Tag: sustainable interiors

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.

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

What’s in Today’s Linoleum?

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

Armstrong Marmorette with Naturecoat
Armstrong Marmorette with NaturCote

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

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

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

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

Links for Linoleum

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

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

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

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Glass Tile for Sustainable Style

Glass tile is a classy, eco-friendly material. In this post, I’m going to review three tile manufacturers not just to aid and entertain you, but also to give myself a chance to gorge on some delicious eye candy.

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay
Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay. Half of that content comes from recycled glass bottles.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have a passion for glass: art glass, doorknobs, drawer pulls, jewelry – and of course, glass tile! I find the color caught inside glass even more satisfying than my watercolors. (My paintings are not soft and watery like a Turner landscape; the colors are vivid and I love definitive line and form.) I experience a physical thrill of pleasure when I gaze into glass, observing the way it concentrates color – so pure, so transparent and intense! Then too, I love the bubbles, gradients, layers and textures that form in glass.

You can get glorious color, transparency, and texture in glass tile, and you can feel good about choosing it. Glass is an earth-friendly material.

What’s more, glass is completely recyclable, a substance that can be designed into a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing process. Old glass can easily be ground up, melted, and then recast into dishes, counter tops, tile or what-have-you.

Glass is made from three common substances  – silica, lime, and soda ash – that occur the world around, so it seems that plants making tile from recycled glass should be located all across the country.  My searches turned up numerous companies recycling glass into tile on the west coast, but I found almost none in the center of the country or on the east coast! Ecologically speaking, it’s far better to buy regionally – within 500 miles –  and avoid generating a big carbon footprint by shipping your glass tile a long distance.

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile
Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Whether you want to bring elegance to an entry, add color to a kitchen, beautify a bathroom, or put sparkle into a stairway, glass tile offers ways to do it. Glass tile is durable, easy to clean, and comes in an amazing range of styles and colors. Because I’m writing a blog rather than a book, I will cover only a few color and style options here. But the links at this post’s end will help you find choices galore as well as eco-conscious suppliers around the country.

Glass: Handle with Care

As with most materials, glass has its weak points: Because it’s usually slippery, it’s usually not a good choice for floors, except as a small accent. Because glass will shatter when subjected to extreme heat or cold, and because it can chip or crack if you accidentally whack it with a skillet, it’s not recommended for counter tops. (There are special forms of tile that combine glass with other materials and provide a very durable counter top while incorporating glass.) Glass tile works well for back splashes, for shower surrounds, on fireplaces, in swimming pools, around fountains, on the sides of steps, and on walls.

Choosing Your Colors

Glass can be glitzy, and the color can be intense. That’s one of its wonders, of course, but it’s easy to get carried away. If you want to choose vibrant or metallic colors, it’s probably best to make that glass tile an accent, rather than the main body of a wall. Designers often use a 60/30/10 rule for balancing color; they allocate a base color to 60% of a room, 30% to a related color, and 10% to a contrasting, accent color. Colors that “work” together usually form geometric patterns when laid out around a color wheel. Designers actually have names that describe those relationships; for example, there are jazzy complimentary palettes, subdued monochromatics with tints or shades, and colorful triadic palettes.

I would avoid trendy color combinations. There’s nothing wrong with powder blue or brown, but if you choose a tile that mixes those two colors for your kitchen, they will be together for the life of the tile. Right now that combo is in. But in a few years, someone will walk into your kitchen and think, “Oh yes! That was done in 2009, when those late 1960’s shades came back.” If you want to be au courant, you can paint the room powder blue and accent it with brown tile. When that palette starts to look “so 2009”, you can replace the powder blue paint with another color, changing the color scheme with far less labor and expense than would be involved in tearing out part or all of the tile.

Brick Mirror tile from Glass Tile Oasis

Here’s how I might go about creating a palette around the Glass Tile Oasis brick mirror glass shown at left. I would first choose the room’s base color; it might be an amber or the ivory in the tile. If you’re not working with a color consultant, I would advise you not to choose a dark or unusual color as a base for your palette. (An expert can make a purple room look great, but it’s hard to do, and getting it right takes skill and practice.)

