Author Archives: Maureen Blaney Flietner

How To: Furnish a “Green” Home

Learn how to furnish a green home. Whe buying pieces for a room, consider the environmental effects.

Green Furnishings


Research by the American Home Furnishings Alliance out of High Point, NC, reveals three interesting points about consumers purchasing furniture: (1) they are quick to show interest when the subject of sustainability is raised, (2) buying from local manufacturers and smaller enterprises is appealing, and (3) there is a perception that furnishings made in the U.S. are more durable.

The green movement has emerged as the most compelling story in furniture over the last few years, according to Jeff Hiller, owner of PROaction Marketing Group in Austin, Texas, and founding board member and marketing chair for the Sustainable Furniture Council in Chapel Hill, NC. The green idea, he says, is driving the industry to manufacture, bring to market, and sell products in a manner that minimizes negative environmental effects, is socially responsible in the treatment of workers, and allows the business to make a fair profit while supporting local communities.

A non-profit coalition of home furnishings manufacturers, importers, retailers, designers and major nongovernmental organizations, the SFC is spearheading the commitment to promoting sustainable practices. With nearly 250 members, the SFC was founded in October 2006 and published the first comprehensive set of industry sustainability standards based on the LEED model in commercial building. Its mission is education—to increase awareness, assist development and bring to market products that meet the consumer mandate for style, value and eco-responsibility.

While there is no standard definition yet for a “green” product, certain attributes arise, which include independent third-party verification; use of renewable, reclaimed, recycled, or sustainably harvested materials; little or no use of chemicals; local sourcing; and socially and environmentally responsible manufacturing processes.

The marketplace has been imaginative and responsive. Here are a few examples.

Health-driven concerns. A customer’s need for a healthy home environment gave one Boston area company a new direction. Barry Shapiro, the fourth generation in the Brighton Upholstering and Brighton Mattress Company, said the company got a request for a custom sofa from a woman with a compromised immune system who could not tolerate ordinary furniture.

After three years of research, the company developed a sofa using only chemical-free components. The satisfied customer spread the word among those with chemical sensitivities and requests poured in. What had been one project led to orders from around the world. Shapiro launched a new company, Furnature, in Watertown, MA, to develop the special products. The company makes furniture using certified organic fabrics, cotton canvas and wool, and water-based glues and stains without volatile organic compounds.

With proprietary information restrictions, he adds, “consumers often don’t know what they are getting,” Shapiro says. “We hear all the time about indoor air quality, sick building syndrome. These people are the canaries of our generation; their immune systems can’t tolerate these things. It’s all about health for people first and that ties in with health for the planet,” says Shapiro.

Stylish and sustainable. Knú LLC in Zeeland, MI, mixes the commercial office and healthcare furniture expertise of its parent company, Industrial Woodworking Corporation, with the creativity of its CEO and designer Brad Davis to create stylish furniture designs for the residential market.

Knú sells online (no printed catalogs) and through showrooms in Savannah, Boulder and Brooklyn. Director of Marketing Jerome Alicki notes that Knú uses FSC-certified wood whenever possible, which has been 100 percent so far. Knú uses a low-VOC varnish, furniture legs are of recycled-content steel and lead-free dyes that give bright colors to its children’s furniture. Wood components are produced from FSC-certified, multi-ply Baltic birch. Lamination uses a polyvinyl acetate adhesive that contains no volatile organic compounds. Alicki says Knú is dedicated to working with local suppliers who have demonstrated a commitment to sustainable, low-impact raw materials and 90 percent are within a 50-mile radius.

Its eco-friendly aspects go beyond the furniture. Knú and Industrial Woodworking Corp. teamed up with the to offset carbon-emitting forms of energy. For example, All electricity, natural gas, air travel, and vehicle use is offset using Green-e certified alternative energy credits and through its support of’s CarbonFree’ program.

Recycled and outdoor-ready. Impressed with the durability of components used in their previous business—creating skateboard parks for municipalities—one group of entrepreneurs started an outdoor furniture business. Loll Designs of Duluth, MN, uses the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) from recycled plastic milk jugs to create outdoor furniture and the paper-based composite Richlite (certified by the Greenguard Environmental Institute) for its tabletops.

