Archive for the ‘Sustainable Design’ 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Because DB&B relies on scouts across the U.S. to find outdated barns and buildings slated for demolition, nearly all of the wood comes from domestic forests.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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Board by Design Furniture – Modern with a Grin

October 4, 2013
The following story originally appeared in the Sopris Sun, Carbondale, Colorado’s community newspaper.
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Windsorrondack rocker in double width

The playfully modern furnishings that Brad Reed Nelson crafts in his Carbondale, Colorado studio are sold nationwide, and it’s easy to see why. Despite the name of his company — Board by Design — he’s clearly not!

“The name has an obvious a double meaning,” Nelson chuckled. “I wanted it to be provocative and contrary. I have a snarky sense of humor.”

Nelson’s humor shows up in his product names, as well as his design. For example, Board By Design (BBD) sells a “Very Holy” lamp; it’s a column of Plexiglas pierced all over in a polka dot pattern.

Elefunction organizer

Elefunction organizer – a heavy duty magnet is holding the keys. The elephant never forgets them.

BBD’s “Elefunction” organizers are rectangular wooden plaques that spout long trunks. A bungee cord crosses the body of the wall-mounted block, functioning to hang wallets and sunglasses. Four “herculean earth magnets” are embedded behind the trunk so that keys will stick to it. You won’t be searching for your keys, Nelson quips, because the Elephant never forgets!

Nelson does use boards in Board by Design furniture. “I love wood for its beauty,” he commented. “It creates a sense of warmth, and you can decide just what parts of the wood you want to use.”

The furniture designer in his shop. (Dig those shoelaces!)

Furniture designer Brad Reed Nelson in his shop. (Dig those shoelaces!)

Nelson uses only environmentally sustainable lumber. His Red House table, a hefty rectangle of Douglas fir cradled in a red steel frame, was crafted from a discarded beam found at a Snowmass construction site. Some of BBD’s organizers are fashioned from beetle-kill pine.

The lines of Nelson’s chairs echo the grace of mid-century modern style, but their wood slats are accented with a playful fillip of color that comes from steel framing. “I love steel for its directness,” said Nelson. “Steel can be very thin and strong. If you want something light, steel works better. And we love color! Color adds fun and humor.”

Nelson’s Windsorrondack line of swings and rockers — handsome, classic chairs that sell for $4200 in the single-seat version — can be crafted from mahogany, ash or North Carolina walnut, and their steel frames are offered in shades of poppy red, Caribbean blue, Bermuda blue or Fruita green.

KrisKrosNelson, who earned a master’s degree in sculpture from Arizona State University, first came to the Roaring Fork Valley to study at Anderson Ranch, eventually becoming its interim director.  He founded Board by Design in 2001, running the firm from the Aspen Business Center for seven years.

But Brad and his wife wanted to live in Carbondale – enough so that they turned down a two-bedroom affordable housing unit in Aspen, Colorado’s Burlingame development after winning it. Nelson and his wife, a jewelry designer, now lives here with their seven-year-old daughter. Brad opened his Carbondale studio in 2007.

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Very Holy lamp.

All of BBD’s furniture is made in that studio. Nelson, who says that he would “like to be the inventor and have it made by someone else,” often partners with other Carbondale artisans for manufacturing. Local furniture maker David Rasmussen, for example, assembles BBD’s organizers.

Currently, Nelson is creating benches for Fold, a new Carbondale restaurant located just few doors down from BBD’s studio on Dolores Way. BBD furniture is also sold through the Harvey Meadows gallery in Aspen.

But more BBD products are exported beyond the Roaring Fork Valley than are sold here. Last summer, BBD shipped 41 tables to Shaw Media in Toronto. BBD sells accessories nationwide via the Etsy online website, and BBD furniture is offered by William Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Urban Outfitter and Y Living stores, among others.

execuglideNelson markets his work at two national furniture fairs, and although he calls himself “an analog boy in a digital world,” the Internet is contributing to Board By Design’s fame. Recently the Design Sponge blog wrote about BBD, and the international Apartment Therapy website named BBD’s hanging Bike All rack one of its favorites.

“I try to make beautiful, functional objects that solve problems and are not being shipped from everywhere,” commented Nelson. “I want to make things that will always be cherished. With good materials. And made in America.”