This tile includes some shades of burnt orange or magenta that might work as an accent for an amber room, and the tile’s pink and purple shades would certainly work as accents in an ivory room.  But the reverse – say a purple room with amber and pink accents – will probably prove darkly unsettling.

Fireclay Tile, California

Fireclay Tile was founded by Paul Burns, who first started making tile with his uncle when he was 10 years old. Since founding Fireclay with three partners, Paul has devoted his efforts to finding more sustainable ways to make tile, using the most energy efficient manufacturing processes, and incorporating recycled content into his materials. This has resulted not only in beautiful products like the tile pictured on the stairs at the top of this post, it has also made Fireclay an environmental leader. Fireclay Tile’s innovations include:

  • Leadless Glazes – Fireclay converted to 100% leadless glazes in 1989.
  • Vulcanite – In 1997, Fireclay created tile that was glazed and fired from pieces of volcanic lava, a naturally occurring form of glass.
  • Debris Tile – Fireclay began putting 25% post-industrial recycled content (granite dust) into Debris Tile in 2,000. This tile, shown on the stairs, also includes recycled glass.
  • Jellybean Rocks – Firetile has created 20 styles of tile made from recycled materials, including glass bottles, sea shells, or natural stone colors (sometimes mixed together).

Firetile’s website states, “We are a triple-bottom line company and ensure we take the environment into account in every decision we make and pay all of our employees a fair wage and benefits.”

Hakatai Glass Tile, Oregon

Hakatai Enterprises has been importing and distributing glass tile since 1997,  working with architects, contractors and builders, interior designers and dealers, as well as homeowners.  The company was named by its president, Marshall Malden, who has enjoyed backpacking in the Grand Canyon for years. Hakatai, which is pronounced ha-keh-tie, is the Havasupai Indian tribe’s name for the Colorado River, and Hakatai shale is a geologic layer in the Grand Canyon.

Hakatai Tile Mural
Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai says that it is “committed to environmental conservation and sustainability.”  Recycled glass is a key ingredient in Hakatai ‘s Ashland-eCobblestone,  Tivoli and Calliope series of tile. The stunning mosaic tile at the top of this post is from the Calliope series. All of the tiles in these four collections are comprised of between 30 and 70% glass from bottles and/or other waste glass that would otherwise wind up in a trash heap. This waste glass is approximately 90% post-and 10% pre-consumer material.

Hakatai’s designers and artists also can turn any drawing or design into a hand-cut,  mosaic mural, like the one at left. This link to their website will lead you to a stunning collection of custom murals.

Sandhill Tile, Idaho

Founded in 1998 in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sandhill is now located in Boise, Idaho. The company’s products, including the elegant grey and sage “field tile” glass shown just below, are made from 100% recycled materials. Each tile takes less than one-half of the energy to produce than ceramic tile, and less than one-fourth of the energy it takes to produce a cast-glass tile.”

Tile manufactured by Sandhill

Sandhill’s manufacturing process came out of a a two-year research project. The project was initially funded by an Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant that was awarded to develop an innovative glass-fusing technology that utilizes 100% recycled glass.

Sandhill produces tile for both commercial and residential projects. It comes in 36 colors and matte or gloss finish. Their line includes field tile, border designs, mosaic blends, and deco pieces. Hakatai recently received the EPA Evergreen award for environmental excellence and leadership.

Glass tile from Sandhill Industries. This is a "field concept" that incorporates two kinds of tile: Riverblend field tile and a 4x4 inch Cypress deco piece.

Installation Tips

Because it’s transparent, glass showcases the skill of the installer – or lack of it – more readily than other sorts of tile. For that reason, I urge you to resist any latent impulse you feel to install it yourself.  Hire a professional instead.