CEO Greg Benson says the company creates the designs, cuts the shapes out of 5/8-inch-thick and one-inch-thick HDPE sheets obtained from a Georgia plastic recycling plant, and assembles them by hand.

Benson says the business is growing quickly with demand this year exceeding projections. People like the designs, he says. “I don’t know if they would buy it if it was just ‘green.’ ” Eco-friendliness also carries through the business. The company refurbished an existing plant on a former brownfield site, a property that had the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. It is also a member of 1% For The Planet a group of more than 1,300 companies that donates one percent of their gross sales to a network of more than 2,300 environmental organizations worldwide.

Here are some important terms relating to green furniture:

Wood. Forest Stewardship Council certification has become the standard. Among other requirements, it prohibits the use of highly hazardous pesticides around the world, prohibits the cultivation of genetically modified trees, and respects the right of indigenous peoples. Pressed-wood products bonded with formaldehyde-based adhesives can pollute indoor air. Furniture with alternative adhesives is available.

Reclaimed wood. Wood byproducts gathered from manufacturing plants, trees cut from urban areas, trees removed as unproductive from orchards, or wood recovered from landfills can become furniture.

Renewables. Several alternatives to traditional lumber trees, such as bamboo, regenerate quickly and are versatile.

Recycled. Diverting materials from growing U.S. landfills offers a great option. Aluminum, glass, and plastics are among some of the many choices.

Upholstered. Consider products using minimally treated or organic wool, cotton or hemp fabrics, the use of recycled wire and metals in springs, and recycled textiles in batting or bio-based hybrid foams.

Used. Our throwaway society dumps some useful stuff. Check out local antique or secondhand furniture options. Consider reupholstering your existing furniture with eco-friendly materials.

“‘Sustainable’ and ‘green’ are great buzzwords, but they are also catch-all terms that do not sufficiently discriminate,” says Jeff E. Hiller, marketing chair for the Sustainable Furniture Council.

The practice of making environmentally oriented claims that mislead consumers has become such a problem it has a name: greenwashing. Hiller says “a recent study of over 1,000 products across a wide variety of categories found that 99 percent were guilty of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims.

So, what can a consumer do? Hiller suggests asking questions. For example, ask where the furniture is made. Local sourcing is best. The farther away your furniture is made, the less you know about its background and the more transportation is required (the second largest cause of emissions). Ask for local products and insist on FSC-certification or chains of custody from hot spots like Indonesia and the Philippines.

You may want to know what wood is in the furniture and if it is certified. Around the world, FSC-certified represents the most rigorous standards with on-site verification. If the wood is not certfied, ask for fast-growing and/or commercially harvested species such as bamboo and mango.

Learn what finish is on the wood. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are toxic pollutants in most finishes such as varnish, lacquer, and shellac. Ask for water-based finishes or natural waxes that have up to 85 percent less VOCs.

Ask whether the manufacturer has an energy reduction plan. Burning fossil fuels produces the most carbon dioxide (CO2), and generating electricity is the number one use.

Be prepared to hear “I don’t know” and “Let me check,” but keep asking.

Green Homes—Electronic Controls

New systems allow homeowners to manage power usage.



Today’s home automation products allow homeowners to take an active role in managing power consumption while controlling home climate, lighting, and security.

People can start saving energy simply with single devices, says Steve Koenig, Industry Analysis Director of the Consumer Electronics Association , which represents 2,200 companies. A basic programmable thermostat can lower the heat or raise the cooling temperature when no one is home, thus saving money. A timer can consistently turn off outside lights at a certain hour instead of having them left on all night using up kilowatts.

“People also don’t think about appliances plugged into receptacles using energy when they’re turned off,” says Lisa Whitcomb, senior public relations specialist with Intermatic. “This phenomenon is known throughout the industry as vampire electronics. In a standby mode, some products such as a stereo or TV can still draw small amounts of power to keep them warmed up. When the InTouch outlet is powered off, all electric current is stopped from going through the outlet to whatever may be plugged in to it.”

