As a freelance writer and book author, Linda Mason Hunter spends many hours holed up in her home office. It has all the amenities necessary for the work-at-home life — computers, desk, lighting — but her setup is not something you’d find at your local office supply store.
That’s because Hunter, author of Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home (Melcher Media, 2005) and a long-time supporter of the environmental movement, insisted on using materials that were earth-friendly and limited her toxin exposure. “My main home is an old farmhouse that was built in 1910,” Hunter says. “The structure is not made from synthetic chemicals like drywall, medium-density fiberboard, plywood and all that. My walls are plaster and whenever I paint, I paint with no-VOC [volatile organic compounds] paint.”
Her furniture is all antique solid wood chairs and desks to avoid chemicals used in pressed board. Windows on two of the four walls not only let in natural light but allow for a cross-breeze that cuts summertime energy costs. Her shelves are metal and she uses special outlets, called Smart Strips, to reduce the use of “phantom electricity”—power used when a device is technically turned off. To charge electronic gadgets such as cell phones, MP3 players, and digital cameras, she uses Solio, a solar charger that eliminates needlessly draining energy from a wall socket once your device is fully charged.
Hunter believes that these changes are not only good for the Earth but also good for her health. “I just want to be as happy and productive as possible,” she says. Choosing materials with low VOCs that are sustainably harvested and that help reduce energy needs allow her to do just that.
Here are some tips for designing your green home office:
Paint is preferable to wallpaper, which uses paper and adhesives. Look for brands, such as Safecoat, that do not use VOCs. VOCs are gases that may have short- and long-term health effects, including eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
For a home office, hardwood is preferred. Bamboo, a renewable resource, is the eco-all-star. “It is a woody grass, which grows quickly and it can be harvested year after from the same plant,” Hunter says. “Plus, it is beautiful.” Cork is another flooring favorite.
Marmoleum is also a good choice. Made from linseed oil, rosins, wood flour, and natural jute, manufacturers say it stands up well to heavy rolling loads and foot traffic. But Paul Novack, environmental product specialist at Brooklyn, NY-based Green Depot, says that no matter what flooring you choose, a rolling chair is going to make its mark.
“You need something between the rollers and the floor,” Novack says. “Bamboo has the same hardness as maple, but believe me, rolling is certainly going to wear it out.” A floor mat made from recycled plastic will help.
Heating and Cooling
If you work from home, there’s a good chance you are heating or cooling your entire house even though you are really only using one room. Green architect Charlie Szoradi, who runs GreenandSave.com, recommends installing an extra programmable thermostat and dampers that allow you to climate control just that room.
“We normally need to run a furnace for 30 or 40 minutes to bring the house up to three or four more degrees of temperature,” Szoradi says. “You might only run this thing for 10 or 15 minutes to heat your office because it is not blowing air to all those other branches on the tree.”
A radiant floor heating system would be another good choice for warming only one room in the colder months. In the summer, use ceiling fans to reduce your need for air conditioning. Thermal insulated curtains, especially those that use Mylar, can block out the sunlight that quickly raises a room’s temperature.
Many electronics, including televisions, are still using 25 percent of their regular electrical load when turned off because they are actually in “standby mode.” You can eliminate that waste, Szoradi says, by plugging these items into a surge protector that allows you to completely cut all power with the flip of a switch. To control energy for the entire room, call an electrician to install a wall switch that will allow you to shut off all the room’s power.
Another good option for reducing energy usage is installing compact fluorescent light bulb (CFLs). They use 60 percent less electricity and have nine to 10 times the lifespan of incandescent bulbs, Szoradi says.
Novack cautions that while CFLs are great at reducing energy, they’re not optimal for the task lighting you would need at a desk. He recommends full-spectrum bulbs, which give you the same color-rendering index (CRI) of sunlight and are therefore easy on the eyes.
Between computers, printers, scanners, and other peripherals, a home office can use a lot of electricity. Consider trading in your desktop PC for a laptop. The Apple MacBook has an energy-efficient LED screen. If you need the memory resources of a desktop model, the latest iMac features recyclable materials and meets Energy Star 4.0 requirements.
If you’re a PC-person, Hewlett-Packard now offers energy-efficient desktops that are 46 percent smaller than previous models and loaded with SURVEYOR, a network power software agent that helps to measure, manage and reduce PC power consumption.
A greener home office will not only reduce your carbon footprint and help you breathe a little bit easier, but also put dollars back into your wallet — both in terms of dollars saved and increased value of your home, says Szoradi. “Just like granite countertops are more valuable, when you tell someone that they will save thousands of dollars a year in utility bills, people’s ears perk up,” he says.