the new trim, made a heck of a difference.

This photo doesn't have much to do with insulation; I just couldn't post a whole blog without showing you how inviting the place has become. That sun is streaming in from the south exposure. In this photo, you can also see the Waterford gas stove in the living room. It's quite an efficient little stove - if a bit homely, in my view. We call her "Mabel." Since all the rooms radiate off this central living room, Mabel does a pretty good job of warming most of the house. We rarely use the electric baseboard heaters.

I have been redecorating rooms as well – and writing about that – and it’s getting to be a lovely, inviting and comfortable house. I’m having a housewarming this weekend, and my lovely friend the Reverend Barbara Palmer is going to perform a house blessing ritual for us.

But even though it will be blessed, it will never going be a straw bale house or a Passive House.

Face it. My house is orange, not green.

I was feeling a little disappointed about that until yesterday, when I was looking through old blog posts and repairing broken photo links. In the process, I stumbled across the post I had written about the house that US Green Building Council David Gottfried had built in Oakland. Among the major reasons that Gottfried’s house was green – it was not a new house!

Gottfried retrofitted an existing house. One that is very similar in size to my pumpkin-colored house. His has 1,440 square feet; mine is about 1,500. His house, like mine, is well-sited with a significant southern exposure that is perfect for solar panels. (I don’t have any panels yet, but I bought the house with an eye to that possibility. We get on the order of 290 days of sunshine a year here.) My house, like Gottfried’s, is within walking distance of shopping and public transit. (If you’re going for a LEED rating, you get points for that.)

Thermal imaging showing cold seeping in around the window frame.

There’s ever so much still to be done to green-up my orange house, but I was gratified to rediscover that there are huge energy savings to be tallied when people retrofit existing houses, rather than build new ones. And I’m not just talking about the energy used to heat the house and its occupants.

New York architect Richard Stein, working with researchers at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, found that constructing a 4,600 square meter building uses about as much energy as it takes to drive a car over 22 million kilometers – or more than 600 times around the earth!

My house from the back. The long axis of the house, and the peak line of its roof, is oriented east/west so that the roof you see here is perfectly situated for solar panels.

The “embodied energy” in a house – that is, the amount of energy it takes to manufacture the materials, ship them, cut them and build the house – can range from 30 to 50% of the total energy used by the house over its lifespan. This is what’s known as the home’s lifetime “carbon budget.”

Taken together, the running and construction of homes and buildings in America use a whopping 45% of our total energy budget. That’s a very big deal, with big implications for climate change.

Now I’m not making any claims for this house being highly energy efficient or environmentally responsible, or any such thing. I was just surprised – and happy – to rediscover the lesson that what’s old is new, when it comes to homes.

And how could I not be concerned about my home’s carbon budget?

After all, I live in Carbondale!

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Barns to Bauhaus: Aspen’s Significance in Architecture

April 29, 2011

I have moved from San Francisco to Carbondale, Colorado. As I have explained to my California friends, it’s not in a howling wilderness.

This fine Queen Anne style house, built in 1888, now houses the Wheeler / Stallard Museum and the Aspen Historical Society. Photo by Samantha Toberman.

It’s just down the road from Aspen, home of the famed Aspen Institute, Aspen Music Festival, Aspen’s International Design Conference and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Once a silver mining town, Aspen was reborn after WWII as a retreat that sought to nurture mind, body and spirit. That’s the “Aspen idea,” and it made the little mountain town an international crossroads for ideas, arts and architecture. I have long felt called to come back here.

And so I returned to my home state just in time for Colorado Architecture Month.

I can almost hear my West Coast friends chuckling. Colorado architecture? What the heck is that?

I recently listened to some bright folks wrestling with that very question. The occasion was an American Institute of Architects (AIA) event called “Aspen’s Significant Architecture, Past, Present and Future.”

Aspen Interfaith Chapel, designed by architects George Edward Heneghan and Daniel Gale, pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright in its use of natural materials.

During the evening, Aspen architects Willis Pember, Suzannah Reid and Harry Teague gamely picked out a number of Aspen area buildings that could warrant that “significant” moniker. While applauding their choices, I also found myself fretting over a major omission. Since I couldn’t very well climb onto the stage and add my two cents, I will use this post to nominate a few buildings of my own – and to point out why Aspen and its little Colorado valley have a golden opportunity to play a significant, and even crucial role, in contemporary architecture.

But bit of background is in order first.

A Climate for Change

Christ Episcopal Church, designed by Francis Stanton. The church’s renovation, by Studio B, received three regional awards and will receive a fourth national award in May, 2011. Photo by Raul Garcia.

As Harry Teague told the AIA’s audience, a distinctive regional architectural style usually arises out a combination of cultural influences and climate. Traditional, pre-architectural buildings around the world provide plenty of examples.

For example, Islamic culture – specifically the Muslim prohibition against depicting the human form – influenced the handsome, geometric (and cooling!) tile that adorns homes in Morocco. A Zen aesthetic influences Japanese homes and temples.

Climate gave rise to New England’s salt box houses with their long, asymmetrical, wind-breaking roofs. It was also the impetus behind India’s bungalows. There, people do most of their living on deeply shaded porches that surround a central courtyard. The roofless courtyard creates a “stack effect” that allows sweltering heat to exhale upward and ventilate the home’s living quarters.

Back to the Future

Now, as human activities threaten to undermine the ecosystems that support us, architects who are interested in sustainable building have begun to plumb traditional, pre-architectural dwellings for inspiration. Before modern engineering harnessed fossil fuels and nuclear reactors, no one imagined creating buildings that would have to be scaled by elevators or lit by electric lights. Our ancestors couldn’t import exotic materials from afar, or fill their homes with electronic devices, or create landscapes that were alien to the local climate. With no option but to use local materials and to adapt to the weather, they built green and came up with some impressive passive heating and cooling strategies.

Amory Lovins’s energy-efficiency demonstration home at Snowmass. Photo courtesy of Judy Hill Lovins.

At the turn of the 20th century, cheap fuel transformed building technology and gave rise to modern architecture.

Today, residential and commercial buildings, taken together, use 76 percent of all electricity produced in the US. The architectural sector consumes “a whopping 48 percent of total US energy consumption,” according to architect Edward Mazria, author of a ground-breaking 2003 article called “It’s the Architecture, Stupid.” In that article, which was published in Solar Today, Mazria argued convincingly that it is architects who hold “the key to the lock on the global thermostat.”

Although still too few of them know this, one thing is certain: our use (and abuse) of energy will transform architecture all over again in the 21st century.

Considering the stakes involved in climate change, I was surprised that the Aspen architects neglected to include Amory Lovins’ green home at Snowmass in their survey of significant local buildings.

I was doubly surprised when the whole issue of sustainability – not just energy, but water, climate and air quality – rated scarcely a mention.

Aspen Influences: Buckminster, Barns and Bauhaus

As Willis Pember noted during the AIA event, Colorado’s vernacular buildings include mining structures, ranches and barns, log cabins, and the Victorians that were in vogue when the 1879 silver rush peopled the place with white folks. (Truth be told, Ute Indians settled the region eight centuries before all this happened. But the Utes lived a nomadic lifestyle and their wikiups weren’t meant to last.)

Given Institute. Photo: City of Aspen files.

Silver mining faded and Aspen, which was first called “Ute City”, struggled through the Great Depression. At the end of WWII, the town was a bit dilapidated, but it still had a newspaper, an opera house, a post office and the iconic Hotel Jerome. The west side was filled with Queen Anne and Victorian homes, and in 1941, a downhill and slalom championship breathed new life into the town. The east side and modern architecture got a big boost when architects Fritz Benedict and Bauhaus-trained Herbert Bayer arrived in the mid 1940s.

During the 1950s as the Aspen ski resort began to grow, a few Bauhaus-style modern residences were built. Among these avant garde structures were Frederick “Fritz” Benedict’s Hallam Lake residence, built for novelist John Marquand, and the “Waterfall” house he built for D. V. Edmundson. Both houses have been demolished.

Victor Lundy modern house. Photo by VRBO rentals.

A similar fate may soon befall another mid-century modern Aspen landmark, the Given Institute for Pathobiology, which was designed by distinguished Chicago modernist Harry Weese. (It’s owned by my alma mater, the University of Colorado, which wants to sell it – or more precisely, the land on which it stands – because CU is strapped for money.)

Aspen also felt the west wind blowing in from California, picking up influences that ranged from Yosemite’s famed 1927 Ahwahnee Lodge to Buckminster Fullerton’s geodesic domes, plus a dose of Haight-Ashbury-type weirdness in the form of buildings erected by Chip Lord’s Ant Farm avant-garde architectural and media group. They were the folks who planted all those Cadillacs in the ground. (Oh yeah, I’m right at home here!)

Aspen Music Festival tent designed by architect Harry Teague. Photo: Harry Teague Architects.

Among the modern buildings the panel named as being significant were architect Victor Lundy’s house (still standing and used as a vacation rental), the Aspen Interfaith Chapel, the Aspen Bank, the Institute for Physics and the Aspen Institute. The three tents used by the Aspen Music Festival, designed by Eero Saarinen, Herbert Bayer and Harry Teague, also merited nomination.

Among the as-yet-to-be-built modern buildings that promise to be significant is the new Aspen Art Museum. Plans for the 30,000 square foot building have been drawn up by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. (I’m happy to note that the new AAM will be built green, and it will exceed LEED standards.)

Nicolette’s Picks for Significant Architecture

No one asked me, but I’m going to nominate a few more buildings as being significant.

Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, designed by architect Jeff Dickinson.

The first, already mentioned, is the Amory Lovins home. Located in Snowmass, about nine miles from Aspen, the Lovins’ residence was built in 1983 to be an energy-saving showplace. Judy Hill Lovins, who I met at the AIA event, told me that the house recently received an award recognizing it as the spark that lit the international Passivhaus movement. (Lovins’ house is now being remodeled with the goal of burning no fossil fuels.)

Another of my favorite local buildings is the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, located about 25 miles from Aspen. As regular readers know, I’m a fan of straw bale building. The insulating quality of the walls creates a deep, contemplative hush inside the house while also providing thermal insulation. The walls can be shaped into curves or angles that hold deep-set windows, and they can be used to create stunningly handsome buildings. I love the Waldorf School’s roof line and the way its angles echo the mountains that surround it.

Rammed Earth house features zinc roofing atop the rammed earth structure, Japanese Zen gardens, eco fireplaces and gorgeous views. Photo via Huffington Post.

My third pick is a rammed earth solar house that captured my imagination when I read about it in a blog called Carrie’s Design Musings.  Designed by Studio B Architects and built by Quentin Branch, it’s the first – and only – rammed earth home in Aspen. Rammed earth building has been around for hundreds of years; to make rammed earth, the builder compresses a mixture of damp earth with sand, gravel, clay or cement.

The process was used to build the Great Wall of China and pyramids in Mexico, and this house is only slightly less humble. It has won three awards and has been featured in Elle Decor, as well as in Carrie’s blog. It’s for sale – for just $10.8 million. (Take a look at the photos in Carrie’s “My Aspen Love Affair” post; the interior by Larry Laslo is also stunning.)

My Own Love Affair with Aspen and her Valley

I have known and loved Aspen for decades. I grew up hiking and skiing in the area. In my teens, I graduated from the Outward Bound wilderness school in nearby Marble. After my first year at CU in Boulder, disillusioned and wondering what Beowulf had to do with the rest of my life, I dropped out to find meaning. I sought it in Aspen, and wound up living the Roaring Fork Valley for a year.

The Holden/Marolt historic barn, owned and maintained by the Aspen Historical Society, houses a ranching and mining museum. It’s available for event rentals. Photo: Aspen Historical Society.

What appealed to me about Aspen years ago is what appeals to me again: the stunning setting, the town’s walkability, its sense of history, its artsy feel and its scale. (The AIA panelists, who included local entrepeneur George Stranahan, builder Steve Hansen, and Amy Guthrie of the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission, were chuckling over whether three stories would be too much on Main Street!)

In many ways, Aspen reminds me of Mendocino, California, a small town perched prettily above the Pacific. It’s similarly filled with artists, artisans, hippies and holiday makers, and it has taken similar pains to preserve its Victorian-era architecture. Like Mendocino, Aspen is filled with folks who love the setting, and who by extension, want to preserve the natural environment.

But arguably, what has set Aspen apart is its devotion to ideas. Aspen, and by extension much of the Roaring Fork Valley, is a place where leading thinkers come to converse and solve the vexing problems of our day. It’s a cultural crossroads, a place where Albert Schweitzer, Arthur Rubinstein, Mortimer Adler and Ansel Adams have all come to speak and perform. The place has attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors, and Nobel laureates.

That’s why I think that it’s not enough for Aspen’s architecture to be attractive or avant garde. This is a place that matters, a spot filled with people worthy of taking on a significant challenge. And heaven knows, we certainly have one before us.

Sketch of a historic barn on Four Mile Road in the Roaring Fork Valley. I sketched this during a snowy visit at Christmastime. I was wearing gloves at the time!

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Resource Links

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Composition by Four Women in White

March 23, 2010

For this post, my designer friend Wendy sent me this white blossom. It's wonderful for two reasons: 1) When Wendy came over for Thanksgiving dinner, she contributed a stunning bouquet of white roses. 2) Whisper, an ARS All-America rose from 2003, was the first rose to bloom in my garden this spring.

I have heard people say “it’s just plain white” – but I beg to differ! As anyone who has ever tried to paint a white flower knows, there’s nothing plain about this sophisticated and nuanced hue. It’s wonderful in interiors.

White comes in many tones and shades. It can take on a wide range of personalities: White adopts pastels into its family, relating in a gentle and romantic manner. With black and deeply hued colors, it can be bold and dramatic. Paired with primary red or blue, or an intense apple green, it can become modern and playful. When used as a backdrop for natural materials and contrasting textures – warm woods, shiny metals, stone and glass – it becomes emblematic of the International style.

You might also be surprised to learn that white – yes, the color white – has environmental advantages as well.

Many of my fellow designers share my enthusiasm for white, and I will be drawing on their wisdom in this post. (Coincidentally, all of the designers featured here today –  Laurie Burke, Jamie Goldberg, and Wendy Hoechstetter – are California white girls like me.)

White Heath Dimensional tile in kitchen installation. Photos courtesy of Heath Ceramics.

Oval dimensional tile from Heath Ceramics

Daltile's Stone a la Mod, random brick-joint 3/8" split face tile. Photographed by the author at Keane Kitchen Showroom.

Why White is “Green”

The reflectivity of a surface, a color, or a material can be calibrated by instruments that measure its “albedo.”  When no light is reflected, a surface looks black and has an albedo of zero. When all of the available light is reflected, the surface looks white and has an albedo of one.

Understanding how albedo works turns out to be important in managing heat and light, and hence, the energy that is used to produce them. For example, when I was redesigning an overly dark dining room, I discovered that painting all of the walls white would brighten the room more than placing an enormous mirror on the room’s largest wall! The reason: both mirrors and white walls have albedos that are near one, but I wouldn’t want mirrors on every surface. An all-white room would be vastly more appealing!

Similarly, white and light-colored roofs deliver huge environmental advantages. A black tar roof can reach 150 degrees F in the summer, and dark roofs in cities collectively create an environmental problem called “urban heat island effect.” The heat generated by the buildings can not only make  a city 3° to 8° warmer than nearby vegetated areas, it also damages air quality.

Three scientists affiliated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – Hashem Akbari, Arthur Rosenfeld, and Surabi Menon – spent nearly 20 years studying how white roofs and surfaces contribute to urban heat islands. In 2004, they investigated the impact that white roofs could have on climate change.

They were stunned by what they found. “‘When we did the calculations, initially we couldn’t believe the results,” Akbari said.  “So we re-checked the numbers in different ways.” The result: Every 100 square feet of roof area that was changed from a dark color to white would be the equivalent to offsetting the emission of one ton of heat-trapping, atmospheric CO2!

Designer Favorites in White

One of my own favorite decorating items is the Barcelona chair in white. I have a special fondness for this chair in part because it was created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was the founder of the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, where I received my first design education. Of course, the chair was designed in 1929, long before my time.

Barcelona chair

I believe that Mies designed the chair in black – not the white pictured here – for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. It has been produced by the famed furniture manufacturer Knoll ever since. The Barcelona chair has a pure composition and sleek lines that epitomize modern architecture, and I think that white emphasizes the purity of its design.

Laurie Burke of Los Angeles is a wonderful designer and the author of the Kitchen Design Notes blog. In response to my question about favorite designs in white, she writes:

I love the use of dimensional white tile. Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California, produces some of the interesting shapes and patterns in tile. The 3 x 9 oval pattern is one of my favorites. Simply by varying the pattern – staggered or straight, horizontal or vertical – the look changes with each new design. It is really visually pleasing.

Another beautiful use in shades of white is Artistic Tile’s Effervescence Collection. The round shapes and shades of white bianco carrara marble or calacatta gold marble paired with glass is a texturally sophisticated use of white.

Jamie Goldberg, a new San Diego resident, a kitchen design specialist, and the author of Gold Notes, has written a whole blog post – The White Album – about this wonderful color. Here’s some of Jamie’s advice about decorating with white:

Smith and Noble Roman shades in black and white. Photo courtesy of Smith and Noble.

White is a wonderful hue for a kitchen or bath, lending a crisp brightness to those spaces. It’s also a perfect color – and commonly used – for moldings, window trim, shutters and fireplace mantels. White enhances whatever color is put next to it, as sparkling teeth enhance a gloss-lipped smile.

I try to avoid white in kitchen tile grout, as it can be a maintenance headache. I also like to see ceilings painted something other than white, as they so commonly are, so that the room looks more finished, and the crown molding stands out against it better. There are many, many wonderful all-white bedrooms and living rooms. What makes those succeed as welcoming havens, rather than feeling institutional or sterile, is a warm blending of textures and tints.

