Posts Tagged ‘healthy homes’


Making a Splash: You Can’t Afford Cheap Faucets

March 11, 2010

Asian-accented bathroom from the gallery at (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

When I attended the real estate open house for the flat where I now live, the master bath elicited gasps of appreciation from would-be buyers. The fittings looked strikingly high-end. The wide white sink contrasted handsomely with the modern, expresso-colored vanity and the rubbed bronze fittings. It was almost as pretty as the Kohler-designed bathroom at the right.


As I contemplated the wear patterns on that same rubbed bronze faucet this morning – the faucet shown right below – I realized that it offered both an object lesson and a subject for a blog post about why you can’t afford to buy cheap faucets and plumbing fixtures.

Don’t Mention the Holes in the Ceiling

Three years after buying my house, my bathroom still looks pretty good – if you don’t look too close. (You can see a photo of it at the very bottom of this post.)

Here's my tap: See how the bronze has worn off of the handle?

The (replacement) light in my office. The leak was caused by cheap plumbing fixtures upstairs. The circles show where I lanced the ceiling to let the water out.

The drain looks even worse; the silver chrome underneath the brown finish is showing through. This fitting started to lose its bronzing a week after I moved in!

And you probably wouldn’t even notice the little holes punched around the ceiling medallion in the office if I didn’t mention them.

But if you really looked closely at my bathroom, at my friend Alexei’s bathroom (one floor up), and at the holes in my office ceiling, you would see an illustrated object lesson about cheap, designer-knock-off faucets. One of those cheap knock-offs failed in Alexei’s bathroom, flooding it, dripping down into my ceiling, and creating a swelling water blister that threatened to burst if not quickly lanced.

The cheapest single-hole faucets I can find on the internet now are about $89, and I imagine that’s what Darla (or her contractor) paid for the faucets in my house. But if you add price to that the cost of replacing the tap in a couple years with another one of similar quality, the price becomes $178, plus a plumbers fee, plus fixing and painting the ceiling, it’s going to total more than $500, bringing the cost right in line with buying a decent quality tap in the first place!

By the way, I have never bought cheap faucets willingly.  I have encountered them in the process of buying and renovating whole houses, which come as a package deal.  (Hence,  I often tell prospective clients that one of the best reasons for hiring me to plan and design a remodeling project is that I have “an advanced degree from the school of hard knocks.”  I not only know what to do, I also know what not to do. Like buying that darn tap.)

Darla’s Water Torture

At left is a current photo of the matching drain for my tap. The trim ring was originally manufactured in that popular “rubbed bronze” finish. But as you can see, it’s becoming mostly “rubbed-off bronze” — or perhaps I should call it “ripped off bronze.”

In hindsight, however, this pinto/piebald paint job is one of the least annoying plumbing problems that Darla, the previous owner of my house, bequeathed to its new owners when she “flipped” the property.

Cool Water Bath by Kohler. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Detail of Kohler sink from image above. It has the same wide, gracious curves as my sink, but it has been modeled with a side area that gives you a safe place to put your contacts.

Here's a Delta 551-RB Dryden Single Handle Centerset in rubbed bronze that's similar to the style that was chosen for my bathroom. You can get it from on the internet for around $200. (Photo courtesy of Delta.)

More serious were the leaking pipes under the kitchen sink. The plumbing there had only been “staged” – which meant that the pipes were just pushed together without actually being firmly attached.

More seriously annoying was the sump pump that failed and flooded the basement with a pool of poo.

Most serious of all was that drip-drip-drip that I heard on the evening of July 4th of 2007 – a sound that was caused by a tendril of water staking down the chandelier in the office, and then pattering softly onto the hardwood floor.

Don’t Try This at Home

Picture this. I am balancing atop a rickety wooden ladder with a cellphone in one hand and a shish-kebab skewer in the other. I’m using the skewer to lance holes in the ceiling around the chandelier, allowing the water behind it to escape so that the weight of it doesn’t destroy the ceiling.

I’m standing well above the spot that says “don’t stand above this line, you could lose your balance and fall.” But I’m only 5’1″ tall, and I have to stretch up quite a bit to get the skewer close to the ceiling. I’m trying to breathe deeply and remain calm because the ladder is shaky, and now that it’s after dark, booms from the fireworks at Chrissy Field are rattling the windows.

I’m trying not to get rattled, even though my plight seems desperate. The water appears to be coming from Alexei’s upstairs unit, and I’m the only one of the four owners of this building who’s home. My husband is in the hospital having spinal surgery, and Blake and Alexei, having just closed escrow, haven’t moved in yet.

But I can’t leave my post until I relieve the pressure on the ceiling! I know that ceilings do collapse; I have seen it happen elsewhere, when a roof leaked in another building that I remodeled a decade earlier. So my cellphone is a lifeline.

Or is it? It suddenly occurs to me that the growing waterfall might interact badly with the electricity in my cellphone…oh yeah, and that chandelier is attached to live electric wires too!

You Can’t Get a Plumber on the 4th of July!

The author. Nicolette is not afraid of heights or of climbing on ladders.

Alexei has been frantically phoning plumbers – but they are all out watching the fireworks, of course! No matter what you’re prepared to pay, you can’t get a plumber on the night of the 4th of July.

To make a long story short, we coped. After I repeatedly lanced the boil, I went upstairs and discovered that a lake had formed and overflowed in Alexei’s bathtub. It had overflowed onto the floor and through my ceiling. Water was spurting copiously from tap in her shower, and even with help from Alexei’s friend Robin, there was no shutting it off.

We staved off disaster by shutting off the water to the entire building and draining the lines that led to our two flats. Alexei kindly brought me half a dozen juice jars refilled with water to see me through the night.

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish

This story illustrates why you simply can’t afford to buy cheap faucets. Altogether, cheap plumbing jobs in our two bathrooms have resulted not only in having to repair Alexei’s shower and replace the shower head, but also in having to tear open and repair the marble tile on her bathroom wall, since it turned out that the main leak occurred behind the wall.

