Tag: green materials

A Recycled Blog on Recycling the Whole House

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

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

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

New Digs from Old

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

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

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

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

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

A Rose by Any Other Name

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

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

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

Art from Found Materials

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

Paperclip chandelier. Photo: Posh Posh.

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

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

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

Back from the Brink of the Grave

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

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

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

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

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

Three Cheers for the Good Guys & Gals

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

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

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

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

Resource Links

Composition by Four Women in White

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

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

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

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

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

White Heath Dimensional tile in kitchen installation. Photos courtesy of Heath Ceramics.
Oval dimensional tile from Heath Ceramics
Daltile's Stone a la Mod, random brick-joint 3/8" split face tile. Photographed by the author at Keane Kitchen Showroom.

Why White is “Green”

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

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

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

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

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

Designer Favorites in White

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

Barcelona chair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practicality of White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbolism of White

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

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

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


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

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

Resource Links

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Diego Rivera mural: Nude with Calla Lilies

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


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

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

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

– Gilbert Keith Chesterton
British author, 1874–1936
“A Piece of Chalk”
Tremendous Trifles (1909)

Making Floors Concretely Beautiful

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: http://www.concrete-floors.org

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: http://www.jhdecorativeconcrete.com

    Polished concrete floor with matte patterns takes on the look of marble. Photo credit: http://www.trendir.com

    Concrete overlay floor. Photo credit: http://www.concreteflooring.com
    Living in Comfort and Joy is pleased to welcome guest blogger Marcy Tate to this post.Marcy Tate is a home improvement blogger at www.Networx.com. 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.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Resource Links

Glory in Green – It’s a Color Too!

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

Question Mark chair by Stephan Heiliger for Tonon

Mundo stacking chair by Susanne Grønlund for Fredericia Furniture

Generation office chair from Knoll

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

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

Green glass tile from Interstyle

Scrolled "Glassform" tile from Interstyle

Indonesian batik fabric, cotton

Ombre rug from Cost Plus imports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greening our Emotions

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

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

Arteriors Home Moss Green Etched Glass Lamp

Darani Chrome Finish lamp from Lamps Plus

Babette Holland Tiger Lamp from Lamps Plus

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

Rotten Avocados?

Handmade blown glass knob from All That Glass

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

Greening
Your Bathroom

Green glass sink from Fontaine Faucets

Green burst glass bathroom sink from Fontaine Faucets

Hollywood sage counter from Vetrazzo

Bioglass sink and counter

Green fern towels from Pottery Barn

Rainglass shower enclosure from Nolan Everitt Artglass

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

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

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

Prespa wallpaper from Avignon Wallpapers

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

Krysallis lamp by Jerry Kott

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

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

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

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

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

Links for Items
Seen and Unseen

Chairs

Counters and glass tile

Lamps

Rugs and textiles

Sinks

Fusion green glass architectural artwork from Nathan Allan Studios

Walls and Surfaces

Other Wonders

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

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

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

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

-ee cummings

Counterculture Chic for your Kitchen

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

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

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

Old Fashioned Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recycled Glass

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

Malachite countertop from Bioglass; 100% recycled and recyclable.

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

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

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

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

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

Terazzo, Concrete, and Engineered Stone

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

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

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

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

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

Inlaid concrete counter top

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

Ceramic and Porcelain

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

Counter top made from Fireclay's Debris tile

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

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

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

Bamboo Counter Tops

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

Counter top of bamboo butcher block

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

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

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

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

Sustainable Wood

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

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

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

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

Compressed Paper Counter Tops

Paperstone counter top

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

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

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

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

Samples of Alkemi's steel counter top

Recycled Metal Counter Tops

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

Eleek aluminum counter and sink

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

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

Counter Culture Chick
for Your Kitchen?

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

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

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

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

Resource Links

Articles and Directories

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.

No More Senseless Acts of Beauty!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antique Eskimo carving

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

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

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

“Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul”

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

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

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

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

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

Architect Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair.

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

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

Back to the Future: Quality is Not Optional

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

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

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

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

Handsome is as Handsome Does

The simple fact is that quality workmanship lasts.

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

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

The shell of the chambered nautilus.

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

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

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

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

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

Resource Links

>>>>>>>>>>>>

The Chambered Nautilus

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

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

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

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

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

– Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94)

Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History of Linoleum

Marmoleum borders
Marmoleum borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linoleum Versus Vinyl

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

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

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

    3407-donkey-island
    Forbo Marmoleum: pattern “Donkey Island”
  • With linoleum squares, you can avoid waste by just buying what you need. The most popular size of linoleum tiles are 12″ squares, packaged 9 to a box. You can buy boxes of several colors and mix them to coordinate with your color scheme.
  • Vinyl is easier to install. Because it’s synthetic, vinyl is less vulnerable to moisture and water damage than linoleum – even though it too will curl and warp at the edges if they are not well sealed. You have probably seen this in old kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Vinyl is also somewhat more resilient in the face of sloppy maintenance. Linoleum should be cleaned using little water, whereas the face of vinyl sheet is impervious. (The seams, however, can leak.)
  • Some linoleum floors should be waxed; others don’t need it. Armstrong’s Marmorette, for example, is finished with NaturCote, a high-performance coating that protects against dirt, scratches, and scuffs, and provides resistance to chemicals and discoloration. With this choice, the need for polishing and buffing is virtually eliminated.
  • Linoleum is a healthier alternative, both in terms of indoor air quality and germs. While linoleum does emit linseed oil fumes for a brief period – a week to a month – while it’s new, and while some people dislike that smell, it is harmless. Lino does not emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and vinyl does. VOCs are real culprits in indoor air pollution. In addition, linseed oil has natural anti-bacterial properties.
  • Your installation method can add to indoor air pollution. Sheet flooring is glued down, and the glue usually contains VOCs unless you make sure to buy an adhesive that is free of them. A good alternative to a glued floor is Forbo’s snap-together Marmoleum Click tiles; they can be installed as a “floating floor” that doesn’t require any glue.

What’s in Today’s Linoleum?

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

Armstrong Marmorette with Naturecoat
Armstrong Marmorette with NaturCote

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

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

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

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

Links for Linoleum

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

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.