Archive for the ‘Green Furnishings’ Category

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Old Beams Get New Life

January 19, 2014

America’s history — tons of it — rests in the Distinguished Boards and Beams lumberyard. The timber here comes from old factories and barns all across the United States, a few dating baBarn375ck to before there was a United States.

“Right now we have wood from a 1775 Kentucky chestnut cabin and a barn built in 1890 in Michigan,” DB&B owner Robbie Williams told the Sopris Sun. “We took those buildings down ourselves and numbered all the boards, so they can be put back up again.” The barn was huge: 40-by-70 feet with a roof peak 48 feet high. The trees harvested to build it were at least 100 years old, so they began their lives around the time when Peter the Great was crowned Czar of Russia.

It would be tough today to find lumber this massive; some beams measure as much two feet square by 36 feet long and weigh more than a ton. The wood is denser than modern lumber because it came from slow-to-mature species in first-growth forests: hardwood oak, elm, ash, hickory and maple. The yard also holds softer woods like Douglas fir, redwood and longleaf heart pine.

Because DB&B relies on scouts across the U.S. to find outdated barns and buildings slated for demolition, nearly all of the wood comes from domestic forests. DB&B re-manufactures all of the lumber here in Carbondale.

main_loft3

Restaurant interior made using lumber from Distinguished Boards & Beams

DB&B’s reclaimed wood is used for flooring, paneling and ceilings in custom homes, restaurants and office projects. It can be seen in the bar at Hattie Thompson’s restaurant in River Valley Ranch, and at Town restaurant and Fatbelly Burgers on Main Street. Architects and interior designers in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond prize the lumber because weathering, saw and axe patterns, worm holes and hand-cut mortise and tenon joints give it exceptional character.

Right now, in addition to the Michigan barn, DB&B’s stock includes two complete cabins, redwood salvaged from wine and yeast vats, and white oak reclaimed from a defunct factory — all of it dated before 1910.

Beam500

Detail of old, hand-hewn beams — lots of character!

“Every now and again, we find dates chiseled and signatures into the lumber,” Williams said. “We see Roman numerals cut in to tell carpenters how to put a building together. The builders would cut all of the wood and then move it and reassemble it in place.”

Although there are environmental benefits to recycling old trees, reclaimed lumber can contain rusty nails and hardware. It can host dirt, mold, bacteria and bugs. In addition, many types of wood shrinks and develops “face checking,” small cracks that parallel the grain, when lumber is moved from moister areas to Colorado’s dry climate.

To stabilize the wood, DB&B dries its lumber for five to 10 days in one of two kilns. Next, they square up the boards, trimming them to the client’s specifications, milling them to consistent depths and adding tongue-and-groove edges that prepare them for second lives as flooring or wall panels.

Met in college

Williams and his wife, Carbondale Board of Trustee member Pam Zentmyer, started Distinguished Boards & Beams about 10 years ago. The two met in Boulder during college. Williams, who grew up in Gunnison, spent a month climbing in Peru, and returned to the U.S. “completely broke.” He offered to housesit for friends in Zentmyer’s hometown and wound up becoming a Carbondale resident.

flooring

Flooring made from recycled wood.

The company now keeps 14 full-time staffers busy. Three of them, including Zentmyer, run the office. The rest sort wood for orders; run big, commercial Wood-Mizer saws that can churn out as much 15,000 board feet per run; and create custom millwork for clients.

Williams’s first exposure to reclaimed wood came after a friend who had done a demolition job in Crested Butte suggested, “we should try selling this to people.” Soon after, Williams’s brother Brad invited him to help him pull down a New Hampshire barn that had been built in 1780.

“We brought the barn back to Carbondale and sold it in pieces,” Williams recalls. “We rented some space and stored the barn. That got the inventory started. Then we had a bunch of wood that came out of a big auto factory in the Midwest. Those beams were 17-by-17 inches and 20 feet long. We had five semi loads of them.”

Although the auto factory is long gone, Williams still has a piece of the barn. It’s a chunk of weathered wood that holds an inscribed brass plaque and a photo, a commemorative gift to Williams from brother Brad.

>>>>>>Stair250

NOTE: This story originally
appeared in the Sopris Sun,
Carbondale’s community newspaper. Images courtesy of
Distinguished Boards & Beams.

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Empty Nest Filling Up? Here’s Help.

October 7, 2010

They call it the “Inspired In-Law” but I was more than just inspired when I saw it. I was gobsmacked. This cute little house was assembled in just one day?

Yes, it was. The pieces of this handsome pre-fab cottage were trucked in on Wednesday, craned into place Thursday and then the house was erected that same day. There it was, all put together and sitting in the parking lot at Fort Mason in San Francisco, ready for me to see it at the West Coast Green building festival. And I was inspired when I walked inside. This cottage is awash with sunshine (thanks to great window placement), beautifully detailed, and so well laid out that I could imagine myself living there.

 

The Inspired In-Law Cottage. (Photos courtesy of Larson Shores Architects)

 

While I’m having my own housing issues at the moment, the 500-square foot cottage was meant to solve the problems of folks a bit older than me.

Specifically, what do you do when mom is really no longer able to live alone, but is dead set against going to a “old folks” home? Here’s a relatively affordable alternative. Depending on options you choose, the cottage will run from $50,000 and $100,000. (In the Bay Area, where I live, you can’t buy a garage for that!)

When I wrote about the Inspired In-Law for the San Francisco Examiner recently, my Facebook pal Coral Chang noted, “It would be just as good for when your kids want to move back home.” Coral is right. Given the economy, kids are moving back to the parental nest more often than they used to: a 2009 survey found that 80% of new college grads moved back to their parent’s homes after getting their diplomas. That’s quite a jump from the 63% who did so in 2006.

As for mom and the old folks’ home, I can relate. The AARP’s most recent poll says that a whopping 89% of baby boomers and seniors do not want to move, but rather to stay home and “age in place.” I count myself in the majority on this particular issue.

Whatever the age of the person who’s extending the family, this in law unit can enable everyone to live together without having to live on top of one another.

No matter which of the four floor plans one might choose, the cottage offers up a complete little home with a separate entrance, a living room and bedroom, a kitchenette and a bathroom.

The Inspired In-Law was beautifully designed by Larson Shores Architects, who created it with an eye to both environmental and human sustainability. Inside, the cottage is finished with handsome and eco-friendly materials and details that promote better light, better indoor air quality, and better mobility.  For example, the bathroom sink is configured so that it can be used by someone seated in a wheelchair, as is the “roll-in” shower. The windows are placed to maximize natural light, minimizing the need for artificial lighting during the day and improving safety for those with dimming vision.

 

Bedroom in the Inspired In-Law. Furnishings by Room & Board.

 

Among the earth-friendly materials used in the Inspired In-Law’s bathroom is handsome Hakatai glass mosaic tile. (Long-time readers of this blog may remember me waxing poetic over the beautiful colors of their Calliope collection of mosaics.)

Among the green materials used in the cottage are cork flooring – springy and easier on aging knees than wood or tile – and Kelly Moore Enviro Coat paint, which limits off-gassing of toxic VOCs (volatile organic chemicals). Because the builders have avoided products containing VOCs and formaldehyde, the cottage provides a healthier environment for those suffering from asthma and allergies.

 

Bungalow floorplan - one of four possible layouts for the "Inspired In Law."

 

Among the in law’s other green features are a solar energy unit, rain water collection cisterns and a wall garden.

The in-law unit is a pre-fabricated cottage that can be purchased and installed in your back yard.

Given the time needed for arranging utilities, site preparation and planning, the units typically take about a month and half to put in place.

Plans for the four different types of cottages are available online from HousePlans.com for around $3000.

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A Little Reverie

When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now,
Will you still need me?
Will you still feed me?
When I’m sixty-four?

Sigh. I remember all too clearly when 64 was “many years from now.” And when George Orwell’s “1984″ sounded futuristic. Who knows where the time goes?

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Glory in Green – It’s a Color Too!

February 3, 2010

It’s hard to believe, but a bulb that I planted in the dark days of December is about to become a freesia!

Question Mark chair by Stephan Heiliger for Tonon

Mundo stacking chair by Susanne Grønlund for Fredericia Furniture

Generation office chair from Knoll

Designer Hugh Hayden used old tennis balls to create a fun chair that is bouncy and comfortable.

Hakatai Calliope collection of mosaic glass, made from recycled glass.

Green glass tile from Interstyle

Scrolled "Glassform" tile from Interstyle

Indonesian batik fabric, cotton

Ombre rug from Cost Plus imports

Up and Down knot Tibetan wool and silk rug made by Asha Carpets

As the sweet, green buds begin to open, I take my cue from ee cummings, and give thanks “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue dream of sky.”

Spring may not yet have sprung where you are, but the days are growing longer and it’s surely on its way. That’s enough to prompt me to write an ode to green.

Nowadays, “green” is so often used to mean “ecological” and “earth-friendly” that its identity as a color has almost become secondary. But it’s a wonderful color, and with St. Patrick’s Day on the way, I thought this might be a great time to take a great green design tour.

I like to acknowledge the folks who inspire me, and one of them is  interior designer Jamie Goldberg, who writes a blog called “Gold Notes.”

Jamie, who relocated from Florida to San Diego, California not long ago, gave her readers riffs on a whole spectrum of colors  last year. I loved that series. If you, dear reader, are up for it, I will celebrate spring by doing my own color series.

As a decorator color, green has enormous possibilities. It can be tart and bright, like the Italian “Question Mark” chair above, or as tenderly subdued as the Interstyle glass tile, also near the top of this post.

Green combines beautifully with other colors to create palettes that set various moods and evoke different styles. An intense apple green is the perfect, edgy accent color for a modern interior of neutrals or black and white. Bottle green and forest greens are reflective and relaxing when used with adjacent blues. Teals and turquoise greens can be energizing when paired with a complementary red, as they are in the batik fabric at right. An upscale, business look could pair a celedon green with shades of gray.

Greening our Emotions

Psychologists and market researchers who have studied the emotional responses people have to color have found that while some of our reactions are universal, much of the meaning we impart to colors is culturally based.

Because of its connection with plants, green signifies life, stability, restfulness and naturalness. For these reasons, it’s often used in hospitals. There is some evidence that  green relaxes our muscles and helps us breathe deeper and slower.

Arteriors Home Moss Green Etched Glass Lamp

Darani Chrome Finish lamp from Lamps Plus

Babette Holland Tiger Lamp from Lamps Plus

Green can prompt us to feel comfortable, lazy, relaxed and calm. It can help soothe our emotions, and that makes it a great choice for a yoga or meditation room. It’s a pleasant option for a bedroom as well, because it’s as quieting as blue without feeling chilly.

Rotten Avocados?