The Forté Tall, single-control lavatory faucet from Kohler would be my pick to replace the piebald. It lists for around $370 - less than the old one plus the price of an equally cheap replacement. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Add to that the repair and repainting of my ceiling. Plus the staged kitchen sink. Plus the sump pump. Plus the two clogs from my badly maintained bathtub drains…

Oh, yeah. And then there’s the ugly piebald tap that I can’t afford to replace right now…

You get the picture. My English friends had saying that sums it up nicely: “Penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The only good thing in all of this was that we did save some money. Our realtor, the late Kari Varland, bought us a one-year home repair insurance policy as a house-warming gift, and that did pay for most of the plumbing problems.

Choosing Bathroom Fixtures

When you choose a bathroom faucet, you should not only think about the finishes, you should also think about what’s inside. There are pros and cons to every choice, of course.

Pros and Cons of Finishes

With regard to finishes, you should consider both the design of your bathroom and your lifestyle. A person who likes a weathered look may not mind the fact that even good-quality rubbed bronze finishes are meant to patina so that they are not even. (But the silver underneath should never show through as it does on my drain.)

Student photo of Nicolette at School of Hard Knocks. This contractor quit the business in the middle of the job - without telling his clients! - and joined the Fire Department. We got the remodel finished and still own the house.

A brass finish may scratch, tarnish or corrode. On the other hand, chrome shows water spots. Enamel-coated finishes can chip and fade. Gold, stainless steel and nickel are durable, but are more expensive.

I would avoid PVC fixtures on grounds of both durability and environmental concerns. The initials stand for Polyvinyl Chloride, a kind of plastic, that is made from petroleum compounds.

Quality on the Inside

For quality inside, look for solid brass construction. It will give you durability and reliability. For safety’s sake, I would also recommend a tap that includes a high-temperature limit stop that will control how hot the water comes out to eliminate scalding.

Taps come with different kinds of valves inside. Compression valves contain washers that can wear out over time, and when they do, the tap will drip. While that’s annoying and wastes water, the washers are cheap and easy to replace.

A ball valve uses a slotted metal ball to control water flow, but they can’t be used in the kind of faucets that have separate taps for hot and cold water. A cartridge valve, on the other hand, is a durable choice that can be used by either a single- or double-handled tap, and it too is easy to repair.

The best solution is a ceramic valve. It’s the most expensive choice, but it needs no maintenance. Ceramic disc valves are extremely durable and can exceed industry longevity standards twice over. They can be used with both single- and double-handled faucets and will come with extended warranties.

Resource Links

Here's the sink and vanity that elicited admiring glances at the realtor's open house. It still looks good from a distance in low light.



Making Floors Concretely Beautiful

February 16, 2010
By Marcy Tate, Guest Blogger

Guest Blogger Marcy Tate

Most people associate concrete flooring with commercial flooring, imagining the gray floors in warehouses or the super-shiny floors in department stores. However, this association is quickly changing as concrete flooring is becoming an accessible, affordable and beautiful residential flooring option.

The benefits of residential interior concrete floors are vast. From endless design options to durability and low maintenance, concrete flooring is the rising star of residential flooring.

This striking inlaid look comes from a stained concrete floor. Photo credit:

Two myths associated with concrete floors are that they are louder or more echoey than other hard floors and that they are slippery. They are no louder than other hard floor surfaces and area rugs can be used to offset any noise. Concrete installers add a non-slip additive to the finishing of residential floors.

The Benefits

Concrete flooring is a smart and sustainable interior flooring option that offers many benefits:

  • Durability – Concrete floors can last a lifetime if maintained properly. There are no tears, staining, flood damage or signs of wear associated with concrete flooring.
  • Low Maintenance – Depending on the amount of traffic, concrete floors need to be resealed about every two years. This inexpensive process will help ensure a long life for your floors. Cleaning is easy; simply sweep and wash with vinegar or a gentle floor cleaner.
  • Economical – Concrete flooring allows you to save by eliminating the need to purchase an additional floor covering. When you choose concrete flooring the floor slab is the floor covering.
  • Improves Indoor Air Quality – Unlike carpeting, concrete floors do not harbor dust mites. For allergy sufferers, concrete floors can be a blessing.
  • Eco-Friendly – Less energy is used in production of concrete than any other flooring type. No trees need to be cut down and concrete is recyclable. Choosing concrete floors helps minimize waste. Other flooring types create lots of waste, such as the waste from carpet padding and carpet scraps. Concrete floors do not contain harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) as many synthetic carpets do.
  • Stamped concrete floor looks much like slate for a fraction of the cost. Photo credit:

    Polished concrete floor with matte patterns takes on the look of marble. Photo credit:

    Concrete overlay floor. Photo credit:

    Living in Comfort and Joy is pleased to welcome guest blogger Marcy Tate to this post.Marcy Tate is a home improvement blogger at She has been working with concrete contractors for more than a decade.

    Living in Comfort and Joy does not sell advertising and receives no payment from the products and services that appear in its posts. Guest bloggers must meet the journalistic standards of this publication and are solely responsible for the content they write.

  • Energy Saving Capabilities – Concrete floors reduce energy consumption. Because they can make one feel cooler, there is less of a need to use the air conditioning. During the winter, concrete floors absorb the heat from the sun, helping to keep your home warm. Concrete floors work well in conjunction with radiant floor heating systems. These systems get installed under the concrete floor and are energy efficient. They decrease the need to use forced-air heating systems.
  • Cost-Efficiency – The average cost of concrete flooring is more than other residential flooring types but the return is higher as the floor will never need replacement. The higher costs are from the finishing of the floors, often completed by a concrete artisan. The average cost for concrete floor installation (including the decorative finishing) is about $15-$18 per square foot.

Beautiful Design Options

There are literally endless design options. Concrete floor artisans can design and create a floor to your specifications.

There are five ways by which concrete floors are finished:

  1. Polished Concrete – Also known as honed or burnished concrete, polished concrete floors have that shiny, waxed look. This is the most basic type of concrete floor installation. Dyes can be included in the finish to add color.
  2. Acid Stained Concrete – Acid and water are mixed with metallic salts. This method can be applied in a variety of colors.
  3. Scored Concrete – Scored concrete is a popular choice for homeowners who install concrete flooring. Circular saws are used to create shapes and patterns by making shallow cuts in the surface.
  4. Stamped Concrete - This method results in a textured appearance to resemble other flooring types such as tile, wood, stone or brick. It’s often used for outdoor flooring (such as for patios). Stencils can also be used to create distinctive shapes and patterns.
  5. Concrete Overlays – Overlays consist of polymer coatings or overlays onto an existing concrete floor. This option is only for structurally sound floors.