Made right here in Carbondale, in fact.

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Barns to Bauhaus: Aspen’s Significance in Architecture

April 29, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But bit of background is in order first.

A Climate for Change

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

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

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

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

Back to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspen Influences: Buckminster, Barns and Bauhaus

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

Given Institute. Photo: City of Aspen files.

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

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

Victor Lundy modern house. Photo by VRBO rentals.

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

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

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

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

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

Nicolette’s Picks for Significant Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Own Love Affair with Aspen and her Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Resource Links

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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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Roundabout: All About Round Tile Options

June 10, 2010

“Round, round, round,
I get around…”

I wish!

Given the economy these days, my summer travels have been taking me more to design blogs than to exotic locales. But design blogs are wonderful places too; you’ll find many of my favorite design destinations in the blogroll at right. Coincidentally, several of those blogs have recently caught my attention with posts on unusual round tiles.

Pennies on the floor in the Standard Hotel. Design by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams.

Yesterday, I stumbled across this striking image on the Dornob blog. It’s a hotel entry where the floor has been paved with old copper pennies! An interestingly literal take on the idea of “penny-round tile.”

I’m not sure this application is entirely legal. Then again, I doubt that Uncle Sam would bother to go after these designers when he ignores all the tourists who are engraving little images of the Bay Bridge onto pennies with currency-crushing devices here in San Francisco every day.  In any case, I’m sure that the cost-per-square foot for this hotel flooring was pretty easy to calculate.

I would love to try this with mixed coins. It would be a great accent for someone who did a lot of foreign travel. (Sigh. I recall a time when I came back from Europe at least once a year, my pockets loaded with centimes, pence, and lira – dozens of interesting coins too small to merit putting back through the currency exchange process. They would have made a very interesting floor.)

This tile is from the 4mm Stainless Steel Collection. Photo courtesy of Remodelista.

Penny Round Makes a Comeback

Penny round tile is a classic, and one that’s appearing in some modern new guises, in part thanks to some new materials, including ceramic, glass, stone, cork and metals.

Metals other than copper can add panache to round tile, as the version at right attests. These penny round tiles are created by wrapping a thin stainless steel around porcelain and then mounting it on a mesh backing that is forgiving of imperfect surfaces and makes for easy installation.

Iceberg glass mosaic tiles from Evit, an Italian furniture company.

For its sheer beauty, my favorite round tile is a glass tile mosaic from Evit. This is high-end stuff and it comes with a high-end price tag. Because Evit is located in Italy (ah, to be in Tuscany this summer, or anytime, for that matter) their tile has to be shipped across the Big Pond. That means that it comes with a carbon footprint and it requires lead time to get here.

But, che bella! The mixed sizes of the round tile glass tile give this  mosaic a fanciful bubble-like quality. The subtle blue-green hues handsomely accent the cool steel shades of the modern faucet in Evit’s bathroom design.

Round Tile from Recycled Materials

A wall at an Australian winery "tiled" with bottles filled with water. In 2007, the winery received a grant from that state’s Sustainable Energy Development Office to study how the thermal properties of the wall help control temperatures in the winery. Photo by Treehugger.

For creativity (sans currency) my prize in the round tile category would have to go to an organic winery in Western Australia that built a wall from more than 13,500 wine re-purposed glass wine bottles filled with water. The winery’s owner, Peter Little, a fomer architecture lecturer at Curtin University and long-time passive solar design advocate, noted that, “Water… can store more energy, heat, or cool than any material we know.” The winery received a government grant that has been used for a thermal imaging program that studies how the wall helps to control indoor temperatures.

Another interesting use of materials coming round to a second life is the recycling of wine corks into floor tiles. Although the corks can’t be used in wine bottles a second time, there’s no reason not to use them in flooring, and that’s just what Jelinek Cork does. The penny round cork tiles even come in a mixture of colors. Jelinek cuts the corks into discs about 1/4″ and glues them onto a special paper that is then afixed to a subfloor and grouted like tile. To seal it, the floor is covered with urethane.

Floor made from recycled wine corks by Jelinek Cork. Photo courtesy of Inhabitat.

More Round Tile Options

Emperador Dark Penny Round Mosaic; Mission Stone & Tile

Red Bubbles from the Tile Store Online.