Handmade blown glass knob from All That Glass

This is not to say that green is all sweetness and light. Dark greens with gray or brown tones can have a deadening effect. Olive greens can look like week-old guacamole, and can remind us of decay and death. (It’s no accident that a cartoon character who is nauseated or has been poisoned turns green.)

Greening
Your Bathroom

Green glass sink from Fontaine Faucets

Green burst glass bathroom sink from Fontaine Faucets

Hollywood sage counter from Vetrazzo

Bioglass sink and counter

Green fern towels from Pottery Barn

Rainglass shower enclosure from Nolan Everitt Artglass

Nope, it's not raining Gatorade. It's a showerhead with a green LED light from Memowell.

Interestingly enough, market researchers have found that green doesn’t do all that well in the international marketplace. Green colored packaging has proved unpopular in China and France.

Of course, this being a blog that is in part about green architecture – by which I don’t mean houses that are painted avocado – I made sure to find some items that qualified as being both emerald in hue and earth-friendly in attribute.

Prespa wallpaper from Avignon Wallpapers

The Prespa wallpaper at left is a good example. It’s handmade from  paper bags by the two women who make up Avignon Wallcoverings, Caryn Outwater and Ariane Stein. The two have been friends since childhood. Outwater and Stein  spend their days creating custom painted wallcoverings.  Ariane and Caryn introduce new coverings continually and also offer full-service custom designs.  Avignon’s papers are eco-friendly, using 100% recycled paper and all water-based paints.

Krysallis lamp by Jerry Kott

Another verte-hued “green” product is Artist Jerry Kott’s Krysallis lamp, which is made from cut wine bottles. The lamp comes in both a hanging model and the table model that is shown at left. Price varies according to number of color blocks per lamp, and color choices include greens, amber/browns, and whites.

A few other wonderful, earth-friendly items made from recycled content are shown on this page. Hakatai’s mosaic tile, which is shown at the top right side of this post, is made from recycled, post-consumer glass. Their “Calliope”  series contains color palettes that knock my socks off. (I wouldn’t mind a barefoot walk in some green grass about now.) You can order a sampler of Hakatai’s mosaics quite inexpensively. Their customer service is very good, and you can have the samples in your hands in just a few days.

Another of my favorite eco-friendly products is Vetrazzo, which I have written about before. (I took a tour of their factory in Richmond, California, and wrote about that for Living in Comfort and Joy last year.) For this green-as-a-color column, I decided to feature their Hollywood Sage countertop, which is made largely from soft drink bottles. It’s called Hollywood Sage because actor Ed Begley chose it for his kitchen and featured it in his green TV program.

Another beautiful product is Bioglass, which is manufactured by Coverings ETC. The company was founded in 1998 to source natural stone and mosaics and has added many new lines since. Their ECOVERINGS® line of products are naturally occurring, recycled, and/or manufactured with concern for conserving natural resources. Bioglass is 100% recycled and 100% recyclable and comes in six natural colors, including three handsome greens.  As the image at right shows, Bioglass can be molded. The result can be a fairly complex shape, such as this integrated sink and counter, which was designed by Tsao for a residence in Miami.

Another green (sometimes) product is Memowell’s Magic Showerhead. It actually showers you in seven colors, not just green. But it does have green advantages. It contains LED lights that are powered by water pressure and need no electricity or batteries. “Why do I need lights to color my shower?” you may ask. Because as the water changes color, in two-minute rotations, you are being reminded that time is passing. The device is hinting that you should take shorter showers and conserve water.

Links for Items
Seen and Unseen

Chairs

Counters and glass tile

Lamps

Rugs and textiles

Sinks

Fusion green glass architectural artwork from Nathan Allan Studios

Walls and Surfaces

Other Wonders

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
wich is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

-ee cummings

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Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

December 13, 2009

Your average kitchen is an obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair!

I got a dramatic demonstration of that about a month ago when Dr. Rhoda Olkin, a psychologist, professor, and author, volunteered to give me a tour of the kitchen in the office building where we work. Last week, I showed her the kitchen I designed after that demonstration: my “succulent, sustainable”  kitchen. I went away from that meeting with a lump in my throat, feeling  proud and inspired.

Denim Moss from Icestone. It sparkles with chips of the post-consumer glass used to make it.

The next day, I attended a memorial service for my friend, Kari Varland. Initially, Kari was my real estate agent. Losing her has been a heartbreak for me, and for dozens of others who gathered to remember her. She gave so many of us not only homes, but also wisdom and community.

I have come away from these two experiences renewed in my desire to design beautiful, sustainable, and empowering homes for my fellow boomers and folks who are overcoming disabilities. Although this has been a tough year for me, the obstacles in my path are far less tangible than those that Rhoda encounters, and they should be more surmountable than those that Kari faced.

Encountering Kitchen Obstacles

During my initial meeting with Rhoda, the first surprise came as we left her office. Rhoda invited me to precede her, and then followed in her powered wheelchair. I had always wondered why she had a yellow dog leash hanging on the outside of her office door. Now I learned the answer.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

To reach the door hardware  – an ADA-compliant level-style door handle – Rhoda’s arm would have to be about a foot and a half longer than it is! To solve this problem, she grabs the dog leash as she wheels by and pulls the door closed behind her.

The kitchen, however, presents far more problems than the office:

  • Counter-productive counters: It’s impossible for Rhoda to reach anything placed at the back of the 24″ deep counters.
  • Out-of-reach shelves: The upper cupboards would be totally beyond her reach except for the fact that Rhoda’s wheelchair is equipped with a lift that will raise her seat about a foot.
  • Fridge door barricade: The refrigerator is placed in a corner on the narrow side of the room, so it’s impossible for her to approach it from the side. She can’t open the fridge from the front either, because the door would have swing through the space occupied by her wheelchair.
  • Cattle chute layout: Once she’s in, she has to laboriously back out of the kitchen because a trash can and recycling bins have been placed along the wall, narrowing the center aisle so much that there isn’t enough room for her to turn around.

Introducing Rhoda Rails! See the double tracks that lead from the cooktop to the sink? They are strips of metal inscribed into the countertop, and they stand about 1/8" above the counter surface. They would allow Rhoda to scoot a heavy pan of hot pasta off of the cooktop and around the corner to the sink to empty the water. It's very difficult for her to lift a pot like that; it takes two hands. If both of your hands are occupied with holding a pot of scalding water, there's no way to move or steer a wheelchair!

Rhoda gave me the kitchen tour because I had asked her if she would comment upon plans I was drawing for a demonstration kitchen. Although it wasn’t meant for a real client, I planned this kitchen to be accessible for someone who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is slowly losing her mobility. “Carla” can walk now, but she needs to plan her home in a way that will accommodate first a walker, and then later, a wheelchair. (Although I’m not working with them, I actually know two people who are in this situation.)

The process of planning this kitchen was an eye-opener for me, and my presentation to Rhoda was one of the most inspiring design experience I have had — a highlight of what has been a very tough year. (Kari is one of three friends who have died from cancer. Meanwhile, I have had numerous inquiries about my design business, but little paying work. The economy is bad and at times, the obstacles seem insurmountable. In moments of despair, I have thought about pulling the plug on this blog, my business plan, or both.) But for now, I will keep on keepin’ on.

A Tour of the Succulent,
Sustainable Kitchen

Carla’s kitchen was designed for two-cooks: Carla and her husband Sam. (See bottom of this post for an overhead view of the kitchen.) The south portion is designed for Sam, the chief chef. It features two ovens and a state-of-the-art induction cooktop. These features are laid out so that they are just steps from the refrigerator, pantry, and sink, a layout that makes for very convenient “kitchen triangle” that meets the requirements I talked about in my earlier blog, “One Rump or Two and Other Kitchen Conundrums.”

Carla's kitchen features multiple height counters: 33", 36" and 42" from the floor for the comfort of cooks who are sitting, standing and for both children and adults. A 42" coffee-bar height cupboard holds a chef's convection oven, while to the right, a 36" high counter holds a Fagor oven, which features a door that opens to the side.

The north part of the kitchen is designed for Carla, who is  Sam’s helper, a “sous chef” who prepares salads and vegetables, mixes drinks, and entertains while the haute cuisine comes together a few steps away. With its 33″ high counters and 9″ high toekicks, this area meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The south kitchen, by contrast, is meant to be “visitable”. It has regular height counters and toekicks. It’s designed for Sam, but has special features that enable a person in a wheelchair to easily use it.

In addition, I opened walls and windows to draw in plenty of sunlight, to save energy, and meet California’s new Title 24 energy codes. The succulent, sustainable kitchen uses some gorgeous, green materials, including Icestone counters, Plyboo bamboo cabinets, Hakatai glass tile, and Marmoleum linoleum floors (I have written about most of these in previous blogs).

I drew the color palette from a handsome plant called a sedum, a plant that is often used on vegetated roofs. Because I was thinking about both plants and people, I called the design “succulent sustainability.” (It turned out that Rhoda loves sedum.) My plans wound up including a host of features that were intended to be at once beautiful, beautifully invisible in function, and liberating in their use.

Rhoda’s Reaction

Storage trundle

Storage here is provided by a wheeled, trundle cart. It can be moved in another area to provide legroom to enable someone in a wheelchair to use the cooktop. In addition, it provides an easy way for everyone to get at heavy pots and pans.

I think I must have succeeded, because when I showed Rhoda the completed plans, she said, “It’s beautiful! I love the colors!”

When I started to explain the accessibility features, her voice cracked a little and she said, “You took every single thing I showed you and found a solution for it!”

“It’s rare to find a designer who really understands the barriers and is able to see creatively how to erase them,” said Rhoda. “To do it with the beauty of the design that Nicolette has created is amazing.  The Rhoda Rail impressed me as an example of really thinking from the perspective of the user in a wheelchair, and mixing design with function to achieve an elegant solution.”

Given that my demonstration project seems to have been such a success, I thought I would share some of the accessibility ideas from Carla’s kitchen with my blog readers.

Access Features in the Visitable Kitchen

The visitable, south kitchen includes:

  • Rhoda Rails – sleek silver tracks that protect the counter and enable a seated cook to safely scoot a heavy pan off of the low-profile induction cooktop and across the counter without scratching the surface (see drawing).
  • A wheeled, pot trundle cart under the cooktop that is completely removable to provide leg room for a wheelchair user (see drawing).
  • A remote-control hood over the cooktop.
  • A side-opening Fagor oven that allows an easy approach for a wheelchair user who can get in close to lift hot, heavy pans.
  • Removable shelving under the sink to allow the cabinet to be easily converted for a wheelchair user.
  • Removable, wheeled storage carts that form the front sides of the pantry, but roll out and provide access on both sides to stored items.