The Practicality of White

Currently, on weekends, I’m staffing the Keane Kitchen Design Showroom in San Carlos, and I frequently find myself talking to customers about the practicality of white kitchens.

Elemental Spa fixtures from Sieger Design combines with Ritual Architecture by Mike Meiré to give a spa-like ambience to a bathroom in the International Style.

Although you can re-do a kitchen nicely for between $30,000 and $40,000, it’s not at all hard to spend $80,000-plus on a total kitchen remodel. That figure would include appliances, cabinets, counter tops, flooring, tile, lights, plumbing and electrical upgrades.

If you’re laying out that kind of money, you want a kitchen that’s going to last. On that count, white is a good choice, both because of its adaptability (simply by repainting the walls you can entirely change its mood and appearance) and its classic good looks.

When I visit clients, the quickest giveaways to the age of their homes are the kitchens and baths, and it’s usually the color of the flooring, tile, and cabinetry that communicates the loudest. (Espresso colored cabinets? That started in about 2003 and is still going strong.  Ginger-colored, Shaker style cabinets like those in my house are late 1990’s.  Oak is very 1970’s. Then there are those apple green countertops that are so popular now. In a couple of years, they will be screaming, “I’m from 2009! Boy, did we cheer people up during that mean ol’ recession.” ) But white? That could date from anywhere between 1810 and 2010! It’s timeless.

Ektorp slipcovers. Photo courtesy of Ikea.

While it’s obvious that white is a poor choice for couches and carpeting if you happen to have small children, muddy dogs, or cats with hairballs, in some respect, it’s a very practical choice. It can even make for easy clean-up.

After fretting over the fading of numerous darkly colored bathroom rugs, I finally discovered that pure white rugs were both a beautiful and an easy-to-maintain choice. Unlike a deep chocolate rug, a white cotton rug can be tossed into the washer and quickly returned to its pristine original condition. Fading is not a problem.

Ditto with white slipcovers. You may never be able to get that pink marker stain off your pale green couch, but it’s easy to launder a white slipcover. (The instructions usually say “no bleach,” but if it’s white and mostly cotton – and ruined anyway if the stain isn’t removed – I often find that a dab of bleach applied with a Q-Tip and then quickly flushed with cold water can work wonders. ) The cool elegance of a white room and the noisy exuberance of children need not be mutually exclusive. If you buy Ikea’s Ektorp sofa, shown at right, you will find that  crisp white slipcovers for it run less than $200.

Symbolism of White

Although the meaning of white varies with culture, for Americans and Europeans it is associated peace, purity, innocence, cleanliness and simplicity.

It can also connote  clinical coldness, winter, sterility, loneliness or isolation, especially when presented in unbroken expanses. In China, it is the color used for mourning and funerals.

White roses, like the ones Wendy gave me at Thanksgiving,  are also traditional in wedding bouquets because  the white rose symbolizes virtue, unity, reverence, and love. I am dedicating this post, and a virtual bouquet of white roses, to the three wonderful designer colleagues who contributed to it. Thank you Laurie, Jamie, and Wendy.


Laurie Burke,
author of
Kitchen
Design Notes
Jamie Goldberg,
author of

Gold Notes
Wendy Hoechstetter, author of Hoechstetter
Interiors
Nicolette Toussaint, author of Living in
Comfort & Joy

Resource Links

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Diego Rivera mural: Nude with Calla Lilies

As regular readers know, I have been posting a series of odes to colors in this blog. After talking about designing with green, I decided that the next color I honored would be the hue of the first flower to open in my garden.


The first bloomers turned out to be a white rose and a white calla lily, hence this ode to white.

White … is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black….

God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”

- Gilbert Keith Chesterton
British author, 1874–1936
“A Piece of Chalk”
Tremendous Trifles (1909)
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Counterculture Chic for your Kitchen

January 15, 2010

If there’s one place you can feel good and green about going glam, it’s in your kitchen. Right now, choosing counter tops for a kitchen remodel makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop! It’s hard to commit to just one, but this post should help you narrow the field.

Alkemi countertop in Koi pattern - this glittering material contains shaved curls of waste aluminum!

These days, it’s hardly counter-cultural to choose a material that contains recycled content. Green building materials have come of age, in part because they are so beautiful, in part because even though they may cost more at the outset, they are more cost effective over the long run. One key to sustainability is choosing good quality materials that will last, instead of repeatedly paying to install and tear out flimsy stuff.

Old Fashioned Values

Seems to me that that’s just good sense! My grandpa Toussaint would never have called himself an environmentalist. He was a welder, a builder, and a patriotic union man with strong values. He believed in craftsmanship, in getting “value for money”, and in building to last.

A couple days ago, friends on Facebook proclaimed "way back week" and put vintage photos on their profiles. Here's mine - I was green when that was counter-cultural.

When I was about 7, I helped him build a staircase. Grandpa was persnickety about his lumber, avoiding anything that was warped or had  knots. He admonished me to measure very, very carefully. He wanted those to stairs fit snug so that they would last a long time. He said that the stairs should still be good when I was older than he was — and he was ancient! I couldn’t imagine how old he was or fathom ever living that long.

Since he had recently retired, I now suspect that Grandpa must have been in his mid-sixties. I bet that whoever owns his house in Denver will indeed be using his stairs in the targeted year — which should be around 2015.

If you choose wisely, your gorgeously green counter tops should be around for your grandchildren.

Here are some of the best choices in sustainable counter tops. At the bottom of this post, under the heading “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us”, you’ll also find a few tips about how to choose something that will work with your lifestyle.

Recycled Glass

If you love color, you’re going to love recycled glass counter tops. They are made from all sorts of cast-off glass: wine bottles, beer bottles, vodka bottles, window glass, even old traffic light lenses.

Malachite countertop from Bioglass; 100% recycled and recyclable.

"Cobalt Ice" from Icestone. contains 100% recycled glass. Icestone operates out of a renovated factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, creating green jobs for US workers. When I met the Icestone folks at West Coast Green, I learned that Icestone also employs displaced Tibetan monks!

The glass is mixed into a cement, concrete, or resin base, then baked like a big chocolate chip cookie. Later, it’s cut and polished into a beautiful composite material that has a marble-like quality.

Pros and Cons: On the upside, this composite is stunningly beautiful, very durable, and resistant to stains. Like granite, it’s strong and heat-resistant.

The downside: It does need to be sealed at the factory and sometimes again to maintain it. (Vetrazzo is made with one sealing layer and Icestone comes with two.) Glass counter tops are pricey, running $50 to $55 per square foot at the factory. They run between $100 and $175 a square foot once you pay for shipping and installation. (With all counters, labor, and installation vary by region.)

The Green Story: Although the percentage of glass used to make the counters varies between different manufacturers, all recycled glass counter tops divert glass from landfills. The glass is mixed with cement and concrete – the curing of which does create greenhouse emissions, by the way – but some manufacturers use a kind of concrete that contains fly ash, a waste product from coal-burning. That reduces the greenhouse gases that get produced during cement manufacturing.

Terazzo, Concrete, and Engineered Stone

Concrete counters, some of which look strikingly unlike concrete, have become very popular, and terrazzo surfaces have been popular ever since Venetian artisans invented terrazzo in the middle ages. (Strictly speaking, the glass counters I just discussed would be classed as a terrazzo. Terrazzo is a marble-like surface that contains stone or glass chips held together with a binder of concrete.) Terrazzo is a kind of faux marble, and like concrete, it’s usually opaque. It can contain post-consumer glass, stone chips, and shells other items.

Concrete counter from Cliffe Concrete in Lucknow, Ontario, Canada looks like slate.

Concrete, by contrast, often looks like concrete – and some people want it to look that way. It can also be colored or textured so it looks like marble or stone; the example at left could be mistaken for slate. It can even be inlaid like the counter below at right; at first glance, one might think this is inlaid marble. In contrast to the plain gray, rough material you see on sidewalks, concrete can be quite handsome. (Sadly, the company making Syndecrete, one of the concrete counter tops most favored by designers and architects, has fallen victim to the economy and closed up shop.) But there are still great options, as the photo gallery at Concrete Network and the links below will attest.

I consider concretes and concrete-based terrazzo good substitutes for stone counter tops, which, with few exceptions, aren’t green options. It’s just not energy-efficient to dig up a mountain, blast out chunks of stone, grind them down, and then ship them halfway around the world (usually from China, Italy or Turkey). The one exception would be Caesarstone, which is an “engineered” stone. It’s made of quartz, which is an abundant material. The company is owned by an Israeli kibbutz. Caesarstone does contain a modest amount of recycled material (less than 10%) but the company does take pains to comply with ecological standards and monitoring organizations. Caesarstone is durable, easy to clean, and it resists stains and burning. It’s also pricey. Expect to pay from $50 to $120 per square foot for slabs, then to pay for cutting — and to have to discard the parts of the slab you don’t use.

Pros and Cons: Both terrazzo and concrete can be beautiful, and they offer the same advantages as their recycled glass cousins. They are very durable, resistant to stains, easy to clean, strong and heat-resistant. The disadvantages: They do need to be sealed (and sometimes resealed) and they are very heavy. That means that it requires lots of energy to transport them. Some concretes need to be cast on your site, and they can kick up a lot of dust during installation and finishing. Some are surprisingly expensive, running as much as $80 per foot installed.

Inlaid concrete counter top

The Green Story: These counters don’t “off-gas” toxic substances, which is good for indoor air quality. They are made of readily available materials, which is good. If they contain at least 30% fly ash (as a substitute for cement) they also limit the greenhouse emissions that are created when concrete is made. But buy as close to home as you can since heavy materials do generate a big carbon footprint in shipping.

Ceramic and Porcelain

Ceramic and porcelain are available in a dizzying array of tiles of varying sizes and colors. Prices run about $10 to $20 per square foot for ceramic and $5 to $12 per square foot for porcelain, plus installation costs. (It’s a good idea to have a professional install your tile. If the surface is uneven or if the mastic is not applied correctly, you will soon have cracks in your beautiful tile.)

Counter top made from Fireclay's Debris tile

Pros and Cons: Ceramics are durable and need little maintenance. They resist stains and burning, and retain their color. However, some tile will chip. This is most likely to happen when the colored glaze is applied to the surface only. If you choose a “through body” tile, meaning that the color goes all way through and doesn’t just sit on top, it won’t show chips.

Some ceramics are harder than others, and porcelain is the hardest. It stands up to years of tough wear. Because it’s difficult to clean and easy to soil, the grout needs to be properly sealed. Wide grout lines can be annoying to clean, and all of those little gaps collect dirt, so it also helps choose large tiles. If you choose tiles that are least 18 inches square and keep the grout lines thin, the problem should be minimal.

The Green Story: Ceramic and porcelain are made from naturally occurring and plentiful materials, but it takes a lot of heat, and thus energy, to fire them. In addition, because they are heavy, it takes a lot of energy to transport them. Look for locally manufactured tiles with high recycled content and avoid lead-based and radioactive glazes.

Bamboo Counter Tops

Bamboo counter tops look a lot like butcher block. They are made the same way; the manufacturer glues slender rectangles of end-grain bamboo into panels. These handsome surfaces come in natural shades of brown and gold. Expect to pay around $25 per square foot before installation.

Counter top of bamboo butcher block

Pros and Cons: Bamboo is strong and durable. It can be fastened to your cabinet with hardware, so no glues are needed. It’s stronger than maple, which is commonly used to make butcher block. However, cheap bamboo, which is harvested too soon, can be fail to “lignify” and harden.

Like butcher block, bamboo gains a pleasant patina with use and it can be sanded down to remove scratches. Colors are limited, and the process used to darken natural bamboo to chocolate shades can weaken the material. Bamboo will burn or scorch, and it is somewhat subject to stains. It requires regular care, including sealing or oiling (depending on what coatings are on the surface when you buy it).

The Green Story: Although it’s a great substitute for wood, bamboo is actually a fast-growing grass. That makes it a renewable resource. However, most of it comes from China, and it uses a lot of fossil fuel to get here. In addition, cheap bamboo products can be assembled using toxic glues and coatings. Look for versions that are marked as low formaldehyde and toxic-free.

  • Smith & Fong, South San Francisco, California
  • Teragren, Bainbridge Island, Washington
  • Eco-top Forest Stewardship Council-certified 50/50 blend of bamboo and recycled wood fiber salvaged from demolition sites

Sustainable Wood

Eight reclaimed wood counter top options are available from Craft-Art. The wood came from trees that grew in the 1800s and 1900s.

There’s no getting around the fact that a tree takes four or five times longer to grow than a stalk of bamboo. But butcher-block counters can be made from trees that have been sustainably harvested or made from reclaimed or recycled lumber. Recycled old-growth lumber — wood that can come from old factory floors, beer barrels, or wine vats — often has tighter grain and better quality than contemporary lumber. Sustainable wood has a medium to high cost compared to traditional butcher blocks. Expect to pay $50 to $100 per square foot, plus installation costs.

Pros and Cons. The advantages and disadvantages of butcher block counters are the same for bamboo and wood versions – see above.

The Green Story: Using reclaimed wood reduces need for harvesting new trees. Look for Forest Stewardship Council-certified, salvaged, or reclaimed wood, and ask for a Chain-of-Custody certification when you buy. You should also avoid products with added formaldehyde and look for sealers and cleaners that are environmentally benign.

Compressed Paper Counter Tops

Paperstone counter top

Counter tops made of paper? I couldn’t believe that one when I first heard it. Paper is so soft! How could that possibly work?

Well, it does! Beautifully. When recycled paper is combined with a resin base and industrially compressed, it forms a material that looks a bit like honed stone or tile. But unlike those cold surfaces, this material feels warm and almost suede-like. Compressed paper surfaces come in thicknesses ranging from ¼ inch to 2 inches. The colors available from Paperstone are stunning, but Paperstone’s success has attracted some handsome competitors too. Compressed paper counters are reasonably priced, between $30 and $50 per square foot before installation.

Pros and Cons: A compressed paper counter top can be cut and shaped with standard woodworking tools, and that makes it ideal for the budget-conscious do-it-yourself craftsman. The surface is easy to clean, impact and heat resistant, and quite durable. On the other hand, it can be scratched. The lighter colors may show stains, and darker or brighter colors can fade in direct sunlight.

The Green Story: The greater the percentage of recycled paper the counter contains, the greener it is. These counters can contain nasty glues, and compounds that off-gas “volatile organic compounds.” To preserve your indoor air quality, look for a counter top with low VOCs.

Samples of Alkemi's steel counter top

Recycled Metal Counter Tops

Counter tops can be made from recycled metals, most often stainless steel or aluminum. You can also find the occasional recycled copper counter top. The metal can be recycled in multiple ways: it can be melted and remolded, combined with other materials, or made into tiles. It can also be cut into sheets and used whole.

Eleek aluminum counter and sink

One of the most dazzling examples of recycled metal is Alkemi, a solid-surface material that is made from postindustrial scrap aluminum shavings held in polymeric resin. It’s gorgeous, as the photos in this post show, but it’s expensive. At around $300 per square foot, it costs as much as high-end granite.

Another handsome option is Eleek, which is made of 50 to 90 percent recycled aluminum. Counter tops can be as wide as 3 feet, and because Eleek also makes include sinks and hardware, it’s easy to assemble a sleek, integrated look.

Counter Culture Chick
for Your Kitchen?

Since sustainability is now mainstream, I’m not really a counter-culture chick nowadays. But I am a certified green building professional, and I certainly would like to help you remodel your kitchen.To learn about my services, visit my Comfort and Joy website at www.comfortandjoydesign.com

Aluminum counter tops run between $40 to $100 per square foot. Because stainless steel counters and sinks have been used in restaurants for years, you may be able to find a great bargain by looking for an existing counter and/or sink and simply re-using it in its original form.

Pros and Cons: The durability of metal counters, of lack thereof, is directly related to the gauge of the metal. A thin counter, with a gauge under 18, will dent. (A thicker gauge is indicated by a smaller number; a 20 gauge sink is thinner than an 18 gauge sink.) Metal sinks, particularly the thin ones, can also be noisy. Water running in the sink can actually be intrusive enough to make conversation difficult. Aluminum and stainless steel won’t discolor, but copper will first darken and then develop a green patina. If you don’t like that, your choices are to make sure you choose a sink with a very durable surface coating, to spend time polishing the tarnish off your sink, or avoid copper.

The Green Story: To get green benefits from a metal counter, you should use salvaged metal or look for high-recycled content. Because you will attach to substrate with mechanical fasteners, you will be able avoid glues and VOCs, and that’s good news for your indoor air quality. Recycled metals are also recyclable, which means that they can be used again after you’re done with them.

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More from Nicolette

The memorable phrase above comes from the Pogo comic strip. It was written and drawn by the Walt Kelly, who died in 1973.Walt coined the phrase for a poster drawn for the first Earth Day in 1970. It soon  became a rallying cry for all kinds of counter-cultural protests, and was frequently associated with protests against the war in Vietnam.
Your Counter’s Worst Enemy?
Look in the Mirror!
Yes, it’s true. You are public enemy number one where your counter is concerned. (Or maybe public enemy number two if you have children in the house!) That’s why it’s so important to match your counter choice to your lifestyle and cooking habits.A great way to decide on which counter to choose is to get a sample of the counter top material, and then pour some  common staining substances over it. Pay particular attention to the ones you use most often:

  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Coffee
  • Cooking oil
  • Ketchup
  • Lemon juice
  • Red wine
  • Worchestershire sauce

You might also want to try chopping on your sample with a sharp knife to see if it scars. Then place a pan full of hot water on it to see if it discolors.

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1 Rump or 2 and Other Kitchen Conundrums

October 28, 2009

“Please take our guests to the living room. This is strictly a one-rump kitchen!”  I used to often hear that memorable phrase when my husband and I lived in a small apartment. Mason and I now have a two-cook kitchen, but the practice of asking “one rump or two” is one that’s very useful to anyone considering the redesign of a kitchen.