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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

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.


I Can See Clearly Now: Daylighting II

August 25, 2009

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Match Wits with My Model

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

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

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

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

Here are the alterations I tested:

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

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

The Second Daylight Model


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

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

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

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Light from the Adjacent Room?

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

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

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

Buying a Stairway to Heaven


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

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

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


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

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

Grand Finale

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

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

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

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



I Can See Clearly Now

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

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

-Johnny Nash


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.


    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


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.


Aging, Autos and Walkable Neighborhoods

May 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

Isn’t This an Interior Design Blog?

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

Another part of my Neighborhood

Another part of my neighborhood

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

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

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

Cars Harm Our Physical Health

Air pollution in China
Air pollution in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Wallace, longtime friend of the author

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

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

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

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

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

Cars Undermine Human Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you rate yours?


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

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

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

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

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

-Byron Thames
AARP Board Member


Not Your Grandmother’s Wallpaper

April 19, 2009

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

Ogura Plush wallpaper from Avignon wallcovering

Ogura Plush wallpaper from Avignon wallcovering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Buy Wallpaper

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

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

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

Making Healthy Choices

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

Graphic wallpaper from Design Your Wall

Graphic wallpaper from Design Your Wall

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

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

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

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

Getting Pasted? A Word to the Wise

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

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

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

Ogura Collection from Avignon Wallcoverings

Avignon Design: Amalfi from the Original collection

Avignon Design: Amalfi from the Original collection

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

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

Ripple modular wallcovering

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

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

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

Modular Arts Textural Wallcovering


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

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

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

Innovations from Ecohaus

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

Faux leather wallcoverings. These are from Roos International.

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

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

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

Roos International:

Choices, Choices!

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

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

SRWood veneer from Roos International

SRWood veneer from Roos International

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

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

Enchanting Glass Bead wallcovering from Roos International

Enchanting Glass Bead wallcovering from Roos International

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

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

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


A Note from Nicolette

Who’s Reading? Please take this poll

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

Nicolette Toussaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Nicolette Toussaint


Bamboo Flooring: Bright Green or Bamboozled?

March 26, 2009
Plyboo Flooring

Plyboo Flooring

Is bamboo flooring as green as grass, or have consumers been bamboozled by its marketing? That question has no simple answer, because the devil is in the details.

Over the past few years, swayed by durability and sustainability claims, thousands have installed bamboo floors. But a simple internet search turns up complaints like this one:

When my two year old drops a PLASTIC cup on the floor from 2 feet and it leaves a 1/8 inch dent, that’s a soft floor. They’ve done the same on my sister’s oak floor and it doesn’t leave a mark, much less a gouge…

How can experiences like this be reconciled with claims that bamboo is “as hard as oak”?

The answer is that bamboo floors can offer great durability – and even be used on basketball courts – if they are carefully chosen! The thing that makes the difference between fabulous flooring and an underfoot flop is maturity.

While I fully advocate taking the time to investigate the options and make a considered buying decision, I’m speaking here of the maturity of the bamboo, not the buyer. Although bamboo can grow to its full height in six months or less, it can take six years to “lignify” or harden. Flooring that has been made from green bamboo will dent more easily, as will flooring that has been made from the top, rather than the stalk, of the plant. In addition, bamboo flooring that has been darkened by being “carbonized” will be about 20% softer than natural bamboo flooring. Thus, darker colors are probably not a good choice if you have large pets or rambunctious children – an ironic point, since plenty of parents and pet owners have deliberately opted for dark colors to hide the dirt their little dears track in.

How green is bamboo, really?

Fused bamboo floor from Madgascar Bamboo company

Fused bamboo floor from Madgascar Bamboo. The company's bamboo plantation activities offset carbon emissions from its production facility. They purchase giant bamboo directly from local villagers creating significant economic opportunities for an extremely disadvantaged rural population.

There’s no doubt that the bamboo plant is fast growing and easily renewable. Some species can grow up to three feet a day! A bamboo plant – which is actually a grass, rather than a tree – matures in less than five years while many hardwood trees take 40 to 50 years to mature. Those facts give bamboo a leg up when it comes to sustainability.

In addition, the bamboo industry makes a positive contribution to humanity; 6 million people in China work with it and 600 million people worldwide rely on income from it.

On the other hand, bamboo generates a large carbon footprint when being shipped halfway around the world to us. Forests are being cleared to grow bamboo, and that creates a monoculture, plus erosion and loss of biodiversity. Although some claim that fertilizers are not necessary, they are being used to increase yield. And while the sustainability practices of hardwood growers are now reliably verified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), there’s little oversight of bamboo plantations in China.

So when it comes to being an environmentally and humanely responsible consumer, it would seem that the best advice I can offer is caveat emptor. In most cases, neither your flooring’s label nor your retailer is going to be able to tell you what part of the plant was used in making the flooring or how old the plant was when harvested – or anything at all about the people who made the flooring. Knowing the names of some reputable manufacturers, some of whom are named at the end of this post, is helpful.

Price is also somewhat of an indicator, and I would avoid the cheapest versions not only for reasons of sustainability and durability, but also for reasons of health. Bamboo flooring factories often use glues that include high levels of formaldehyde. That can cause serious health consequences, particularly those with asthma or severe allegies. (As noted in my post Killing Me Softly with Carpet, one of the reasons people choose hard flooring is to avoid the allergy problems and chemicals associated with most carpeting.)

How Much It Costs

Prices for bamboo flooring start at under $2 per square foot and can go up to more than $8 per square foot (2009 prices), not counting installation. Manufacturers of cheaper versions of bamboo flooring will “economize” by finishing the floor with less durable coatings. That economy is apt to be fleeting because the floor will scratch and marr, and you’ll find yourself wanting to replace it much sooner.

