Tag: sustainable interior design

Of Green Lighting and Felonious Filaments

Prima Lighting's Titan Collection Mini-Pendant "Sahara." Dimensions Diameter: 5.61" Height: 5.26" 12 volt; light bulb is 50W T5 GY6.35 12v Xelogen. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

I have seen the light! Specifically, I saw quite a few beautiful and energy-efficient lights recently when I happened into Opus Lights, a new, green lighting boutique in San Francisco.

Energy-efficient lighting sure isn’t what it used to be. Fluorescent lights used to be ugly, noisy, harsh, and undimmable while LEDs were dim and homely. But no more!

Perhaps you want a beautiful, artisan-quality energy-efficient pendant light for your newly remodeled kitchen? That’s no problem. Need a dimmable CFL that doesn’t hum? Okey dokey!

Need a bright, white but low-voltage light to showcase diamonds in a store display? Got it! Want a CFL that will cast a rosy glow on customers in your cosmetics studio? Sure thing! Nowadays, low-energy lights come in different shades of white, and the color can vary over a wide range of possibilities.

As you might have guessed, this post will be devoted to beautiful, energy-efficient lighting, and I will be highlighting several suppliers.

Dim Bulbs and Bright Ideas

Prima Lighting's "Sinclair" in blue flake. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Prima Tublix low-energy mini-pendant lamp. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Trista Pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Clarity Zenon pendant from Pegasus. This 12-volt halogen quick connect mini pendant light includes glass shade, a quick connect canopy, and the bulb for about $185. Dimmer sold separately. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Ether halogen pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

I’m prompted to write about this topic not only because of the stunning lighting options I have recently seen, but also to mark two important dates:

  • Saturday, March 27, the third worldwide Earth Hour
  • July 1, 2010 – the day when California’s Title 24 energy legislation goes into effect, significantly changing how we in the Golden State light kitchens in both new and remodeled homes.

I also want to award an official Bronx Cheer to the dim bulbs who created the retro-lighting craze in New York restaurants. It seems that quite a few restaurants have made a point of installing energy-guzzling Edison bulbs as part of a design fad; supposedly they are sending a message about style and the old-fashioned goodness of their food.

According to the federal government’s Energy Star program, if every American home replaced just one Edison incandescent with a standard CFL, in just one year, the nation would:

  • Save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes,
  • Save over $600 million in annual energy costs, and
  • Prevent as much greenhouse gas as would be emitted by 800,000 cars.

What’s in California’s Title 24

The old-fashioned “Edison style” light bulb was banned in the European Union several years ago. The US federal government will mandate more efficient bulbs beginning in 2012. As of that date, all new bulbs will use 25 to 30 percent less energy to produce the same light output as today’s typical incandescent bulbs.

Compared to the EU, California has been slow off the mark when it comes to the push for energy-efficient lighting. Our Title 24, which will become the strictest state-enforced energy code in the US when it goes into effect, was first written in 1978 (!) in response to the energy crisis. California’s current standards went into effect in October, 2005, and the new ones were supposed to take effect last August. They were pushed back and will finally kick in on July 1 of this year (2010).

Here’s what they will require of home owners who are remodeling or buying new property:

  • “Edison bulbs” (incandescent lighting) will be allowed in most rooms, if the lights are controlled by a dimmer switch or a sensor that turns them off when no one is in the room.
  • Outdoor light fixtures will need to use energy efficient bulbs or to be controlled by light and motion sensors.
  • At least half of your kitchen lighting – as measured in Watts – will have to come from energy-efficient light fixtures (generally meaning those using CFL or LED bulbs).

Title 24: Tough in Kitchens?

California has a worksheet for evaluating whether the balance of energy-efficient versus old-fashioned, inefficient Watts in a kitchen meet Title 24 standards. The first time I tried to fill out the form, I found it surprisingly difficult! It’s not that the form is unclear, or that the math is difficult. It’s just that the new forms of lighting are so much more efficient, it’s hard to strike a 50/50 balance. To equal the energy consumption of three small of Edison pendants, you wind up lighting the rest of the room like the Eiffel Tower!