Remodeled kitchen from Keane Kitchen showrooms.

A well-designed, two-rump kitchen offers separate counter spaces for two cooks: one area should be adjacent to the range and another for salad and drink preparation. A kitchen designed for two cooks usually has two sinks, and often more than one oven, as is the case with the beautifully designed kitchen here, the work of my friend and fellow designer, Jamie Goldberg.

But with kitchens, bigger does not necessarily mean better!

A few years ago, a relative – I will call her Antoinette – excitedly invited me over to see her new multimillion dollar home. My immediate  reaction to her “dream kitchen” — it’s a nightmare!

I immediately saw that it was the kind of kitchen that David L. Brooks skewered in his book Bobos in Paradise as “an airplane hangar with plumbing”. Antoinette’s kitchen island looked about the size of Maui!

In reality, the island was around 10 feet square. If the surface had been a bit higher, the outer edge could have been used as a stand-up bar  – if you happened to be serving ors d’oeuvres for 30 or so people! But its depth and circumference were bad news when it came to food preparation. It was so wide no one could reach the center, and to use the appliances, one would need track shoes. Since the appliances were scattered in a ring facing the island, reaching them would be like training for a track meet.

Kitchen at Monticello Monticello’s kitchen was among the best equipped in Virginia. While serving as U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson purchased a large number of cooking utensils for his residence in Paris. In the early 1790s, as part of an 86-crate shipment of goods, he had them shipped back to America and eventually to Monticello. While the cellar of the South Pavilion housed Monticello’s first, relatively small kitchen, a second kitchen was constructed during the expansion of the house. Completed by 1809, the newer, much larger work space featured a bake oven, a fireplace, and an eight-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. A tall case clock also stood in the kitchen: Isaac Jefferson, one of Monticello’s former slaves, recalled that the only time Jefferson went into the kitchen was to wind the clock.  The kitchen's brick floor, bake oven, fireplace, stew stove, and the tall case clock seen at Monticello today are part of a restoration and re-interpretation effort that culminated in the summer of 2004 with the opening of the space to visitors.

Thomas Jefferson's kitchen at Monticello’s was among the best equipped in Virginia, thanks to all the utensils he picked up while serving as US Minister to France. This is Monticello's second kitchen, an 1809 upgrade that featured a larger work space with bake oven, fireplace, and 8-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. The restored kitchen is open to visitors.

Although I was kind enough to keep my thoughts to myself, mumbling something about the kitchen being “impressive”, I knew that Antoinette was going to come to loathe the kitchen. It had been designed to impress, and the design was about conspicuous consumption more than about food consumption. (The message in the design, I believe, was “let them eat cake.”)

Over the centuries, our kitchens have come full circle from being the center of family life, to being galleys intended for food preparation to again becoming a gathering place for family and friends. Since the 1950’s, multiple trends have bulked up our kitchens, tripling its size. June Cleaver’s kitchen, seen on the 1957-63 TV show “Leave It to Beaver,”  was less than 100  square feet. The average American kitchen is now around 225 square feet!

This increase does not reflect bigger families. During the same time, the size of the American family has shrunk. While some of the changes are driven by technology, the big drivers for kitchen remodeling have been social, related to both to changes in how we really live and how we want to live.

Reasons to Remodel Your Kitchen

While there’s always a bit of “keeping up with Joneses” that figures into remodeling plans, there are also some green and family-affirming reasons to remodel.  The schedules of two-career families demand that we be able to cook quickly, and they may also prompt us to do more business entertaining at home. Couples often want to be able to invite friends to have a drink in the kitchen or help with salad prep while a convivial meal is being prepared.

Parents need a convenient place to feed the kids, to keep an eye on them while cooking, and also to enable the kids to make their own snacks. Safety can also be an issue.

Dish drawers are an energy saving alternative to the standard dishwasher.

"Dish drawers" are an energy-saving alternative to the standard dishwasher. They can handle as much as a traditional 24-inch dishwasher, but because each drawer runs independently, you can wash small loads as economically as large ones. The model pictured is from Fisher-Paykel.

In addition, some people also want to reduce their energy bills and lower emissions that drive climate change. In addition to replacing old, inefficient appliances with new “Energy Star” models, eco-conscious homeowners can offset the use of artificial lighting by increasing “daylighting”. Improved window placement, insulated frames, and low-emissions glass can improve the color and quality of interior light while significantly cutting drafts, winter heat loss, and summer overheating.

A remodel also provides an opportunity to replace old incandescent light fixtures with energy-efficient compact fluorescent, LED, and halogen lighting. (Incandescent light bulbs have actually been banned in Ireland, and Title 24, the California energy bill that goes into effect in January 2010, will require that half of kitchen light in newly built homes comes from energy efficient light fixtures.)

All in all, the kitchen is one the two most-often remodeled rooms in the house. (The bathroom is the other.) In this first post, I will look at changes in how we configure and use our kitchens, and I will also include some tips and tool for thinking about ways to improve your kitchen. In later posts, I will return to the topic of kitchens, exploring small kitchens, wheelchair accessible kitchens and other kitchen topics.

It’s best to start with a plan. That seems obvious to me, but apparently not to everyone. I recently heard a story about a woman who simply went out and bought all new appliances without having a plan in place. Because most of them wouldn’t fit, they wound up sitting in her garage for over a year while she backtracked, trying to decide whether to sell the appliances or to ask a contractor to enlarge her kitchen. Who knows, those appliances might still be in the garage had she not met a designer in a tennis class!

I suggest that you start planning for a kitchen remodel not by looking at new appliances – you will get to that – but by first looking at how you use your kitchen now and how the changes you can anticipate over the next ten years will change your needs.

What’s the Best Size for My Kitchen?

Do you need to enlarge your kitchen, adding on or borrowing space from another room? Maybe, maybe not. The optimum size is based first and foremost on how many people will be cooking, and how many will be visiting the kitchen. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Is a one-cook kitchen sufficient?
  • Does your family have a main cook and a sous-chef who does the chopping and prep work?
  • Do you want a kitchen where multiple family members or friends can join in, helping with salad making, table setting and other dinnertime activities?
  • Does your kitchen need a family activity area where children can do homework or color near mom while she’s cooking?
  • Do you pay bills or use a computer in the kitchen? If so, you might want to add a small desk or a convertible work area.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), a respected trade industry group, offers some great guidelines for figuring out the best size for your kitchen. Here are a few:

Kitchen layout

There's a sequence to kitchen work - first the cooking and serving, and later, the dishes! In this floor plan, the orange triangle connecting the sink, stove and refrigerator shows the work area for the main cook while the yellow triangle demarcates her helper. If these triangles cross, traffic problems ensue. The yellow triangle does cross the green clean-up triangle, this probably won't cause a problem since prep and clean up don't happen at the same time.

Countertops – You need at least 158 linear inches of counter. The surface  should be 24″ deep with at least 15″ of clearance between the counter and the upper cabinets. (But a wheelchair user needs 18″ deep counters because she cannot reach the back of a 24″ counter.)

Loading and prep areas - You need about 2 feet of space next to your fridge, sink, and stove to load, unload, and prepare food.

Opening doors and appliances - All doors should swing freely; your dishwasher door should not catch on the pull for the adjacent cabinet, and your stove door should open without causing a trip hazard. (Having enough room for door swings is partly a function of space planning, and partly a function of room size. Small rooms may require different types of doors and some other ingenious solutions.)

Aisles – A working aisle should be at least 42″ for one cook and at least 48″ for multiple cooks. (But one cook doesn’t need more than 60″ either!)

Measuring Kitchen Efficiency

In a kitchen, the “primary work triangle” is formed by lines drawn from the kitchen sink to the refrigerator and stove. For efficiency’s sake, each side of that triangle should be no less than 4 feet long and no more than 9 feet long. The total of the lengths of the three legs should be no more than 26 feet long.

Galley kitchen

Be it ever so humble, the galley kitchen layout is among the most efficient kitchen arrangements.

It can be a challenge to keep within that limit in today’s large kitchens. For example, the kitchen shown above is 13.5 feet wide and 22 feet long; the sides of the sous chef’s triangle add up to nearly 26 feet. That makes for a lot of walking back and forth!

The most efficient kitchen is probably the galley kitchen; it’s basically two counters with a working aisle in the center. The galley’s small size limits walking distances, and if there’s enough counter space, it can be a delight. Indeed, a caterer we hired to put together a buffet in our  “one-rump” kitchen told me that it was the most efficient kitchen in which she had ever worked.

I was very pleased, having laid it out myself. Although I knew nothing about kitchen triangles at that point, I had argued with our contractor about the kitchen layout. He wanted at 6-foot wide center aisle. That convinced me that he didn’t cook much! If he had, he would have known that an aisle that wide would force the cook to take 2 or 3 extra steps every time s/he went from the stove to the sink.

Kitchen layout by Nicolette Toussaint

Better! I revised the kitchen above so that the two cook's triangles and the clean-up triangle don't cross. This involved downsizing the main refrigerator slightly and adding a set of refrigerator drawers in the sous chef's salad prep area. Because this kitchen is designed to also be wheelchair accessible, the aisles are fairly wide (all doorways are 36") and the counters in one area are set at 33" above the floor - easier to reach from seated position that the standard 36" counter height. These lower counters also enable kids to make their own snacks more easily.

All of those extra steps add up to what’s called a “travel penalty.” In the two-cook layout above, both chefs – or rather their feet – are going to be paying that penalty.

The goal in kitchen planning is to have the triangles as compact as possible, but to also ensure that work triangles  don’t cross so that kitchen workers don’t bump into one another.

There are multiple types of travel patterns in a kitchen: movements of the main and sous-chefs, of table setting and serving, of clean-up, of unpacking groceries and unloading the dishwasher, to name a few. The simplified kitchen layouts here show just three of the most-used patterns: the chef, the sous chef, and clean-up. Because the main chef will be preparing the entree at the same time the sous chef is making the salad, it’s important that the two cooking triangles (red and yellow in the big layouts) don’t cross.

In practice, and in smaller kitchens, it’s likely that some of the triangles will cross, so while minimizing them, it’s also important to consider the sequence of traffic patterns. Some of us do clean up while cooking, but most of the clean-up traffic (indicated by the green triangles) will occur after the cooking is done. In most cases, our kitchens involve some trade offs, and it’s best to make them consciously – and before the appliances are purchased.

Other Kitchen Conundrums

Here, in no particular order, are a few useful planning tips to keep in mind if you’re thinking of remodeling your kitchen:

  • Consider the next buyer. Unless you and your house have a until-death-do-us-part arrangement, you should consider the next owner’s likely needs as well as your own desires. You may love that Wolf professional-style range, but the person who buys your house might consider it a problem that detracts from the value of the house.
  • Don’t get too trendy. Similarly, it’s a good idea to consider how the durable parts of your design – such as tile, flooring and appliances – are going to look in 5 or 10 years. For example, right now a retro-1960’s palette is very much au courant. It seems like every interior design magazine I see features several interiors in the same baby blue and brown combo, as well as lime green and orange. If you paint your walls in trendy colors like those, they can be easily changed, but counter tops will cost thousands, not hundreds, to replace. And I can guarantee you, that in 10 years, we will be looking at brown-and-blue rooms and yawning “that’s just so 2009.”
  • Don’t overspend. Once you get to looking at high-end appliances, counter tops and flooring, it’s really easy to drop $150,000 on a kitchen.  The cost of the design shouldn’t exceed 20 percent of your home’s value. You can typically recover up to 8 percent of that cost when you sell your place.
  • Watch for “bad adjacency“. If you live in an old house or apartment, you have probably inherited some old-fashioned design trends. One of the worst is having a bathroom that opens from the kitchen, something considered very undesirable, even tasteless, by modern buyers. It’s well worth correcting this during a kitchen remodel, as well as finding ways to enclose or otherwise hide laundry appliances. Among other bad, but common adjacency problems are noisy kitchens that neighbor sleeping or study rooms.
  • Fix the lighting. You’ve probably had the annoying experience of having your own shadow fall across the vegetables you’re chopping, making it hard to see. This happens when kitchens are designed with just one or two central ceiling lights; those fixtures may create adequate “ambient” light, but don’t do a good job of lighting counters.  When your central lighting is supplemented with proper task lighting – for example, fluorescent panels tucked away under the skirts of your upper cabinets – it  can greatly decrease your chance of injury while preparing a meal. In addition, you will want to ensure that your light does not produce glare on work surfaces.
  • Cork is a great choice for the kitchen floor. Naturally resilient and forgiving to both the cook's back and dropped dishes, it also quiets the room by absorbing noise. This handsome floor is from WoodFloors Online.

  • Reduce the noise level. Today’s dishwashers are much better insulated, and thus quieter, than those of a decade past, but they’re still noisy enough to interfere with conversation. Ditto for range hood fans and washers and dryers. If you add to that the noise produced by your refrigerator, plus the echos of footfalls on stone or tile flooring, the kitchen can be a noisy place. Pay attention not only to the energy ratings of your appliances, but also to the specifications on how much noise they produce. You might also want to consider putting some sound-absorbing surfaces, such as fabric or wood, somewhere in the kitchen, and perhaps even adding some sound proofing to the walls if sleeping or study rooms are next to your kitchen.
  • Consider what’s underfoot. Marble is beautiful, but it can be slippery, as can other kinds of polished stone. If you choose a slip-resistant flooring –  a matte-finished wood, bamboo or laminate; cork, or textured or a soft-glazed ceramic tile – you may prevent a fall. (If you’re holding a hot casserole or a knife when you fall, you could be in for a trip to the ER.)  If you select tile, you should also place a throw rug with a non-skid backing in areas that get wet.
  • Think safety. Your kitchen layout should enable you to locate the range and cook top away from doorways and passages, and it’s also a good idea for parents to opt for rounded corners on counter tops. In addition, consider the heights of the adults: the NKBA’s Kitchen Planning Guidelines say that microwaves should be installed 3″ below the principal user’s shoulder but no more than 54″ above the floor to avoid accidents.

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Tea“One Lump or Two, Dear?”

The work triangles I discussed in this post were developed back in 1944 after the University of Illinois conducted a number of studies of kitchen design, and they gained wide adherence in the US in the 1950’s.

I was tickled to learn that our British cousins have quite a different tool for measuring kitchen efficiency. They count the number of steps the cook has to take to prepare a cuppa tea, English style.  That’s not just a matter of dunking a tea bag in hot water, the way the Yanks do it.

Instead, it requires taking down and pre-heating the cup with tap water, filling the kettle, heating the tea water, gathering the tea, fetching the milk from the refrigerator and the sugar from the cupboard, replacing the tap water with boiling water, steeping the tea, and finally serving it. Those tasks take the cook to each end of the triangle, and possibly then some.

Because one the nicest rituals in my life is awakening to a cup of British-style tea with milk, served in bed by my loving husband, I was delighted to share this piece of design trivia with him. Mason is retired, and he wakes up hours before I do. He says he finds the tea-making process pleasant, and we both enjoy our pre-dawn tea and conversation. While writing this post, I asked him to count the number of steps he walked while making our tea in our current two-rump kitchen.

The total came out to 25.  I was asleep so I don’t know whether they were sleepy, mincing steps, or big, bold strides.

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To Arms! Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate!

October 15, 2009

Today is international Blog Action Day – a day when boodles of bloggers team up to write about various social problems. In solidarity of spirit, I’m issuing a call to arms on climate change and asking my loyal readers to “pack some heat” – literally.

we-can-caulk
Not long ago, I wrote Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow, a post about how I harnessed the firepower of the lowly caulk gun to dramatically warm my house and cut my energy bill. I spent about $500 on the whole household warming-and-efficiency process, including the purchase of a low-power convection heater. I saved around $40 per month on my utility bill. Best yet, my humble caulking and sealing efforts added up to something very tangible that I could do to fight global warming.

Best Investment Around – Energy Efficiency!

Recently, I heard Panama Bartholomy, who works for the California Energy Commission, when he spoke at the West Coast Green building conference. Panama said something very witty and quite profound: he compared our attitudes about how to “green up” our energy use — and cut down on what we add to global warming — to the attitudes of teenage males looking at two teenage sisters. We focus on solar technology, the glamorous sister, he said, but don’t spend much time looking at energy efficiency, the smart sister!

The humble but powerful caulk gun

The humble but powerful caulk gun

The bottom line on Panama’s presentation was this: when it comes to curbing climate-changing energy emissions over the next twenty years, caulking and weather sealing will save $40 per ton and solar panels will cost $24 a ton!

To underscore the point, Panama whipped out a slide that showed the “McKenzie Curve,” an economic analysis of the costs of a whole passel of energy-greening measures. (That’s where the figures cited above come from.) The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about all this. It was provocatively entitled Packing Heat: The Firepower of the Lowly Caulk Gun. That article included a chart version of the McKenzie Curve; I encourage you to click this link and take a look at the price tags attached to our energy choices.

Act Locally: Start with Your Windows!

While thinking globally about the problem of global warming, I also encourage you to act locally – maybe in your bedroom. You could start by improving the performance of your windows. Most of the windows in our California homes were installed long before energy was an issue. They hold single (rather than double or triple) panes of glass. The glass is not coated for energy efficiency, and it has been stuck into the frame with no thought of sealing the drafts that come in around or through the frame. If those same windows were to be specified now, for a new building, the local housing officials would tell you that they are illegal under Title 24, the California energy efficiency act that applies to new construction.

Infrared image of a house leaking energy

Infrared image of a house leaking energy

As the image at left shows, most homes bleed energy. You can see the heat leaking around the windows here; it’s orange. There’s also a lot of heat leaking out of the attic, and that’s common too.

Federal figures show that US homes consume 21% of all energy used by the whole country — more than cars,  planes, or even offices — and they waste around 30 percent of that energy.