You should demand to see a prospective installer’s previous jobs before you hire him or her, and it’s also good to know what to look for in an installation. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the grout color is right before the installer begins work. You can preview the look of the finished grouting job by sprinkling a teaspoon of dry grout in between some tiles.
  • Don’t let the installer mark on the wall. Contractors customarily pencil notes and write measurements on the wall when laying tile, but with glass tile, those marks will show through.
  • Before the adhesive sets, all the grout must be thoroughly cleaned from tile’s surface.  Once the grout has set, it can’t be removed – ever! You must remove and replace the tile to fix this problem.
Bronze Pearl 1" x 4" Black Kitchen Matte and Iridescent Glass Tile from Glass Tile Oasis
  • Glass tile usually comes covered with a paper “backing” that is actually attached to the face of the glass to protect it from scratches. Problems can occur when a person gets confused about which side of the tile should be placed up or attempts to take the paper off too soon, before the tile has set into the adhesive. (Given the need to also clean grout off the face before it sets, timing can be very tricky; this is why your contractor’s experience is so important.)
  • Never throw any grout, or anything with grout on it, down a sink, drain, or toilet. The grout will bond to the pipes and ruin your plumbing. Your contractor should use containers and materials that can be placed into the trash at the job’s completion – and you should also insist that the contractor cleans up the work area and disposes of the leftovers.
  • Reserve some tile in case you later need to replace a few tiles.
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Hats Off to the Glass Artists!

Ancient Roman glass and mosaic floor

I have always wanted to learn to blow glass, so I signed up for a one-day class at Public Glass in San Franciso.
I came away from that day with an increased admiration for the gaffers who practice the strenuous-yet-delicate art of glass blowing. I’m grateful for the crews of artisans who brave the rigors of the hot shop so that the rest of us can admire the beauty of glass in total thermal comfort.

The temperature outside was in the eighties, and that made the hot shop a virtual Sahara. I needed a much-more buffed upper body to hold the heavy pontil and keep it spinning. My glass kept dribbling away like melted taffy, and it had to be repeatedly rescued by kindly instructors.

At their urging, I spent the day alternately chugging bottles of water, then dousing my hair and clothes with an outdoor garden hose. Inside, they dried almost instantly.

Glass vase by Noah Salzman, one of the fine artists represented in Public Glass' gallery.

By the day’s end,  my insides felt like a bag of broken glass. I suffered muscle aches, shakes, shivers, and a shattering headache – mostly the result of dehydration. It was a chore to muster enough energy to rehydrate before falling into bed, freezing and heaped over with blankets.

 I treasure the lumpy, transparent clear glass holiday ornament I made that day – despite the fact that it’s so thick and heavy, it could never be hung on a tree.


To top it off, I was playing with fire. I could feel the glass kiln scorching the hair on my arms, even when I stood as far back as possible. (Given the physics involved, that made the pontil even more difficult to hold.)

Get a Grip: Eco and Ergo Handles

This post is devoted to handles, knobs and pulls – those humble fittings that scarcely merit a thought until they cause trouble. They command our attention only when they break – or when we do, losing strength and digital dexterity due to aging, injury, or arthritis.

Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass.  Size: 4 1/4 Wide X 1 1/2 Projection
Eco and Ergo: Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass. Size: 4 1/4" wide with 1 1/2" outward projection.

Pulls and handles can be ergonomically designed to make it easier to get a grip. Both the choice of materials and the shape of the handle play a role in ease of use. But what’s easy to use can differ quite a bit for differently-abled people.

Ecologically speaking, knobs and pulls, like every other product that we use, should be designed and chosen with an eye not only to how we will use them, but also to what will happen to them after we’re done using them. (I have been reading the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and becoming keenly aware that the notion of throwing or giving things “away” is wrong-headed. Realistically speaking, there is no “away.” Everything we throw away remains somewhere on earth, piling up in someone else’s back yard or buried in the product graves that we call landfills.)

This post will cover both “eco” handles  – those made from recycled and earth-friendly materials – and “ergo” handles that are designed for comfortable use. In some cases, I have found handles and pulls that meet both eco and ergo requirements and are beautiful as well. They meet my definition of elegant design.

Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Natures Hardware. Theres also a C shaped stone cabinet pull if grasping is a problem.
Eco and Ergo: Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Nature's Hardware. Because the stone is flat, you can hook your fingers underneath and pull with the whole hand. There's also a "C" shaped stone cabinet pull available from the same supplier.

I hope that you will find the discussion that goes along with these finds interesting. If instead, you find yourself amazed that anyone could make choosing a simple drawer pull so complicated, I invite you to simply enjoy the beauty of the fittings I have found.

At the bottom of this post, you will find learning and shopping links that will lead you to suppliers for everything that is pictured here – and more.

Ergonomics and Aging

Ergonomically speaking, drawer pulls that are shaped like the letters “C” or “D” and doorknobs that are levers are far easier to use as we age. The reason? We can exert pressure on them using our large arm muscles rather than having to pinch or grasp with our fingers.

Older people tend to lose strength and/or fine motor control in their hands, making twisting and pinching motions difficult. That’s the case with our friend Joe, whose arthritis has advanced to the point where he can no longer make a fist.  Both “universal design” and “accessible design” propose approaches that attempt to help folks like Joe. Both approaches work, but both have downsides.

This brass lever interior door handle, available from homehardwareplus.com, comes in either a left-hand or right hand model.
Eco: This interior door handle, from homehardwareplus.com, comes in a left- or right-hand model. Lever-style handles are the best choice for those with arthritis, and are also helpful for those whose hands are busy holding onto packages or small children.

Over the past couple decades, interior designers have been researching, debating and getting seriously hepped-up over the competing merits of universal and accessible design. (Who but an interior designer could devote a whole blog post to knobs and handles, for goodness sake?!)

Universal design aims to create products and environments that work for everyone – the young, the old, the tall, the short – instead of just creating things with an “average” user in mind. A universal design kitchen, for example, usually has counters of varying heights, so there’s one area that’s the right height for grandma in her wheelchair,  another for a school-aged child making a peanut butter sandwich, and yet another for dad, who is very tall. Universal design is concerned first and foremost with form, and it eschews frills. Accordingly, the International Style that is associated with universal design has been faulted for monotony and homogeneity. In Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart write that the International Style has evolved into “a bland uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place – from local culture, nature, energy and material flows…[and] reflect little if any of a region’s distinctness or style.”

DuVerre Kuba Recycled Metal pull from Natures Hardware
Eco and Ergo: DuVerre Kuba Recycled metal D-shaped pull from Nature's Hardware.

Accessible design is generally focused on creating products that work for people with disabilities such as low vision, impaired mobility or limited reach – a continual problem for people who use wheelchairs. Whereas universal design aims for a sleek, modern look, accessible design tends to look sturdy, utilitarian and even institutional. Another drawback is that changes made to accommodate one sort of problem can wind up making life difficult for people with a problem of another sort.

For example, after drinking fountains were lowered to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, people with bad backs were unhappy about having to stoop down to drink. The universal design compromise mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act has been to install fountains called “high/lows” – a pair of fountains at different heights. This has meant ripping out a lot of metal and rebuilding big chunks of the core plumbing area in many high-rises, an expensive undertaking that has contributed tons of metal and stone to landfill sites.

While universal and accessible design approaches overlap somewhat, both seek to create products that anticipate the physical needs of various groups of people, leading to compromises such as the high/low. If you know that specific individuals are going to use a room, fewer compromises are needed.

So what constitutes sound, elegant design? To my way of thinking, it’s a design that works to enhance the comfort and joy of an interior for you and yours, and one that simultaneously enhances the health and beauty of the earth, now and later. The offerings in this post don’t meet all those requirements in every instance, but they move in the right direction.

Opening the Door with Style and Ease

If functionality were the sole requirement, the fastest and easiest way to enable someone like our friend Joe to cope with a round doorknob would be to put a plastic sheath over it. For $5-$20, you can buy slip-over products that cushion the doorknob and provide greater traction or sheaths that will change the door knob’s shape from round to an oval or a lever.

Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware
Ergo: Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware.