Horizontal bamboo flooring
Horizontal bamboo flooring
Vertical bamboo flooring
Vertical bamboo flooring

More durable bamboo floors are finished with a UV coating or an aluminum oxide finish. If your flooring has been finished with Klumpp lacquer, which is regarded as an industry standard, you will have an extremely durable aluminum oxide finish that is also certified to be very low in dangerous and toxic substances. Frequently, floors with a Klumpp coating will also feature a longer warranty.

Handsome Choices

Bamboo floors of all stripes are beautiful (and some do have stripes). The way the bamboo is processed creates some different looks, as well as different colorations.

Bamboo flooring can have either a horizontal or vertical grain, as shown in the images at left. The difference in pattern – with or without horizontal knees – reflects how the bamboo slats were laminated. The grain becomes horizontal when the pieces are arranged and laminated side by side. Vertical grain results from the slats being placed upright on edge prior to lamination.

As mentioned above, darker colors are produced by heating the bamboo. This carbonization weakens the floor somewhat, but depending on your lifestyle, that may or may not be a problem. Popular carbonized darker bamboos are comparable to black walnut, considered a soft hardwood, while tests show that lighter, natural colors are comparable to maple.

Striped or mottled coloration results from a manufacturing process in which long strips of bamboo are woven together and then compressed under extreme pressure and heat. This produces flooring that is harder and denser than traditional bamboo flooring.

Engineered Bamboo Flooring

The higher the ply count of a laminate bamboo floor, the more stability it has, which helps to protect against expansion and contraction from moisture. “Engineered” bamboo floors, such as the Plyboo floor pictured at the top of this post, offer greater durability and less expansion than other bamboo flooring. Engineered bamboo, like engineered hardwood, is the real thing, and it doesn’t look any different. It’s simply layered so that the plant’s grain alternates 90 degrees from layer to layer. This limits the amount the bamboo swells and contracts in response to changes in moisture. (You can learn more about engineered wood floors in my post The Devil has Zebrawood Floors.)

Strand woven bamboo flooring from Ambient

Strand woven bamboo flooring from Ambient

How It’s Installed

Your installation choices are largely the same as with any hardwood floor: the flooring can be nailed down, stapled, glued or “floated”. A floated floor is secured across its width by interlocking edges on the planks, then secured at the edges by the baseboard.

No matter which method of installation you choose, you will need to take some preparatory steps before installation. These include proper floor preparation, moisture testing and allowing the bamboo to acclimate. The moisture content of bamboo flooring needs to be within 2% to 4% of the moisture content of the subfloor, and it’s a good idea to let the bamboo sit at the site for about a week to make sure it adjusts to that degree.

While a click-together floated floor is relatively easy to install, you will need a contractor’s help to ensure that your subfloor is up to par. Poor preparation is frequently the reason for later problems with bamboo flooring. Your subfloor should be flat while with no more than 3/16 inches in variation over a span of 8 to 10 feet.

It’s also advisable to engage a contractor if your flooring is going to be nailed, stapled or glued. Gluing can be a bit tricky. The manufacturer’s recommendations for adhesive should definitely be followed, and water-based glues should be avoided, no matter who does the installing.

Caring for Bamboo Flooring

It’s best to vacuum or sweep to remove dirt and grit prior to cleaning the flooring. You should use a specially formulated wood cleaner rather than wax, oil soap or other household cleaners. When a spill occurs, soak up the liquid promptly.

resident of a bamboo forest
Resident of a bamboo forest.

You should protect any hardwood, bamboo or cork floor by putting coasters under furniture legs, using area rugs in high traffic areas, and allowing at least eight steps of transition tile or rugs at outside doors. Avoid walking on your bamboo (or linoleum) floor in high heels. A 100-pound woman in a stiletto heel actually exerts more pressure than a barefoot, 6000-pound elephant, which explains why high heels are the number one enemy of wood, bamboo, cork, linoleum and even some forms of tile flooring.

You should also be aware that sun and ultra-violet rays can accelerate the natural oxidation of bamboo. Dark-colored, “caramelized” bamboo products will lighten while uncolored bamboo products will tend to darken over time. To ensure that this natural process doesn’t leave tan lines on your floor, it’s a good idea to periodically rearrange rugs and furniture.

Good Sources of Bamboo Flooring


Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


Rhapsody on a Windy Night
(excerpt – full poem here)

…The lamp said,
“Four o’clock,
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair.
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life…”

-T.S. Eliot


Of Sexy Seniors & Tasteful Tree Huggers

March 20, 2009
Interior of the greenest house in Rockridge

Inside the country's greenest house

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

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

David Gottfried & the Nation’s Greenest Home

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

Gottfried Craftsman house


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Design & Aging in Place

Interior of Leibrock home

Interior of Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch home

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

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

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

What is Accessible Design?

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

Sexy Design & the Senior Citizen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


Short People
(Excerpt – listen to the whole song)

Fountain in Aging Beautifully house

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

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

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

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

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

-Randy Newman

Another Green Flooring Option: Put a Cork in It!

February 28, 2009

53a_cork_bigwickThis post is another installment in my series about flooring choices. Cork is a great “green” choice for those interested in a picking a sustainable and beautiful material that avoids the health and environmental problems I wrote about in “Killing Me Softly with Carpeting.”

Why Cork is Sustainable

No trees were killed in the process of making the beautiful floor shown at right! That’s because cork is actually the bark of a cork oak tree, genus Quercus suber. It can be stripped off of the tree every nine years or so without damaging the tree.

Cork oaks live up to 200 years, and their forests — “Montados” — are treasured and have been passed down through families in the Mediterranean areas where the trees grow. Most of those forests are concentrated in Portugal, which is home to 30% of the world’s cork trees and 70% of world cork production. (The trees have been grown in California, but they haven’t produced bark with the same qualities as the European trees, which come from Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Morocco and France, as well as Portugal.)

In fact, you can feel good about choosing a cork floor, because in recent years, a flagging demand for cork — much of which was used to stopper wine bottles — has devalued the forests. As wine corks have been replaced with metal screw tops or plastic stoppers made from petroleum products, families have sold or abandoned cork forests and land, shrinking the trees’ available habitat.