About one-third of that loss could be stopped by caulking and insulating! In addition, you can cut a good bit of the heat that is lost through window glass by adding an energy efficiency film to the window. These films are actually plastic  covered with a very thin, invisible layer of metal; it’s metal that causes the reflection of heat that gives newly manufactured glass for windows its energy efficiency quality. Here, instead of having the metal added at the factory, you smooth it onto the window yourself after the fact.

I did this myself recently. It was easy and fun. The process involved cutting a sheet of plastic so that it was about 1 inch bigger than my window (which is about 3 feet square), then wetting the window and applying the film with a squeegee. I used a laundry spritzer to apply the water, which was lubricated with a drop of dish detergent. The film slid right on, and I carefully squeegeed out the bubbles, then trimmed the margins with a very sharp Exacto knife.

A day later, when the film was dry,  the film was truly invisible. (I called in my neighbor Alexei, had her look at my filmed window and a twin window nearby, and then asked her if she could see any difference. She couldn’t even figure out why I was asking!) While the visual difference was imperceptible, there was a noticeable tactile difference – an absence of the customary blanket of cold air that hung around the inside of the window.  I could feel quite a difference when I did an unscientific test by placing my cheek about an inch from both the treated and untreated windows.

Ways to Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate

NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA

NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA

There are, of course, sophisticated tools that can be used to find energy leaks in buildings: infrared “guns” and heat sensitive meters that measure drafts. When energy “commissioning” is done on commercial buildings, an engineer runs the HVAC systems with the windows all closed and then measures how and where the pressure changes, and s/he uses a truckload of gadgets to do it.

You’re not likely to try that at home, but I know of some simple low-tech ways to find leaks too. The most interesting one I have heard of was a fellow who rented a fog machine – the kind used in theatrical productions – and then used it to fog up the inside of his house. He kept the windows closed, and after an hour or so, he walked around outside and looked for the escaping clouds.

If you have bigger leaks, you may find them by walking around your house carrying a lit candle, standing here and there, and watching how the movement of air bends the flame. You can also hang lightweight gift wrapping ribbons over doorways and watch which way they bend, then track the breeze back to its source. You can track the breeze by licking your finger, the same way people do to determine which way the outdoor wind is blowing, and then walk toward the cool side of your finger. Not very scientific, but it all works.

Then again, you might just go to the likeliest leakage spots and start plugging away. Your local hardware store will have a variety of weatherstripping and insulation products. I suggest that after you’ve found the holes, you go ask your helpful hardware man (or woman) to tell you the best way to plug them. Here are half a dozen likely places to look for leaks:

Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco

Alexei and Nicolette model the ultimate in Eco winter fashion. Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco

  1. Around drafty windows
  2. Drafts around and under the doors to outside (seal and weatherstrip)
  3. Through internal doors from rooms you’re currently not heating or using (Use one of those little “draft dodger” cloth blocking devices and close the door!)
  4. Around plumbing penetrations (the holes where pipes go in and out of the house)
  5. The attic – it may be easy to blow in some insulation there
  6. Uninsulated walls  (it’s hard to add insulation to finished walls, but there are some insulating paints. Putting cork “paneling” on the wall can help. There are even insulated tapestries that you can hang on the wall in the winter; that’s something that was commonly done by people who lived in cold climates centuries back. It’s ancestral wisdom that we have forgotten.

Resource Links

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Meet the World’s Energy Hogs

Among the world’s nations, the United States uses by far the most energy per person. You’re not surprised to learn that, and neither was I when I first heard it.

Top Ten Nations:
Population v. Fuel Consumption

World rank & percentage of total

Country Population
Fuel Use
China 1 (20%) 2 (14%)
India 2 (18%) 5 (4%)
USA 3 (5%) 1 (22%)
Indonesia 4 (3%)
Brazil 5 (3%)
Pakistan 6 (2%)
Bangladesh 7 (2%)
Nigeria 8 (2%)
Russia 9 (2%) 3 (7%)
Japan 9 (2%) 4 (5%)
Germany 6 (3%)
Canada 7 (3%)
France 8 (2%)
UK 9 (2%)
Brazil 10 (2%)

But I was gob-smacked to learn that our nation, which holds just 5% of the world’s population, is using 22% of the world’s fuel.

The nations most prone to hog a disproportionate share of energy are the industrial nations. Populous developing nations that want to emulate the Euro-American lifestyle are crowding into the trough right behind them. The chart at right, which compares the world’s top ten fuel-consuming nations with the ten having the largest populations, clearly reveals these trends.

How do we in the US use all that fuel? Here are the top ten ways:

  1. Space heating 25%
  2. Lighting 14%
  3. Water heating 12%
  4. Space cooling 11%
  5. Refrigeration 6%
  6. Electronics 5%
  7. Wet cleaning 3%
  8. Cooking 3%
  9. Computers 2%
  10. Ventilation 2%

Adding up the subtotals, it turns out that our buildings are gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel. That’s more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%)!

Grab your caulk gun and start packin’ some heat!

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Spinning Straw into Gold: Straw Bale Houses

October 9, 2009

The Three Little Pigs got it all wrong! Turns out that it was the straw house – not the one of sticks or the one of bricks – that could stand up to all that huffing and puffing. Not only do straw bale houses provide excellent insulation from wind and extremes of temperature, they’re also proving to be surprisingly stable in earthquake country.

An off-the-grid straw bale house

An off-the-grid straw bale house. Photo by David Bainbridge.

That’s one of the curious facts I learned from Jack Ruskey, one of the co-founders of Oryzatech, a start-up that was showing its wares at the recent West Coast Green building conference.  Ruskey, a retired lawyer, grins and says that the day back in 2001, when Oryzatech won a $300,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, was one of the worst days of his life.

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

Ruskey’s a folksy kind of guy with a laid-back country style that’s common to several straw bale builders I have met. His bio says that he’s a farmer as well as a retired attorney, so I suspect that this bluff statement is just his way of joshing with the city girl. I take it to mean that the grant opened to door to veritable haystack of work, and closed it on any notion of restful retirement that Ruskey might have been entertaining. For the past nine years, Ruskey and his colleagues have been up to their collective armpits in research about the effectiveness of the funny-looking straw bale block you see here. That research has resulted in the company winning the first US patent protection for Oryzatech’s bale-making advance.

Oryzatech's patented straw bale. The bales stack together like Lego blocks, and then a column is inserted through the holes to further secure them.

Oryzatech's patented straw bale. The bales stack together like Lego blocks, and then a column is inserted through the holes to further secure them. The block measures 12”x12”x24” and dovetails with other common construction modules. Each block weighs 30 lbs.

It also turns out the Three Little Pigs story was both right and wrong in saying that the reason the first pig built the straw house was that “it was the easiest thing to do.” Straw houses are easy to construct. The hard part comes when it’s time to invite the building inspector over for a look-see (more about that later, though).

On his fun and informative Straw Bale Trail website, David Bainbridge, a prof who teaches sustainability at the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management in San Diego, notes that straw bale buildings are “are friendly to build… Families can work together and even small children can participate.”

“People like these buildings because they are very quiet, fire resistant, energy efficient, strong, durable and attractive,” says David. Another folksy guy, Bainbridge is a friend and colleague of mine at Alliant International University. A founding member of CASBA, the California Straw Building Association, David has been building straw bale houses for many years. He has built them all over the world, including in earthquake-prone China. (Not coincidentally, David is a member of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program Coalition.)

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1929

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1914

Straw bale houses have a true-blue American heritage. They were born on the treeless plains of Nebraska in the 1800’s, but they now are being built around the world, springing up from France and Germany to Australia, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. They’ve spread fast because they can be built cheaply, for just about $2 per square foot. What’s more, they make use of resources that renew quickly (grains grow in a single season whereas trees take decades), and they reuse material that would otherwise have to be managed as waste.

Straw is what’s left after a grain, such as wheat and rice, has been harvested. Oryzatech’s Stak Blocks, for example, are made from rice straw. The company’s odd name comes from the Greek word “oryza” meaning rice.

Before straw bundles can be stacked to make walls, the straw must be compressed into bales. At West Coast Green, Ruskey showed me how the inside of one of Orzyatech’s Stak Bloks looks. It’s not at all what I would have expected. Instead of looking like a bale of hay, the block looks and feels like the surface of a plywood sheet. It’s surprisingly dense, almost like a piece of woostbaleRatPalLR(2)d cut across the grain. Oryzatech makes the block using what it calls a “scalable, low-energy production process.” That means that they do more than stomp on the straw, but the process is proprietary and Ruskey wasn’t talking about it. He did say that the blocks have undergone extensive, independent testing at California Polytechnic University, and test results show that Stak Blocks offer more than three times the thermal value of an insulated 2×6 stud wall. In addition, in an earthquake, they perform better than either wood framing or brittle concrete walls.

Straw bales are usually laid in straight runs, like big bricks. But they can also be bent to create curves and interesting forms. Walls are usually wire meshed or pinned together; Orzyatech has designed a whole system of connectors. Once the bales are stacked, they are often plastered with lime, earth, or cement plasters. The results can be surprisingly beautiful.

Green Benefits of Straw Bale Buildings

David Bainbridge recently joined builder Ken Haggard in publishing a research paper that quantifies the huge impact that straw bale building can make in reducing global warming by “sequestering” carbon. In the newsletter of CASBA, a California non-profit organization whose members are designers, contractors, owner-builders, and people interested in straw building, Bainbridge and Haggard report that carbon can be safely locked up in straw bale buildings for far less than it costs to otherwise dispose of waste straw. Dumping straw bales at sea, for example, would cost around $340 per ton!

BainbridgeGrassGrowing

Author, educator, and straw bale builder David Bainbridge

Bainbridge and Haggard report that in the US, more than 100 million tons of straw a year could be used to build homes. Because the straw in each house would lock up 40 tons of carbon, those houses could capture and annually sequester up to 40 million tons of carbon across the nation. Moreover, each house could reduce CO2 emissions by 500 to 1000 tons over its lifetime.

In addition, Bainbridge and Haggard note that increased straw bale construction will reduce field burning of straw, in turn reducing the production of global-warming gases and reducing smoke-related health costs.

Energy Savings:
How to Spin Straw into Gold

When you factor in the energy savings that owners get from their straw bale houses, it begins to look as though the advocates of straw bale house have indeed found a way to spin straw into gold. Bainbridge’s research shows that well-designed straw bale buildings — that optimize, shape, insulation, thermal mass, ventilation, shade and orientation toward the sun to take advantage of solar heating and climatic cooling — owners can cut energy demand dramatically.

San Luis Obispo synagog

Congregation Beth David Synagogue in San Luis Obispo. Photo by David Bainbridge.

The Congregation Beth David Synagogue in San Luis Obispo, for example, reduced its energy use 82%! Near cold, snowy Aspen, Colorado, there’s a 6,000 square foot Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork that was built on time and under budget by volunteers and contractors. A passive solar, daylit building, this straw bale building has reduced heating costs by 60% for the school.

Other contemporary, energy-saving, commercial straw bale buildings here in California include the Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, the Schwaesdall Winery visitor’s center in Ramona, and the Woken Center at Hidden Villa in Los Altos.

Straw bale house in Maine

Straw bale house in Maine

There are also high-end, architecturally designed straw bale houses being built by specialty firms; given all the classy interior features, costs run up to $200 a square foot. You can find haute couture urban homes in places like Oakland, California and Washington DC, as well as striking do-it-yourself projects out in rural areas of Arizona and Texas.

One of the most engaging of the do-it-yourself projects is the home of Carolyn Roberts,  who wrote about being “a petite, forty-something single Mom with two teenage sons” who found herself unemployed and in need of a place to live. Roberts has written  A House of Straw, a book about her journey to bring her life into line with her green values. On her website, Roberts says that although she dreamed of a simple house in harmony with nature, she had “no carpentry experience, no directly relevant skills… no time, no money, no experience…”  Nonetheless, she managed to erect “an incredibly sturdy, beautiful and well-insulated house that will last for many years.” Not counting the land, her house cost only $50,000 to build.

“I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff”

To finish it, however, Roberts had to pass 23 county inspections! That astonishing number points up the other big reason the story of the Three Little Pigs was wrong about straw building being the “easiest thing to do.” Two of the major hurdles that straw bale builders have faced have been: 1) building codes that have been developed for other, dissimilar materials and technology, and 2) officials who may be thoroughly versed in the codes and regulations, but who have no background in straw bale building.

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

Bainbridge says that although “a few people have been discouraged and given up, sustainability and straw bale enthusiasts are a determined lot.” They have put nearly as much effort into educating building inspectors and code staffers as they have into building houses. Straw bale advocate David Eisenberg gave a big push to the much-needed education process when he wrote a series of columns for ‘Building Codes for a Small Planet“, a magazine read by code officials. The two Davids, Bainbridge and Eisenberg, also teamed up to offer a continuing education program for building code officials a few years ago.

“Thanks to the work of hundreds of unnamed builders, to early work by Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, and The Last Straw magazine, the codes have rarely been a stopper,” says Bainbridge. “The straw bale building response to codes has been helped along by many people  – and thanks to all of them – but David Eisenberg, the founder of DCAT (Development Center for Appropriate Technology) and a former builder, and Bruce King, an engineer, have both been instrumental.”

Bainbridge adds, “Several code officials quickly saw the value of straw bale building; they aided the process and provided support by talking to other jurisdictions and code organizations. Building code officials with a farm background usually saw it right away.”

Resource Links

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I Can See Clearly Now: Daylighting II

August 25, 2009

Want to see how the light will look before you spend money on remodeling windows, adding skylights, or repainting a room? If the answer is yes, have I got a story for you!

RoomBefore

The room has a nice warm quality when lit with two different sources of artificial light. This is at 4:30 on a summer afternoon. (Note the yellow wood stairs that cover and shade much of the left side of the south-facing window.)

RoomDark

Here's how it looks at noon with the lights off. OK for computer work, but it's hard to read a book. Light comes from the south-facing window and an east-facing door that leads to the kitchen and living room.

I recently built a scale model of my dining room and tested eight ways to increase the room’s natural light. My tests yielded some surprises – insights that I will share in this post.

As you can see from my photos, it’s so dark that, without artificial light, the pink walls in my dining room/office look smoky gray. When the room was occupied only at night, this wasn’t much of a problem. However, as I have moved my design practice into the room, the lack of natural light has become an issue. There are multiple reasons for that:

  • Human beings need full spectrum light for accurate color perception – a fact that makes natural light particularly important for visual designers.
  • Humans also perform better in natural light. Studies show that adequate daylighting can increase building lease rates, reduce worker absenteeism and sick leave, increase production, result in higher sales, and speed patient recovery times in hospitals. It has even been shown to help raise student test scores and reduce tooth decay.
  • Lack of natural light can impact mood. Like many other people, I suffer from SADS, or Seasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome, and natural light helps combat these blues.
  • We waste a shocking amount of electricity lighting our buildings during hours when sunlight is readily available. I find this reprehensible for both environmental and economic reasons.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I wrote about the first version of this model in A Light at the End of the Tunnel, Daylighting. That post contains much more information about the health and energy benefits of daylighting, as well as summaries of some daylighting strategies that I decided not to test on my model. For that reason, I don’t talk about them here, but you might find them of interest if you’re trying to lighten up your own dark room.

Match Wits with My Model

Before I share the results of my experiments with the daylighting model, I invite you to test your best guesses about what would most help to lighten the room.

Below, I have listed, in alphabetical order, the eight alterations I made to the model, giving each a two-letter mnemonic code. Take a moment to rank these options so that you can compare your predictions with the results of my experiments. (Put the number and code for the strategy you think would make the most difference first, the second-most effective strategy second, and continue until you have ranked all eight alterations in order of expected effectiveness.) You may be as surprised as I was by what worked, and what didn’t add much light to the room.

Here's where the window and stairs are located on the actual house.

Here's where the window and stairs are on my house.

Here are the alterations I tested:

  1. AW – All white - Painting the entire dining room white
  2. CL – Clerestory windows. Cutting clerestory windows through the east wall of the room to admit more light from the living room (wide, short windows located up near the roof where you can’t see through them are called “clear story” windows)
  3. MI – Mirror inside. Mounting a mirror on the sunny, west wall within the room
  4. MO – Mirror outside. Mounting a mirror on the outside wall that reflects the most light in through the window
  5. OS – Open Stairs. Replacing the solid wood stairs with openwork metal stairs that allow light to shine through
  6. WE – Window Extension. Extending the dining room window up to the ceiling
  7. WI -White inside wall. Painting the sunniest wall, the one that reflects the most light inside the room – white instead of pink
  8. WS – White stairs and stairwell. Painting the outside stairs and stairwell white, leaving the room pink

My test results will be revealed at the end of this blog. In the meantime, here’s a bit more information about the model, and some photos of the changes in light produced by various alterations.

The Second Daylight Model

Model

The daylight model; this is the same side of the house that is shown in the photo above.

To make the light in my daylighting model accurately show the changes I wanted to test, I expanded my original one-room model so that it would show both the main sources of light and the features that obstruct it. The expanded test model, the second daylight model, is shown at right. It includes:

  • Yellow painted stairs that block much of window – they can be seen on the left side of the model and also in the dark photo at the top of this post.
  • Door to kitchen – the door is at the center of the model. Here the kitchen is represented only by the tile placed outside the model. This is the same tile that is installed in the real kitchen, and it reflects a surprising amount of light.
  • Living room – the space to the left of the door is the dining room. The main sources of living room light are the  window at the right side of the model and the door into the kitchen. Light from the living room enters the dining room through the door on its east side.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.

Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.

Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!

Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!

YellowWhiteLanding

Painting the wall outside the window white reflects about the same amount of light as a mirror in the same spot.

A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.

A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.

At the outset, I thought that placing a mirror to catch and reflect sunlight falling on the room’s west wall (right side of the photo) would brighten the room a great deal. One of my fellow designers suggested this idea, and I was eager to try it.