Bubbles glass mosaic title from Italian firm Evit; available in 12 colors.

3/4" glazed porcelain Penny Tile from Subway Ceramics

Unglazed porcelain penny tile in sage from PennyTile.com

Glazed ceramic penny tile in pink from PennyTile.com

River rock tile - it's everywhere!

These choices barely begin to scratch the surface of the options I found when I made the rounds on the net, searching for interesting round tile.

Mission Tile offers a penny round mosaic tile called Emperador Dark Penny Round that is made of tumbled stone. The naturally mottled color of the slate gives this tile a handsome texture that would provide a handsome surface for bathroom floors or shower walls.

The Tile Store online offers a glass bubble tile, somewhat like the Evit tile featured above and at right. The Tile Store’s version comes not only in the red version shown, but also shades of green, blue and smoky grays. (Be careful about installing glass tile on floors; it’s easy to crack, and it’s also slippery. It’s much safer to save it for walls and back splashes.)

PennyTile.com offers both glossy glazed porcelain penny tiles in six colors, and matte porcelain penny tile in five more. (Porcelain is extremely hard and one of the most durable flooring materials you can install.) PennyTile also offers classic black and white versions.

Finally, this web walk-about would not be complete without mentioning the popularity of naturally rounded river stones and pebbles, which are now used as both flooring and back splashes. Because the manufacturers split them in half and adhere them to a backing, they can be installed and grouted with a reasonable minimum of fuss.

I’m seeing river rock everywhere. It’s being used for shower walls, bathroom floors, kitchen backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds. While I love the look, I would never recommend installing such an uneven surface as a kitchen backsplash (a cleaning nightmare) or as a shower floor (many tender-footed types would be unable to shower without wearing rubber thongs).  It would be great on a porch, on a fireplace, or on a bathroom wall that isn’t in the shower. It seems to be widely available, even at Home Depot, and comes in a rainbow of natural stone colors.

A Round Robin on
Blogs Featuring Round Tile

Resource Links:
Where to Find It

Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle

Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle

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A Recycled Blog on Recycling the Whole House

April 27, 2010
This post contains 100% recycled content! It was originally was published on Paul Anater’s fine blog, Kitchen and Residential Design, where it premiered as a guest post.
David Gottfried’s LEED Gold certified home in Oakland. Photo courtesy of David Gottfried.

If old timber could talk, the stairs on David Gottfried’s Oakland, California home (at right) would have some wild tales to tell. The bullet holes testify to something that happened in an earlier life. The wood was once part of a century-old highway bridge, before it became part of Gottfried’s LEED certified home.

Gottfried happens to be the founder of the US Green Building Council, and his use of recycled materials is part of a trend. It’s a small trend – currently, less than 1 percent of discarded building materials get reused – but the trend is growing.

New Digs from Old

The LEED rating system encourages builders to re-purpose materials, awarding points when wood, brick or other materials from an earlier structure are reused. The results can make for a good story as well as for a sustainable practice. Recently, Paul Pedini, a civil engineer who worked for 11 years on Boston’s Big Dig, built a house from the site’s leftovers.

836 Market Street, renovated by the Challenge Program in Wilmington, Delaware.
Photo courtesy of the Challenge Program.

Pedini’s comment about this puts the practice of dumping building materials – refuse that takes up nearly 1/3 of the space in many urban dump sites – into sharp focus. “These materials are as good as you can get,” he said. “We were being paid money to junk this stuff. There’s something inherently illogical about it.”

In a few places, there’s also something illegal about it. Here and there, cities have begun writing ordinances to encourage the recycling of not just the odd item or too, but large amounts of building material. For example, Orange County, North Carolina has drafted an ordinance that requires builders to separate wood, metal and drywall discards at construction sites.

Alameda County, California’s Measure D, passed in 1990, called for a whopping 75% reduction of dump-bound refuse over a 20-year period. That 2010 deadline has arrived, and Alameda County has gotten close to meeting its goal, in large part because of the county’s emphasis on recycling and re-purposing building materials.

A Rose by Any Other Name

As I have worked to launch my home remodeling design business over the past couple years, money has been tight. That hasn’t kept me from my favorite hobby: gardening. The beds in the garden are bordered by discarded brick and the “urbanite” that borders the sedum shown in the top photo.