Features of the ADA Accessible Kitchen

The north kitchen is fully wheelchair accessible, with ADA-height toekicks and 33″ high counters throughout. Other accessibility features include:

  • Accessible dish washer drawers – it’s much easier to reach into a drawer than a recessed cave, and the drawers can be run individually to save water.
  • A Hafele insert that enables one to pull down the upper cabinets.
  • Sliding cabinet doors that are easily approached from the side by a wheelchair user; these are inset with a translucent panel of resin that encapsulates natural reeds (Varia Thatch).
  • A grab bar that is also useful as a towel rack.
  • Swinging doors into the dining room – easy to open for servers who have their hands full as well as a person in a wheelchair. An insert of translucent 3-Form Varia Thatch here enables a server or wheelchair user to know if someone is on the other side.
  • Removable storage under the sink that allows for easy conversion when Carla needs to trade the storage space on the shelves for knee space when seated in a wheelchair.
  • Taps on the sink mounted at the side for easy reach from seated position (this is also true in the south kitchen).

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In Memoriam: Kari Varland

In memory of Kari Varland, who was not only a good friend and a great real estate agent, but also a role model and an inspiration.

When my friend Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last April, I wrote about my grief in a post called “Object Lessons”. (I referred to  her as “Katie” rather than Kari, to protect her privacy.) At the time, I said:

While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast…

If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past.

Kari always lived in the present; she was chatty, energetic and, in business, she knew how to cut to the chase. She will remain vibrantly alive for many years to come in the memories of the many people who gathered to remember her yesterday. We remembered Kari as “a pushy broad” and someone who could eat, talk and drive all at the same time. We also remembered her as someone who gave parcels of food to street people, who would give back chunks of her commission to set things right for her clients, and who had a magic touch for bringing people together.

That’s why, in April, when she was diagnosed, her friends came together to create a silent auction to raise money to support her in her final months. As one vowed, “It seems that there’s no safety net for a self-employed person with a fatal disease. But if there’s no safety net, we’ll just have to weave one.”

Kari’s friends wanted to do that, because of the way she had supported them – us – through the difficult times in our lives. In both her life, and in the way she ended her life, she had the magic of bringing people together, creating friendships and community. As one friend said, “She left us with homes and with community — what a legacy!”

Kari had a magic for solving problems and creating connections — it’s something I aspire to, though I doubt that I will ever approach her energy and effervescence. I can only hope that I can be as much of a guide to my own clients, and that half as many people will show up for my memorial when the time comes. The following words come from an obituary written to Kari in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Far more than an agent who helped with a transaction, Kari’s role was that of a guide and confidante, who used her wisdom and sensitivity to help her clients navigate through one of the most important decisions of their lives. Many of her clients became lifelong friends. In February of 2009, Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kari lived with her illness over the past year just as she lived her entire life — with dignity, courage, passion, grace, warmth and an endless concern for others.”

Rest in peace, Kari. I will try to follow your example and your star, and I will miss you always.

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No More Senseless Acts of Beauty!

November 19, 2009

I like that bumper sticker that says “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” but it’s definitely not my philosophy. Why can’t beauty be engineered into our lives?

Cho Tansu

Japanese chyotansu. Office bureaus like this one, which is an antique, were used to hold writing materials and business papers. Often choytansu were made from expensive wood.

I often tell people that I am a “decorator” because I find that it helps many folks understand what services I provide. Although an elite cartel in my profession is busy trying to push the little guys out by restricting the use of the term “interior designer”, I suspect that the general public really doesn’t know what the title means.

The fact is, both terms fall short of what of describing what value a person like me brings to a remodeling or building project.

The notion of “decorating” usually involves embellishment – adding colors or patterns only for reasons of visual stimulation and pleasure – to something that is otherwise utilitarian and purposeful. The example that springs to mind is interior painting, adding color on top of walls, structures whose real purposes are to provide privacy, keep out the cold, and hold up the roof. In daily usage, “design” usually connotes something a bit more purposeful or calculating – hence the play on words in the title of the old TV show Designing Women – but neither term really gets at the oxymoron that makes that phrase “senseless acts of beauty” so amusing.

It hasn’t always been so. The languages of many Native American cultures didn’t contain words that could describe the difference between a beautiful, celebratory calabash and a bowl for everyday use. The tribes didn’t need those words. Their values held that each day of life was worth celebrating, and thus, a spirit of reverence should infuse everyday activities.

Antique Eskimo carving

By contrast, you and I can probably think of a dozen words that would describe the difference between a plastic lawn chair and a Barcelona chair. In our throw-away, get-it-done-quick culture, beauty usually is only skin deep. There’s an enormous gulf between products that are intended only to be cheap and convenient – a Chinette plate – and good things – real bone china – that are intended to convey meaning as well as serve a purpose. Why is it that we bring out the “good china” only on two or three major holidays, when we want to ritually celebrate our spiritual values? Don’t our relationships with loved ones deserve quality attention the other 362 days of the year?

Joe Yazzie, a Navajo artist with whom I exhibited years ago in Chicago, told me that he found this ideology incredibly foreign. Joe’s father was what we would call a “medicine man” and his calling was to cure the ills of body and spirit. The Navajo traditionally don’t divide body and spirit as we do, and correspondingly, there’s no gulf between the utilitarian and the celebratory. Like his ancestors before him,  Joe’s father endeavored to unify the realms of body and spirit by making things that were useful and beautiful, and Joe did the same. Joe told me that this practice was called “walking in beauty,” and it was a way of expressing one’s reverence for life.

The practice I’m talking about here has nothing to do with taste or visual style. Native American cultures had widely varying aesthetics. Ancient Eskimo artifacts tend toward the austere, and they can look quite modern to Euro-American eyes. Pacific Northwest tribes, by contrast, tended to fill every space with symbolically significant imagery, so much so that art historians use the term horror vacui – fear of open spaces – to describe their style.

“Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul”

Chilkat blanket

A traditional "Chilkat blanket" named for the Native American tribe that designed them; this one was woven by Tlingit artist. Full-surface decoration is characteristic of most Native American Art from the North Pacific region.

The notion of embodying beauty and usefulness in domestic objects isn’t unique to Native American cultures. It occurs around the world and throughout history,  often in spiritually-oriented communities. Examples from Japanese and American Shaker buildings come to mind.

It’s no accident that a Japanese house communicates a gracefully spare Zen sense of repose. Or that Japanese craftsmen constructed wood furniture so finely that you can find tansu chests, built completely without nails or glue, that are still serviceable despite the fact that they are hundreds of years old! Both are evidence of how Japanese carpenters translated the Zen practice of mindfulness into their work.

The Shakers, whose design sensibility inspired the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement, a precursor to modern design, shared a similar point of view. Members of this utopian religious community lived by a motto that described how and why the quality of their work and their religious beliefs were inextricably linked: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

It seems sad to me that we’ve come to the point where beauty could be considered senseless or random.

Architect Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair.

What’s more, to my way of thinking, there’s nothing beautiful about the billions of baubles we bury in the product graves that we call landfills the moment the glitter wears off. (I recently completed a green building certification, and during my studies, I learned to my horror that as much as 50 percent of the junk in our American landfills is waste from constructing, deconstructing, and redecorating buildings!) Grandma got it right: “handsome is as handsome does.”

As the Shakers proved more than a century ago, quality, beauty, and usefulness can be communally joined. The simple Shaker table pictured here was designed to be functional, hence the handy drawer and a drop-leaf that economizes on space while also accommodating another diner. Even though the table is not made from rare or precious wood and does not contain inlaid marble or precious stones, it is prized for its lasting beauty — as attested by the fact that it is currently being sold by the John Keith Russell antiques firm, which has set an asking price of $28,000.

Back to the Future: Quality is Not Optional

Shaker drop leaf table

A drop-leaf table crafted around 1840 at either the New Lebanon, New York or Hancock, Massachusetts Shaker colony.

In 2007, the architectural firm of John G. Waite Associates put together a master plan for the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The 1,200-acre site holds 20 historic buildings and has served as an outdoor, living history museum for more than 50 years. Hancock is the site of the beautiful round stone barn that inspired film maker Ken Burns to make his documentary about the Shakers.

The architectural team drew from the Shaker heritage in creating their plans, and they found in the Shakers’ history some very contemporary lessons about community and sustainability. Here’s what Ellen Spear, president and chief executive officer of Hancock Village, told the magazine of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in May of 2007 about how the architectural team was looking to Shaker ideals for guidance:

Spear says she looks forward to bringing the Shaker story to address contemporary issues like peace (the Shakers were pacifists) and building community and sustainability, noting the ways they sited buildings and reused materials, approached construction, and looked at things in a sustainable way. “I don’t think they necessarily knew or named it that, but that’s certainly the approach,” Spear says. “The same with organic gardening and the methods they used. They had tremendous technical innovation that we see within the building and building construction, including a water-power system in the early 1800s. All of those things can address issues that are important to us today.”

Handsome is as Handsome Does

The simple fact is that quality workmanship lasts.

While it costs more at the outset, it costs less over the long run. For example, I could buy cheap vinyl flooring for a 10 x 10-foot kitchen for about $100, while a good quality linoleum will cost around $250. (Many people think that both vinyl and linoleum flooring are the same thing. They are not: vinyl is made from petroleum while linoleum is made mostly from natural oils and sawdust.)  It will cost me at least $300 to get someone to install either floor, so why would I want to spend $550 for a floor that looks pretty much the same as a $400 floor?

The answer lies in the ugly truth about what will happen over the next ten years. That linoleum floor will still look good and be wearing well in 30 years; many elementary schools contain 50-year old linoleum floors that have stood up to generations of rambunctious feet. But that vinyl floor will start to look shabby in about 3 years, and most people replace vinyl flooring after about five years. So the true cost comparison is $550 for the linoleum floor and $800 for the two vinyl floors that I will have to install in the same time period.

The shell of the chambered nautilus.

Then there are off-the-balance sheet costs that go along with that throw-away floor. That cast off vinyl flooring is going to wind up in a landfill where it’s going to do some pretty nasty things, but not before it’s had time to release a lot of toxic chemicals into someone’s home! (I’m pretty sure that vinyl flooring helped trigger the asthma that appeared in my middle years, and studies have also found puzzling links between vinyl flooring and autism.)

To my way of thinking, our homes should be beautiful in the same way that a chambered nautilus shell is beautiful. The nautilus, a squid that lives in a shell, expands its home as it grows. The new chambers not only accommodate the creature’s growth, they also function as floats. The squid can fill the empty compartments with gas that cause the shell to rise or sink in the ocean. The nautilus gets bigger quarters as it grows, adding a new chamber each year. It builds to accommodate its changing needs, following a simple but elegant master plan, and building rooms that accommodate the animal at different ages and stages of life.