A compact fluorescent is roughly 75% more efficient than a Edison bulb that puts out the same amount of light. It’s a bit confusing to think about, mostly because we are accustomed to mentally weighing the amount of light in watts. I know, for example, that I need at least at 75 watts for reading, and that a 40-Watt bulb is too dim.

But that wattage scale is pretty much history now, because an 11-Watt CFL puts out almost as much light as a 60-Watt incandescent. To make a meaningful comparison, you need to look at the light measured in lumens. (I have included a handy table below that will help you do that.)

Meanwhile, here’s what California’s Title 24 requires for kitchens:

  • Kitchen lighting requirements remain much the same as current codes, with the added provision that internal cabinet lighting cannot exceed 20 watts per linear foot of cabinet space.
  • Your low-energy and incandescent lights must be wired on separate circuits.

These standards, by the way, apply to permanently installed fixtures and not to plug-in lamps.

It’s Easy to Do the Right Thing

The good news about the changing California, US, and European standards is how easy it is to comply. Since energy-efficient bulbs have a longer lifespan than Edison bulbs (if you don’t buy the cheap Chinese versions that sometimes get dumped on the US market), the long-term savings should more than make up for the short-term expense of upgrading your lighting.

Prima low-energy wall sconces
Low-energy wall sconce from Prima Lighting. Photo courtesy of Prima Lighting.

It’s even easy to retrofit those recessed, round, can-style lights in your ceiling without rewiring them. The good folks at Opus Lights showed me screw in adaptors that enable current can-style fixtures to use CFLs that look just like current flood-style light bulbs. In addition, you will find several helpful consumer guides to the best in low-energy light bulb options at the end of this post.

Bright and Beautiful

The best news is how beautifully the options for low-energy lighting have progressed in the past couple years. This is true for track and cable lighting systems, for fixtures, for bulbs, and also for the actual quality of the light they produce.

As mentioned earlier, the new energy-efficient lighting options – both LEDs and CFLs – come in different shades of white. The color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we use have a color temperature of up to 2800K, and they shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Designers draw upon an understanding of the color of different kinds of light, and choose lights that make furnishings, merchandise and people look most attractive.

Prima Lighting

Prima Lighting, which manufactures the great lights I saw at Opus Lights, manufactures  low-voltage lighting systems for commercial, residential, retail and restaurant applications. Their products include bendable monorail and cable lighting systems in sleek chrome and muted silver finishes, as well as chandelier and miniature recessed lighting systems. They also have an extensive collection of pendants, many of which are pictured here.

Prima Lighting Rail System in commercial installation. Photo credit: Prima Lighting

One of the brightest spots in Prima’s line is their vast, handsome collection of low-voltage interchangeable spot light track heads. Prima’s signature FIT system features dual slot openings, horizontal or vertical orientation, and multi-circuit operation. Their wide array of interchangeable pendants and trackheads can be mixed and matched with the various mounting systems.

Pegasus Lighting

Pegasus Associates Lighting, which is based in Pittsburgh, PA, is a nationally recognized e-commerce site that sells unique lighting products to a wide spectrum of customers. Judging from their fan club on Facebook, they’re folksy – a family-run company that prides itself on being friendly, helpful, efficient, and enlightening.

Pegasus’ products are extensive. They include barbecue lights, cabinet lighting, cove lighting, desk lamps, display lights, exit signs, fiber optic lighting, light filters, fluorescent fixtures, light bulbs, LED fixtures, lenses, light boxes, louvers, mini pendant lights, night lights, over cabinet lighting, picture lights, reading lights, recessed downlights, rope lights, shelf lights, showcase lighting, step lights, track lighting, transformers, under cabinet lighting, UV filters, wall sconces, work lights, and xenon light fixtures!

Begun in 1993, Pegasus Associates Lighting is a division of the now-anachronistically-named Edison Lighting Systems, Inc., which has been in business since 1987. On their helpful and information-rich website, Pegasus takes pains to communicate their willingness to help you find and use unique and technologically-superior lighting products. Here’s what they have to say:

We consider a lighting product to be unique or, at least, somewhat unique if it is difficult to find, is contemporary or avant-garde in styling, is unusual in some fashion, uses a state-of-the-art light source or optical design, is custom-made, or is energy-efficient… we prefer to offer our customers lighting products that use LED, fluorescent, halogen, or xenon light bulbs instead of traditional incandescent light bulbs, and we prefer to offer our customers fluorescent lighting products that use quiet, energy-efficient electronic ballasts instead of magnetic ballasts.