Harvesting of a cork tree

Harvesting of a cork tree

That’s a shame, because the business of growing cork has been around for centuries. The first Portuguese regulations protecting cork trees were written by Portugal’s King Dinis in 1320, and cork floors have been used in churches and libraries since 1898, long before they were used in private homes.

Cork’s Natural Advantages

Cork contains a natural, waxy substance called suberin, which is not only waterproof, but also resists insects, mold and mildew. That’s great if you or you loved ones suffer from allergies. Suberin is fire resistant, and cork doesn’t release any toxics when it burns.

Cork is pleasantly springy under foot — much kinder to your back than a cement or tile floor — and because it’s filled with little air pockets, it insulates and absorbs noise. It’s also naturally flame-resistant. Structurally, cork bark is a cellular honeycomb structure of 14-sided polyhedrons; inside they are 90% air. Those qualities make it a nice choice for a kitchen.

Because cork is rather elastic, it can take foot traffic or heavy furnishings and still recover. The cork honeycomb contains about 40 million of cells per cubic centimeter, and they allow cork to be compressed up to 40% and still spring back to its original shape. That elasticity also makes cork forgiving enough to install over rather uneven surfaces. You can mount cork on top of a wood or linoleum floor, or you could also use it as an underlayment for ceramic, wood or stone.

Cork wall tile in Pumpkin color from AmCork

Cork wall tile in "Pumpkin" color from AmCork

Cork can be purchased in rolls or in tiles, and it can be mounted on walls, as well as floors. (I’m currently eyeing some beautifully colored cork tiles for a bedroom wall. The wall is cold because it’s poorly insulated and it’s on the outside perimeter of the house. That particular wall is also showing some cracks and has old, uneven plaster, so cork tile might be just the answer.)

Cork also comes in an astonishing range of colors and patterns, so it can enhance not only the tactile and audial qualities, but also play a starring role in a room’s design.

Care, Feeding and Lifespan

Cork floors, like cork trees, can be remarkably long-lived. With fairly straightforward care, your cork floor should last for a very long time. Your cork floor will be dressed with a wax, acryllic or ceramic coating, and it’s primarily this coating that you will be maintaining. (Ceramic is the most durable of these choices and UV-cured wax is the greenest.) Here’s all you need to do:

  • Vaccuum or sweep weekly
  • Damp mop monthly, but don’t use a lot of water
  • Use a mild soap that is PH-balanced, and make sure the surface is free of grit and sand
  • Avoid abrasive cleaners and oil or ammonia-based cleaning products
Inlaid cork flooring from Globus Flooring

Inlaid cork flooring from Globus Flooring

Downsides to Cork

You will note that the cautions above mention both grit and abrasives, and there’s good reason for that: Cork flooring scratches! The scratches usually marr the coating on top of the cork rather than the cork itself, but it’s still a problem.

Cork is soft – its Janka hardness rating is 200, harder than balsa but softer than pine. But cork is so different in character that it’s not entirely comparable. For example, cork actually has the ability to spring back and “heal” a cut so that you later can’t find it!

For this reason, you should pay attention to the durability of the coating on top of the cork. The wear finish on a cork floor may either be applied at the factory or in your home, and it’s usually varnish, oil or sealer that is hardened with ultraviolet light.

Cork is not a good choice for bathrooms because it will buckle when exposed to too much water. In addition, the darker shades can be prone to fading, particularly in sunny areas.

The Fine Green Print

The question of sustainability is always complex, and although I have extolled many of cork’s green virtues above, there is one notable drawback. The cork we buy must be shipped across the ocean, making for a large carbon footprint.

Brainworks creates inlaid flooring from cork, and also combines cork with other materials such as linoleum, which is also a green material. The image above is cork. The one below is cork combined with other materials. Click the image above to visit Brainworks gallery.

Brainworks creates inlaid flooring from cork, and also combines cork with other materials such as linoleum, which is also green. The image above is cork and the one below is a combination. Click the image to visit Brainworks' gallery.

The processing of cork is fairly simple. Cork sheets or pieces are cured, boiled and pressed. Scraps are collected for reuse, so almost nothing is wasted.

But toxics can definitely come in to the equation! Some cork flooring is made with binders, finishes or substrates that contain carcinogens. I would avoid cork composition floors because cork is sometimes combined with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) to make a resilient flooring that looks like linoleum. But while linoleum is a green material, vinyl is not! The vinyl manufacturing process may hazardous byproducts and the disposal may leach toxins into the environment. (The U.S. Green Building Council has acknowledged “strong environmental and human health concerns” with vinyl.)

The cheapest cork comes from China, and because it is subject to very little environmental regulation, it is likely to contain toxic glues.

Installation of Cork Floors

Like pre-finished wood floors, cork floors can either be installed as “floating” floors from panels that snap together with a tongue-and-groove system, or they can be glued down. Having your floor glued down will save you on material costs, but you will pay more for labor, and it can be harder to repair a glued-down floor should you later need to do that.

Some floating floors can be installed over hard surfaces — vinyl, wood or tile — but cork needs more stability that you would get from a carpet or soft floor. If you don’t have such a surface, you will need to have a contractor install a stable subfloor.

Cost and Suppliers

The cost of having a cork floor installed in your home runs from $5 to $10 a square foot, with the flooring itself priced about $2.50 a square foot (2009 costs). The best quality, non-toxic versions are within that range. The European Union’s standards for toxics are 100 times stronger than those here, so one good, non-technical way to find a cork floor that doesn’t contain harmfull chemicals is to search out European flooring.

An inlaid floor from Brainworks that combines cork with other eco-materials.

An inlaid floor from Brainworks that combines cork with other eco-materials.

Here are some manufacturers and suppliers whose websites you might wish to browse:


A Drunkard cannot meet a Cork
Without a Revery –
And so encountering a Fly
This January Day
Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in –
The moderate drinker of Delight
Does not deserve the spring –
Of juleps, part are the Jug
And more are in the joy –
Your connoisseur in Liquours

- Emily Dickinson


Oh Dad, Poor Dad, the Designer’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad

February 2, 2009

“Poor Mr. Gordon! Last semester, some of my students stuck him down in the basement, and when I asked them why, they said, ‘Well, he’s going to be dead soon anyway!”