Human beings think that they invented universal design, the notion that homes and products should be easy and comfortable to use through our life spans, whatever our state of ability or disability. But the chambered nautilus clan has been putting that idea into practice, with stunningly beautiful results, for millenia!

I plan to occupy my earthly shell for quite a few years to come, and while I do, I will endeavor to practice sensible and deliberate acts of beauty. My ideal is to create living chambers that are as luminously beautiful as those of the nautilus.

Because the chambered nautilus so nicely symbolizes my design philosophy, I plan to incorporate it in the redesign of my logo and my Comfort and Joy Interior Design website at the end of this year. My new logo will be an abstracted version of a chambered nautilus shell.

Resource Links

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The Chambered Nautilus

A spiral staircase at the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94)

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Living Large in Small Spaces

July 3, 2009

A small space should be designed with the elegance of a Swiss Army knife.

How so? It should be convenient and pleasant to use. It should anticipate every daily task you do, providing all manner of wonderful accoutrements that open, neatly serve one purpose, then fold, swivel, and pop into another configuration, allowing you to do something altogether different. What’s more, the room and its furnishings should do all this while looking as sleek and beautiful as – well, a Swiss Army knife!

The accordion-like center that allows the XPand table to grow.
The accordion-like center that allows the XPand table to grow.
XPand
The XPand table comes in three sizes and all can grow in length without leaves or hardware. The medium sized table stretches from 63 inches long to 82 inches long.

Although I own three of those canny little knives, it wasn’t until I began researching this blog that I learned that the Swiss Army knife’s design has been included in the New York Museum of Modern Art and Munich’s State Museum of Applied Art. So I’m not alone in finding design inspiration in this humble implement.

This post will be devoted to handsome and fiendishly functional pieces of furniture that, like Swiss Army knives, sleekly serve multiple purposes. Here’s what I have found:

  • the Bada multi-tasking table that turns into a love seat,
  • Murphy beds that disappear behind bookshelves,
  • a Study Bed that transforms into a desk,
  • an XPand table that stretches to welcome company without adding leaves,
  • Silla Garda chairs that divide and multiply,
  • children’s furniture that grows, flexes, and offers fun places to play,
  • a couch that turns into a bunk bed, and
  • storage that banishes clutter.

Furniture like this is what you need to live large in a small space!

Small is Beautiful

Small dwellings offer environmental advantages. A small house costs less to heat and cool. It requires fewer resources to build, and at the end of its usefulness, there’s less to bury in a landfill. A gentleman in Texas by the name of Brad Kittel builds charming, milk-truck-sized houses from 99% salvaged materials to make that very point. Jay Shaffer has put together his Tumbleweed Tiny Houses for similar reasons. While their houses are bit too small for my taste, I do subscribe to Susan Susanka’s “Not So Big” house philosophy. Susanka encourages her readers to invest in good design and detailing, making a smaller house truly livable. (She’s not an advocate of economy or frugality, but favors quality over quantity.)

EcoSystems Bada table
EcoSystem’s Bada table folds to become a love seat
Bada table folded into loveseat

In this age of super-sizing, my love of small spaces may sound contrarian. But among all the interior design tasks I perform, I get the most joy from solving the three-dimensional puzzle of the perfectly planned small house. I get a thrill when a piece of furniture that I have measured and chosen drops perfectly into its allotted spot, wasting no space and looking as though it was created to be there. I enjoy designing original cabinets and window seats that add balance, convenience, and function to an odd dogleg in a floor plan. I get a charge out of finding a bit of wasted or forgotten interior real estate and recovering it in the form of a closet or a china hutch.

It’s even better when I can work this magic using things that are already at hand, local, or re-purposed to some clever end. In my fantasies, I’m the McGyver of interior design, whipping out my Swiss Army Knife and transforming a dozen left-over thread spools, an abandoned automobile hood, and a broken dresser drawer into an incredibly cool coffee table.

In reality, I’m not that inventive, but Ecosystems Bada table, shown above, is! It’s made from reclaimed walnut, and with a flick of the wrist, it changes into love seat.

Your three sleek, modern Silla Guarda chairs hold twice as much seating as your first glance would indicate!

How many chairs do you see? You could sit on any of these chairs, but these three seats come from just two Silla Guarda chairs. The chair on the left has been pulled apart to double the original seating.

The Guarda Silla chairs shown at right are equally clever. Designed by Alberto Villareal, they are like Russian nesting dolls. The chair’s outer shell is made from smooth white Corian. That shell, seen empty on the far left, slips over the redwood core at the center of the photo. Together, the shell and core make up the two-tone chair shown on the right side of the photo. When you need more seating, you can pull the wooden chair out of the Corian shell to form two chairs, both equally functional.

Strive for Simplicity

In a small room, you should strive for a visual harmony. Monochromatic color schemes and neutrals tend to make rooms seem larger, and coordinated furniture and wall colors will also make the space seem roomier. Another good trick is to use see-through surfaces, such as Lucite and glass. Reflective metal surfaces and large mirrors will reflect light and visually open the space as well.

A kaleidoscope of colors, dizzying detail, or a backwash of books, papers, remote controls, wires, or tools is to be avoided.  Visual complication will make a small room feel cramped. That’s why it’s important to be able tuck things away or close a closet door on clutter.

Bo Concept coffee table comes in white lacquer, walnut, black-stained oak and wenge veneer. Size: 13H x 44 3/4W x 31 1/2D. From $1,099.

BoConcept Functional coffee table comes in white lacquer, walnut, black-stained oak and wenge veneer. Size: 13"H x 44 3/4"W x 31 1/2"D. From $1,099.

In a small living room, a coffee table like the BoConcept “Functional Table” shown here will give you a convenient spot to store small objects such as books or remote controls. Its separate table tops will provide flat, raised and stable surfaces for dining or working, so it accommodates two of the most common activities that take place in living rooms and dens.

Planning is Crucial

Frankly, I think that designing for a small space is far more challenging than designing for a large one. It requires far more planning because you need to effectively use every bit of the floorplan while being sure to leave enough room to circulate around the furniture. It requires more shopping because the difference between a 62 inch long love seat and a 65 inch love seat may mean the difference between being able to open the door and having it wedged shut! Small spaces also call for a lot of attention to storage, and that, in turn, often means designing and installing built-in shelving and closet hardware.

“Doc” has removable covers and transforms into a bunk bed. From Bon Bon Trading.

What’s more, in a small dwelling, you don’t have the option of devoting one room to  single purpose. Today’s McMansions can come with multiple bedrooms, an office, a dining room, a family room, a kitchen, a mud room, a guest room, a library, an exercise room, a laundry room – and one heck of a big heating bill. In a small space, however, you’re far more likely to wind up with multipurpose spaces. Here are some common ones:

  • a kitchen/laundry room,
  • a bedroom/study,
  • a library/guest room, and
  • a dining room/office.

The Doc sofa shown at right would be a good choice for an older couple whose library needed to also be able to serve as a guest room for grandchildren who visited every now and again.

Another fascinatingly flexible bed – one that a teenager would love – is the Study Bed. It’s hard to find the words to describe how the Study Bed folds and rotates a double-sized bed into the wall to reveal a good-sized desk. It’s even hard to show in a series of photos, so if you’re curious about, I encourage you to head on over to YouTube to watch the video of the Study Bed in motion.

Grouping Functions

The trade-offs of using spaces for multiple functions complicate both furnishing and storage, and the answers about which functions to group together aren’t always obvious. For example, what if there’s just one unallocated room, and you need a yoga retreat, a mud room and a children’s play area? How are you going to make sure your downward facing doggie pose doesn’t wind up with its nose in mud left over from the kids’ galoshes? Will you need to rout the Space Invaders before you can achieve yogic repose?

Combining these functions would require superb storage and a lot of attention to flooring. If you had a comfortable rug that could be rolled out just for yoga, and then easily stored out of sight, this combination might work.

However, it’s better to group noisy activities in one area of the house and quiet functions in another. Doing that also involves thinking about the chronology of the family’s day. If the kids are going to home playing at the same time you want to do yoga, perhaps your yoga retreat should be designed into the bedroom, the living room, or the kitchen?

Tagei table opens to reveal bench with sidetables

Tagei table opens to reveal bench with side tables. Designed by Akemi Tanaka; links below lead to Futaba, another nice convertible sofa by Tanaka.

The redesign of one room in a small dwelling frequently causes a domino effect. I find that accommodating a change in one room often requires moving functions or furnishing in another room as well. In the case of the yoga retreat, while there may not be enough floor space for a self-respecting cobra to stretch out in the living room right now, there could be.

The answer might be to use the spare room for a play and mud room only. You could practice yoga in the living room if you replaced your bulky coffee table and that seldom-used armchair with something like the Tagei table at left. (Tagei means versatility in Japanese.) This table/bench combo would free up the floor space you need for daily exercise, and it will easily open into seating for the occasional buffet or cocktail party.

Provide Lots of Storage

My final tip on furnishing small spaces is to provide plenty of storage, particularly units that do not protrude into the room. Your storage might be built in – like the closet I discussed in last week’s blog – or it might be a wall system. (If you like Asian-inspired design, there’s a firm called Green Tea Design that creates some very handsome wardrobes and wall systems using wood recycled from old Korean barns.) It’s often effective (if counter-intuitive) to shrink the room’s footprint slightly by creating a full-width wall for a closet or wall system. When the view is uninterrupted by edges, it appears less busy. Visually, a whole-wall system intrudes into the room less than a dresser or breakfront would.

Modern Murphy beds take the same approach, and they often include options for shelving and closets. Some include desks and drop-down tables that really make them more like wall systems than beds. Hardwood Artisans has a nice selection of Library Wall beds. The Wallbed Factory, which has an active green initiative, offers library and wallbeds with plenty of storage features, and prices ranging from $2,100 to around $5,000. Flying Beds offers a Murphy bunk bed, a library bed and also a computer bed.

Who You Gonna Call?

So there you have it, a whole passel of solutions for shaping up your small spaces. The links below will help you explore all of your options save one.

If it turns out you don’t care for measuring, drawing floor plans on quadrille paper and cutting out little chunks of paper to represent your furniture, you can call for help. There are odd souls around who actually enjoy wrestling with the three-dimensional puzzles of space planning. I’m one of them. Like my fellow interior designers, I’d be happy to help!

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Swiss-Army-Knife

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Glass Tile for Sustainable Style

May 20, 2009

Glass tile is a classy, eco-friendly material. In this post, I’m going to review three tile manufacturers not just to aid and entertain you, but also to give myself a chance to gorge on some delicious eye candy.