Living “green” is also about reducing the carbon footprint, says Product Marketing Manager Grant Sullivan for Leviton Home Automation Products, based in Little Neck, NY. “Extending bulb life means fewer light bulbs are put in landfills,” he says. “Converting switches to dimmers means less energy is wasted”

Simply dimming a lamp has positive effects on energy usage. Sullivan says:

  • Dimming a lamp 10 percent reduces energy use by 10 percent and provides twice the bulb life.
  • Dimming a lamp 25 percent reduces energy use by 20 percent and provides four times the bulb life.
  • Dimming a lamp 75 percent reduces energy use by 60 percent and provides more than 20 times the bulb life.

Beyond individual controls, having devices work together in a whole house system can add to energy savings. For example, a motion detector, noting there is no movement in the house, might reduce energy usage by the HVAC or dim or turn off certain lights.

Energy-Saving Electronics - Dimmer


Sampling the Marketplace
A surprising array of products are available or being developed to help conserve energy in the home. Leviton, for example, produces lighting controls, wireless controls, and power line controls. Levitons Sullivan offered examples of what its products can do.

“Consider a lighting circuit controlled by a traditional toggle switch,” he says. “Turn on the switch and each bulb instantly goes to 100 percent every time. Replace that switch with Leviton’s Vizia + or Vizia RF + dimmer and, beyond the obvious ability to dim the lights, the user has added benefits. If the new Energy Save Mode is engaged, the user will reduce energy consumption every time that dimmer is used because that mode allows a maximum brightness level to be preset. The return is savings in energy use and extended bulb life.”

Sullivan says the benefits can be expanded by uniting all home control devices into a common wireless system, such as Leviton’s Vizia RF +, which uses Z-Wave® wireless technology and allows a homeowner to schedule events such as turning the porch lights on or dimming them at specific times.  The system also provides the consumer with remote access capability.

Home Automation, Inc., (or HAI), based in New Orleans, LA, manufactures control systems and products, including energy management tools. CEO Jay McLellan says a home often has many control components and it doesn’t cost much more to make them work together for homeowner comfort and convenience. HAI’s tools include programmable communicating thermostats that have the ability to exchange information with an electric meter to show the current cost of energy, amount of energy used, and what the next utility bill will be.

The company’s heavy-duty control modules can control water heaters and pool pumps. With its home control system, which can link remotely to handheld mobile devices, users can monitor and control lights and temperatures as well as security, audio and Web cams.

Intermatic, based in Spring Grove, IL, manufactures consumer and industrial energy control products. Its InTouch and HomeSettings control systems both use Z-Wave protocol. Intermatic’s Whitcomb says the company’s home controls can be wired into the wall or plugged into receptacles. They can work alone or as part of a whole-house network.

Prices vary with homeowner needs. A HomeSettings starter kit with two devices and a controller is about $100 retail, while the InTouch entry kit for a 2,500-square-foot home for those hiring professional installers sells for about $1,000, not including installation.

Control4, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, uses technologies such as ZigBee, WiFi, and Ethernet standards and Linux to increase integration of existing systems and to reduce user costs. “Digital households are overflowing with feature-rich gear and media that should work together but rarely do,” says CEO Will West. By developing standards-based products instead of proprietary ones, Control4 provides home automation solutions that tackle the problem of too many remote controls and disparate digital gadgets with no connectivity standards.

Evolving Market
Koenig says that emerging solutions include products that allow homeowners to schedule power usage. He says one solution is a home battery that can draw its power during non-peak, and less expensive, periods and supplement a home’s needs during more expensive peak hours.

Home monitors are also of interest. Control4’s 4Sight Internet Service gives homeowners the ability to securely monitor and control their home from any Internet connection. It includes email alerts for events that a person may want to monitor in their home, such as a garage door left open or a basement water leak.

Eco-Friendly Cabinets

With homes increasingly air tight, eco-friendly cabinets are more important than ever.

Green Cabinetry


Cabinetry is commonplace in kitchens, bathrooms, and often home offices and family rooms. But while durability, style, and color often dominate our selections, other factors to consider are the effects on indoor air quality and the sustainability of the materials.