“Poor old Mr. Gordon” is a man in his 70’s who is losing his mobility due to Muscular Dystrophy (MS). He’s a fictional character — the “client” in a space planning problem for an evening class I’m taking. While Mr. Gordon is not real, his problems are, and they are shared by millions of people.

Heartless or Heedless?

I’m afraid that I see lots of evidence that too many practicing designers either lack knowledge or compassion when it comes to the issues of aging and disability. Just last week, I talked with a woman I will call “Sandra” who was very unhappy about having shelled out a pretty penny for not one, but three useless floor plans for her bathroom! The reason for Sandra’s bathroom redesign is that she really does have MS, and she would like to still be able to take baths as her mobility wanes.

Walk-in bathtub

Cameo walk-in bathtub from Seacrest Bathing

Sandra already has a wheelchair accessible shower, but like me, she enjoys soaking in the bath. Although Sandra was quite explicit about her needs, none of the alternatives that came back from this interior designer (not a student, but an established, practicing designer) included the necessary grab bars or a space that would allow her to slide from her wheelchair to the side of the tub. That was the whole point of the redesign!

I find this heartbreaking, but unfortunately, not it’s surprising. Ed Walters, the instructor for my evening class, insists that all of his students read and use the accessibility specifications from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.) From Ed’s preamble to our reading and space planning assignments, I gather that he’s gotten a lot of push-back from students. (That’s Ed I quoted at the beginning of this blog.)

Not only is Ed beginning his lectures by saying, “I know this is boring, I know that you don’t want to learn this, and I know you think this isn’t relevant to your career plans,” but he’s also taken to using reverse psychology on his students. On the website where files for the class are stored, there’s a folder labeled, “Top Secret. Do Not Open.”  When I opened it, I found an article on the physical and emotional needs of older people who are aging in their own homes for as long as possible, and how to help them delay (or avoid) a move into assisted living!

A sink with a space underneath that allows a wheelchair user to pull all the way up to the counter.

A sink with a space underneath that allows a wheelchair user to pull all the way up to the counter.

I suspect that my fellow students’ age (or lack of it) might be part of the problem that Ed has encountered with the class. Most of the students are twenty or thirty-somethings, so (unlike Ed and me) they are fortunate enough to have little or no experience of disability. Yet!

Youth and Physical Ability:
Just Temporary Conditions!

Some years ago, an indomitable older woman named Lucille Lockhardt recruited my husband Mason to serve on a disability access committee for our church. Lucille was the disability activist who hounded the City of San Francisco into beginning to make curb cuts even before the passage of the ADA, and she was intent on installing ramps, lowering pay phones, and making toilet stalls accessible in the church. Mason politely declined her invitation on the grounds that he was “not disabled.”

Lucille, who was about four and half feet tall and walked, crab-wise, with two crutches, laughed at this. “What you are,” she retorted, “is temporarily abled.” Her words proved prophetic. Within about a year, Mason had back trouble that left him unable to navigate stairs or step off a curb! It was a consciousness-raising experience.

Brain Over Brawn

The truth of the matter is that while none of us get out of this world alive, the fact that we’re all living longer means that most of us will, at some point, be living with disabilities.

I now have three disabilities that would, in the words of the ADA, qualify as “limiting major life activities.” Unlike a wheelchair that announces a person’s disability the moment they enter the room, my disabilities are largely invisible, as are the “accommodations” that enable me to deal with them.

I have an alarm clock like this one. The round object is a "bed shaker" that vibrates when the alarm goes off. I keep it under my pillow. This solves the problem of rolling over onto my "good ear" and not hearing an audial alarm. Once I discovered this, I was no longer dependent on my partner to awaken me every morning.

I have an alarm clock like this one. The round object is a "bed shaker" that vibrates when the alarm goes off. I keep it under my pillow. This solves the problem of rolling over onto my "good ear" and not hearing an audial alarm. Once I discovered this, I was no longer dependent on my partner to awaken me every morning.

However, I can’t read at all without glasses and sufficient light. I have a serious hearing impairment and use a hearing aid as well as phone amplifiers and a special alarm clock. (Those interested in design for the hearing impaired should read my post on “Def” Design in a Noisy World.) I suffer asthma and allergies, and as a result, I have leather furniture and wood floors. My disabilities have not made me dependent, made my home institutional-looking, nor do they prevent me from living an active life. (In fact, I’m sometimes a bit chagrined on those occasions when someone gets up to offer me a seat on the bus.)

However, not much more than five years ago, I was unable to walk up my back stairs without stopping to rest several times. The reason that I can now travel independently, gallop up the stairs two at a time, belly dance, and ice skate twice a week is that I have gained and applied some wisdom about managing my disabilities.

I seriously doubt that my fellow students realize that the reason I sit in the front row of our class has to do with my hearing; maybe they think I’m a teacher’s pet or just want to gaze on Ed Walter’s handsome face! The truth is that the classroom has a serious echo problem. That’s the result of an interior design failure, a designer who did follow the ADA access codes, but still didn’t address the audiological needs of the 10 percent of the public who have hearing loss. I need to sit directly in front of Ed because I need to hear his words before the echo, and to read his lips to augment my hearing aid.

A Lack of Awareness in Many Venues

I often encounter public buildings that do meet the letter of the law, but still fall short in spirit and practice, as does my classroom. In private buildings, the problems are often worse for multiple reasons: the access laws are looser, many people live in buildings that pre-date accessibility legislation, many older and disabled people don’t realize that there are solutions for their problems, and a majority of people never consult an interior designer or architect in any case.

note leather furniture and wood floors.

An interior designed to mitigate dust allergies: note leather furniture and wood floors.

Sadly, even people who do seek professional design help may not get what they need because many practicing interior designers have had neither formal training nor personal exposure to designing for disabilities and aging in place. (This, I suspect, explains how Sandra’s interior designer managed to come up with multiple designs that showed no response to Sandra’s obvious and expressed need for accessible bathroom design.)

Even though my fellow space planning students may not yet have developed much compassion for Mr. Gordon, their certificate program does at least require them to study ADA access codes. In this, they — and their future clients — are fortunate whether they know that or not at the moment.