I’m afraid that I find these remarkably homely, and I feel bad knowing that since they’re plastic, they are fated to wind up in a landfill where they will wait centuries for archeologists of the future to dig them up. Instead spending $10 to $30 for one of these aids (and being reminded of my disability every time I opened the door!)  I would rather spend $20 to $100 to replace (and recycle) the round door handle. It’s actually easy to replace interior door hardware using nothing more than a screwdriver. Assemblies that hold oval and lever-shaped doorknobs will fit usually fit right into the holes that were drilled for the old hardware assembly.

When it comes to doorknobs that aren’t round, you have a myriad of choices. Your minimalist, modern home might  look great with brass lever door hardware shown above or with  a sleeker version of the same design in brushed chrome.

But what if you live in a Victorian style house? No problem! The Victorians favored ornate oval doorknobs, and the House of Antique Hardware sells oval doorknobs made of many materials. You might choose the brass knobs shown above. Or you might opt for a plain white, black, or brown porcelain, in which case, you could feel good about choosing an environmentally friendly material.

Hand blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine
Eco: Hand-blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

If you’re looking for a dazzlingly colorful, earth-friendly choice and have no problem gripping a round doorknob, you might want to visit the website of All That Glass. This Portland, Oregon studio creates hand-blown glass doorknobs, as well as a variety of pulls, knobs, and even sinks.

Another supplier of fine art glass doorknobs is Light Impressions. Their work is shown at left. These blown glass creations are so beautiful that they could be considered art or jewelry. Moreover, glass is a green material. Glass is made from silica, a commonplace natural substance that requires no complicated extraction; it’s found in beach sand. Better yet, old glass can be ground up and made into new glass, making it very eco-friendly indeed.

Ocean-Friendly Knobs and Pulls

Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells
Eco and Ergo: Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells. Because each shell is unique in size and shape, when they are used as pulls, blind people can use them to differentiate between one drawer and another.

A colorful collection of pulls made from natural sea shells can be found at Pacific Shells. Most of their pulls are made from empty shells that would have otherwise have been thrown out after people have eaten the shellfish that lived in them.

Pacific Shells uses a patented system to strengthen the shells to allow them to resist tension and torsion. Here’s how the hardened shell handles are made:

  • 10% to 30% of the handle is a shell of a shell-fish rejected from the food chain (such as fish bones).
  • 25% to 80% is the handle is filled with sand that  has been mixed with 11% hardening synthetic resin.
  • the resin makes up 3%  to 9% of the shell handle.
  • A metal base makes up 2% to 10% of the item.

Pacific Shells says its “handles are among the most earth-friendliest or ecological products on the market”. The shellfish that produced the shells would been consumed anyway, and their shells would have become trash. Instead of becoming waste, the shells are processed into handsome crafted items.

Resources

Woven bamboo knob from Natures Hardware
Eco: Woven bamboo knob from Nature's Hardware. Their offerings include pulls made from bone, antler, shells, wood, recycled metal, stone and bamboo.
  • All That Glass -art glass fittings
  • Aurora Glass – a wonderful organization in Portland, Oregon that recycles glass and upcycles people! Aurora Glass is part of St. Vincent de Paul’s strategic recycling initiative for a healthier community.  All profits from the Aurora Glass Foundry are returned to the community in the form of assistance for homeless and low-income people through emergency services, housing, jobs, training, and other charitable endeavors.
  • Comfort and Joy Interior Design
  • Cradle to cradle overview in Wikipedia
  • Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking Sustainability – article and book review in Alternative Energy News with video and commentary
  • Drawer Pulls, Drawer Handles – the end-all, be-all collection of links to collections of pulls
  • Hafele fittings – source for a vast selection of ergonomically designed pulls, handles, fittings and hard-to-find items such as pull-down shelves and organizers
  • Green Mountain Ranch– Created by interior designer Cynthia Liebrock, this “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado showcases more than 180 ideas that demonstrate how universal design ideas complement green design. (She is also a wonderful person. After I wrote about Cynthia Leibrock in this blog, she contacted me and spent almost an hour mentoring me on the phone!)
  • Intersel – a very handsome collection of lever-shaped door knobs
  • Light Impressions – art glass fittings
  • MyKnobs.com – every sort of doorknob and pull you can imagine
  • Nature’s Hardware – knobs and pulls made from a variety of natural and recycled materials
  • Pacific Shells – knobs and pulls made from real seashells
  • Susan Goldstick – handcrafted resin pulls and knobs