Cabinets are often made from pressed wood products, such as particleboard, hardwood plywood paneling, and medium-density fiberboard. The problem is that these materials typically contain formaldehyde, one of the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are emitted as gases from certain solids and liquids, including various paints, lacquers, and binders.

With homes increasingly air tight, the release of VOCs into the air can present significant health risks, from asthma to cancer. While VOC levels may decrease over time, they can linger for years, and with people spending about 90 percent of their time indoors, that is a problem.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does regulate formaldehyde as a carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency says it is advisable to mitigate formaldehyde that is present at levels higher than 0.1 parts per million parts of air, but there is no standard regulating other VOCs in non-industrial settings. Key symptoms of exposure to VOCs range from watery eyes, burning throat, or headache to difficulty in breathing and dizziness.

Given the possible presence of VOCs and other chemicals, here are things to keep in mind if you are considering cabinets for a new home or a remodeling project:

  • Look for cabinets made of materials with third-party verification of source or safety.
  • If someone in the household has specific chemical sensitivities, get samples of the materials and finishes you are considering. Review the Material Data Safety Sheets to pinpoint any specific known substances. If there are none, allow household members to live with these choices to determine if they will work.
  • Obtain and review the MSD sheets. Contact the cabinetmaker. If the cabinets are imported, contact the importer or distributor regarding your concerns and ask for manufacturing details.
  • Consider cabinet cores made from marine grade plywood (not particleboard or interior-grade plywood), which emits lower formaldehyde levels.
  • Avoid cabinets made from conventional particleboard and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) produced with urea-formaldehyde binder, especially in moist locations, such as the bathroom, says USGBC’s Ashley Katz. The material is highly susceptible to moisture damage. Water or even high humidity can swell these panel products. Repeated exposure to moisture can cause de-lamination or decomposition.
  • Check for the safety of finishes and adhesives. Having a finish that is water-based, for example, does not necessarily mean it is low-VOC. Check with the cabinetmaker.
  • Go eco-friendly with your cabinet hardware as well, suggests green designer Annette Stelmack. Check out shops that offer such treasures as recycled glass, aluminum and bronze, cork, eco-resin and antique pulls, hinges, handles and knobs.
  • When ordering cabinets, specify the needs for low- or no-VOCs and third-party certified wood to be assured that you are not getting default—and perhaps non-green—components.
  • If you have already installed new cabinets and found that they do contain formaldehyde or other VOCs, increase the ventilation in your home. If you are worried about formaldehyde, use dehumidifiers and air conditioning to control humidity, maintain a moderate temperature to help reduce emissions, and ventilate your home.

Get the Details
It can be useful to work with an interior designer versed in green products and with access to such professional green information sources as Building Green, according to Annette K. Stelmack of Louisville, CO, a green building expert who is a past chair for the American Society of Interior Designers’ National Sustainable Design Council. Those going it alone on their cabinet project should ask for and review the Material Safety Data (MSD) sheet that lists everything that goes into a product. It can often be found on the Web site of the cabinetmaker, says Stelmack.

As consumers demand more green choices in cabinetry, the industry is responding. One pioneering cabinet maker, Neil Kelly Cabinets of Portland, OR, went green more than 10 years ago, according to Mark Smith, chief executive officer. In 1998 the company came out with its Naturals collection, which used no-added-urea-formaldehyde agri-board panels, binders and glues, FSC-certified wood veneers and low VOC glues, adhesives and finishes. It was the first in the U.S. market with a full range of environmentally friendly materials and construction techniques.

With the success of that line, the company decided to make everything environmentally friendly. It continues its research so that it can meet increasingly tougher government mandates.

Wheat straw produced in the Minnesota area becomes the cores for a green line of cabinets produced by Koch Cabinets of Ashland, OR. According to Advertising Manager Betsy Macke, wheatboard has proven to be just as strong as particleboard, is a rapidly renewable resource growing in a single season, and is made without formaldehyde.