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay. Half of that content comes from recycled glass bottles.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have a passion for glass: art glass, doorknobs, drawer pulls, jewelry – and of course, glass tile! I find the color caught inside glass even more satisfying than my watercolors. (My paintings are not soft and watery like a Turner landscape; the colors are vivid and I love definitive line and form.) I experience a physical thrill of pleasure when I gaze into glass, observing the way it concentrates color – so pure, so transparent and intense! Then too, I love the bubbles, gradients, layers and textures that form in glass.

You can get glorious color, transparency, and texture in glass tile, and you can feel good about choosing it. Glass is an earth-friendly material.

What’s more, glass is completely recyclable, a substance that can be designed into a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing process. Old glass can easily be ground up, melted, and then recast into dishes, counter tops, tile or what-have-you.

Glass is made from three common substances  – silica, lime, and soda ash – that occur the world around, so it seems that plants making tile from recycled glass should be located all across the country.  My searches turned up numerous companies recycling glass into tile on the west coast, but I found almost none in the center of the country or on the east coast! Ecologically speaking, it’s far better to buy regionally – within 500 miles -  and avoid generating a big carbon footprint by shipping your glass tile a long distance.

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Whether you want to bring elegance to an entry, add color to a kitchen, beautify a bathroom, or put sparkle into a stairway, glass tile offers ways to do it. Glass tile is durable, easy to clean, and comes in an amazing range of styles and colors. Because I’m writing a blog rather than a book, I will cover only a few color and style options here. But the links at this post’s end will help you find choices galore as well as eco-conscious suppliers around the country.

Glass: Handle with Care

As with most materials, glass has its weak points: Because it’s usually slippery, it’s usually not a good choice for floors, except as a small accent. Because glass will shatter when subjected to extreme heat or cold, and because it can chip or crack if you accidentally whack it with a skillet, it’s not recommended for counter tops. (There are special forms of tile that combine glass with other materials and provide a very durable counter top while incorporating glass.) Glass tile works well for back splashes, for shower surrounds, on fireplaces, in swimming pools, around fountains, on the sides of steps, and on walls.

Choosing Your Colors

Glass can be glitzy, and the color can be intense. That’s one of its wonders, of course, but it’s easy to get carried away. If you want to choose vibrant or metallic colors, it’s probably best to make that glass tile an accent, rather than the main body of a wall. Designers often use a 60/30/10 rule for balancing color; they allocate a base color to 60% of a room, 30% to a related color, and 10% to a contrasting, accent color. Colors that “work” together usually form geometric patterns when laid out around a color wheel. Designers actually have names that describe those relationships; for example, there are jazzy complimentary palettes, subdued monochromatics with tints or shades, and colorful triadic palettes.

I would avoid trendy color combinations. There’s nothing wrong with powder blue or brown, but if you choose a tile that mixes those two colors for your kitchen, they will be together for the life of the tile. Right now that combo is in. But in a few years, someone will walk into your kitchen and think, “Oh yes! That was done in 2009, when those late 1960′s shades came back.” If you want to be au courant, you can paint the room powder blue and accent it with brown tile. When that palette starts to look “so 2009″, you can replace the powder blue paint with another color, changing the color scheme with far less labor and expense than would be involved in tearing out part or all of the tile.

Brick Mirror tile from Glass Tile Oasis

Here’s how I might go about creating a palette around the Glass Tile Oasis brick mirror glass shown at left. I would first choose the room’s base color; it might be an amber or the ivory in the tile. If you’re not working with a color consultant, I would advise you not to choose a dark or unusual color as a base for your palette. (An expert can make a purple room look great, but it’s hard to do, and getting it right takes skill and practice.)

This tile includes some shades of burnt orange or magenta that might work as an accent for an amber room, and the tile’s pink and purple shades would certainly work as accents in an ivory room.  But the reverse – say a purple room with amber and pink accents – will probably prove darkly unsettling.

Fireclay Tile, California

Fireclay Tile was founded by Paul Burns, who first started making tile with his uncle when he was 10 years old. Since founding Fireclay with three partners, Paul has devoted his efforts to finding more sustainable ways to make tile, using the most energy efficient manufacturing processes, and incorporating recycled content into his materials. This has resulted not only in beautiful products like the tile pictured on the stairs at the top of this post, it has also made Fireclay an environmental leader. Fireclay Tile’s innovations include:

  • Leadless Glazes – Fireclay converted to 100% leadless glazes in 1989.
  • Vulcanite – In 1997, Fireclay created tile that was glazed and fired from pieces of volcanic lava, a naturally occurring form of glass.
  • Debris Tile – Fireclay began putting 25% post-industrial recycled content (granite dust) into Debris Tile in 2,000. This tile, shown on the stairs, also includes recycled glass.
  • Jellybean Rocks – Firetile has created 20 styles of tile made from recycled materials, including glass bottles, sea shells, or natural stone colors (sometimes mixed together).

Firetile’s website states, “We are a triple-bottom line company and ensure we take the environment into account in every decision we make and pay all of our employees a fair wage and benefits.”

Hakatai Glass Tile, Oregon

Hakatai Enterprises has been importing and distributing glass tile since 1997,  working with architects, contractors and builders, interior designers and dealers, as well as homeowners.  The company was named by its president, Marshall Malden, who has enjoyed backpacking in the Grand Canyon for years. Hakatai, which is pronounced ha-keh-tie, is the Havasupai Indian tribe’s name for the Colorado River, and Hakatai shale is a geologic layer in the Grand Canyon.

Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai says that it is “committed to environmental conservation and sustainability.”  Recycled glass is a key ingredient in Hakatai ‘s Ashland-eCobblestone,  Tivoli and Calliope series of tile. The stunning mosaic tile at the top of this post is from the Calliope series. All of the tiles in these four collections are comprised of between 30 and 70% glass from bottles and/or other waste glass that would otherwise wind up in a trash heap. This waste glass is approximately 90% post-and 10% pre-consumer material.

Hakatai’s designers and artists also can turn any drawing or design into a hand-cut,  mosaic mural, like the one at left. This link to their website will lead you to a stunning collection of custom murals.

Sandhill Tile, Idaho

Founded in 1998 in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sandhill is now located in Boise, Idaho. The company’s products, including the elegant grey and sage “field tile” glass shown just below, are made from 100% recycled materials. Each tile takes less than one-half of the energy to produce than ceramic tile, and less than one-fourth of the energy it takes to produce a cast-glass tile.”

Tile manufactured by Sandhill

Sandhill’s manufacturing process came out of a a two-year research project. The project was initially funded by an Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant that was awarded to develop an innovative glass-fusing technology that utilizes 100% recycled glass.

Sandhill produces tile for both commercial and residential projects. It comes in 36 colors and matte or gloss finish. Their line includes field tile, border designs, mosaic blends, and deco pieces. Hakatai recently received the EPA Evergreen award for environmental excellence and leadership.

Glass tile from Sandhill Industries. This is a "field concept" that incorporates two kinds of tile: Riverblend field tile and a 4x4 inch Cypress deco piece.

Installation Tips

Because it’s transparent, glass showcases the skill of the installer – or lack of it – more readily than other sorts of tile. For that reason, I urge you to resist any latent impulse you feel to install it yourself.  Hire a professional instead.

You should demand to see a prospective installer’s previous jobs before you hire him or her, and it’s also good to know what to look for in an installation. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the grout color is right before the installer begins work. You can preview the look of the finished grouting job by sprinkling a teaspoon of dry grout in between some tiles.
  • Don’t let the installer mark on the wall. Contractors customarily pencil notes and write measurements on the wall when laying tile, but with glass tile, those marks will show through.
  • Before the adhesive sets, all the grout must be thoroughly cleaned from tile’s surface.  Once the grout has set, it can’t be removed – ever! You must remove and replace the tile to fix this problem.

Bronze Pearl 1" x 4" Black Kitchen Matte and Iridescent Glass Tile from Glass Tile Oasis

  • Glass tile usually comes covered with a paper “backing” that is actually attached to the face of the glass to protect it from scratches. Problems can occur when a person gets confused about which side of the tile should be placed up or attempts to take the paper off too soon, before the tile has set into the adhesive. (Given the need to also clean grout off the face before it sets, timing can be very tricky; this is why your contractor’s experience is so important.)
  • Never throw any grout, or anything with grout on it, down a sink, drain, or toilet. The grout will bond to the pipes and ruin your plumbing. Your contractor should use containers and materials that can be placed into the trash at the job’s completion – and you should also insist that the contractor cleans up the work area and disposes of the leftovers.
  • Reserve some tile in case you later need to replace a few tiles.
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Hats Off to the Glass Artists!

Ancient Roman glass and mosaic floor

I have always wanted to learn to blow glass, so I signed up for a one-day class at Public Glass in San Franciso.
I came away from that day with an increased admiration for the gaffers who practice the strenuous-yet-delicate art of glass blowing. I’m grateful for the crews of artisans who brave the rigors of the hot shop so that the rest of us can admire the beauty of glass in total thermal comfort.

The temperature outside was in the eighties, and that made the hot shop a virtual Sahara. I needed a much-more buffed upper body to hold the heavy pontil and keep it spinning. My glass kept dribbling away like melted taffy, and it had to be repeatedly rescued by kindly instructors.

At their urging, I spent the day alternately chugging bottles of water, then dousing my hair and clothes with an outdoor garden hose. Inside, they dried almost instantly.

Glass vase by Noah Salzman, one of the fine artists represented in Public Glass' gallery.

By the day’s end,  my insides felt like a bag of broken glass. I suffered muscle aches, shakes, shivers, and a shattering headache – mostly the result of dehydration. It was a chore to muster enough energy to rehydrate before falling into bed, freezing and heaped over with blankets.

 I treasure the lumpy, transparent clear glass holiday ornament I made that day – despite the fact that it’s so thick and heavy, it could never be hung on a tree.


To top it off, I was playing with fire. I could feel the glass kiln scorching the hair on my arms, even when I stood as far back as possible. (Given the physics involved, that made the pontil even more difficult to hold.)

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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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Get a Grip: Eco and Ergo Handles

May 1, 2009

This post is devoted to handles, knobs and pulls – those humble fittings that scarcely merit a thought until they cause trouble. They command our attention only when they break – or when we do, losing strength and digital dexterity due to aging, injury, or arthritis.

Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass.  Size: 4 1/4 Wide X 1 1/2 Projection

Eco and Ergo: Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass. Size: 4 1/4" wide with 1 1/2" outward projection.

Pulls and handles can be ergonomically designed to make it easier to get a grip. Both the choice of materials and the shape of the handle play a role in ease of use. But what’s easy to use can differ quite a bit for differently-abled people.