Still, I often find myself cringing a bit when reading about “award-winning design” or listening to presentations about design “solutions.” Too much of what’s being lauded often has to do with young designers following seasonal trends or expressing their personality at the client’s expense. (The overuse of the word “I” and the under-use of the words “client needs” provides a tip-off.) If a designer is more interested in their industry’s fashion forecast than their client’s health forecast, then they may just think that the easiest way to solve the “design problem” is to stick poor old Mr. Gibson, or dad or grandma, into the basement!

Advice on Seeking Interior Design Help

What if you happen to be Mr. Gibson, figuratively speaking? My advice would be to ask your prospective interior designer some leading questions before plunking down any money. Here are three good questions:

  • Have you had any personal experience with disability? What kind of disability?
  • Do you have training and/or experience in designing for access, or “universal design”?
  • Do you have Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) training, or work with a contractor who has that training?


When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

You’ll be older too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

–Paul McCartney


Killing Me Softly with Carpet

January 13, 2009

If you have dust allergies, carpet is a killer! Carpet can also be problematic for those with chemical sensitivities. Because they play on the floor, children may also develop reactions to chemicals in carpeting.


A silk rug from Persia

When I retrofitted my own home with the goal of eliminating the habitat it was providing for dust mites, the microscopic vermin that are the true cause of dust allergies, one of the most important steps I took was to remove the carpeting from both bedrooms.

Indeed, the choice of flooring is key to multiple aspects of your home’s comfort. In addition to the impact it has on the beauty of your rooms (or lack thereof), it affects the ease with which you can move around. Your carpet can quiet noise transmission and it can also help with heating and cooling your rooms.

But carpet can put a major dent on your budget. It also has an environmental footprint that can dig pretty deep — some carpeting will persist as long as 500 years in a landfill!

This post is going to be the first of several that talk about the pros and cons of different kinds of flooring. In this series, I will be discussing not only carpeting – the topic of most of this post – but also linoleum, synthetic vinyl sheet flooring, vinyl composition tile (VCT) and some healthier alternatives to VCT, plus wood, engineered wood and bamboo, and various types of tile, terrazzo and stone.

Let’s start with a magic carpet ride!

 To Carpet or Not to Carpet:
Now that is a Big Question!

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not anti-carpet. Because of my particular health needs, I’m personally better off with hard flooring in my home, and it took a bit of time for me to get used to stepping out of bed or the shower onto a cold floor. I had to learn to put a throw rug next to the shower before I go in and to keep bedroom slippers beside my bed.

A Berber carpet similar to the one I bought in Morocco and later ruined

A Berber carpet similar to the one I bought in Morocco and later ruined in cleaning

But I still remember fondly the gray and white berber-style wall-to-wall carpeting in my Eddy Street house – not to mention the ivory, brown and russet hand-made Berber rugs I brought back from a trip to Morocco. They were warm and springy, sound absorbent and really beautiful.

A well-chosen carpet, one picked with an eye to your lifestyle, health needs, budget, cleaning habits and personal style, can be one of the bright spots in your décor.

But as I have alluded, there’s a dark side to carpeting. Most conventional carpeting is made with a stiff backing; the fibers are glued and/or woven into the backing. That backing commonly contains around 130 chemicals, 30 of which are known to cause cancer!

In addition, the stain-resistant and moth-resistant coatings that go onto the top of the carpeting also contain chemicals. The carpet’s backing and coatings can include benzene, styrene, toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde, which get into our lungs and bodies by “off-gassing.” The chemicals vaporize from off of our rugs, and we then inhale them or absorb them through our skin. While the chemicals are not there in huge amounts, they nonetheless are there – and that’s a problem if you are chemical-sensitive.

Sisal rug from Cost Plus World Market

Jute rug from Cost Plus World Market

For those who have “dust allergies”, there’s an additional problem: Carpeting and upholstery provide a great habitat for dust mites, microscopic creatures that like dark, warm places. Humans are not actually allergic to the dust mites, but rather to their lack of potty training. The nasty fact is that dust mites feast on bits of skin and hair that flake off of our bodies, and in return for providing them dinner, they pay us back by sh**ing on our furniture, in our beds and on our carpets! It’s actually the mite’s poo that makes it mighty hard to breathe.

There are a variety of products that can be used to mitigate dustmite dander, and it’s easy to find online at the National Allergy Supply. (I have had very good experiences in ordering all kinds of allergy-management products from this company, which was started by a couple who had a child with allergies.)

Tips on Common Carpet Problems:
First, Choose the Right Fiber

If you don’t have health problems that mitigate your choices and want to carpet a room (or rooms), what kind of carpet should you choose? The answer to that depends a lot on your lifestyle. Below are some carpet-choosing tips that will help solve common problems.

Kids, dogs, cats and accidents – the most durable, cleanable and dirt-hiding carpets are nylon, specifically the newer formulation of nylon that the fine print identifies as 6.6 nylon. (Nylon is a man-made fiber and the number designations refer to their molecular structure.) Nylon is also advantageous in that it repels mildew. If you’re sometimes clumsy like me, you might also want to avoid carpets that contain olefin, particularly in any area where you might spill something oily. Olefin is a man-made fiber that is durable and inexpensive, but “oleophilic.” What that means is that this fiber loves oils and just eats them up! I had to replace the wall-to-wall carpeting in my dining room after knocking over a bottle of salad dressing. The carpeting contained olefin and three different professional carpet cleaning firms were unable to persuade the carpet to let go of the vegetable oil in that salad dressing!

Another good fiber choice is polyester. It wears well, is easy to clean and repels water-based stains. Polyester is man-made and has been engineered to look and feel like wool, but it is much less expensive. Polyester also wears well.In high-traffic rooms, a good solution may be the choose carpet tile rather than wall-to-wall carpet, because if “sh** happens” or other spills occur, you can simply pull up and replace the damaged sections of the carpet. (It’s a good idea to order 10% more carpet than you actually need for the initial installation if you plan to do this. That way, you’re not in danger of being later unable to match the carpet tile that is installed on your floor.) Carpet tile comes in lots of beautiful colors and patterns; look around when you’re in a hotel, auditorium or restaurant, and you’re very likely to see carpet tile.