Neil Kelly’s green cabinets meet LEED Green Building Rating System® specifications for low-emitting materials and rapidly renewable resources. Its products may help projects earn points toward LEED® Certification. All adhesives used in assembling the cabinets meet LEED Green Building Rating System standards and are compliant with California Air Resources Board air quality standards. Hardwoods available for cabinets are certified through the PEFC, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes based in Geneva, Switzerland, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes sustainably managed forests through independent third-party certification.

Designer Stelmack says other renewable materials are also finding their way into cabinets. Kirei board, for example, is an engineered product using the stalks of sorghum plants, and bamboo is used in a laminated plywood under the trademark Plyboo®. Reclaimed wood also is popular, she says.

“Re-using existing cabinetry is always preferred, especially if the cabinets are in good condition and pose no threat to the health of the people living in the home,” says Ashley Katz, communications manager for the U.S. Green Building Council based in Washington, DC. “Using salvaged cabinetry can be a way to reduce the impacts of manufacturing new goods, as well as reducing the amount of material entering landfills. While the variety of cabinetry materials once was sparse and limiting, now the choices for environmentally friendly cabinetry materials are endless, and we expect this trend to continue,” says Katz.

Advanced Framing Techniques

With the increased emphasis on saving the environment and costs, there is renewed interest in “advanced framing” construction techniques, which were proven effective more than a decade ago.

Advanced Framing


With the increased emphasis on saving the environment and costs, there is renewed interest in “advanced framing” construction techniques, which were proven effective more than a decade ago.

Advanced Framing Basics
Advanced framing is the name given to techniques designed to reduce the amount of lumber used and waste generated in a residential construction project and to improve a home’s energy efficiency.  Also known as Optimum Value Engineering, advanced framing includes such practices as building corners with two studs instead of three, which allows more insulation to be included.

The ideas have been known about for years, though the homebuilding industry has been slow to adopt them. A Natural Resources Defense Council handbook from 1998 included advanced framing among the ways to reduce waste of resources.

NRDC Senior Sustainable Building Specialist Kevin Mo says the techniques can be used as a package or separately depending on specific needs. The main objective is to use less lumber without compromising structural integrity so that more insulation can be put on the enclosure.

“The techniques are not rocket science but do take time for builders to adopt,” says Mo. techniques. “Now, more local building codes approve the techniques, and more contractors have gone through the learning curve. Builders are more familiar with the techniques and willing to apply the advanced framing techniques for energy efficiency.”

Proven in the Field
Advanced framing is one of many green methods Ferrier Builders & Ferrier Custom Homes of Fort Worth, TX, employs in both new homes and remodeling projects. “We have always specialized in extremely energy-efficient homes, with the first one back in 1982,” says Don Ferrier, chief executive officer. The company emphasized air sealing as well as reducing, reusing. and recycling long before the idea of “green builder” became popular.

The company works with the Building America research teams of the U.S. Department of Energy to employ cutting-edge and proven energy-efficiency techniques, including the advanced framing methods. Some potential subcontractors still balk at the idea of switching from standardz

techniques to advanced framing. “It’s not a difficult thing but it’s just enough different that we’ve heard people say ‘Never done that and don’t know if I want to,’ ” says Ferrier, who was named Green Building Advocate of the Year in 2007 by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

“Studs 24 inches on center instead of 16, single top plate instead of double top plates, no headers on non-load-bearing walls—the differences are subtle,” but they add up, Ferrier says. For example, instead of two smaller headers, advanced framing would place one larger header that would allow for up to two inches of foam insulation that can increase R-value from 1.5 to 7.5.

Cost and Energy Savings
Kevin Morrow, NAHB program manager for green building standards, says the organization is doing all it can to increase builder education in all levels of green building. He suggests consumers look for a builder with the NAHB designation as certified green professional to ensure they are schooled in innovative techniques such as advanced framing.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, advanced framing not only means the saving of resources, it also means savings for the homeowner. It estimates materials cost savings of $500 for a 1,200-square-foot house and $1,000 for a 2,400-square-foot house—a labor savings of three to five percent and heating and cooling costs savings up to five percent. The NRDC has estimated that using advanced framing techniques can reduce framing costs as much as $1.20 per square foot and reduce the amount of wood used for framing by 11 to 19 percent.