I’m fascinated by home demolition sites. I find myself peering through the fence at the rubble behind them, wondering what useful treasures are hiding there. Many of the treasures I find wind up in my garden; short of money for the last couple years, I have created quite a paradise from seeds, cuttings and cast-off chunks of concrete that are dignified with the name “urbanite.”

I’m not alone in finding gold amid the dross. Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and historical preservationists both share my interest in gleaning gems from old buildings. Kitchen designer and master blogger Paul Anater, who kindly invited me to write a guest post for his blog., Kitchen and Residential Design, tells me that he sends materials salvaged from his remodeling jobs to a ReStore, the materials storehouse run by and for Habitat for Humanity. (This post originally appeared on Paul’s blog and is reprised here. If you haven’t read Paul’s blog, I heartily encourage you to check it out.)

Art from Found Materials

In addition, a growing number of designers share a fascination in designs that find new uses for found objects. I’m amazed that a couple thousand ordinary paper clips can be woven into the silvery and sinuous chandelier shown below.

Paperclip chandelier. Photo: Posh Posh.

I have written several times about furniture makers who make a point of using reclaimed wood, either salvaged from old buildings, wine barrels, or from wind-toppled trees. Master furniture maker and blogger Mitch Roberson and furniture maker Michael Yonke, creator of the gorgeous Diversion Coffee table below, are among my favorites.

It was from talking with furniture makers that I learned that reclaimed wood is often much better quality than newly harvested timber. The reason is that old buildings were built from first-growth wood, which is stronger, denser and taller than the second- and third-growth forests now being cut. This is why the length and mass of beams in old buildings is so impressive – they simply don’t grow ‘em like that anymore.

Indeed, the definitive Waste to Wealth website notes that, “The value of recovered wood is rising, because many species of wood are no longer available from forests. Furthermore, older wood typically is stronger and of higher quality than new growth wood, and it has already shrunk to its permanent size. Another key factor is landfill tipping fees, which are $65/ton in Connecticut.”

Back from the Brink of the Grave

Diversion coffee table by Michael Yonke. Color results from the natural aging wood patina from two year open air treatment. Materials: Reclaimed and re-purposed tropical forest true mahogany.

It’s expensive and wasteful to bury building materials in what designer William McDonough has called “product graves” – i.e., dump sites. And it’s not just what gets carted away after the wrecking ball hits an old building that gets trashed. Dumps also runneth over with left-overs from new buildings. A new 2,000-square-foot house typically contributes nearly 8.5 tons of materials to the dump!

But spurred both by changing economics, legislation, and a desire to do the right thing, a number of firms across the US now specialize not just in reclaiming and reusing parts of the house, but in deconstructing and recycling the whole darn house! The field, called “deconstruction,” is related to but different from demolition, the traditional swing-the-wrecking-ball method of taking down buildings.

Of course, people have been selectively harvesting items from old buildings for centuries – there are many buildings in Northern England that were constructed of stones taken from Hadrian’s wall. And there has long been a market for salvaged items from Victorian houses, despite the fact that it’s a lot harder to pull nails out than it is to blow them in with a nail gun.

But both the reasons for and ways of recycling building materials are growing, led by firms such as those mentioned below.

Three Cheers for the Good Guys & Gals

The Reuse People, a mostly-West Coast nonprofit that began in San Diego in 1993, have worked hard to standardize efficient building deconstruction practices. They have taken down hundreds of buildings in the San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Boulder areas, and have done much to educate the building trade. They write an informative newsletter called the Velvet Crowbar and and have even written a detailed training manual on deconstruction. Their website includes an annotated listing of 100 related local businesses and resources for deconstruction minded consumers in the San Francisco-Oakland region.

Habitat for Humanity Restore volunteers Vince Perkins and Bill Bumby (wearing red hat) remove salvaged doors from the Rennebohm building at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Photo by Jeff Miller

Reconnx, Inc., a deconstruction firm that is located in Boulder, Colorado, has the distinction of creating the Nail Kicker de-nailing gun. The company was started in 1996, by Jon Giltner, a registered structural engineer, who like Paul Pedini, was frustrated by seeing useable 2″ x 12’s” and other construction materials being dumped in a landfill. His career in reuse began. He first focused on developing finger jointing, and adapted table saws and multi-phased drills for deconstruction. Reconnx is now the premier equipment supplier for the deconstruction industry.