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Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!
She’d scour the pots and scrape the pans,
Candy the yams and spice the hams,
And though her daddy would scream and shout,
She simply would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas, rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the window and blocked the door
With bacon rinds and chicken bones,
Drippy ends of ice cream cones,
Prune pits, peach pits, orange peel,
Gloopy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans and tangerines,
Crusts of black burned buttered toast,
Gristly bits of beefy roasts…
The garbage rolled on down the hall,
It raised the roof, it broke the wall…
Greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Globs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from green baloney,
Rubbery blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk and crusts of pie,
Moldy melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
At last the garbage reached so high
That finally it touched the sky.
And all the neighbors moved away,
And none of her friends would come to play.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout said,
“OK, I’ll take the garbage out!”
But then, of course, it was too late…
The garbage reached across the state,
From New York to the Golden Gate.
And there, in the garbage she did hate,
Poor Sarah met an awful fate,
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late.
But children, remember Sarah Stout
And always take the garbage out!


– Shel Silverstein

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



Glory Without Guilt: Reclaimed Wood Furniture

I love the warmth, colors, depth, dimensionality and feel of wood. I adore elegantly crafted, hand-made furniture and want to support the artisans who make it, especially now, when so many are struggling to make ends meet.

Humilitas table by Michael Yonke
Michael Yonke: Humilitas table. American heart pine with oak edge banding. It's 22.5 x 56 x 1.5" thick x 18.5" high, but can be made as a conference table.

Compared to say, Japan, where a master artisan can be awarded support and called a “living national treasure“, we do a rather haphazard job of supporting artisans in this country.

I recently discovered a number of innovative furniture makers who are creating “reclaimed wood furniture” – new furniture that has been made from wood that has been recycled from old barns, bridges, buildings and even wine barrels. Now I no longer need to feel guilty about encouraging clients to buy wood furniture.

This post is devoted to the many good ends that come from reclaimed wood furniture: feeding the artists, enjoying beautiful things that will last for years to come, giving new life to old resources, and ensuring that countless trees can continue growing and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.

First and Foremost, It’s Beautiful

Yes, I did claim that reclaimed wood furniture is beautiful. The photos prove it.

Yoshida wall unit from Greentea Design
Yoshida wall unit from Greentea Design

It’s true that some reclaimed wood furniture runs toward shabby chic, featuring old peeling paint and even commercial logos. For example, you can see chairs made from surfboards by Brazil’s Zanini de Zanine Caldas on the Treehugger website, but you won’t see them here. That’s too post-modern for my taste, and one of the advantages of writing a blog is that I get to feature what I want.

From the furniture I’m featuring here, you will see that my tastes run toward clean lines, both contemporary and traditional. The photos will also show you that there’s no way you would know that wood has been reused except for Toussaint spilling the beans.

A case in point is the work of Greentea Design of Toronto, Canada. I have yen for Japanese furniture, and also for some of the less ornate Chinese styles. As I write this, I’m sitting at an Asian-style table that my stepfather, Bill Devine, handcrafted to my special order more than twenty years ago. Bill always felt bad about using the stunning flame mahogany that is framed in the table’s center by a band of darker wood. The mahogany came from forests that were starting to disappear even when he made the table. This worried him and he eventually stopped buying mahogany.

But Greentea, which makes similarly designed two-toned pieces, like the media chest shown above, has solved that problem. I incorporated some Greentea pieces into a project last fall, simply because the style was perfect. Until I began researching this week’s post, I did not realize that all of Greentea’s furniture is made from wood that has been reclaimed from Korean barns. You need to pay attention to the details on the Greentea website to discover that the “green” in their name is there for environmental as well as cultural reasons.