Here are several concepts to keep in mind when planning to use advanced framing on a project:

  1. Consider designing a home or remodeling project based on 24-inch modules. It makes the most efficient use of such building materials as framing lumber, wood sheathing, drywall, and trim that are typically stocked in two-foot dimensions.
  2. Consider how just one area, an exterior corner, can be changed with advanced framing. With advanced framing, insulation can be added in a commonly uninsulated area, an installed drywall clip can accommodate drywall and one less stud is used.
  3. Check with local codes first. Some advanced framing techniques may not be suitable for areas with high wind or seismic activity.
  4. Familiarize yourself with advanced framing and other green concepts before you start planning your home building or remodeling project. Section 2.1.2 of the NAHB’s Model Green Home Building Guidelines details some advanced framing techniques.

Green Bathroom Makeover

Quick and easy "green" bathroom updates.

Green Bathroom

Photo: David Baker + Partners

From water conservation to efficient lighting and green cleaning, the bathroom is an ideal room to make eco-friendly. Major changes can be made in a remodel or new construction, but a quick green bathroom makeover is possible, too.

“Going green should not be an option, it should be the first thought,” says Jeff Smoler, ASID, ASFD, of J.E.S. Designs in Northbrook, IL. “Going green is almost a state of mind. Once you decide to do it, price seems to not be at the forefront.” However, essential to any bathroom design—green or not—is to keep with local building codes. They can guide you through any mandatory green bathroom improvements to be made, such as installing energy-efficient lighting, now required by many local electric utilities, Smoler says.

Quick Green Bathroom Makeover
ToiletsReplace an old toilet with one of today’s high-efficiency models. They offer several options to help you cut back on the nearly 30 percent of indoor water use that toilets represent. There are double-flushing toilets that have one button to eliminate liquid waste and a second button to deliver more water to clear solid waste. There are toilets that have air-assisted flushes, larger trapways, and wash-down rather than gravity-suction flushing.

Before you buy, check for a WaterSense label on any models you are considering. The label means that the toilet has met certain U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements for water efficiency and performance.

Cabinets. Consider green cabinets that will be produced using sustainable materials, such as bamboo, says Diana L. Patterson of Tucson, AZ, president-elect of the American Society of Interior Designers-Arizona South. “Avoid laminates as you are dealing here with glues and chemicals which are harmful and difficult to recycle. Solid wood cabinets are a better choice than laminate or plastic, but you want to choose easily replaceable, fast-growing woods such as willow, poplar, oak, eucalypts, since solid wood cabinets use many trees to produce.”

Moisture Control. With showering, bathing, and sink use, the bathroom is one room that could have a lot of moisture issues. Effective control is important to prevent respiratory and structural problems. Install a properly sized electric vent fan in the ceiling to remove moisture in the air and prevent mold or mildew from growing.

Updating. If changing out trim, look for items such as tile with recycled content or for materials with non-toxic finishes. Consider salvaged hardware to give a new look. If refreshing walls, use paints with low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Water Conservation
Add an easy-to-install low-flow aerator to your sink faucet. It will not only reduce water consumption by increasing the amount of air in the spray, but also help you save on the costs of heating water and on water and sewage bills.

Fit an aerator onto your showerhead or get a low-volume showerhead model with different spray patterns that will provide the sensation of higher-volume sprays. Some models come with features that let you temporarily shut off the water but keep the desired temperature while you are lathering up.

A leaky toilet can lose from several gallons to nearly 100 gallons a day. You may have already noticed a few of the clues: having to jiggle the handle to make it stop running, hearing toilet water sounds when it is not in use, or hearing the toilet water run for several seconds when no one has touched the handle. Replacing the toilet flush value is an easy, efficient way to stop leaking and save thousands of gallons of water per year.

Repair a dripping faucet so it stops wasting water and your money. Make this the time when you also green your behavior. Turn off the tap when you do not need running water.