Ecologically speaking, knobs and pulls, like every other product that we use, should be designed and chosen with an eye not only to how we will use them, but also to what will happen to them after we’re done using them. (I have been reading the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and becoming keenly aware that the notion of throwing or giving things “away” is wrong-headed. Realistically speaking, there is no “away.” Everything we throw away remains somewhere on earth, piling up in someone else’s back yard or buried in the product graves that we call landfills.)

This post will cover both “eco” handles  – those made from recycled and earth-friendly materials – and “ergo” handles that are designed for comfortable use. In some cases, I have found handles and pulls that meet both eco and ergo requirements and are beautiful as well. They meet my definition of elegant design.

Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Natures Hardware. Theres also a C shaped stone cabinet pull if grasping is a problem.

Eco and Ergo: Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Nature's Hardware. Because the stone is flat, you can hook your fingers underneath and pull with the whole hand. There's also a "C" shaped stone cabinet pull available from the same supplier.

I hope that you will find the discussion that goes along with these finds interesting. If instead, you find yourself amazed that anyone could make choosing a simple drawer pull so complicated, I invite you to simply enjoy the beauty of the fittings I have found.

At the bottom of this post, you will find learning and shopping links that will lead you to suppliers for everything that is pictured here – and more.

Ergonomics and Aging

Ergonomically speaking, drawer pulls that are shaped like the letters “C” or “D” and doorknobs that are levers are far easier to use as we age. The reason? We can exert pressure on them using our large arm muscles rather than having to pinch or grasp with our fingers.

Older people tend to lose strength and/or fine motor control in their hands, making twisting and pinching motions difficult. That’s the case with our friend Joe, whose arthritis has advanced to the point where he can no longer make a fist.  Both “universal design” and “accessible design” propose approaches that attempt to help folks like Joe. Both approaches work, but both have downsides.

This brass lever interior door handle, available from homehardwareplus.com, comes in either a left-hand or right hand model.

Eco: This interior door handle, from homehardwareplus.com, comes in a left- or right-hand model. Lever-style handles are the best choice for those with arthritis, and are also helpful for those whose hands are busy holding onto packages or small children.

Over the past couple decades, interior designers have been researching, debating and getting seriously hepped-up over the competing merits of universal and accessible design. (Who but an interior designer could devote a whole blog post to knobs and handles, for goodness sake?!)

Universal design aims to create products and environments that work for everyone - the young, the old, the tall, the short – instead of just creating things with an “average” user in mind. A universal design kitchen, for example, usually has counters of varying heights, so there’s one area that’s the right height for grandma in her wheelchair,  another for a school-aged child making a peanut butter sandwich, and yet another for dad, who is very tall. Universal design is concerned first and foremost with form, and it eschews frills. Accordingly, the International Style that is associated with universal design has been faulted for monotony and homogeneity. In Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart write that the International Style has evolved into “a bland uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place – from local culture, nature, energy and material flows…[and] reflect little if any of a region’s distinctness or style.”

DuVerre Kuba Recycled Metal pull from Natures Hardware

Eco and Ergo: DuVerre Kuba Recycled metal D-shaped pull from Nature's Hardware.

Accessible design is generally focused on creating products that work for people with disabilities such as low vision, impaired mobility or limited reach – a continual problem for people who use wheelchairs. Whereas universal design aims for a sleek, modern look, accessible design tends to look sturdy, utilitarian and even institutional. Another drawback is that changes made to accommodate one sort of problem can wind up making life difficult for people with a problem of another sort.

For example, after drinking fountains were lowered to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, people with bad backs were unhappy about having to stoop down to drink. The universal design compromise mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act has been to install fountains called “high/lows” – a pair of fountains at different heights. This has meant ripping out a lot of metal and rebuilding big chunks of the core plumbing area in many high-rises, an expensive undertaking that has contributed tons of metal and stone to landfill sites.

While universal and accessible design approaches overlap somewhat, both seek to create products that anticipate the physical needs of various groups of people, leading to compromises such as the high/low. If you know that specific individuals are going to use a room, fewer compromises are needed.

So what constitutes sound, elegant design? To my way of thinking, it’s a design that works to enhance the comfort and joy of an interior for you and yours, and one that simultaneously enhances the health and beauty of the earth, now and later. The offerings in this post don’t meet all those requirements in every instance, but they move in the right direction.

Opening the Door with Style and Ease

If functionality were the sole requirement, the fastest and easiest way to enable someone like our friend Joe to cope with a round doorknob would be to put a plastic sheath over it. For $5-$20, you can buy slip-over products that cushion the doorknob and provide greater traction or sheaths that will change the door knob’s shape from round to an oval or a lever.

Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware

Ergo: Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware.

I’m afraid that I find these remarkably homely, and I feel bad knowing that since they’re plastic, they are fated to wind up in a landfill where they will wait centuries for archeologists of the future to dig them up. Instead spending $10 to $30 for one of these aids (and being reminded of my disability every time I opened the door!)  I would rather spend $20 to $100 to replace (and recycle) the round door handle. It’s actually easy to replace interior door hardware using nothing more than a screwdriver. Assemblies that hold oval and lever-shaped doorknobs will fit usually fit right into the holes that were drilled for the old hardware assembly.

When it comes to doorknobs that aren’t round, you have a myriad of choices. Your minimalist, modern home might  look great with brass lever door hardware shown above or with  a sleeker version of the same design in brushed chrome.

But what if you live in a Victorian style house? No problem! The Victorians favored ornate oval doorknobs, and the House of Antique Hardware sells oval doorknobs made of many materials. You might choose the brass knobs shown above. Or you might opt for a plain white, black, or brown porcelain, in which case, you could feel good about choosing an environmentally friendly material.

Hand blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

Eco: Hand-blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

If you’re looking for a dazzlingly colorful, earth-friendly choice and have no problem gripping a round doorknob, you might want to visit the website of All That Glass. This Portland, Oregon studio creates hand-blown glass doorknobs, as well as a variety of pulls, knobs, and even sinks.

Another supplier of fine art glass doorknobs is Light Impressions. Their work is shown at left. These blown glass creations are so beautiful that they could be considered art or jewelry. Moreover, glass is a green material. Glass is made from silica, a commonplace natural substance that requires no complicated extraction; it’s found in beach sand. Better yet, old glass can be ground up and made into new glass, making it very eco-friendly indeed.

Ocean-Friendly Knobs and Pulls

Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells

Eco and Ergo: Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells. Because each shell is unique in size and shape, when they are used as pulls, blind people can use them to differentiate between one drawer and another.

A colorful collection of pulls made from natural sea shells can be found at Pacific Shells. Most of their pulls are made from empty shells that would have otherwise have been thrown out after people have eaten the shellfish that lived in them.

Pacific Shells uses a patented system to strengthen the shells to allow them to resist tension and torsion. Here’s how the hardened shell handles are made:

  • 10% to 30% of the handle is a shell of a shell-fish rejected from the food chain (such as fish bones).
  • 25% to 80% is the handle is filled with sand that  has been mixed with 11% hardening synthetic resin.
  • the resin makes up 3%  to 9% of the shell handle.
  • A metal base makes up 2% to 10% of the item.

Pacific Shells says its “handles are among the most earth-friendliest or ecological products on the market”. The shellfish that produced the shells would been consumed anyway, and their shells would have become trash. Instead of becoming waste, the shells are processed into handsome crafted items.

Resources

Woven bamboo knob from Natures Hardware

Eco: Woven bamboo knob from Nature's Hardware. Their offerings include pulls made from bone, antler, shells, wood, recycled metal, stone and bamboo.

  • All That Glass -art glass fittings
  • Aurora Glass - a wonderful organization in Portland, Oregon that recycles glass and upcycles people! Aurora Glass is part of St. Vincent de Paul’s strategic recycling initiative for a healthier community.  All profits from the Aurora Glass Foundry are returned to the community in the form of assistance for homeless and low-income people through emergency services, housing, jobs, training, and other charitable endeavors.
  • Comfort and Joy Interior Design
  • Cradle to cradle overview in Wikipedia
  • Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking Sustainability – article and book review in Alternative Energy News with video and commentary
  • Drawer Pulls, Drawer Handles - the end-all, be-all collection of links to collections of pulls
  • Hafele fittings – source for a vast selection of ergonomically designed pulls, handles, fittings and hard-to-find items such as pull-down shelves and organizers
  • Green Mountain Ranch- Created by interior designer Cynthia Liebrock, this “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado showcases more than 180 ideas that demonstrate how universal design ideas complement green design. (She is also a wonderful person. After I wrote about Cynthia Leibrock in this blog, she contacted me and spent almost an hour mentoring me on the phone!)
  • Intersel - a very handsome collection of lever-shaped door knobs
  • Light Impressions – art glass fittings
  • MyKnobs.com – every sort of doorknob and pull you can imagine
  • Nature’s Hardware – knobs and pulls made from a variety of natural and recycled materials
  • Pacific Shells - knobs and pulls made from real seashells
  • Susan Goldstick – handcrafted resin pulls and knobs

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Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!
She’d scour the pots and scrape the pans,
Candy the yams and spice the hams,
And though her daddy would scream and shout,
She simply would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas, rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the window and blocked the door
With bacon rinds and chicken bones,
Drippy ends of ice cream cones,
Prune pits, peach pits, orange peel,
Gloopy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans and tangerines,
Crusts of black burned buttered toast,
Gristly bits of beefy roasts…
The garbage rolled on down the hall,
It raised the roof, it broke the wall…
Greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Globs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from green baloney,
Rubbery blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk and crusts of pie,
Moldy melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick

At last the garbage reached so high
That finally it touched the sky.
And all the neighbors moved away,
And none of her friends would come to play.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout said,
“OK, I’ll take the garbage out!”
But then, of course, it was too late…
The garbage reached across the state,
From New York to the Golden Gate.
And there, in the garbage she did hate,
Poor Sarah met an awful fate,
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late.
But children, remember Sarah Stout
And always take the garbage out!


- Shel Silverstein

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Not Your Grandmother’s Wallpaper

April 19, 2009

When someone says “wallcovering” most folks think of wallpaper – something with a reputation that smells a bit fusty and old fashioned. It can also smell – not just figuratively or from age – but literally due to the volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) used in making it.

Ogura Plush wallpaper from Avignon wallcovering

Ogura Plush wallpaper from Avignon wallcovering

This post is about urbane, eco-conscious alternatives. You can deck out your walls with visual delights that are neither your grandmother’s wallpaper nor an ecological faux pas.

These coverings are made from a variety of materials and offer a cornucopia of looks and textures:

  • Eco-friendly papers with an understated beauty
  • Paper and clay coverings that make it easy to create Venetian textural effects
  • Three-dimensional coverings that catch light and shadow while improving warmth and acoustics, and
  • Eye-catching exotics that feature glass beads, sequins, sea shells (real, not printed), feathers or even green mica chips.