Whit McCleod: Morris spindle chair
Whit McCleod: Morris spindle chair

Michael Yonke of Santa Monica, whose work is featured at the top of this blog, creates furniture and art from wood, metal and glass. Yonke reclaims local “deconstruction materials” and uses them to create furniture, doors, cabinets and trim. He also writes a blog on “upcycling”. That term was coined by the authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, William McDonough and Michael Braungart. They defined it as “the practice of taking something that is disposable and transforming it into something of greater use and value.”

Yonke says that “Upcycling is achieved by repurposing the materials into objects with higher end-use value that will endure and inspire for centuries…” Yonke’s work is available for purchase at upcycler.etsy.com

From Redwoods and Wine Barrels

Whit McLeod, whose shop is in Arcata among the redwoods of Northern California, began his career as a wildlife biologist. His reverence for nature is reflected in his award-winning Arts and Crafts furniture. McLeod’s company salvages redwood from demolition sites, wine or water tanks, or salvaged logs, and he also reclaims quarter-sawn white oak from old wine barrels. In 1991, he dismantled the tanks at the Italian Swiss Colony Winery in Asti, California. Founded in 1883, Asti is a California Historical Landmark. Although considerable expertise and effort must go into the salvage process, McLeod points out that using this old wood has definite advantages:

Woodworkers know that the best quality wood comes from old-growth trees. Old-growth timber is harder, denser, and more stable than wood from young trees. It also tends to have fewer knots and structural defects. However, old-growth timber usually comes with the high price of destroying ancient forests.

Beer Barrels and Slalom Gates

If you happen to live closer to the right coast than the left, I have found a wonderful furniture maker named Doug Clarner in Vermont. Clarner’s style is rooted in the Shaker tradition, but also incorporates some Arts and Crafts and Japanese elements. Agreeing with what McLeod has to say about the benefits of old-growth wood, Clarner says:

…In addition to the benefits of added strength and durability, the coloring and rich texture of well-worn reclaimed wood can also be highly desirable. Aged wood has deep, beautiful colors and a rich patina that can not be imititated – these qualities can only be bestowed by time.

Sideboard from Salem Beam and Board
Sideboard from Salem Board and Beam

Clarner has reclaimed old-growth cypress and redwood from the vats of the defunct Rheingold Beer Factory in Brooklyn. He even has created a Rapid Gate Ski Chair made from recycled gates from slalom courses!

Upcycling Old Barns in
New England

Moving a bit down the map of the east coast, you will find another fine maker of reclaimed wood furniture, Ken Salem. Ken was a financial advisor in Boston for 15 years. He returned to his family business after his father fell ill, and subsequently decided to give up Wall Street to hand-craft beautiful furniture. His company is Salem Board and Beam.

Ken reclaims much of his wood from old barns, which were often made of American chestnut. He also salvages cherry, black American walnut and spalted maple trees that are slated for removal, giving storm-downed and damaged hardwoods new life. His style also grows out of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Shaker tradition.

Sickly Seattle Trees Find New Life

Urban Hardwoods: Seattle conference table
Urban Hardwoods conference table

The modernists among my readers may be interested in furniture made by Urban Hardwoods in Seattle “from trees that would have been discarded.”

According to Urban Hardwood’s website, each piece of furniture is made “from massive slabs of Pacific madrone, sycamore, walnut, elm, and other trees that spent their lifetimes in Seattle. Each piece unique, each with a story to tell.”

In 2008, Sustainable Industries Magazine named Urban Hardwoods to a list of the top ten companies providing green building products in honor of their work in transforming diseased trees into beautiful furniture. The company has showrooms in both Seattle and San Francisco.

The Beauty of Flaws

Andrea Joyau bench. Read more about this artist on the Inhabitat website by clicking the image above.
Andrea Joyau bench. Read more about this artist on Inhabitat by clicking the image above.

I’m indebted to the Inhabitat weblog for telling me about self-taught woodworker Andrea Joyau of Brooklyn, who doesn’t have a website. Joyau’s clean-lined style draws interest from the rustic nature of the reclaimed hardwood that he uses in making his furniture.