The prof in my Building Envelope class, however, was unenthusiastic. He noted, rather disdainfully, that this smoke-and-mirrors trick would make my room look like every third restaurant in downtown San Francisco!

I was surprised to discover that placing a mirror outside the window – as the photo at far right shows – brightened the room far more than a mirror inside the window.

What startled me even more, however, was the discovery that white painted walls, both inside and outside the window, reflected more light than mirrors in either position! This seemed counter-intuitive, but both experiments with the model and a review of ASHRAE tables confirm it.

ASHRAE is the acronym for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and they have published extensive tables that list the reflectance of dozens of types of building materials and finishes. The reflectance standard for a perfect mirror is 100% (meaning that it reflects all of the available light) and is referenced as a value of 1.0. The aluminum foil I used in the model as a “mirror” is not perfect, but polished aluminum has a reflectance – or “R value” – of .8 to .9, and many mirrors are actually in that range too. So the foil probably gives us a good idea of how much light a real mirror would reflect.

A white masonry wall, according to the ASHRAE charts, also has an R-value in the range of .8 and should reflect about as well as the mirror. My model experiment not only confirms this, it also reveals that the reflectivity from white walls provides a much more even wash of light than the mirrors do. Look carefully at the light on the floor and ceilings in third photo at right and you will see this. In addition, you will see that the painted wall actually reflects light back into the depths of the room better than any of the mirrored options.

The fourth photo in this series shows that the room is significantly brightened when the outside wall, the bottom of the staircase, and the black tar roof outside the window (unseen in the photos here, but visible in the model above) are all painted white. The amount of light reflected onto the ceiling is substantially greater than in any of the preceding photos, and the wash of light to the right of the window reaches deeply into the room.

More Light from the Adjacent Room?

Clerestory windows were invented to let light into Gothic churches on the level above the stained glass windows that line the nave, and today, clerestory windows are often used in green buildings because they offer a great way to get to light travel from perimeter rooms into windowless interiors.

ClerestoryAs you can see from the photos in this post, my room receives a lot of light from the east wall’s door that opens to the living room and kitchen. I had hoped that installing clerestory windows in that same wall would add light to my dark dining room – but it was definitely an option I would want to test before trying it in real life. While it was easy to add the little windows shown at left to my model, adding them to the house might be quite an expensive option. To add them, my contractor would need to pierce a load-bearing wall that provides support to the building’s upper floor. That’s not impossible, but it would necessitate reinforcing the wall, and that would add to the cost of the project. Unless the clerestory windows added a lot of light to the room, they wouldn’t be worth the expenditure.

That’s exactly what the model showed. The amount of light the clerestory windows added to the room was negligible – much less of an improvement than I would get from simply painting the east interior wall of the room a lighter color! (You can see the model’s clerestory windows in the photo at the bottom of this post.) So that’s a neat $5000 or so the model has saved me. Painting all of the walls white of course increased this effect.

Buying a Stairway to Heaven

StairsOldNew

The old, solid wood stairs at left. New, pierced metal version at right.

The most obvious barrier to daylighting in this room, of course, is those darn stairs. They not only block the view, but they also shade the window from the wonderful south light that comes into the kitchen and living room, and from light that would fall from the sky directly above the stairs.

Those stairs need to be rebuilt, and I have wondered whether leaving the risers open at the back of the stairs (or alternatively, putting a transparent material at the back of the riser) would significantly lighten the room.  Ryan Stroupe, from whom I was taking a green building course, suggested something even better: what if the stairs were made from a pierced or open metal grating? I tested that option by building a set of stairs for the model out of metal window screen; you can see the old and new stairs in the model photos above.

FullMonty

Here's the model after all eight alterations have been made. The best improvements came from painting the light well's surfaces white, raising the top of the window, exchanging the solid wood stairs for metal stairs that admit light, and painting the interior walls white. You can see that the clerestory windows, at top left side, don't add much light to the room.

My last change was to further open the room by extending the room’s window up as far as possible toward the ceiling. Obviously, this strategy would work best with open stairs and an open top landing.

Grand Finale

Drumroll, please! After all this testing and photo-taking, I can clearly see what’s going to work best, and you can compare your predictions to the results. Here’s how the eight possible improvements stacked up:

  1. Open Stairs
  2. Window Extension
  3. White stairs and stairwell
  4. White outside wall
  5. Mirror outside
  6. White inside wall
  7. Mirror inside wall
  8. Clerestory windows

Interesting, eh? How well did your predictions turn out?

If you’re thinking about improving the daylight in a room, here are some resources that you might find useful:

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NicoLadder

I Can See Clearly Now

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

-Johnny Nash

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A Light at the End of the Tunnel – Daylighting!

July 18, 2009

How is it that I, a person who is highly sensitive to light – or rather the lack of it – works in not one, but two spaces that are as dark as the inside of a pocket?

The presence of sunlight offers amazing benefits to a building’s inhabitants and/or owners. Studies have shown that adequate “daylighting” can increase building lease rates, reduce worker absenteeism and sick leave, increase production, result in higher sales, and speed patient recovery times in hospitals.

Here's what the window looks like at noon with the room lights turned off.
Here’s how dark my office is at noon on a sunny day lit only by the south-facing window and an east-facing interior door.
Bridgy1
Here’s how it looks a few steps farther back with all of the lights turned on.

I know from experience that a lack of sunlight can cause depression. When I lived in gray and overcast Chicago, I suffered from SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder). After a move to San Francisco my mood brightened, except during bouts of summer fog. Another move to the border of the sunny Mission District has helped me escape both gray skies and blue days.

Even so, the rooms where I spend the most time are both dark: my home office and my office at Alliant International University. At the university, I’m privileged to have a private office, but it’s an interior space that is wholly dependent on artificial light. My office has no windows. A vertical glass panel beside the door would let in light from the hallway – if there were any. On three occasions, I have been in that office during power failures, and each time, I was instantly plunged into darkness. I found my way out to the hallway – an equally dark space – only with the help of the small flashlight on my keyring!

View of artemisia bush from inside the daylight model

View of artemisia bush from inside the daylight model, same south orientation as the real window. This shows how much light should be getting into the room - quite a contrast to the real room above.

Frankly, this is the result of bad design. Alliant’s offices were built out only about five years ago, and the folks who planned them should have known better. The offices on the perimeter do have some glass walls, and they do let light. But due to the floor plan, internal walls quickly block the light.

The layout spaces multiple windowless interior offices like mine along long windowless hallways. The halls receive natural light only at the far ends, rendering the glass insets beside the doors pointless. A couple times, when we had extended power outages, the staff wearied of waiting and groping in the dark and went home.

My home office, which doubles as a dining room, is not much better, however. You can see the problem in the photos at the top of the post. I have complained to the management. The manager (me) has assured the tenant that despite serious fiscal limitations, there are some possible options for brightening up this dark space. In this post, I will tell you a little about a model of the room I have built, and how I’m using it to weigh my options for improving the room. Later (perhaps quite a bit later, given the current economy), I will tell you about how my lighting renovations come out.

Modeling the Room

I have created a scale model to test changed paint colors, a light shelf, a light reflection pad, above-head-level clerestory windows, and changes to the reflectance qualities of the surfaces outside the window. Eventually, I will also need to redesign the outside stairs that partially block and shade the room’s one window, but I decided to start by seeing how much I could lighten the room with the easier, cheaper, indoor fixes.

ArtemisiaOutS

The scale model in the garden. The camera opening is facing you and the windows of the room look south, in the same orientation as the actual room. What the window "sees" is that artemesia bush, the view shown in the previous photo.

The first steps in this experiment have involved testing how the surfaces outside the room impact the light and color inside. I’m conducting my tests using the scale model, pictured at right. This little box is made of foam core, which is easy to use, but too translucent for a daylight model in most cases. But in this instance, the interior walls have been finished with the same wall texture, flat pink latex wall paint, and white gloss wood trim enamel, as in the actual room. The paint and its underlayment (rubber cement sprinkled with grainy brown flour to create wall texture) make the foam board opaque.

The real room (pictured at the top of this blog as it looks when lit by artificial and natural light together), is nine and half feet wide, 11 feet long, and has a 10-foot high ceiling. All of this, plus the window and doors, have been replicated in the  model at a scale of 1.25 inch equals 1 foot. The model even includes an appropriately placed picture rail and high baseboards similar to those in the real room.

Why Daylighting is a Bright Idea

With all the lights on, the room pictured at the top of this blog is fairly attractive – and one made even more attractive by my cat Bridget, who is sitting on the table. What’s wrong with turning on the lights, you might ask?

As it turns out, quite a few things. It takes energy to keep those lights burning. As much as one-third of your total energy bill may be going to light your house.

A beautifully daylight room

A beautifully daylit room

To my way of thinking, that’s ridiculous! To adequately light a space, you need to capture only about 2% of the outside light, and all that’s required for that is proper fenestration. But over the past couple decades, architects, who have been DUI (designing under the influence) of cheap oil, haven’t thought much about daylighting and energy efficiency.

Happily, that’s changing. With buildings responsible for gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel – more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%) – many building owners are undertaking energy-efficiency retrofits. One example is Chicago’s Sears Tower, which has just been rechristened the “Willis Tower” by its new owners.

The Willis Tower, like its glass-box cousins, bleeds energy. This year, it’s getting a $350 million sustainability retrofit that will reduce its base electricity use by up to 80 percent. Like me, the Tower’s owners have little ability to change the building’s basic shape, but they are replacing 16,000 single-pane windows with thermally efficient models and are also installing “daylight harvesting” systems that dim the artificial lighting when the sunlight is adequate. They expect to save up to 150,000 barrels of oil – megabucks – every year!

Green is for Greenbacks

This might be a good place to note that energy costs drive both efforts to improve daylighting and efforts to improve the thermal performance of the building’s envelope. A few months back, in a post entitled “Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow“, I wrote about plugging heat leaks in my house. Last month, I found out how effective my investment of a couple days time and around $100 had been. I received a rebate check from PG&E for reducing my energy use, and that prompted my husband Mason to compare current and past utility bills. A year ago, our June bill totaled $142, and this June it was $49. Since the house was fully occupied both months – Mason is retired so he’s there during the days – and the weather was quite similar, I think the credit goes to mostly to me.

But the financial benefits of daylighting aren’t limited to energy savings. One big box store noticed that the skylit-half of its store consistently showed 40% higher sales than the side that was artificially lit. Wondering whether that might be due to unpopular merchandise or to the way it was displayed, they flip-flopped the store layout, so that the slower-selling products were now under the skylights. To their astonishment, they found that the under-the-skylight sales pattern persisted. This chain is now working on installing skylights in all their stores.

Health Benefits of Natural Light

Natural light also has a positive impact on human health. It makes us feel happier, perhaps because we feel more connected to the environment. We also see a fuller spectrum of color in daylight.

But there’s more to it than that. The depressive impact of SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) – also known as “cabin fever” – is well documented. Studies show that people who suffer from SAD exhibit many of the signs of depression: sadness, anxiety, irritability, lack of interest in their usual activities, social withdrawal, and inability to concentrate. They often suffer from fatigue, lack energy, crave sleep and carbohydrates, and experience increased appetite and weight gain.

Less well known are several studies done in schools, where natural light has been linked to reduced absenteeism, higher test scores, and even to less tooth decay!

Meanwhile, Back in My Office

A southwest view from the daylighting model.

Because the daylighting model is turned about 30 degrees and facing southwest, there's far less light on the right side wall. It's also interesting how much what's outside the window affects the interior color. Compare the color of the walls here, with the San Diego red bougainvillea reflecting on them, with the image above, where the green from the artemesia creates a complement effect that greatly tones down the pinkness of the room.

It’s far easier of course, to orient the windows correctly in the first place than to later attempt to correct the problem – as I will be trying to do with my office/dining room. In my case, the room should have adequate light.

As the daylight model at right shows, the south-facing window gets quite a bit of light. Light also comes through the door on the left side of the room – though not quite as much as this model would indicate. In reality, that door opens into my living room, a space I have not yet added to the daylight model. My living room does have adequate light, but it filters the light that enters the dining room.

The real problem here can be seen in the photo at the top of the post: wooden stairs with closed backs block much of the light that should be entering my office. To fix this problem, I will need to have those outside stairs rebuilt in addition to changing the inside of the room.

What kind of changes can help improve daylighting in this room – or one you want to brighten up? Here’s a list, starting with the simplest and moving to the most difficult and costly:

  • Change of wall color: Light colors reflect significantly more light, and a change to a wall inside or outside can help. I will be repainting some walls inside my model to test this. I will also be experimenting with changing the color of the “ground” surface outside the window; currently, that landing is covered with a black tar roof. I would get more reflection if that surface were a light color.
  • Mirrored wall: Mirrors reflect light; I will be experimenting with putting mirrors on the wall opposite the windows, and also with hanging something reflective outside the window.
  • Light shelf: Light shelves are horizontal panels that are placed near the top of window and used to bounce light into the depths of a room. I’m not sure I have enough direct sunlight to make one work – at least until the stairs are redesigned to let light through – but this, too, is easy to test in a model.
  • Light-deflecting panels hung from ceiling: I have seen these in only one place, the LEED-certified offices of the Energy Foundation in downtown San Francisco. In that office, interior designers have hung a V-shaped panel from the ceiling over a conference table. The angled sides of the panel catch light from the windows and reflect it down toward the work surface, brightening a room that is otherwise somewhat dark. My room is shaped somewhat similarly, and I’m eager to try this approach.
  • Drop ceiling: The best light comes from the tops of windows, at eight feet and above, and windows are most effective when they directly abut walls and ceilings. The top of my window is separated from the ceiling by a two and a half foot margin. The ceilings throughout the house are 10 feet up, and it may be that much of my available light is escaping up into the area above my picture rail. An experiment with the box will tell.
  • Install clerestory windows: Those wide, short windows located up near the roof are called clerestory windows, and they are great for letting light travel from perimeter rooms into interior rooms. Installing clerestory windows probably would let more light travel from my living room into my dark dining room – but it might be an expensive option, because to add them, my contractor would need to pierce a load-bearing wall that provides support to the building’s upper floor.
  • Install skylights
  • Install tubular skylights: I can’t add a skylight in my room (because of that upper floor), but some tubular skylights can channel light down inclined paths by reflecting it down a tube, and I might be able to use one of these to import sunlight into my space.

Resource Links

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It was the sun that made ancient Egypt prosperous, and they worshipped that life-giving source of energy. The god Ra, the god of the sun, was regarded as the source of everything.

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Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow

June 12, 2009

The winter of 2007 was bone-chilling. Parts of the summer were even worse! Despite energy bills that went through the roof, I repeatedly struggled to type on my laptop with fingers too stiff and cold to accurately hit the right keys.

Infrared image of a house. The colors map the temperature of the building. Those orange spots show that these folks could use some wall insulation on the second floor.

Infrared image of a house. The colors map the temperature of the building. Those orange spots show that these folks could use some wall insulation on the second floor.

But no more! This post will share half a dozen simple, inexpensive solutions to most of that chilling problem. I spent less than $500 on improvements and cut my utility bill by about one-third while noticeably improving thermal comfort.

As regular readers know, my posts usually communicate on both a literal and philosophical level, and this will be no exception. While sharing tips about weatherizing, blocking drafts, and managing heat flow, I will also be talking about the emotional and spiritual challenges imposed by the economy and my stage in life. I have a vision of where I’d like to be in my “retirement” years: I will be providing design services to people who want to remodel their homes to make them more sustainable, more beautiful, and more able to meet the challenges of aging and disability. I hope that this blog will establish my expertise and will eventually bring clients to my company, Comfort and Joy Interior Design, which will be located, figuratively speaking, at the corner of Green Street and Golden Years Avenue. Along the way, I hope this blog opens the doors to professional opportunities to market and write about architectural and interior design products.

My Personal Energy Challenge

Currently, I’m a long way from the allegorical intersection of Green and Golden. I work a 40-45 hour a week job at a private university – for which I’m grateful. A handful of clients have asked for my assistance with small interior design projects, chiefly color consultations and space planning. I care for them in my spare time.

I don’t have much time to spare because I’m constantly enrolled in interior architecture classes that give me 10-plus hours of homework a week. My skills are growing at a prodigious rate, and I enjoy sharing new green building ideas in this blog, even though writing it demands another 4-8 hours of my time weekly.

I’m not complaining. I hate to be bored. I am, however, middle-aged. My peers comment on my “boundless energy” and lowball my age when they try to guess it, but my body knows. My energy is more limited than it was, and it takes me a week, rather than a couple days, to bounce back from an all-nighter. I know that my health and time are finite resources. Still, I probably have 20-plus years of productive work to offer, along with considerable skills.

The c-c-c-cold room in which I sit to type out my blog is a way station along a road that leads to a future that is personally satisfying and socially constructive. I don’t mind some trade-offs, but I don’t want to freeze en-route. Enter Ms. Fix-It.

A Drafty House with a Vintage Heating “System”

My 1922 house fits my personal sustainability plan in a number of ways: it provides built-in social support, it’s located in a walkable neighborhood, and it offers more sun than my previous place. But the single, vintage gas wall register it contains does not a heating system make. Indeed, there seems to have been little “systems thinking” involved in where and how it was installed.

The ancient Hawaiians knew how to use renewable, local materials to build a house with effective passive cooling. This historic building has been reconstructed in a park. When I sat in it, the trade winds pleasantly cooled the interior on a hot day.

The ancient Hawaiians knew how to use renewable, local materials to build a house with effective passive cooling. This historic building has been reconstructed in a park. When I sat in it, the trade winds pleasantly cooled the interior on a hot day.

I live on the second floor of a three-story house. Mason and I are the peanut butter sandwiched in between Alexei’s upstairs flat, and the cars in the ground-floor garage. Mason is fairly impervious to thermal changes, but Alexei and I are delicate blossoms. We suffered from the cold in winter. In the summer, we not only suffered from heat, we also froze.