Another laudable organization involved in deconstruction is the Challenge Program, a non-profit youth training program in Wilmington, Delaware. Through the program 18 to 21-year-olds are given 6 months of intensive construction training that includes 700 hours of site-based construction training, deconstruction of buildings and on-site classes. As the biographies of the participants make clear, trainees come to the program without high school diplomas, but in many cases with prison records. Through the program, they gain both their GEDs and job skills. So it’s not only building materials that are being “upcycled” – it’s also human lives.

Resource Links

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Counterculture Chic for your Kitchen

January 15, 2010

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

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

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

Old Fashioned Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recycled Glass

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

Malachite countertop from Bioglass; 100% recycled and recyclable.

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

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

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

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

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

Terazzo, Concrete, and Engineered Stone

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

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

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

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

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

Inlaid concrete counter top

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

Ceramic and Porcelain

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

Counter top made from Fireclay's Debris tile

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

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

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

Bamboo Counter Tops

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

Counter top of bamboo butcher block

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

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

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

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

Sustainable Wood

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

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

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

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

Compressed Paper Counter Tops

Paperstone counter top

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

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

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

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

Samples of Alkemi's steel counter top

Recycled Metal Counter Tops

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

Eleek aluminum counter and sink

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

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

Counter Culture Chick
for Your Kitchen?

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

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

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

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

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More from Nicolette

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

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

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

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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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Spinning Straw into Gold: Straw Bale Houses

October 9, 2009

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

An off-the-grid straw bale house

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

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

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1929

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1914

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

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

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

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

Green Benefits of Straw Bale Buildings

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

BainbridgeGrassGrowing

Author, educator, and straw bale builder David Bainbridge

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

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

Energy Savings:
How to Spin Straw into Gold

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

San Luis Obispo synagog

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

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

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

Straw bale house in Maine

Straw bale house in Maine

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

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

“I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff”

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

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

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

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

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

Resource Links

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A Light at the End of the Tunnel – Daylighting!

July 18, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

View of artemisia bush from inside the daylight model

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

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

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

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

Modeling the Room

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

ArtemisiaOutS

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

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

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

Why Daylighting is a Bright Idea

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

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

A beautifully daylight room

A beautifully daylit room

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

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

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

Green is for Greenbacks

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

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

Health Benefits of Natural Light

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Back in My Office

A southwest view from the daylighting model.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resource Links

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

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Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow

June 12, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

My Personal Energy Challenge

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

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

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

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

A Drafty House with a Vintage Heating “System”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World’s Energy Hogs

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

Top Ten Nations:
Population v. Fuel Consumption

World rank & percentage of total

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing the windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing the Drafty Doors

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

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

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

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

Plumbing Penetrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing the Heat

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

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

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

Low-Power Convection Heater

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resource Links

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The Cult of the Snuggie!

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

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

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Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

June 6, 2009
Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

If the word “linoleum” conjures up stodgy images of granny’s old gray kitchen, think again! Linoleum has been rediscovered as an earth-friendly flooring that comes in a pleasing range of colors and also can be used to create custom patterns that match the colors of your room. With linoleum what’s old – nearly 150 years old – has become new again as we have become more conscious about the impact our interior choices have on our finite resources and our health.

This post, another in my occasional series on flooring, shows some of the beautiful things you can do with linoleum. I will also review lino’s history and the environmental advantages of this venerable, yet vibrant floor covering.

Today’s linoleum comes in both rolls and easy-to-install click-together tiles. As you will see below, there are also borders that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. Want a floor to set off a collection of African masks? No problem! You can choose an ochre red body mottled with earth tones, and set it off with a primitive patterned border like the one in the Farbo Marmoleum floor shown in the photo at left.

If you want the logo of your business styled into the floor of your home office, you can do that too. Linoleum can be custom-cut with water jets and inlaid to achieve curvilinear patterns like those shown in the Armstrong Marmorette floor below. Then again, maybe you just want a kitchen floor that’s easy to clean, comfortable under foot, and coordinates with that glass tile you got enthused about after reading last week’s blog. Because linoleum can be purchased in sheets, you can avoid the clean-up problems that come with maintaining tile and grout.