Eco coverings need not feature the sort of fussy flowers, pastels and stripes we have come to associate with wallpaper. (If you like flowers, your flora can be graphically sophisticated in design and hue like the “Summer Oyster” Graham and Brown wallpaper below. )

Summer Oyster eco-friendly wallpaper: 20.5 in x 11 yards per roll, 25.2 inch pattern repeat. Paper from managed timber sources printed with water-based inks containing no VOCs. $48.00 per roll.

You can certainly find more traditional patterns with flowers and stripes, along with art deco swans and even pink flamingoes.

My own favorities are the recycled, hand-painted papers from Avignon design house featured at the top of this blog and the textured paper “ripple tile” below. Another handsome, sound-dampening and insulating wallcovering I favor is cork, which I discussed in an earlier posting on this blog.

Where to Buy Wallpaper

If you are indeed looking for wallpaper, an amazing range of choices are available. Printed or blocked wallpapers do give you the broadest range of color and pattern, and they can be chosen to complement any furniture style from Craftsman to oriental to modern or eclectic.

If you’re not working with an interior designer, my advice is to order online. (I really recommend working with an interior designer – after all, I am one.) Nowadays, if you go to a bricks and mortar store to buy in person, you will be looking at sample books and likely having something shipped to you, just the same as ordering online. The difference is that store orders can take an astonishingly long time to arrive. Watch for the word “backordered” on websites too. A couple years ago, I ordered a wonderful wallpaper – lighthouses and old navigational maps – from a high-end store. The map rolls came in a couple weeks, but I waited more than six months for my lighthouse border. It took so long that I got to enjoy my repapered watercloset for only about a week before I moved!

Should you decide to go the e-commerce route, you will find a nice shopping list of resource links at the end of this posting. There’s even a link for a blog that covers the more unusual and hard-to-get options such as the wallcoverings made from seashells and mica. In most cases, you can easily have samples sent to you before commiting to buy the quantity you need. Always order a few extra rolls so you can cope with installation problems and have the right paper in case you later need to replace a section due to spilled coffee or a roof leak.

Making Healthy Choices

Since this “Living in Comfort and Joy” and not just any design blog, I’m of course going to tell you why I think we should all be choosing eco wall coverings. There are two reasons for sussing out the greener choices: 1) the health of the planet and 2) your own health.

Graphic wallpaper from Design Your Wall

Graphic wallpaper from Design Your Wall

The fact is that most “wallpaper” is not really paper at all. It’s usually vinyl, specifically polyvinyl chloride or PVC. It’s plastic, so it’s tough and washable. However, environmentally, it’s bad stuff. When it’s manufactured, highly toxic materials are released into the air. It lasts for years in landfills, where it leeches toxic chemicals. If it’s incinerated it releases them into the air.

If you need the durability of vinyl, you might look into the products from Cirqa, a company that is mitigating the disposal problem by offering “the vinyl industry’s first and only recycled wallcovering program”.

It’s the chemicals that give wallpaper that characteristic, and sometimes lasting, smell. I have a good friend whose apartment has a wall covered in 1960′s-era gold and silver “op” vinyl wallpaper, and we suspect that the “paper” has been there since the Brady Bunch kids were in elementary school. I have an acute sense of smell and some chemical sensitivity, and if I put my nose next to that wall, I can still pick up that petrochemical scent.

The eco wallcoverings discussed in this post are not only better for the environment, they’re also better for your indoor air quality.

Getting Pasted? A Word to the Wise

Most vinyl wallpaper is “prepasted”. That means that you can “book” fold it, soak it in the tub and put it up on the wall. Installing grasspaper, or non-prepasted coverings means you need to apply the paste. Some coverings must be reverse hung, so that the nap (or pattern) on adjoining pieces run in alternate directions, and in some cases, you may also need to trim the edges or overlap the edges, double-cutting with the seams taped to keep the adhesive away from the face side at seams.

I’m pretty handy, know the techniques, and have done it myself, but if you’re not the artsy craftsy type (or forgiving of imperfections), you should probably enlist a professional. There are good wallpaper hanging instructions on PBS’ This Old House website. I also recommend professional hanging with clay-based adhesives to keep your nontoxic walls non toxic.

With that background, read on for a visual tour of the wonderful options in eco wallcoverings.

Ogura Collection from Avignon Wallcoverings

Avignon Design: Amalfi from the Original collection

Avignon Design: Amalfi from the Original collection

Avignon Wallcoverings, a specialty house in Phoenix and online that offers handpainted, recycled papers, created the paper that appears at the top of this post. Avignon offers three different collections of papers on their website: Cameo, Ogura and Original. The paper pictured above is from their Ogura collection. The paper at left is Amalfi from the Original collection.

The company is run by two women, Caryn Outwater and Ariane Stein, who decided to ditch their respective careers in 1992 to design wallcoverings. Avignon uses 100% kozo fiber which comes from Thailand’s native Mulberry tree. On that canvas, they paint radiant layers to create additional depth and elegance and then apply this covering onto a non-woven substrate. Avignon’s papers are eco-friendly, using 100% recycled paper and all water-based paints, and all their designs are Class A fire rated. This is high-end stuff and pricey enough that they ask you to call for prices; their website does list showrooms.

Ripple modular wallcovering

mio-ripple-blue_600_502_generalOne of my other favorite wall covering are these modular, 3d wallpaper tiles from Ripple PaperForms. You can arrange the tiles in different orientations to create your own pattern – they are sized so that four tiles will make a circle, or can be connected in wavy lines as shown at right.

The tiles, which are made from 100% pre- and post-consumer recycled paper, can be installed temporarily with double stick tape or permanently with wallpaper paste. They can be left plain or can be painted. Each tile measures 12″ x 12″ x 2.25″ high, and pack of 12 tiles (12 square feet) runs $32.

The ripple tile has sound dampening qualities. It has also a sister product, a 3-D design that features a horizontal half moon design and is marketed as an acoustic product. Ripple tile is made in the USA and the Netherlands from locally sourced materials and it is recycleable.

Modular Arts Textural Wallcovering

modular

Here’s another textural wallcover made from quite a different material – cementitious, mineral composites. This material offers superior fire-resistant properties, it’s relatively light weight, and doesn’t “off-gas” harmful, chemicals.

The ModularArts® Mineral Composite Panel surface is hard, dense, and flexible. It feels like rock or ceramic and is a fine, smooth, extremely dense cement that produces incredible detail.

The 32″ by 32″ panels can be installed seamlessly via steel reinforced, interlocking joints that ensure accurate panel-to-panel alignment and pattern matching in all directions. If damage should occur, the repair process is similar to what you would do to fix drywall, but without the paper layer to rip.

Innovations from Ecohaus

Several nice collections of tonal, handsomely understated solid and mottled color papers are available from Ecohaus. The manufacturer for their papers uses water-based inks free of heavy metals, and the factory recycles its wastes and uses recycled shipping materials. Many of their wallpapers were designed for commercial use and are quite durable and scrubbable.

Faux leather wallcoverings. These are from Roos International.

Faux leather wallcoverings. These are from Roos International. (I remember, while driving my car with a child in a safety seat behind me, that the little girl picked my gloves from off of the seat. "Nana," she asked, "Is this rabbit fur inside your gloves?" "Yes." "Did the rabbit have to die?" Long pause...) No cows were killed in the making of these wallcoverings.

Ecohaus also offers a faux suede, linen grass cloth and a hemp wallcovering called “Origins”. These wallcoverings are less durable than their papers, but visually more interesting.

EcoHaus’ prices range from $18.59 to $61.49 per linear yard, and their rolls are 36 to 54 inches in width. Not all of their papers have trimmed edges, which means that it’s a good idea to enlist some expert help in hanging these papers.

Roos International:

Choices, Choices!

Roos International Wallcovering offers an amazing assortment of striking and earth-friendly wall coverings, ranging from raffia, grass cloth, wood veneer, hand painted papers to glass textiles and faux suede. They offer an elegant handpainted wallcover that looks slightly marbled with similar tonal qualities to Venetian plastering.

One of my favorites from Roos’ collections is the SRWood paper-backed wood veneer shown below. The SRWood herringbone pattern shown here is similar to Maya Romanoff’s “Ajiro” – but this is easier to find and purchase. Those of you who don’t spend your free hours reading sample books may not know that among interior designers and architects, Maya Romanoff is considered the king of wall coverings. His wall coverings include mother of pearl inlaid shell, precious metal leaf (copper, gold, silver), jewel paper that looks like silk, and 12 shades of wall mica! Maya Romanoff pretty much sells only to the interior design trade, though a small collection of his wall coverings can be found at some Sherwin-Williams paint stores.

SRWood veneer from Roos International

SRWood veneer from Roos International

Of SRWood, Roos says that it is “custom-made by nature” and friendly to the environment. It can be made from any of 80 species of trees grown in FSC-certified forests, and it is fire rated for architectural use. The product is a thin veneer of wood backed with cloth or paper.

Roos International also offers a textured glass textile that was invented about 50 years ago in Europe to cover bumpy or cracked problem walls, but has only become known here in the US in the past decade.

Enchanting Glass Bead wallcovering from Roos International

Enchanting Glass Bead wallcovering from Roos International

This glass textile can be painted with latex acrylic or epoxy paints. If you feel daring, you could choose to cover it with one of the new metallic, pearlescent, multicolor, glaze or faux finishes that Roos recommends. Glass textile is produced in rolls that are 39.2″ wide by 27 yards or 54 yards in lengths. It’s woven into many textural patterns, such as basketweave and herring bone.

An even more novel option is the glass bead wallcovering shown here. (Outside of a restaurant or a night club, I’m not sure I’d know where to put this, but if any of my readers have ideas, I’m open to suggestion.)

Roos even sells a PVC vinyl wallcovering called “Envision” that, according to their website, does contain recycled and renewable materials and doesn’t contains heavy metals or VOCs.

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A Note from Nicolette

Who’s Reading? Please take this poll

This is where I usually share a humorous or uplifting bit of poetry with my readers, but since there’s no editor to tell me what to do, I thought that it would be fun to alter my pattern by including a personal note.

Nicolette Toussaint

I started writing “Living in Comfort and Joy” on January 7, 2009, and initially, I knew who was reading. My friends of course, and then folks from the San Francisco Unitarian Church who were interested in knowing what I was doing to help their (and my) minister and his family to live more comfortably in a much smaller house than they had previously occupied. Each new post got around 70 readers.

Four months later, more than 4500 people have visited this blog, and 200 or 300 hundred people read each post. The traffic hovers around 50 instead of dropping down to zero between posts, which means that someone, somewhere is visiting the site every few minutes.