Type
Wattage
Lumens
Lifespan Hrs.
Annual
Energy Cost
5-Year Cost
Incandescent 60W 840 1,000 $8.00 $1,200.00
CFL 11W 770 8,000 $1.45 $217.50
LED 5W 625 50,000 $0.40 $60.00

Getting Creative with LEDs

While researching this post, I found several artistically notable light fixtures built around CFLs or LEDs, and I thought I would close by sharing some of those visual delights.

Behar LED Lamp

The first is Cloud Softlights, which was created by the Molo design studio. Cloud Softlights are made from paper, and they are lit from within by LED lights. They are luminous and abstract, and indeed cloud-like. They can be hung in clusters and shaped to fit the space they are lighting.

The second is a designer-style LED lamp from Yves Behar and EcoCentric. To operate the Leaf Lamp, shown at right, you touch it. It responds to touch to turn on and off, and also to alter the brightness level and color temperature. You can adjust its angle  as well. It’s a low-energy lamp that is made from 95% recycled materials. I found it on a United Kingdom-based website, and I don’t know if it’s available in the US. (But I’m sure if you just have to have it, you can talk them into shipping it to you.)

"Fragile Future" LED installation created by Lonneke Gordijn. Photo credit: Wired Magazine website.

The third is “Fragile Future,” the ethereal LED installation shown at left. Begun as  designer Lonneke Gordijn’s graduation project from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2005, the sculptural installation pairs the fluff from dandelions with LED lights and wires.

Resource Links

Those who are shopping for stylish, energy-efficient lighting would also do well to visit Gold Notes, the blog written by my friend and fellow designer Jamie Goldberg. I didn’t know that Jamie was writing about lighting, and vice versa, but when her RSS feed popped into my mailbox, I was delighted by the lighting she had found. I’m sure you will be too.

Last Saturday, in the biggest (and possibly most beautiful) demonstration in the world’s history, lights all over the earth were dimmed in honor of Earth Hour – an event designed to raise consciousness about energy consumption and global warming.
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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

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.

Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

Encountering Kitchen Obstacles

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

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

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

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

  • Counter-productive counters: It’s impossible for Rhoda to reach anything placed at the back of the 24″ deep counters.
  • Out-of-reach shelves: The upper cupboards would be totally beyond her reach except for the fact that Rhoda’s wheelchair is equipped with a lift that will raise her seat about a foot.
  • Fridge door barricade: The refrigerator is placed in a corner on the narrow side of the room, so it’s impossible for her to approach it from the side. She can’t open the fridge from the front either, because the door would have swing through the space occupied by her wheelchair.
  • Cattle chute layout: Once she’s in, she has to laboriously back out of the kitchen because a trash can and recycling bins have been placed along the wall, narrowing the center aisle so much that there isn’t enough room for her to turn around.
Introducing Rhoda Rails! See the double tracks that lead from the cooktop to the sink? They are strips of metal inscribed into the countertop, and they stand about 1/8" above the counter surface. They would allow Rhoda to scoot a heavy pan of hot pasta off of the cooktop and around the corner to the sink to empty the water. It's very difficult for her to lift a pot like that; it takes two hands. If both of your hands are occupied with holding a pot of scalding water, there's no way to move or steer a wheelchair!

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

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

A Tour of the Succulent,
Sustainable Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhoda’s Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

Access Features in the Visitable Kitchen

The visitable, south kitchen includes:

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

Features of the ADA Accessible Kitchen

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

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

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In Memoriam: Kari Varland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

I Can See Clearly Now: Daylighting II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Match Wits with My Model

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

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

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

Here are the alterations I tested:

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

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

The Second Daylight Model

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

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

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

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Light from the Adjacent Room?

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

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

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

Buying a Stairway to Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Finale

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

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

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

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

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NicoLadder

I Can See Clearly Now

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

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

-Johnny Nash

Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

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.