For those unfamiliar with the place which prompted Mark Twain to remark “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” this may require some explanation. The temperature here never goes much below 40 and rarely above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re so unaccustomed to heat, we’ve been known to dismiss schools when the temperature goes above 90 – the polar opposite of “snow days.” To be fair, though, most of our Bay Area schools, as well as homes and many older business, lack air conditioning. My flat doesn’t have any, and that single wall unit is tucked away in a hall where no one spends much time. Given the right angles in the flat’s floorplan, heat doesn’t penetrate the bedrooms, the living room, my office, or the kitchen. When the summer fog rolls in, dropping the temperature dramatically, my teeth start to chatter. Throughout 2007, I repeatedly mused about putting in a new furnace and forced air heat – a big job with a four-figure price tag – but given the slow economy, my tuition, and my business plans, I decided I couldn’t afford it. Still, my hands felt achingly cold. Drafts numbed my toes when I was brushing my teeth. I slept in a wool cap, flannel granny gown, and knee socks, and I still spent an hour shivering before I could defrost enough to drop off to sleep. There had to be something I could do!

Revelation struck. In one of my classes, I learned that as much as one-third of all heating bleeds out of the average house. This was dramatically illustrated with an infrared photo like the one at the top of this post. As I began to think about why my toes were growing numb, I became aware of a draft across the floor. When I peeked under the sink, I realized that even buying an expensive and powerful new furnace wasn’t going to make much difference if I persisted, to paraphrase my mother’s words, in “heating all of Northern California.”

Here’s what I did to improve climate control in my flat:

  1. Fixed the drafty windows
  2. Blocked the drafts around and under the doors
  3. Stopped the drafts around the plumbing penetrations
  4. Learned to better manage the placement of the heat that we do have
  5. Improved the ventilation for summer cooling
  6. Installed a low-power, convection heater in the office/dining room

I will talk about each of these things in turn, and I will include some photos of my handiwork. But first, I want to say a bit about why this is important enough to merit its own blog post, and one notably shy of pretty pictures. My toes aren’t of any great importance, but the environment that sustains us is.

The World’s Energy Hogs

Among the world’s nations, the United States uses by far the most energy per person. You’re not surprised to learn that, and neither was I. But I was gob-smacked to learn that our nation, which holds just 5% of the world’s population, is using 22% of the world’s fuel.

Top Ten Nations:
Population v. Fuel Consumption

World rank & percentage of total

Country Population
Fuel Use
China 1 (20%) 2 (14%)
India 2 (18%) 5 (4%)
USA 3 (5%) 1 (22%)
Indonesia 4 (3%)
Brazil 5 (3%)
Pakistan 6 (2%)
Bangladesh 7 (2%)
Nigeria 8 (2%)
Russia 9 (2%) 3 (7%)
Japan 9 (2%) 4 (5%)
Germany 6 (3%)
Canada 7 (3%)
France 8 (2%)
UK 9 (2%)
Brazil 10 (2%)

The nations most prone to hog a disproportionate share of energy are the industrial nations. Populous developing nations that want to emulate the Euro-American lifestyle are crowding into the trough right behind them. The chart at right, which compares the world’s top ten fuel-consuming nations with the ten having the largest populations, clearly reveals these trends.

How do we in the US use all that fuel? Here are the top ten ways:

  1. Space heating 25%
  2. Lighting 14%
  3. Water heating 12%
  4. Space cooling 11%
  5. Refrigeration 6%
  6. Electronics 5%
  7. Wet cleaning 3%
  8. Cooking 3%
  9. Computers 2%
  10. Ventilation 2%

These data, which were compiled by the US government in collaboration with utility companies, were shared in a class I’m taking at UC Berkeley Extension. Adding up the subtotals, it turns out that our buildings are gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel. That’s more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%).

And it’s not necessary! We humans know how to design far more energy-efficient buildings. As my prof Ryan Stroupe pointed out, indiginous people have been building reasonably energy-efficient buildings for most of humankind’s history, and without any help from architects! The Hawaiian dwelling above is a great example of such a building; its breezy design harnesses trade winds for passive cooling – despite the warm climate and a lack of air conditioning, it has a comfortably cool interior.

Types of Fuel
Consumed in US in 2007
  1. Petroleum
    (gasoline & oil) 39%
  2. Natural Gas 24%
  3. Coal 23%
  4. Nuclear 8%
  5. Biofuels 4%
  6. Hydroelectric 2%

Where’s renewable
energy? Wind, solar
and geothermal energy
add up to less than 1%
of the total energy
we use in the US!

Until technological advances made the column-free, cantilevered, sealed and artificially-lit skyscraper possible, people had to use passive heating and cooling and natural light in buildings. Even “old” skyscrapers such as the Woolworth Building, which was the world’s tallest building in 1911, had windows that opened and brought natural light into every office. The massive, modern, glass and steel erections that characterize modern city centers were built at a time when we saw energy as unlimited – it was going to be, in words of a former atomic commissioner, “too cheap to meter.”

The architect’s world view hasn’t caught up with the real world yet. Despite energy shortages, sky rocketing energy bills, and global warming, clients are still demanding and architects are still designing edifices that in Ryan’s memorable phrase “simply bleed energy.”

I can’t do much about the skyscrapers, but I found multiple ways to improve energy efficiency in my flat. Here’s what I did.

Closing the windows

At the top of the post, I said that my energy bill was “going through the roof.” That’s not quite accurate. While I’m pretty sure that Alexei’s top-floor heating energy was going through the roof, the biggest proportion of mine was going out the windows.

A soft, quarter-round pine dowel has been installed so that it protrudes about 3/8 of an inch past the square edge of the window and blocks wind coming in around the casement window, which no longer fits tightly. My index and middle fingers are behind the pine baffle, which has been painted with white enamel to match the window finish. The baffle is squared off above and below the catch to allow it to rotate and engage

A quarter-round dowel has been installed so that it protrudes about 3/8 of an inch past the square, inner edge of the window. My fingers are behind this pine wind baffle, which has been painted with white enamel to match the window finish. The baffle is squared off above and below so the latch can turn and secure the window.

Our bedrooms came equipped with banged-up, wood-framed casement windows that no longer fit tightly. In one case, someone had tried to plug the drafts by sticking black foam weather stripping around the inside of the white frame. It not only looked awful, it didn’t work. The foam was falling away in clumps, and the wind whistled through the gaps left behind.

My solution was to remove the foam and create the wind baffle shown at left. Made from soft, easy-to-trim pine strips, the baffle is painted to look like a part of the original window. I measured and cut five strips of quarter-round dowel to fit each not-quite-square window: one strip for each of the three unbroken sides, and two for the side with the latch. I mitered all four corners and cut flat ends above and below the latch. I then used white glue and finishing nails to hold the quarter round in place, filling both the nail dimples and the imperfectly joined corners with wood dough. (My favorite is Zar Wood Patch because it’s water-soluble, scent-free and dries to a nicely sandable surface.)

As soon as the baffle was installed, I could stand in front of the windows without feeling a draft. (Years earlier, I had found that I also needed to seal the wood-framed windows at my hundred-year-old Downey Street house. In that case, the draft entered through a large gap between the gypsum wall board and the underside of the windowsill. I used Zar to seal that one too, painting the dried wood dough to match the windowsill.)

Window coverings also made a difference. In the guest bedroom, we installed heavy curtains that can be drawn to fully cover the window. Upstairs, in Alexei’s bedroom, we did even better by installing three-layer insulating curtains that have a lining, a heavy fabric layer, and a wind-blocking interfacing layer.

Fixing the Drafty Doors

Several doors in the house were also letting in drafts. I chose to weatherstrip the back door, which is usually kept closed, with an adhesive foam. It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t show.

DoorBaffle DoorDetail
Low-tech, but effective! This brown
cloth tube blocks the draft
flowing under the door.

The door to our “watercloset” – the part of the split bathroom that holds the toilet – posed a more difficult problem. The watercloset window opens onto a light well, and when the wind is blowing, it leaks underneath the door into the front hall. (It also sounds like Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the toilet!) One solution would be to keep the window perpetually shut, but that’s not always desirable since it provides the only ventilation to a room that needs olfactory relief.

My husband Mason came up with an easy, low-tech solution. He ordered the cloth device shown here after seeing it advertised on TV. It’s a fabric tube bisected with a lengthwise seam. Each of the pockets formed by the seam holds a styrofoam tube. The cloth-encased styrofoam tubes nestle under the door and block the unwanted draft, but it’s easy to open and close the door with this device in place.

Plumbing Penetrations

After standing in the bathroom draft for many months – trying not to notice that my toes were going numb as I brushed my teeth – I finally got down on the floor and stuck my head under the sink to find out where the draft was coming from.

Drain underneath the bathroom sink is now finished with an aluminum flange that blocks drafts. The blue shading indicates the approximate size of the open hole that I covered with the flange.

Drain underneath the bathroom sink is now finished with an aluminum flange that blocks drafts. The blue shading indicates the approximate size of the open hole that I covered with the flange.

It was coming through a big hole in the wall. The opening was for the sink’s drain, but it had been been so generously cut that I could curl my fingers through the gap and brush my fingertips against the stucco outside.

While the generous size of my “plumbing penetration” was a bit surprising, you will frequently find drafts where drains and water pipes enter the house. It’s one of the most common holes in the building envelope, and these openings are seldom given enough finishing and insulation.

Attending to my drafty drain required a trip to the hardware store where, for a couple of dollars, I bought a round aluminum flange. One side opened with a hinge and snapped around the pipe. It didn’t do the whole job; I still needed to fill in some jagged edges to enable the flange to cover them. I also needed to tack finishing nails around the flange to get it to lie flat against the irregular surface of the wall. This job took about an hour, cost less than $10, and voila! Once again, I had feeling in my toes.

Managing the Heat

After we discovered how much cold had been leaking in under the bathroom door, Mason began systematically closing the door to any room we weren’t using, heating only the areas we were occupying. Directing and managing the placement of the heat heat we did have made a difference. Upstairs, in Alexei’s flat, where the wall heater is placed opposite the door to her guest bedroom. Alexei says that the guest room’s temperature dropped a good five degrees when she began keeping it closed off, while the living room grew perceptibly warmer.

Given all we’ve learned, I’m no longer lusting for a big furnace. That creaky old wall heater is being used more effectively not only because we’re directing the heat flow, but also because we replaced its thermostat with a programmable version. The furnace now fires up a bit before we awaken, and we no longer need to remember to turn it down during the day because that’s automatic. The furnace even knows enough to change its plans on the weekends. All this has helped with the temperature of the house, and also made a difference on the bills.

While the wall furnace lacks ducts that would bring heat into our bedroom, I did discover that our ceiling fan – which we installed to keep the room cool enough for sleeping and to mask background noise – could also be used to help heat the room. The fan doesn’t include a heating unit, but its spin direction is reversible. Rotate it clockwise and it cools; turn it counterclockwise and it pushes down the warm air that collects up by our 10-foot ceilings!

Low-Power Convection Heater

I have found a couple things that help defrost my hands. One is an “Eco-heater” that is wall-mounted and uses a convection current to warm the room. About 90% of the heat comes from the back of the panel; it enters a space between the panel and the wall and creates an up-draft that circulates through the whole room.

Heater1 Heater2
Low-power convection heater
is mounted on white spacer legs,
shown in detail at right.
The panel sits parallel
to the wall leaving an open space
behind it; this creates a convection
current that heats the room.
No fan is needed, so the unit is silent.
Panel can be painted to match
the wall as seen above.

The “Eco-Heater” draws about as much power as four light bulbs and plugs into a regular 120 volt US wall socket: 400 watts at 3.3 amps. It measures 23 1/4 inches square and is 3/8 inch thick. I bought mine from Home Depot. They didn’t have it at the store, but it was available from their website. It cost $129 plus shipping; it weighs about 15 pounds.

The panel was easy to mount and paint, and so far, I’m happy with it. It takes the chill off of the room evenly and subtly; there’s no blast of hot air like with most heaters. I have tried it in cool, but not truly cold weather; Mark Twain’s summer hasn’t quite arrived. I haven’t gotten a heating bill since I installed it. It only draws as much current as four light bulbs, so I don’t expect much increase. After the fog rolls in, I will let you know how the bill looks.

My final warm-up trick comes from my physician. She advised me to get some uncooked, instant rice. I was to put it into a deep bowl, microwave it for a few minutes, and then plunge my hands into the hot rice. Nirvana! If I try to warm my hands with water, the residual evaporation that occurs after towel-drying them cools them again almost immediately; with the rice trick, they stay warm.

Here’s my recipe for a complete chilly-weather cheer up: Wrap cold body in a fuzzy blue Snuggie (see illustration below). Heat rice, insert hands. When hands are warm, settle into a comfy chair, hold a cup of hot chai, and insulate lap with a purring cat. Don’t shake or stir. Enjoy straight up!

Resource Links

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The Cult of the Snuggie!

During the winter of 2007, Alexei and I joined “the cult of the Snuggie.” Very camp, very au courant. To learn about this secret society, watch the YouTube video attached to the link here.

During the winter of 2007, Alexei and I joined "the cult of the Snuggie." Very camp, very au courant. To learn about this secret society, watch the YouTube video attached to the link below.

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Up On the (Living) Roof

May 15, 2009

“Right smack dab in the middle of town, I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof.” It’s right where the Drifters said it would be: Up on the roof!

In town park from the Girls Gone Green blog

In-town rooftop park; photo from Jubie's "This Girl's Gone Green" blog

This week’s post explores green roofs – planted roofs that offer huge benefits by stemming storm water runoff, cutting heating and air conditioning bills, and reducing air and noise pollution. Green roofs are fine places for birds, butterflies and bipedal buddies to visit. Chefs too; at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, the roof of the Environmental Sciences building grows vegetables that are served in a university cafe called the Seasoned Spoon.

I fondly recall sitting on a roof outside my rented room above 13th Street in Boulder to study while I was an undergrad. Roofs were a popular student perch then, possibly because when I went to college in the 1970’s, neither dorms nor rental houses in Colorado were equipped with air conditioning. In the breeze under a shady, overhanging tree was the best place to sit and read when the mercury started to edge up.

Despite the recent eco vogue that has made green roofs au courant – topping buildings from Singapore to Dearborn, Michigan, where Henry Ford’s original River Rouge Truck plant now sports a 10-acre vegetated roof – grassy roofs are really old hat. More than a century ago, high plains settlers were nicknamed “sodbusters” both because of their work and their built-into-the-prairie housing. And grass-covered roofs were venerable even then.

Norwegians and Icelanders were building green roofs three and four centuries ago! The vegetation that kept their houses warm during the long Scandinavian winters could also feed the goat during the summer. Some of those Nordic houses are still intact. An Icelandic house, standing in its original spot, can be seen at the end of this blog. A number of grass-roofed historic houses have been saved and moved to cultural museums such as the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo. Interestingly enough, the Norsk Folkemuseum’s website notes that when tile began to be produced locally, sod roofs became unfashionable. As villagers replaced their roofs, they discovered that “tile roofs do not insulate as well as sod roofs and many people put in paneled ceilings for warmth.”

Why Green Roofs are Cooler – Literally

EPA infrared photo shows heat island effect in Atlanta, Georgia

EPA infrared photo shows heat island effect in Atlanta, Georgia

When I stepped out of my window onto the roof to study during my college days, I usually threw a bath towel out first. In bare feet, that roof was often too hot to touch.

A black tar and asphalt roof can push the mercury up as high as 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and accumulated acres of black roofs and pavement lead to a phenomenon called the “Urban Heat Island” effect. Because dark surfaces concentrate and reflect heat, cities are commonly 6 to 10 degrees warmer than green areas around their perimeters. No wonder that by July, we urban dwellers are, to paraphrase the Lovin’ Spoonful, “people lookin’ half dead, walkin’ on a sidewalk hotter than a matchhead.”

Because it gets so darn hot in the summer in the city, one-sixth of all electricity consumed in the US goes to cool buildings. That causes air conditioners to spew out exhaust, and ironically, more heat. It’s a vicious circle that, according to the EPA, leads to:

  • Increased energy consumption – Higher temperatures in summer increase energy demand for cooling and add pressure to the electricity grid during peak periods.
  • Elevated emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases – Increasing energy demand generally results in greater emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Higher air temperatures also promote the formation of ground-level ozone.
  • Compromised human health and comfort – Warmer days and nights, along with higher air pollution levels, can contribute to general discomfort, respiratory difficulties, heat cramps and exhaustion, non-fatal heat stroke, and heat-related mortality.
  • Impaired water quality - Hot pavement and rooftop surfaces transfer their excess heat to storm water, which then drains into storm sewers and raises water temperatures as it is released into streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. Rapid temperature changes can be stressful to aquatic ecosystem.

Green Roofs in the Birthplace of the Skyscraper

In 2000, a demonstration rooftop garden was planted atop Chicago’s 11-story City Hall. Since then, the birthplace of the skyscraper has been sprouting green roofs right and left. Partly because of $5,000 grants that the City awarded to dozens of residential and small commercial projects, Chicago is home to more green roofs than any other US city.

Green roof on Chicago City Hall

Green roof on Chicago City Hall

Chi-Town’s City Hall garden mitigates heat island effect by replacing a black tar roof with greenery. The garden absorbs less solar heat and manages to keep City Hall cooler, using less air conditioning and energy. Temperature differences between the green roof and the black roof on the nearby County Building have proved impressive. For example, on August 9, 2001, at 1:45 pm, when the temperature was in the 90’s, the thermometers read:

  • City Hall Roof (paved area) 126 – 130 F, (planted area) 91 – 119 F
  • County Roof (black tar) 169 F

City Hall’s roof garden holds more than 100 species of plants that have been selected for the sunny rooftop environment, plants that can handle the windy, arid conditions common in Chicago. In addition to shrubs and vines, two trees also live on the roof. Most of the greenery there consists of prairie plants native to the region. Thanks to all the vegetation, the roof garden can soak up 75% of a one-inch rainfall before storm water runs over into the sewers. In addition, the plants filter the air, improving air quality by using excess carbon dioxide to produce oxygen.