I’m very, very curious about these statistics, and grateful to reader Christine for pointing me to some tracking tools that show, geographically, where readers are located. I also ask you to take this very short poll to give me a better understanding of what you hope to find in my blog.

I know two things for sure about my readers: some people are coming back for multiple visits, and they are not just my friends and acquaintances, because I surely don’t know that many people!

I do know that other interior designers and architects read this blog, because they engage in some very interesting conversations with me via the comments section. I have become pen pals with a few of them.

But by and large, you, dear reader, are an intriguing mystery.

Whoever you are, I thank you for reading, and especially for leaving comments. It’s wonderful to have your company on my journey to a new vocation and avocation, and I’m learning from you as surely as you are learning from me. I hope that sometime, I get to meet at least a few of you.

-Nicolette Toussaint

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Glory Without Guilt: Reclaimed Wood Furniture

April 2, 2009

I love the warmth, colors, depth, dimensionality and feel of wood. I adore elegantly crafted, hand-made furniture and want to support the artisans who make it, especially now, when so many are struggling to make ends meet.

Humilitas table by Michael Yonke

Michael Yonke: Humilitas table. American heart pine with oak edge banding. It's 22.5 x 56 x 1.5" thick x 18.5" high, but can be made as a conference table.

Compared to say, Japan, where a master artisan can be awarded support and called a “living national treasure“, we do a rather haphazard job of supporting artisans in this country.

I recently discovered a number of innovative furniture makers who are creating “reclaimed wood furniture” – new furniture that has been made from wood that has been recycled from old barns, bridges, buildings and even wine barrels. Now I no longer need to feel guilty about encouraging clients to buy wood furniture.

This post is devoted to the many good ends that come from reclaimed wood furniture: feeding the artists, enjoying beautiful things that will last for years to come, giving new life to old resources, and ensuring that countless trees can continue growing and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.

First and Foremost, It’s Beautiful

Yes, I did claim that reclaimed wood furniture is beautiful. The photos prove it.

Yoshida wall unit from Greentea Design

Yoshida wall unit from Greentea Design

It’s true that some reclaimed wood furniture runs toward shabby chic, featuring old peeling paint and even commercial logos. For example, you can see chairs made from surfboards by Brazil’s Zanini de Zanine Caldas on the Treehugger website, but you won’t see them here. That’s too post-modern for my taste, and one of the advantages of writing a blog is that I get to feature what I want.

From the furniture I’m featuring here, you will see that my tastes run toward clean lines, both contemporary and traditional. The photos will also show you that there’s no way you would know that wood has been reused except for Toussaint spilling the beans.

A case in point is the work of Greentea Design of Toronto, Canada. I have yen for Japanese furniture, and also for some of the less ornate Chinese styles. As I write this, I’m sitting at an Asian-style table that my stepfather, Bill Devine, handcrafted to my special order more than twenty years ago. Bill always felt bad about using the stunning flame mahogany that is framed in the table’s center by a band of darker wood. The mahogany came from forests that were starting to disappear even when he made the table. This worried him and he eventually stopped buying mahogany.

But Greentea, which makes similarly designed two-toned pieces, like the media chest shown above, has solved that problem. I incorporated some Greentea pieces into a project last fall, simply because the style was perfect. Until I began researching this week’s post, I did not realize that all of Greentea’s furniture is made from wood that has been reclaimed from Korean barns. You need to pay attention to the details on the Greentea website to discover that the “green” in their name is there for environmental as well as cultural reasons.

Whit McCleod: Morris spindle chair

Whit McCleod: Morris spindle chair

Michael Yonke of Santa Monica, whose work is featured at the top of this blog, creates furniture and art from wood, metal and glass. Yonke reclaims local “deconstruction materials” and uses them to create furniture, doors, cabinets and trim. He also writes a blog on “upcycling”. That term was coined by the authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, William McDonough and Michael Braungart. They defined it as “the practice of taking something that is disposable and transforming it into something of greater use and value.”

Yonke says that “Upcycling is achieved by repurposing the materials into objects with higher end-use value that will endure and inspire for centuries…” Yonke’s work is available for purchase at upcycler.etsy.com

From Redwoods and Wine Barrels

Whit McLeod, whose shop is in Arcata among the redwoods of Northern California, began his career as a wildlife biologist. His reverence for nature is reflected in his award-winning Arts and Crafts furniture. McLeod’s company salvages redwood from demolition sites, wine or water tanks, or salvaged logs, and he also reclaims quarter-sawn white oak from old wine barrels. In 1991, he dismantled the tanks at the Italian Swiss Colony Winery in Asti, California. Founded in 1883, Asti is a California Historical Landmark. Although considerable expertise and effort must go into the salvage process, McLeod points out that using this old wood has definite advantages:

Woodworkers know that the best quality wood comes from old-growth trees. Old-growth timber is harder, denser, and more stable than wood from young trees. It also tends to have fewer knots and structural defects. However, old-growth timber usually comes with the high price of destroying ancient forests.

Beer Barrels and Slalom Gates

If you happen to live closer to the right coast than the left, I have found a wonderful furniture maker named Doug Clarner in Vermont. Clarner’s style is rooted in the Shaker tradition, but also incorporates some Arts and Crafts and Japanese elements. Agreeing with what McLeod has to say about the benefits of old-growth wood, Clarner says:

…In addition to the benefits of added strength and durability, the coloring and rich texture of well-worn reclaimed wood can also be highly desirable. Aged wood has deep, beautiful colors and a rich patina that can not be imititated – these qualities can only be bestowed by time.

Sideboard from Salem Beam and Board

Sideboard from Salem Board and Beam

Clarner has reclaimed old-growth cypress and redwood from the vats of the defunct Rheingold Beer Factory in Brooklyn. He even has created a Rapid Gate Ski Chair made from recycled gates from slalom courses!

Upcycling Old Barns in
New England

Moving a bit down the map of the east coast, you will find another fine maker of reclaimed wood furniture, Ken Salem. Ken was a financial advisor in Boston for 15 years. He returned to his family business after his father fell ill, and subsequently decided to give up Wall Street to hand-craft beautiful furniture. His company is Salem Board and Beam.

Ken reclaims much of his wood from old barns, which were often made of American chestnut. He also salvages cherry, black American walnut and spalted maple trees that are slated for removal, giving storm-downed and damaged hardwoods new life. His style also grows out of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Shaker tradition.

Sickly Seattle Trees Find New Life

Urban Hardwoods: Seattle conference table

Urban Hardwoods conference table

The modernists among my readers may be interested in furniture made by Urban Hardwoods in Seattle “from trees that would have been discarded.”

According to Urban Hardwood’s website, each piece of furniture is made “from massive slabs of Pacific madrone, sycamore, walnut, elm, and other trees that spent their lifetimes in Seattle. Each piece unique, each with a story to tell.”

In 2008, Sustainable Industries Magazine named Urban Hardwoods to a list of the top ten companies providing green building products in honor of their work in transforming diseased trees into beautiful furniture. The company has showrooms in both Seattle and San Francisco.

The Beauty of Flaws

Andrea Joyau bench. Read more about this artist on the Inhabitat website by clicking the image above.

Andrea Joyau bench. Read more about this artist on Inhabitat by clicking the image above.

I’m indebted to the Inhabitat weblog for telling me about self-taught woodworker Andrea Joyau of Brooklyn, who doesn’t have a website. Joyau’s clean-lined style draws interest from the rustic nature of the reclaimed hardwood that he uses in making his furniture.

Like many of Urban Hardwood’s pieces, Joyau’s work consciously features knots and imperfections as focal points in many pieces. His shop is at 20 Van Dam Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; his phone number is (718) 963-2616.

Shop Scraps in Brooklyn and Thailand

Uhuru Designs of Brooklyn is being featured in the AD Home Design Show in New York City this week, as well as on the 3rings architectural products blog, where Jenny Rector has written a wonderful post about them.

Striper Line by Uhuru contemporary side tables and accent tables

Uhuru, founded in 2004 by Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath, practices upcycling by using materials that have been “reclaimed, recycled, repurposed, reused, or otherwise rejected from their original function.” Uhuru has collected scraps from local workshops – scraps that would usually destined for the dump – and turned them into remarkable tables. The Striper Table, shown here, is one example of this construction. Another lovely example, the Stoolen table (shown below beside the poem), is a massive round table that is flattened on top, but has a topography of uneven wood ends on the flipside.

Uhuru is also using heart pine that comes from buildings being torn down in New York City. Of their work, Hilgendorf and Horvath write, “We strongly agree with the Shaker assertion that ‘beauty rests on utility’. We strive to make furniture and products that are beautiful in their simplicity with an acute awareness of materials and craft… For us, sustainability is about choosing materials with the least amount of environmental impact, whether it is what they are made of, how they are produced, or where they come from, and using them in a way where little to no waste is created.”

Bookbench by Thai architect Inchatoo

I would like to close this post with a nod to Thai architect and product designer Singh Intrachooto. Using wood from reclaimed trees that have been uprooted to build roads or left over from his architectural projects, Intrachooto’s company, Osisu Design, has created collections called Lini, Lami and Tilee. I learned about Intrachooto’s work on the Treehugger website, where the writer wondered “how much glue was used to laminate all those off cuts together.”

Intrachooto emailed them and answered that question:

You are correct that the technique used to construct these furniture requires glue. We use a water-based glue which is nontoxic in its production and does not release VOC. The finishes we use are either Livos oil or teak oil, depending on the clients. We do not use lacquer or other toxic paints. We want to eliminate all the toxic substances not only for environmental reasons, but also for the longevity of our human resource. The builders who make this furniture are master builders, very skilled, highly patient and understanding of the environmental concerns; they are irreplaceable. They must be well taken care of. They have to be healthy if we are to survive; everything we use must not hurt them nor our customers. Else we all are going to loose the battle to save the environment.

Gee, I wish I had said that! It’s far more eloquent than the “save the trees and feed the artists” coda I was going to write. So I’ll close by saying “amen to that.”

Links for Reclaimed Wood Furniture

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Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website

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Ode to Things

(Excerpt, full poem here)
…Oh yes,
the planet
is sublime!
It’s full of pipes

weaving
hand-held
through tobacco smoke,

and keys

and salt shakers -
everything,
I mean,
that is made
by the hand of man,

every little thing…

Mankind has built
oh so many
perfect things!
Built them of wool
and of wood,

of glass and
of rope:
remarkable
tables,
ships, and stairways.

I love
all things,

not because they are
passionate
or sweet-smelling
but because,
I don’t know,

because
this ocean is yours,
and mine;
these buttons

and wheels

and little
forgotten
treasures,
fans upon

whose feathers
love has scattered
its blossoms
glasses, knives and
scissors
-
all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface…

-Pablo Neruda

 

Stoolen table from Uhuru designs

Stoolen table from Uhuru designs


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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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