Cleaning Products
Check your stock of bathroom cleaning supplies. Read the labels so you can be sure the ingredients are nontoxic and environmentally friendly. If they are not, dispose of them safely. Contact your local government office for information on disposal of residential toxics. Check the Greenguard Environmental Institute website for products such as toilet, glass and floor cleaners that it certifies as having met its eco-friendly criteria. Read up on options for green cleaning indoors.

Coming clean in the bathroom means more than just scrubbing up the room. Go for eco-friendly body products as well. If you need help in determining the safety of ingredients, check out the website of the Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit environmental research organization keeps an online database of products rated for safety.

Fluorescent lighting is by far the best choice for efficiency and low cost,” says Patterson. “Take care in disposing of these bulbs, but they will last for two to three years and manufacturers are producing fluorescent bulbs in all shapes and sizes now.”

And don’t forget the sun. Make the most of any natural lighting provided by bathroom skylights or windows.

Recycled and Organic
Take your eco-friendliness a few steps further. Consider towels and wash cloths colored with low-impact dyes and made with organic cotton that is grown without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

For your facial tissues and toilet paper, consider switching to forest-friendly tissue products made of 100 percent post-consumer fiber. Greenpeace, an international environmental organization, provides an online guide to these sustainable products.

Want to make other rooms in your home greener? Check out The Green Kitchen, The Green Bedroom, and Design a Green Home Office.

Energy Star Homes

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through its Energy Star program, enables consumers to easily identify homes that meet strict energy-efficiency guidelines.

Energy Star


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through its Energy Star program, enables consumers to easily identify homes that meet strict energy-efficiency guidelines. In addition, the agency offers a program to assist consumers in identifying energy-efficient house plans.

Energy Star Labels
More people are getting familiar with the Energy Star label as they look for ways to save money. Those buying or building a new home especially should learn about the blue label and its uses. The Energy Star-qualified home sticker or certificate, for example, means a house has been independently verified to meet the EPA’s strict guidelines for energy efficiency.

When builders use the Energy Star Partner logo or are listed on the Energy Star website, it means that they have signed partnership agreements with the EPA that govern the proper use of the Energy Star name and logo. “EPA does not ‘certify’ builders and a consumer should not assume that all homes that the builder constructs are Energy Star,” says Enesta Jones, EPA spokesperson.

However, some builder partners have made the additional commitment to build 100 percent Energy Star qualified homes. Consumers can identify these builders by looking for a special “100 percent” Energy Star partner icon.

Some homes may include Energy Star qualified products that feature the blue logo. However, says Jones, just because a home includes qualified products, does not mean that the home itself is qualified. The house has to have a separate Energy Star qualified home sticker or certificate for that designation.

Strict Efficiency Standards
To earn Energy Star designation, a home must meet guidelines established to make it at least 15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code (IRC). The IRC is a comprehensive, stand-alone residential code that creates minimum regulations for one- and two-family dwellings of three stories or less. It provides a set of measures and a performance approach to determine compliance.

A qualifying home should also include features that typically make it 20 to 30 percent more efficient than standard homes. The Energy Star designation follows six guidelines. They are:

  • Effective insulation systems. Properly installed, climate-appropriate insulation in floors, walls and attics ensures even temperatures throughout the house, less energy consumption and increased comfort.
  • High-performance windows. Energy-efficient windows employ advanced technologies such as protective coatings and improved frames to help keep heat in during winter and out during summer. These windows also block damaging ultraviolet sunlight that can discolor carpets and furnishings.
  • Tight construction and ducts. Sealing holes and cracks in the home’s “envelope” and in duct systems helps reduce drafts, moisture, dust, pollen and noise. A tightly sealed home improves comfort and indoor air quality while reducing utility bills.

This feature is an important one and often a sticking point, according to Michael L. Berry, an associate of ICF International of Fairfax, VA, who facilitates the Massachusetts New Homes with Energy Star program.

“The number-one way a home fails Energy Star is in duct leakage,” he says. “Proper duct sealing and educating HVAC contractors to perform proper duct sealing continue to be a challenge.”