Over its first five years, the roof saved the City about $25,000 in energy costs, a saving due to shading, insulation and evapo-transpiration effects. (Evapo-transpiration occurs when plants secrete or “transpire” water through pores in their leaves.) The key features that affect the roof’s energy use include an increased layer of insulation under the main roof, plants and walkways that cover 20,300 square feet, and an irrigation system that provides adequate water to the plants.

The Academy Comes Alive in San Francisco

The checkerspot butterfly, a threatened species, has found a friendly habitat on the green roof of the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

The checkerspot butterfly is one of two threatened species that have lost habitat and are slated to find a home on the green roof of the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco – which calls itself the “greenest museum in the world – is a new LEED platinum-rated building that is topped by a 2.5 acre green roof, the largest green roof of any natural history museum in the world. It covers 197,000 square feet, is 6-7 inches thick, and cost $17 per square foot. The roof retains 2 million gallons of rainwater, preventing 70% of it from running off and flooding city drains. The water that does run off the roof is collected in cisterns in the basement. It’s used to irrigate the roof’s plants, nine indigenous species and the most concentrated area of native wildflowers in the city.

The Academy’s roof is visually arresting. Designed by Renzo Piano, it rolls in imitation of the Bay Area’s coastal hills. That sloping shape presented some technical challenges that were solved by the development of something called the BioTray®, a biodegradable, reinforced, modular plant propagation tray made from rapidly renewable coconut coir fibers. The tray holds the growing medium in place while the plants put down roots and later helps the plants to hang onto water.

According to the museum’s website, this unusual roof also provides thermal comfort inside the museum:

The steep slopes of the roof act as a natural ventilation and cooling system. Fresh air, cooled by the vegetated surface, is funneled into the entry plaza, whose retractable skylights peel back to allow cool air to sink into the building to offset mechanical cooling demand with natural ventilation. Additionally, the thermal mass, surface moisture, and insulation in the roof assembly are expected to maintain the building’s interior an average of 10 degrees cooler than a standard roof would.

The Academy’s new home earned the United States Green Building Council’s platinum rating, the highest possible LEED sustainable building rating. The museum’s commitment to sustainability is evident at every turn, from the bike racks and rechargeable vehicle stations out front to the solar cells on top. Down below, radiant heating provides warmth from beneath the floors. The museum’s designers even thought about what’s inside the walls; the insulation was made from recycled denim!

Details at the Root of the Matter

Green roof on university in Singapore

Green roof on School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

Whether a vegetated roof sits atop a house, a library, a factory, a school or even a church, and whether it’s one story in height or hundreds of feet above the ground, the details of construction and maintenance differ very little.

Green roofs come in two general varieties: shallower “extensive” roofs and thick “intensive” roofs that can support deep-rooted plants and even trees. Extensive roofs can cost as little as $7 a square foot but more commonly run $10-15 per square foot. An intensive roof runs around $15-$25 per square foot.

An extensive green roof may weigh no more than a slate roof (which is still pretty darn heavy), but an intensive roof is a hugely weighty matter. A special structural design is needed to support the weight of the growing matrix plus plants and water.

From the structural framing up, a green roof is an open-faced Dagwood sandwich: there’s a thermal insulation layer, a waterproof membrane, a drainage layer, a filter layer, and then the growing medium, which is not just soil, because plain old dirt would weigh too much. The plants are the garni on top. (Note: The durability of the waterproof membrane is important. I see from the online faculty meeting notes at Trent University that after 10 years, the membrane on the green roof on the Environmental Sciences Building “is shot” and needs to be replaced.) A living roof may be constructed layer by layer from scratch, or it may be constructed using a modular green roof system. Several of those can be located using the links below.

Like standard gardens, vegetated roofs require maintenance. How much and how often depends on what kind of plants you choose and how hardy they are in the local climate. A zeroscaped roof, which requires water only when the young plants are establishing their roots, may need tending only once a year. A roof planted with vegetables may need daily attention, which means that the roof will be need to be planned not only with the garden in mind, but also with the expectation that the roof must provide access and support for frequent foot traffic. After all, people are going to want to eat those strawberries when they ripen!

To Learn More

Icelandic

Traditional green roofed house in Iceland

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Up on the Roof

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me
Let me tell you now

When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof (up on the roof).

At night the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me

Right smack dab in the middle of town
I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof
And if this world starts getting you down
There’s room enough for two
Up on the roof…!

- Gerry Goffin and Carole King

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Aging, Autos and Walkable Neighborhoods

May 8, 2009

About a year ago, my 83-year-old mother blacked out at the wheel, drove into a phone pole and totaled her car. Amazingly, she wasn’t killed. She walked away with little more than scratches. But ever since, I have worried that her dependence on driving is shortening her life in slower and more insidious ways.

Fact is, car dependence is unhealthy for all seniors, not just my mother.
A mini park in my very walkable neighborhood
A mini park in my neighborhood

This post will look at how walkable neighborhoods figure into the aging-in-place equation – that is, how long and how comfortably we can live in our own homes without having to move into some kind of assisted living.

As always, I invite you to engage me in discussion about these issues. To spark collective thinking, I have also included a poll at the end of this post. It asks just one question: How well could you get along without your car for a full month? (So far, the responses are weirdly reversing the bell curve!) I have also discovered a fabulous website that maps where you live, shows how far away the necessary amenities are located, and gives you an immediate “walk score.” You might want to keep those items in mind as you read on.

Isn’t This an Interior Design Blog?

Writing about what’s outside my door is a bit a departure for this blog. I usually write about sustaining a life of comfort and joy inside the house. But as regular readers know, sustainable living is not only a leitmotif in my writing, it has also been a frequent topic lately. In researching the post I wrote two weeks ago on Greening the Little Red Schoolhouse, I stumbled across the news that the United States Green Building Council, which created the  LEED system, is currently developing ratings for sustainable neighborhoods.

Another part of my Neighborhood

Another part of my neighborhood

That intrigued me. Because I have worked for nonprofits and research organizations that were: 1) providing alternatives to solo driving to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, 2) trying to prevent domestic violence and 3) developing and evaluating interventions to improve public schools, I’m familiar with several fascinating, and seemingly unrelated, bodies of research. As I read about LEED for Neighborhoods, however, I began to see connection both to those bodies of research and also to lessons I have learned in overcoming personal challenges with asthma and depression. Voila, a blog topic!

But what does all this have to do with my mother and her car? Reading about sustainable neighborhoods has convinced me that anyone who wants to age in place – my mother, you, me, your elderly auntie – needs not only to think about how to sustain health and happiness inside the house, but also about whether the location of that house is going to damage their health and well-being by forcing them to be car-dependent.

To put it bluntly, I believe that our dependence on cars is killing us. That damage may be done in the blink of an eye – as happened when my mother lost consciousness at the wheel – or it may be a more-gradual abrasion of physical, emotional and social health. Here’s why I say that.

Cars Harm Our Physical Health

Air pollution in China
Air pollution in China

If you’ve ever lived close to a busy street or a freeway, you’ve seen the grit and grime that accumulates on your furniture. The same gunk is accumulating in your lungs. You’ve seen photos of the orange-brown smog that hangs over the Los Angeles basin. You may have even stumbled across the interesting fact that traffic cops in China now live only about 40 years before they are killed off by air pollution. Improvements in mileage and smog control devices have been outpaced by the sheer number of miles we drive. As a result, the EPA has stated that:

…motor vehicles (onroad) still contribute significantly to air pollution, accounting nationwide for a quarter of the CFCs in the air, 51 percent of the carbon monoxide, 30 percent of the carbon dioxide, 34 percent of the nitrogen oxides, nearly one-third of VOCs emitted in the United States… transportation is a significantly greater source of pollution than are industrial sources, power plants or small businesses.

There, of course, are conclusive links between air pollution and a host of lung and heart diseases. The American Heart Association published its first official statement on air pollution and cardiovascular disease in 2004. After  reviewing the scientific evidence, an expert panel stated that [even] short-term exposure to elevated particulate matter, which includes auto  emissions, “significantly contributes to increased acute cardiovascular mortality, particularly in certain at-risk subsets of the population.” More recently, Dr. Barbara Hoffmann, head of the unit of environmental epidemiology at the University of Duisburg-Essen, measured calcium build-up in the arteries to explore the impact of living close to auto exhaust. She found that  people living within 160 feet of heavy traffic suffered a 63% higher risk of coronary artery calcification than people living 642 feet away!

But the health effects are not limited to damage from air pollution. LEED for Neighborhoods references scientific evidence that tells us that:

…physical inactivity can lead to obesity and other more serious illnesses. Lack of mobility and resulting isolation may be linked to depression and overall lower recovery from illnesses, which can lead to early death. Thus, urban environments that are not conducive to walking and bicycling and provide few transportation alternatives for older people can have significant health impacts on this growing portion of the American population.

Regular exercise is absolutely essential for older people. Our balance, mobility and flexible follow the rule of nature that says that if you don’t use it, you lose it. My fellow blogger Stan Cohen, who teaches movement seminars for seniors, writes about the importance of regular exercise as we age. In his “Intuitive Movement” blog he says, “Practicing movement routines helps you live life better and do daily living activities than without it. Plain and simple truth. The more you practice, and do the exercises, the more you will be able to do. It makes no matter what age you are. You can make improvements, be more self-sufficient, do more life activities and live healthier. “

We cling to our cars because we want to be independent, mobile and self-sufficient, while ironically, we live in landscapes that undermine our personal mobility. Urban carscapes impose physical barriers to walking and bicycling – the most frequent forms of exercise seniors use – and they also isolate us.

Alice Wallace, longtime friend of the author

Alice Wallace, longtime friend of the author and beloved member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco

An example: After the accident, the State of Arizona suspended my mother’s driver’s license, grounding her in the most debilitating way. The nearest grocery store is about two miles away as the crow flies. A pedestrian trying to reach it would need to walk nearly double that distance, coping with meandering and dead-end streets and detouring around fences and brick walls. The only option available to my carless mother was a senior transportation charter that arrived after hour-and-a-half waits, making each social, medical, or work trip a half-day affair. I fully understood my mother’s jubilance when Arizona returned her license. At the same time, I question the state’s wisdom in safeguarding her health and that of others endangered by a senior who may be a danger behind the wheel.

That brings me to my final point about autos and bodily health. When car bodies and human bodies collide, the results are devastating. My dear friend Alice Wallace, pictured above at right, was hit and killed on busy 19th Avenue, a dangerous, in-town extension of California Route 1 here in San Francisco. Alice had moved out of her home into an assisted living facility only a few weeks earlier at the age of 86. Alice was an avid walker who swam laps every day, and given the circumstances of her death, I consider her death a fatality that can be attributed to living in an environment that favors the convenience of cars over the health of human beings.

Interestingly enough, moving out into suburban situations like my mom’s does not lessen the likelihood of car crashes. The toll from car crashes is actually higher in the suburbs than it is in high-density urban neighborhoods. Here’s LEED again:

In general, research shows that any reduction in the amount or speed of vehicle travel will result in a reduction of collision rates. Increasing density reduces both factors. More specifically, studies find that per capita automobile crashes are about four times higher for residents in low-density suburbs than in higher-density urban neighborhoods. All else being equal, a doubling of the neighborhood density corresponds to a five percent reduction in traffic accidents per capita…

Cars Undermine Human Connections

The top map shows social connectedness with light colors indicating the lowest levels of connection and dark colors showing highest levels of connection. Nevada stands out in this map for its lack of social capital. The map directly above shows suicide rates, with red indicating the areas highest rates. Look at Nevada again!  The Radical Cartography blog, which features these two maps, has an amazing collection of maps and is well worth a visit.

Human beings are social creatures and become depressed when isolated. (This is also true for many other mammals.) When we’re depressed, we suffer chemical changes that degrade our physical health and put us at increased risk for a variety of diseases and chronic conditions. The connection between social deprivation and poor health has been documented for both communities and individuals.

I mentioned earlier that one of the health issues I have struggled with has been depression. A year ago, I was fortunate to be treated at Kaiser Permanente, where I was taught to alter both mood and mental chemistry through Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). My physician cited numerous long-term studies and stated flatly that three things have been absolutely proven to be effective in lifting depression: 1) exercise, 2) social activities, and 3) SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor) medications. “If you don’t want to take meds,” he said, “You’d better make darn sure you say ‘yes’ every time someone asks you to do something remotely social –  and you’d better get regular exercise.” He then went on to say that untreated depression was serious, leading not only to suicides, but also to a dramatically increased risk of developing Alzheimers.

The importance of social connections is further underscored by public health studies that show dramatic correlations between longevity and social activity, or conversely, disease and social isolation. That correlation can be seen graphically in the two maps at the left, which are drawn from the blog Radical Cartography. The top map charts the rate of suicide in the US while the lower map, from Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, graphs the social interconnectedness of US states based a weighted combination of the following fourteen statistics:

  • Rate of serving on a committee of a local organization during previous year
  • Rate of serving as an officer of a local organization during previous year
  • Mean number of club meetings attended during previous year per person
  • Mean number of group memberships per person
  • Turnout in presidential elections, 1988 and 1992
  • Rate of attending town or school meetings
  • Number of nonprofits per person
  • Rate of working on a community project during previous year
  • Rate of volunteerism
  • Rate of agreement with “I spend a lot of time visiting friends”
  • Rate of entertaining at home during previous year
  • Rate of agreement with “Most people can be trusted.”
  • Rate of agreement with “Most people are honest.”
  • Civic/social organizations per person

While it’s true that having a car makes it easier to go see a friend, the fact that we must get into our cars and leave our neighborhoods every day has led to sprawling development, long commutes and bedroom communities in which neighbors really know very little about one another. In addition, most of us have to make an appointment to see a friend. Net result: someone like my mother really can’t count on her neighbors for social or emotional support, or even a ride to the grocery store.

House of the Valley Cats - one of those cats is the author of this blog.

House of the Valley Cats - one of those cats is the author of this blog.

A hundred and fifty years ago, almost everyone walked to work, and the “commute” took five to minutes to half an hour. The progress of the past century has made hour-long commutes common, and longer commutes are associated with high blood pressure, loss of family time, and increased absences from work.

I have had my own struggles with commuting. Years ago, I lived in Hinsdale, Illinois, and commuted into Chicago for my graduate studies in design. One memorably snowy winter, an oncoming snowstorm trapped thousands of people in downtown Chicago and turned my thirty minute commute into a three-hour, white-knuckle nightmare. I developed a dogged determination to never again live in a place where I was utterly dependent on an automobile to carry on the tasks of daily life.

Fast forward a decade. My career took me to Los Angeles for about a year. While there, I attempted to avoid LA’s freeways by quirkily opting to live where I could walk to work. This is simply not done in LA. Those who try to walk are architecturally punished. My walk, from Bunker Hill to Figueroa Street in downtown LA, was only about six blocks. But it involved having to climb up stairs to cross the roofs of buildings, descending an escalator into an underground shopping mall and dodging shoppers to cross an otherwise pedestrian-proof street! Since I was able bodied and in my twenties, this was merely annoying. For a mobility-impaired person, it would have been impossible.

Moreover, I quickly discovered that other than my job, there was almost nothing to walk to. The nearly abandoned streets did not feel safe at night, and I seldom left my luxury apartment house except to visit its whirlpool spa. I soon began to feel like a prisoner under house arrest. I imagine a great many older people in the US feel that way. In its study “Aging Americans: Stranded Without Options“,  the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership (STPP) found inhat “compared with older divers, older non-drivers in the United States make:

  • 15% fewer trips to the doctor
  • 59% fewer shopping tips and visits to restaurants
  • 65% fewer trips for social, family and religious activities

STPP also found that more than half of all non-drivers aged 65 and over stay at home in a given day, often because they do not have transportation options… Older people use public transportation when it is available… However, only half of older Americans have access to public transportation to meet their daily needs.

So there you have it. This rant pretty much explains why I chose to live in the city, and why, when making plans for aging in place, I chose my Noe Valley neighborhood. (There are some considerable drawbacks too. I live in an area of unwanted seismic activity, in a house badly in need of earthquake retrofitting that I won’t be able to afford for some time.) But for walkability, I would say that my neighborhood rates five stars on the poll.

How would you rate yours?

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“Engineering the daily physical activity out of our lives has fueled the obesity epidemic, which in addition to creating health problems, impacts our aging population, who rely heavily on walking and transit to access the services they need.  As landscape architects, we can design active living components back into our communities, working with developers and public officials to make sure people have transportation options besides getting behind the wheel of a car.”

-Susan L.B. Jacobson, FASLA
President of The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

“Non-elderly people with disabilities face many of the same limitations of transportation as do older people – personal vehicles and taxis may not be accessible to many people who use mobility aids or have sensory impairments.  Barriers on vehicles and on rights of way make it difficult to use public transportation where it is available.  As with older Americans, people with disabilities may be isolated – not by choice.  Paralyzed Veterans of America also supports federal transportation policy that adequately funds public transportation, increases safe and accessible rights of way, and requires inclusive planning so all Americans can move around their communities.”

-Maureen McCloskey
Director of National Advocacy for the Paralyzed Veterans of America

Today more than three and a half million Americans age 65+ risk isolation simply because they don’t drive, and their numbers will explode after 2025 when Boomers enter their 60s, 70s and 80s. Federal, state and local policymakers must start now to plan for the time when Americans who grew up in cars put down their keys for good…”

-Byron Thames
AARP Board Member

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Greening the Little Red Schoolhouse

April 23, 2009

Having spent more than one third of my life – 22 years and counting – as a student, I am very familiar with the inside of school buildings. Because of hearing loss in infancy, I have strained to sort out speech from echos and background noise, and as a result, suffered from the interior environment in every school I have ever attended.

