Tag: interior air quality

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.

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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.

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.

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The Chambered Nautilus

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

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

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

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

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

– Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94)

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

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

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

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

Up On the (Living) Roof

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Green Roofs are Cooler – Literally

EPA infrared photo shows heat island effect in Atlanta, Georgia
EPA infrared photo shows heat island effect in Atlanta, Georgia

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

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

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

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

Green Roofs in the Birthplace of the Skyscraper

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

Green roof on Chicago City Hall
Green roof on Chicago City Hall

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

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

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

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

The Academy Comes Alive in San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details at the Root of the Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Learn More

Icelandic
Traditional green roofed house in Iceland

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Up on the Roof

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

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

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

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

– Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Greening the Little Red Schoolhouse

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

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

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

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

What Are Green Schools?

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

Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio
Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio

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

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

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

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

LEED Medallion

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

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

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

What Does LEED Cover in Schools?

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

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

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

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

Better Achievement Via Improved Architecture?

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

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

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

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

Healthier Teachers and Communities

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

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

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

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

The Schoolhouse as a Teaching Tool

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

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

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

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

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

More on Green Schools

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To Sir, With Love

(excerpt, video on YouTube)

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

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

– R Granier, Marc London and Don Black



Not Your Grandmother’s Wallpaper

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

Ogura Plush wallpaper from Avignon wallcovering
Ogura Plush wallpaper from Avignon wallcovering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Buy Wallpaper

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

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

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

Making Healthy Choices

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

Graphic wallpaper from Design Your Wall
Graphic wallpaper from Design Your Wall

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

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

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

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

Getting Pasted? A Word to the Wise

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

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

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

Ogura Collection from Avignon Wallcoverings

Avignon Design: Amalfi from the Original collection
Avignon Design: Amalfi from the Original collection

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

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

Ripple modular wallcovering

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

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

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

Modular Arts Textural Wallcovering

modular

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

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

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

Innovations from Ecohaus

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

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

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

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

Roos International:

Choices, Choices!

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

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

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

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

Enchanting Glass Bead wallcovering from Roos International
Enchanting Glass Bead wallcovering from Roos International

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

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

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

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A Note from Nicolette

Who’s Reading? Please take this poll

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

Nicolette Toussaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Nicolette Toussaint

Bamboo Flooring: Bright Green or Bamboozled?

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

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Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website

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

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

-T.S. Eliot