Like many of Urban Hardwood’s pieces, Joyau’s work consciously features knots and imperfections as focal points in many pieces. His shop is at 20 Van Dam Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; his phone number is (718) 963-2616.

Shop Scraps in Brooklyn and Thailand

Uhuru Designs of Brooklyn is being featured in the AD Home Design Show in New York City this week, as well as on the 3rings architectural products blog, where Jenny Rector has written a wonderful post about them.

Striper Line by Uhuru contemporary side tables and accent tables

Uhuru, founded in 2004 by Bill Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath, practices upcycling by using materials that have been “reclaimed, recycled, repurposed, reused, or otherwise rejected from their original function.” Uhuru has collected scraps from local workshops – scraps that would usually destined for the dump – and turned them into remarkable tables. The Striper Table, shown here, is one example of this construction. Another lovely example, the Stoolen table (shown below beside the poem), is a massive round table that is flattened on top, but has a topography of uneven wood ends on the flipside.

Uhuru is also using heart pine that comes from buildings being torn down in New York City. Of their work, Hilgendorf and Horvath write, “We strongly agree with the Shaker assertion that ‘beauty rests on utility’. We strive to make furniture and products that are beautiful in their simplicity with an acute awareness of materials and craft… For us, sustainability is about choosing materials with the least amount of environmental impact, whether it is what they are made of, how they are produced, or where they come from, and using them in a way where little to no waste is created.”

Bookbench by Thai architect Inchatoo

I would like to close this post with a nod to Thai architect and product designer Singh Intrachooto. Using wood from reclaimed trees that have been uprooted to build roads or left over from his architectural projects, Intrachooto’s company, Osisu Design, has created collections called Lini, Lami and Tilee. I learned about Intrachooto’s work on the Treehugger website, where the writer wondered “how much glue was used to laminate all those off cuts together.”

Intrachooto emailed them and answered that question:

You are correct that the technique used to construct these furniture requires glue. We use a water-based glue which is nontoxic in its production and does not release VOC. The finishes we use are either Livos oil or teak oil, depending on the clients. We do not use lacquer or other toxic paints. We want to eliminate all the toxic substances not only for environmental reasons, but also for the longevity of our human resource. The builders who make this furniture are master builders, very skilled, highly patient and understanding of the environmental concerns; they are irreplaceable. They must be well taken care of. They have to be healthy if we are to survive; everything we use must not hurt them nor our customers. Else we all are going to loose the battle to save the environment.

Gee, I wish I had said that! It’s far more eloquent than the “save the trees and feed the artists” coda I was going to write. So I’ll close by saying “amen to that.”

Links for Reclaimed Wood Furniture

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Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website

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Ode to Things

(Excerpt, full poem here)
…Oh yes,
the planet
is sublime!
It’s full of pipes

weaving
hand-held
through tobacco smoke,

and keys

and salt shakers –
everything,
I mean,
that is made
by the hand of man,

every little thing…

Mankind has built
oh so many
perfect things!
Built them of wool
and of wood,

of glass and
of rope:
remarkable
tables,
ships, and stairways.

I love
all things,

not because they are
passionate
or sweet-smelling
but because,
I don’t know,

because
this ocean is yours,
and mine;
these buttons

and wheels

and little
forgotten
treasures,
fans upon

whose feathers
love has scattered
its blossoms
glasses, knives and
scissors
all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface…

-Pablo Neruda

 

Stoolen table from Uhuru designs
Stoolen table from Uhuru designs


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

Of Sexy Seniors & Tasteful Tree Huggers

Interior of the greenest house in Rockridge
Inside the country's greenest house

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

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

David Gottfried & the Nation’s Greenest Home

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

Before
Gottfried Craftsman house

After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Universal Design & Aging in Place

Interior of Leibrock home
Interior of Cynthia Leibrock's Green Mountain Ranch home

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

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

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

What is Accessible Design?

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

Sexy Design & the Senior Citizen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website

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Short People
(Excerpt – listen to the whole song)

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

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

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

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

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

-Randy Newman