 Photo by Michael Mathers Clackamas High School in Oregon, built in 2002, was the first LEED-certified high school in the country.

Clackamas High School in Oregon, built in 2002, was the first LEED-certified high school in the country. Photo by Michael Mathers

During the day, I now work in the president’s suite of the rather-nice San Francisco campus of Alliant International, a nonprofit private university. During the time I worked for a Bay Area nonprofit that was part of the nationwide Annenberg Challenge for K-12 public school reform, I saw dozens of dirty, down-at-the-heel inner city schools, and the occasional spanking new suburban high school. (These vast edifices, designed to house as many as 5000 students, were often far too large to provide for safe and connected community.) And recently, in this blog, I carped about the acoustic quality of a UC Berkeley Extension classroom where I had been learning about building codes and disabled access laws.

Despite all this experience, what I have not seen in my extensive school tours, though, are green schools.

What Are Green Schools?

Green schools are childcare facilities, K-12 schools, athletic facilities and university buildings that are erected in keeping with sustainable principles. They are healthier and more productive learning environments than your typical little red schoolhouse. (I mean that figuratively, of course, since we have really have not had little schoolhouses, red or otherwise, for several generations now!)

Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio

Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio

In green schools, students have less exposure to mold, mildew and other indoor toxins and that results in fewer colds, asthma attacks and bouts of the flu. While reducing greenhouse gas emissions, green schools achieve lower energy and water bills, saving on the average, about $100,000 per school per year!

Since education is the biggest sector of the construction industry – in 2007, more than $35 billion in tax dollars was spent on building K-12 schools – we’re talking about saving megabucks here. The move towards green schools represents a golden opportunity to direct dollars away from literal “overhead” and into teaching and learning.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), through its LEED® building certification program, has set a goal of making sure that, within the next generation, every school we build in this country will be a green school. Toward that end, USGBC tailored the standards it had already developed for new buildings (and used for schools) to specifically reflect the needs of schools.

LEED® is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it is certification system for sustainable buildings. It’s used more often for commercial than residential buildings, and it’s used more often for new construction than remodeling. LEED for Schools is now about a year old.

LEED Medallion

Under either the old or new standard, close to 1,000 schools have already gained LEED certification, and roughly one new school wins LEED certification every day. A number of school districts have adopted a policy of building nothing but green schools.

After Hurricane Katrina leveled public schools, New Orleans opted to rebuild them green, and Greensburg, Kansas, which suffered a destructive tornado in May 2007, is also rebuilding all of its schools to meet LEED’s earth-friendly guidelines.

Ohio was the first state to decree that all of its new schools would be built to the LEED silver standard. Maryland, Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, Washington, Connecticut and the District of Columbia already require new schools to be built green while California and Pennsylvania offer strong incentives to follow environmental specifications.

What Does LEED Cover in Schools?

I am very happy to say that LEED for Schools includes standards for acoustic quality, as well as indoor air quality and mold. Ironically, those concerns are not addressed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the driving forces for setting health standards in schools. (For more on ADA, hearing-impaired students and acoustics, see my post Def Design in a Noisy World.)

Generally speaking, the LEED scoring system allocates 100 points in several broad areas of environmental and health concerns, then throws in a few bonus points for specific regional issues and for design innovation. Projects are ranked as silver, gold or platinum based on the total number of points they achieve.

LEED for schools covers these broad areas of environmental and human health:

  • Appropriate site selection and development.
  • Efficient water and energy use.
  • The use of healthy and environmentally sustainable building materials, finishes, and furnishings.
  • Ecologically sensitive waste stream management.
  • Good quality indoor air quality and occupant comfort.

Better Achievement Via Improved Architecture?

Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, Marylands first LEED Gold school

Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, Maryland's first LEED Gold school

Having spent six years working for a nonprofit devoted to improved and more equitable student learning, I can tell you that teacher quality matters a great deal, as does having literate parents who provide a sane and supportive home life. So does the quality of the learning environment at school and at home – as one school advocate so memorably put it, “You can’t study when your hair is on fire.”

I have read studies quantifying the effect of all of these things, but until very recently, I had not seen any studies that connected student health and learning to the quality of the building in which the students work. But that research has been done, and the evidence connecting green schools and improved learning is conclusive:

  • A study entitled Greening America’s Schools by Capital E found that in addition to consuming 30% less water and 30-50% less energy, green schools achieved an average of 38.5% reduction in asthma because of their improved indoor air quality.
  • A study of daylight in North Carolina schools found that students in full-spectrum light were healthier and attended school 3.2 to 3.8 days more per year. Surprisingly, they had 9 times less dental decay, and grew in height an average of 2.1 centimeters more (over the two-year period) than students attending schools with average light. They also remained in a more positive in mood. To top all this off, researcher Heschong Mahone found that students in the classrooms with the most daylight had consistently higher test scores by 7-18 percent.

Healthier Teachers and Communities

Still another study found that green schools cut teacher sick time and absenteeism. (This only stands to reason: As any teacher or parent can tell you, school children are little vectors who bring their classmates’ germs home to share with rest of the family. Adults can then in turn pass the pestilence on at their workplaces!)

I also found it interesting that LEED awards credit when school buildings are made “a more integrated part of the community by enabling the building and its play fields to be used for nonschool events and functions.”

This not only makes environmental sense, it also makes a contribution to the community’s social health. The “beacon schools” movement, which began about 20 years ago, stressed connections between schools and community by bringing community groups into the school to provide before- and after-school programs and community services ranging from health clinics to art classes. Studies of beacon schools showed that among other benefits, crime usually went down in the school’s neighborhood, particularly in the hours just after school let out.

LEED isn’t trying to reduce crime, but it does encourage schools to provide a separate entrance and share their facilities with services such as health clinics, police offices, libraries or media centers and commercial businesses.

The Schoolhouse as a Teaching Tool

Finally, the green features of the school can also serve as a tool to teach environmental stewardship. LEED for Schools gives extra credit to schools that take on this role.

Interior of Walker Elementary.

The first sustainable-design school in the state of Texas, Roy Lee Walker Elementary was honored by the American Institute of Architects on their Earth Day Top 10 List for Environmentally Responsible Design Projects in the nation. Credit SHW Group LLP

A good example of how to use the school as a teaching tool is provided by the Roy Lee Walker Elementary School in McKinney, Texas. As reported by the George Lucas Foundation’s publication Edutopia, here’s how the building’s features are intertwined with the curriculum:

…sustainable design supports the school’s year-round focus on environmental education. Every year, the school hosts a sustainability fair, with each grade level responsible for creating projects around the school’s many eco-friendly design features, such as solar or wind power, water collection and reuse, or recycling. Students create and present their information through videos, artwork, and experiments. “By the time they’re out of fifth grade, our students have explored all the aspects of the building,” says [Principal Deb] Beasley.

Many building features are also incorporated into classroom lessons. The pond, for example, might be used by students in a science class to test the pH level of water samples, or as a colorful subject for young painters in an art class who are learning to mimic the lush brushstrokes of French impressionist Claude Monet. With the school’s two sundials, students use the location of the sun to tell time, as well as to identify the solstices. In the main hallway, a huge gauge monitors how much rainwater has collected in the school’s cisterns, and math teachers use the information during lessons in graphing.

More on Green Schools

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To Sir, With Love

(excerpt, video on YouTube)

The time has come for closing books and at long last looks must end
And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?

If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start
But I would rather you let me give my heart ‘To Sir, With Love’

- R Granier, Marc London and Don Black



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Of Sexy Seniors & Tasteful Tree Huggers

March 20, 2009
Interior of the greenest house in Rockridge

Inside the country's greenest house

I have always loved the ideals of accessible and sustainable interior design. But in reality, I usually found the former as ugly as sensible shoes and the latter as odd as Earthshoes. I’m not a fashionista, but I do believe that good design should be able to sustain the health of planet and people, while also providing a daily dose of beauty.

In this post, I share two tales that prove me right. Not coincidentally, each story is also about a person who built a home that was a tour-de-force demonstrating how to put his or her principles into practice. I hope that you will find them as inspirational as I do.

David Gottfried & the Nation’s Greenest Home

The nation’s greenest home is where David Gottfried, the founder of the US Green Building Council, and his family live. The family remodeled a 1444-square-foot Craftsman bungalow that was originally built in 1915. Having had hands-on experience in remodeling 1906 and 1930 houses and also building from scratch, I can testify that modernizing an old house holds quite a different set of challenges.

Before
Gottfried Craftsman house

After

The exterior green paint is from Mythic and contains no VOC’s, meaning it’s not “off-gassing” unhealthy chemicals.

Click here to visit the Planet Green website where you can view David Gottfried’s video on the renovation and the home’s green features.

Done well, a remodeling project should be an exercise in recycling and re-use writ large. Because remodeling usually occurs where people are already living and identifying problems, remodeling challenges us to think deeply about the patterns of daily life. How can these walls and windows, colors, shapes and patterns of movement enhance the relationships that people have with one another and with their immediate environment? Those are fun questions to ask and answer.

In answering some of those questions, the Gottfried house has won the distinction of a LEED Platinum rating, the highest green certification anyone can get.

LEED®, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification system for sustainable buildings. It’s used more often for commercial than residential buildings, and it’s used more often for new construction than remodeling. (There’s a historic Green Building in Kentucky that is currently working toward certification.) Buildings receive points for satisfying various categories of green-building criteria. Projects are then ranked as silver, gold or platinum. Gottfried’s house scored 106.5 points out of a possible total of 136. That’s way over the 80 points required to qualify for a platinum rating, and it’s the highest score of any house in the US.

One of the things I find most refreshing about this house is its size. It’s modest, about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. For reasons that were initially financial, I have lived in small houses for years, working toward turning them into well-thought-out jewel boxes, where everything has place, where everything fits perfectly, where every detail is useful and where nothing was just for show. As I learned more about architectural history, necessity has become interwoven with know-how and living small is now a deliberate choice.

My own tastes – which I don’t necessarily press onto clients – lean toward the clean-lined and unfussy. I find inspiration in Shaker design, which dates back more than a century, and I’m an unabashed fan of Susan Susanka’s Not-So-Big-House books. I like the looks of modern design, and love to work in a modern office and visit galleries done in the sleek international style, but I don’t really want to live amongst their steel, glass and industrial fittings. It feels too cold. And that eye-popping post-modern Memphis-style design just sets my teeth on edge.

I can imagine living comfortably and happily in the Gottfried house. The modest scale of the house cuts against the tide of fashion, and I like that too. I find the twenty-year American trend towards McMansions environmentally and ethically unsettling. The environmental publication Jetson Green expressed my sentiments very well when they wrote the following:

Beyond the green features and record-breaking certification, however, there’s a more important lesson on display. This home is an unassuming, renovated, 1440 square foot space healthily housing a four-person family. It’s so refreshing! With the burgeoning belt of American life pushing the average size of American homes to ~2500 square feet, the Gottfried represents true leadership from a seasoned green building leader and his family.

Among (some of!) the notable green features of David Gottfried’s house are these:

David Gottfried fpunded the leading green building organization in the world. He has more than two decades of multidisciplinary experience as a real estate developer, construction manager, and sustainable development management consultant.

David Gottfried founded the world's leading green building organization. He has more than two decades of experience as a real estate developer, construction manager, and sustainable development management consultant.

  • It’s a walkable site, close to shops, parks, BART rapid transit and schools
  • It reuses a 93-year-old existing home
  • It saves energy because it has cellulose wall insulation, closed-cell foam in the attic rafters and batt insulation in the crawl space
  • It has energy-saving new Marvin low-E double pane windows
  • The cabinets are locally built “green” cabinets (by Silverwalker)
  • The new kitchen features Bosch appliances and washer/dryer – all are quiet, Energy Star rated and use less water
  • It achieves water-savings through dual-flush toilets by Caroma (1.28 and 0.8 gallons per flush) and efficient shower heads and faucet aerators by Bricor and Kohler
  • It uses sustainably-harvested wood for construction framing, plywood, and replacement floors
  • It features tile and countertops with a high recycled content (Oceanside and Syndecrete tile and Syndecrete counters)
  • It heats its own water with solar hot water panels (HSC) and produces energy with solar photovoltaics (Envison Solar/Suntech) – 16 panels = 2.72 kW
  • It has a solar hot water heater (Phoenix System by HSC)
  • Used “greywater” and rainwater are recycled in the garden and toilet
  • Greywater is used in a drip irrigation system in the garden, where vegetables are grown among drought-tolerant plants
  • Reclaimed wood was used for entry stairs, framing and deck; old doors and hardware were also reused

And to think I got a thrill just from recycling a set of slats from a futon that was left on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s house; I nailed the slats together to make a trellis for an overgrown passion plant. Mr. Gottfried should be feeling ready to walk on (grey) water about now.

Universal Design & Aging in Place

Interior of Leibrock home

Interior of Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch home

If you have been reading my posts for awhile, you know that I moved in 2007 so that I would be able to age in place. This was proactive. I do not want to find that I need to move an assisted living facility when I am too frail or discombobulated to be able accomplish the move, as with some elders I have observed.

This makes me a bit of an “early adopter” in the aging in place movement. Aging in place is predicated on the notion that a home’s features should be planned well in advance so that they can accommodate the likely losses of mobility, vision, hearing and dexterity that usually come with aging. Accordingly, aging in place homes draw on advances in both “universal design” and “accessible design.”

Universal design is rooted in the work of Ronald Lawrence Mace, an architect who had polio as a child. In the 1970’s, Mace, who had pioneered barrier-free design in his work, helped to develop the country’s first accessible building code.

What is Accessible Design?

Accessible design is specifically about enabling people to live full and vibrant lives despite having to contend with disabilities: lack of mobility, hearing, vision, weak hearts and other frailties. Accessible design became the law of the land with the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An appendix known as ADAAG, ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, codifies clearances for wheelchairs, braille signs for the blind and TTYs and flashing alarms for the deaf. (Sadly, it doesn’t yet provide help with the poor acoustics that hamper hearing impaired people like me.)

Sexy Design & the Senior Citizen

The diva of the aging-in-place movement is an interior designer named Cynthia Leibrock. Her compassion awakened by the plight of a brother who has had to be repeatedly hospitalized, she has devoted her career to mainstreaming accessible design. Leibrock has built an “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado. Here’s how the New York Times described Leibrock:

If there were a glitzy, razzle-dazzle competition for cheerleading captain of the Aging in Place movement — and given the boomer resistance to anything to do with aging, there certainly should be — Cynthia Leibrock, designer, consultant and Harvard instructor, would be a contender, strutting down the barrier-free, skid-free runway of a well-lighted arena; tossing an easy-grip baton in the air; blinding the judges with a smile and that fascinatingly taut face.

Cynthia Leibrock founded of Easy Access to Health,  a firm that offers consulting services in patient-centered design, planning for independent living, product analysis, and judiciary witness services.

Cynthia Leibrock founded Easy Access to Health, a firm that offers consulting services in patient-centered design, planning for independent living, product analysis, and judiciary witness services.

The Green Mountain ranch house contains more than 180 ideas that demonstrate the complementary aspects of green and universal design. Over a period of years, Leibrock has proactively used design to prevent injuries and encourage a lifestyle that leads to health and longevity. People in wheelchairs can easily visit the house. It has shelves and counters that adapt to both tall and short people, and its design helps people with low vision and poor hearing. All these special features are “visually integrated” so that a person who uses them doesn’t feel stigmatized by doing something different that advertises their age or disability.

An energetic 60 year old, Leibrock consults and designs, having done prominent projects for the Betty Ford Center and the UCLA Medical Center. She created a universal design exhibit for the Smithsonian, a universal design showroom for the Kohler Company and has a “living laboratory” in Fort Collins where she is researching the environmental needs of older people.

Using four passive solar greenhouses, Leibrock’s home cost-effectively provides the warmer temperatures that older people need. The house is well insulated, with all its doors and windows sealed and tested to prevent heat loss.

In the kitchen, cabinets are mounted at 42″ above the floor for ease of use by tall people. Leibrock has anticipated retrofits however; with a minor remodel, they can be lowered to 32″ for shorter people or wheelchair users. (Sounds good to me, I keep a mechanical grabber in my kitchen so that I can reach the shelves up near my 10-foot ceilings. I am 5’1″ tall, and I often find my feet danging above the floor in airport chairs. I sometimes solicit tall strangers to help me collect top-shelf items in the grocery store.)

Below Leibrock’s cabinets, in the kick space, there’s a 10″ removable drawer that can be used to lower the cabinets for wheelchair users. As shown in the top photo at right, the inside of the cabinets are white. That provides contrast that makes it easier to see a shelf’s contents, even if your vision is fading. It also reduces the need for lighting.

The kitchen also features Hafele shelves that can be pulled up or down, as shown in photos two and three at left. Leibrock has installed pulls and handles that are easy to grasp and require little strength to operate. There are Hafele lazy susans and an ironing board in a drawer for easy access. Leibrock, who is also an accomplished cook with a published cookbook to credit, has even included what she calls “appliance garages” on the counters so that she doesn’t have to lift food processors or other hefty devices.

While I can’t begin to draw on the wealth of expertise (or the consulting fees!) that these two pioneers command, I have infused my own home, and those of my clients with their green and aging-in-place principles. I thank Cynthia and David (neither of whom I have met) for their design leadership and humanity. I’m not only inspired by their work, but I also feel a personal connection to the places where these homes are located. The country’s greenest home is located about 10 miles away from me here in San Francisco, in the Rockridge area of Oakland. The “aging beautifully” home is located in Colorado, where I grew up.

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Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website

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Short People
(Excerpt – listen to the whole song)

Fountain in Aging Beautifully house

Fountain in the Aging Beautifully house. The rocks look a lot like the ones in my "Zen Stones" watercolor painting, which is used in the masthead at the top of this weblog.

Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
To live…

They got little baby legs
They stand so low
You got to pick ‘em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time

Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
‘Round here!

Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die.
(It’s a wonderful world.)

-Randy Newman
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