Warmth, softness and durability – I would definitely recommend choosing wool or a wool blend! Most synthetic fibers have been created to mimic wool, a fiber that is naturally buoyant, and contains lanolin, a natural oil that sheds dirt. Wool is also reasonably easy to clean, provided it’s done correctly. (I unfortunately destroyed my ivory-colored tribal Berber rug in the process of trying to remove a stain left after my cat deposited a hairball on it.) For some good tips on caring for a true Moroccan Berber rug, I recommend the information on the Building Materials 365 website. Because wool traps pollutants in its fibers, wool carpeting acts as a natural air filter and helps to keep indoor air free of contaminants. Wool is also a good choice for moisture areas because it discourages the growth of bacterial growth. Except for the problem of dust mites living in it, it is non-allergenic.

Avoiding toxics – Again, wool is a good choice, as is silk. Cotton is usually a bit too soft for carpeting, and it can be hard to get stains out of even all-cotton throw rugs. Of course, every natural and every man-made fiber has strengths and weaknesses, and often the best choice is a blend that combines the advantages of multiple fibers. Most of the toxics in carpet come from the backing and/or the glue used to secure the fiber to the backing. You can avoid the chemicals by choosing a carpet in which the soft fibers – which might be a combination of wool and nylon or another synthetic – are woven through the backing. The backing can be made of jute, or a blend such as jute and nylon. Carpets constructed in this way cost a bit more, but they are extremely durable and tend to last because they avoid the problems that sometimes occur when the glue breaks down and begins to flake off the backing. There are two brands of carpeting that are made in this way, without glue and without toxics in the back itself. They are Nature’s Carpet and Earthweave.

Bamboo, which is actually a kind of grass, is another fine, natural choice. Bamboo is eco-friendly because the plant grows quickly and thus quickly replaces itself after it is harvested. Fiber area rugs are also biodegradable, which means they won’t sit around in landfills for centuries.

Rugs made of sisal, seagrass, mountain rugs, jute and coir, though usually too scratchy for some life styles, are also used in making natural rugs that are durable and attractive. Although the fibers themselves are natural and non-toxic, watch out for the backing materials. Find out whether the top of the carpet is glued to the backing, and whether that glue contains toxic chemicals. Also note that rugs made from natural fibers can be damaged by water, and they may need some cleaning. This means that they are not good choices for moist rooms or areas where spills are likely.

A bamboo area rug; these rugs come with trim in many colors and bamboo that ranges from butter yellow to deep brown

A bamboo area rug; these rugs come with trim in many colors and bamboo that ranges from butter yellow to deep brown. Bamboo rugs can be very handsome; both the bamboo slats and borders come in a variety of colors.

Mitigating noise – As Paul Simon lamented, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” and that can cause some hard feelings. A good carpet and carpet pad beneath it can definitely help to cut the noise transmitted through floors into ceilings if you choose wisely.

When choosing your carpet, you should buy the best-quality you can afford and also make sure to buy a high quality carpet pad. Indeed, the carpet pad that goes under the carpet and above your sub-flooring is as important as the carpet itself. The carpet pad will support the carpet and insulate the floor, as well as cutting down on foot traffic noise. Your carpet pad should feel thick and resilient, but it shouldn’t be thicker than 7/16 inch, because in some cases, too much cushion can actually void a manufacturer’s warranty.

Moisture-laden rooms or floors – If you are installing room in a basement or a room with high humidity, you need to pay particular attention to what is beneath the pad and the carpet – the subfloor. If the relative humidity is level is over 60 percent, your carpet and/or walls can develop mildew. Moisture vapor will also migrate from one part of the room to another, particularly when different temperatures on various sides of a wall, floor, or ceiling, produce vapor pressure. That vapor, unless prevented by vapor retarders or barriers, can move through floors, walls, and ceilings. If this is a problem in your house, it’s a very good idea – one that will save you money in the long run – to ask a contractor to install a vapor barrier on the floor. Several different types of moisture blocking “substrates” are available in difference price ranges.

Bright sunlight, the need to avoid fading – If your carpet is going to sit where it receives sunlight for long periods of time, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how it was dyed. A carpet that is in front of large sliding glass door in direct sun is going to fade unless you to install some type of sun shade or sunscreen on your windows. However, some carpets will fade less than others. “Yarn dyed” and “solution dyed” carpet fibers are apt to hold their color better than fibers that receive their color through what’s called “continuous dying.” The difference is that, in solution-dyed polyester or nylon fiber, the color is part of the soup that is extruded to make the fiber. In yarn dying, the fibers are colored after the wool is spun, but before it is woven into the carpet. In “continuous dyeing,” the color is applied after the carpet is tufted, and there is experience to indicate that carpets colored that way are less colorfast.

Budget considerations – When determining how much you want to spent on your carpet, you should factor in not just the initial cost of the carpet, but also “lifetime costs” for cleaning and for how long the carpet will last before you want to replace it. Conventional mid-range and high-end carpets will last and look good for 12 to 15 years. But that durability comes at a price: Mid-range carpets range from $25 to $35 per yard, while high-end carpet typically costs upwards of $45 per yard. (For this reason, the lifetime costs of wood, bamboo or linoleum flooring can actually be less than carpeting.) Toxic-free eco-alternative carpets range widely in price from the inexpensive Cost Plus jute rug shown here (under $50 for a 3×5 foot rug) to over $100 per square foot for high end designer carpets such as the Alicia Keshishian and Aga John carpets shown above.To extend the life of your carpeting, you should also carefully consider where it’s placed, particularly if it’s light in tone or single-colored. Experts have found that it takes at least eight steps to knock grit and dirt off the bottom of your shoes, and that means wear and dirt on rugs placed near entrances. If you do want your carpet to last and look good, and you don’t want to ask your guests to take off their shoes at the door oriental-style, then you should consider using area rugs or placing tile in the transitional areas that lead from the outside to carpeted areas.

Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


A Few Words to Ponder

About some words that were said
There’s been some hard feelings here
And what is more
There’s been a bloody purple nose
And some bloody purple clothes
That were messing up the lobby floor
It’s just apartment house rules
So all you ‘partment fools
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor

-Paul Simon


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