The design and color choices for linoleum are vast. The two manufacturers with the widest selection are Forbo, a Scandinavian company, and Armstrong. Forbo offers a palette of more than 100 colors and an impressive selection of 18 patterned borders and corners, which are shown below. Armstrong offers multiple lines of linoleum: Marmorette, a collection of 67 marbled surfaces; Colorette, a collection of 20 lively solid colors; Granette, 18 colors that have a granite-like coloration; Linorette, 18 deeply mottled patterns; and Uni Walton, a commercial collection of 9 strong, modern solid colors.

While linoleum costs more initially than its usual rival, vinyl flooring, it’s far more durable and cost-effective in the long run. A good quality vinyl floor will last around 15 years, but a linoleum floor can easily last 40 years! Plus, linoleum delivers health and environmental advantages that vinyl flooring can’t touch. More about those later. First, I will briefly look at the origins and history of linoleum – an interior material that was invented as the result of a fortunate industrial accident.

History of Linoleum

Marmoleum borders

Marmoleum borders

Linoleum was invented in 1860 when an Englishman named Frederick Walton failed to seal the linseed oil he was using to thin his paint. Walter was a manufacturer of a rubber flooring called Kamptulicon – a covering that was a cheaper alternative to the wood, tile, and stone floors of the time. Walton was interested in finding something cheaper and more attractive than Kamptulicon. When his linseed oil was exposed to the air overnight, a skin developed on top of it, and he wondered if that film might be useful as a flooring material. He began tinkering.

Walton invented a new floor covering and named it “linoleum” by combining to two Latin words: “linum” which means linseed and “oleum” which means oil. He received patents in 1890 and 1894 for it. Walton’s “floor cloths” were made from oxidized linseed oil, pine resin, and granulated cork on a hessian (hemp) backing. In 1868, Walton established a factory in Staines, England and was soon exporting to Europe and the US. By 1877, Kirkcaldy, Scotland was the linoleum capital of the world, with six manufacturers in that one town.

The first US company opened on Staten Island in 1877. In 1887, Scotsman Sir Michael Nairn founded another company that in time became Congoleum.

The popularity of linoleum floors continued to grow for decades. It was widely used in homes, and also in schools and hospitals. The lino floors installed in the thousands of schools built for the post-World-War-II Baby Boom crowd definitely stood up to traffic. Having visited many aging primary schools, I can testify that many of them still remain serviceable.

By the 1960’s, vinyl flooring became widely available, and linoleum faded from vogue. Armstrong, which had produced enough linoleum to pave a six-foot path to the moon and circle it four times, stopped manufacturing linoleum for a period of 25 years.

Some US companies even allowed their patents to lapse, an oversight that they came to regret decades later when ecological concerns prompted renewed interest in linoleum not only for flooring, but also for wainscoting, counters, and tabletops.

Linoleum Versus Vinyl

Linoleum and vinyl floors share some common characteristics and are considered as alternatives in similar installations. Along with cork, vinyl and linoleum are classed as “resilient floors.” This means that they are somewhat springy, will absorb impact and can “bounce back” to their original shape. (Within limits, however. High heels are the enemy of all floors, and because of the extreme pressure they exert in a small area, they can permanently dent any flooring material other than ceramic tile or stone.)

While these two types of flooring look and feel similar, I think that in terms of environmental impact and personal health, there’s not much of a contest between them. Both are available in a wide range of colors and patterns, and both are produced in sheet and tile forms. Both are good choices for people with dust allergies because smooth flooring, in contrast to carpeting, does not provide a good habitat for dust mites. But each has advantages and drawbacks. Here’s a summary of the pros and cons for linoleum and vinyl:

  • Linoleum is the green choice. Its ingredients make it recyclable and biodegradable.
  • Linoleum is far more durable. A linoleum floor will last two to three times as long as a vinyl floor. The pattern on a vinyl floor is printed on the surface and then covered with a clear “wear” layer. But both the outer wear and the pattern layers are relatively thin and can wear through, showing obvious abrasion in high-traffic areas. By contrast, the color in linoleum flooring goes all the way through. This means that the pattern on a linoleum floor cannot wear away.
  • Linoleum initially costs more, but is cheaper over the long run. Linoleum flooring squares run $6-$8 each while sheet vinyl runs $1-$5 per square foot and sheet-style linoleum costs about the same as high-end vinyl sheet flooring. Installation for linoleum may also be a bit higher. But when you’re figuring the lifetime cost of your flooring, double the price of that vinyl floor, because you’re going to have buy and install two of them during the lifetime of the linoleum floor.
  • There’s a lot of waste with vinyl flooring, and that runs up the cost. To get a seamless installation, you must often buy far more than you need. This is because the width of the sheet often will cause seams to fall in the wrong places.

    3407-donkey-island

    Forbo Marmoleum: pattern “Donkey Island”

  • With linoleum squares, you can avoid waste by just buying what you need. The most popular size of linoleum tiles are 12″ squares, packaged 9 to a box. You can buy boxes of several colors and mix them to coordinate with your color scheme.
  • Vinyl is easier to install. Because it’s synthetic, vinyl is less vulnerable to moisture and water damage than linoleum – even though it too will curl and warp at the edges if they are not well sealed. You have probably seen this in old kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Vinyl is also somewhat more resilient in the face of sloppy maintenance. Linoleum should be cleaned using little water, whereas the face of vinyl sheet is impervious. (The seams, however, can leak.)
  • Some linoleum floors should be waxed; others don’t need it. Armstrong’s Marmorette, for example, is finished with NaturCote, a high-performance coating that protects against dirt, scratches, and scuffs, and provides resistance to chemicals and discoloration. With this choice, the need for polishing and buffing is virtually eliminated.
  • Linoleum is a healthier alternative, both in terms of indoor air quality and germs. While linoleum does emit linseed oil fumes for a brief period – a week to a month – while it’s new, and while some people dislike that smell, it is harmless. Lino does not emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and vinyl does. VOCs are real culprits in indoor air pollution. In addition, linseed oil has natural anti-bacterial properties.
  • Your installation method can add to indoor air pollution. Sheet flooring is glued down, and the glue usually contains VOCs unless you make sure to buy an adhesive that is free of them. A good alternative to a glued floor is Forbo’s snap-together Marmoleum Click tiles; they can be installed as a “floating floor” that doesn’t require any glue.

What’s in Today’s Linoleum?

Since Frederick Walton’s time, the recipe for making linoleum has improved, but the ingredients haven’t changed much.

Armstrong Marmorette with Naturecoat

Armstrong Marmorette with NaturCote

Contemporary linoleum contains cork powder for bounce and resilience, resins (which come from pine sap), wood flour, and limestone dust for hardness. Various pigments – which may or may not qualify as being green, depending on the manufacturer – are added to create pattern and color.

The basic ingredient is still linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant, 80 percent of which comes from Canada, the world’s leading flax grower. To create flooring, linseed oil is oxidized. Other ingredients are then added, making a thick paste called linoleum cement. This is heated until it becomes spongy. Then it’s ground up, mixed with wood flour and other ingredients, applied to a foundation and rolled smooth. It is seasoned in drying rooms, then cured and hardened under ultraviolet light.

After you get it and expose it to light, linoleum will “amber”, subtly changing its color and yellowing slightly. This is most noticeable with white, off-white and light-colored floors. You can preview the effect of ambering, and see how your floor will look permanently, by placing a sample of the flooring in a window in the sun for an hour or so before installation.

Here, as always, are some links that will help you learn more about linoleum and see what’s available.

Links for Linoleum

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school28A couple years ago, I took a trip down memory lane and visited Montview Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. This was the school I attended during the Eisenhower years – which seemed to last forever! Although Montview has been extensively remodeled, some of the original linoleum floors are still in place and still serviceable.

I remember the floor pattern well because I spent the better part of the third grade on crutches due to a ski injury. During the four months I waited for my broken leg to heal, I had to pay particular attention to where I placed my crutches, avoiding slippery puddles from melding snow. I can close my eyes and visualize many of the floor surfaces to this day!

Those floors didn’t look a bit like the fun and fanciful Forbo Marmoleum flooring shown here, but I bet the kids who play on this floor will remember it – and it may still be there when they come back to visit with their grandchildren in tow.

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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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