Although Massachusetts’ code has a standard for duct leakage, code officials do not test duct performance like the program. When the Energy Star program changed in 2006 and the Thermal Bypass Checklist (TBC) was added to the technical specifications, many builders struggled to meet the TBC. Success in the program comes down to training and engaging all subcontractors to conform and adhere to the technical specifications.

  • Efficient heating and cooling equipment. In addition to using less energy to operate, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems can be quieter, reduce indoor humidity and improve overall comfort. The equipment is typically more durable and requires less maintenance than standard models.
  •  Efficient lighting and appliances. Energy Star-qualified homes may also be equipped with Energy Star-qualified products—such as lighting fixtures, compact fluorescent bulbs, ventilation fans, refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines—to provide additional energy savings.
  • Third-party verification. Independent Home Energy Raters conduct on-site testing and inspections to verify the energy-efficiency measures. Certified raters can be found, for example, through RESNET, Residential Energy Services Network.

Benefits for Homeowners
Besides better protection against cold, heat, drafts, moisture, pollution and noise, an Energy Star-qualified home provides consistent temperatures, improved indoor air quality, and better durability. It also helps save money.

Ceci Anderson, director of marketing for Veridian Homes in Madison, WI, says that “on average, our homeowners save $813 per year on utility bills compared to a new home built to code. Over a five-year period, they save $4,065. In addition, if a homeowner replaces light bulbs with CFLs, they could save an additional $200 annually.”

Energy Star Program Evolves
The interest in Energy Star new homes is growing and the program continues to evolve. Here’s why:

  • More homes qualified. More than 100,000 Energy Star qualified homes were built in 2009, bringing the total number of qualified homes in mid-May to over a million.
  • More builders to choose from. More than 8,500 builders were active Energy Star partners in 2009, up from 6,500 in 2008. In addition, several national production builders committed to building 100 percent of their homes across all divisions to Energy Star guidelines.
  • Home plans now can be verified. Those who prefer to build new rather than buy new will want to check out EPA’s “Designed to Earn the Energy Star” program, which provides a designation for home plans that have been checked for energy-saving features and construction practices. Once built, the home still must meet field verification requirements to earn the qualified home label. Consumers can locate an Energy Star builder partner by visiting the Energy Star website, clicking on the link for partners and searching by builders.

Guidelines being updated.
The EPA is revising guidelines. The new guidelines, called Energy Star 2011, will help EPA meet its goal of transforming the housing industry to build homes with less environmental impact and increased homeowner benefits, including greater affordability. It is expected that homes permitted on or after January 1, 2011 will be required to meet Energy Star 2011 guidelines to earn the designation

Downsizing Your Home

Downsizing Home


New Philosophy
The average American house has more than doubled in size since the 1950s, standing at more than 2,300 square feet. But there is a growing sentiment that bigger is not better.

Of course, size is relative. A space might be called home by one family, while another would consider it only large enough for a guest bedroom. But the sustainable, simpler, and smaller idea has its supporters. Whatever space you have, it seems, living well in it is possible. It all begins with a bit of creativity, a few design essentials, and taking advantage of what the marketplace has to offer.

Several factors may be fueling an increased interest in smaller spaces. Worries about rising utility and other bills, concern for the environment, more single heads of households, retiring Baby Boomers not wanting excess room, and the growing desire to have more free time to pursue interests and spend less time maintaining a home.

Marcia Gamble-Hadley of Gamble Hadley LLC in Seattle, WA, is a longtime advocate for socially responsible housing development. A housing consultant, she was involved in that city’s Pine Street Cottages condominium project. It revitalized 10 cottages, each about 500 square feet, into a successful example of an alternative residential form.

When people think of living in a small space, she says, “there’s the element that you are doing without or deprivation, thinking of it as sacrificing their daily enjoyment. That is a misconception.”

Instead, living in a small space is an opportunity to rethink life’s priorities, she says. It becomes “a process of distilling out for yourself those activities or qualities that bring you the most pleasure and satisfaction—then supporting those and letting go of the complications that go with ‘stuff,’ caring for it, tripping over it, constantly accumulating things that don’t really add to our daily enjoyment and satisfaction.”

Dan Rockhill, founder of Studio 804, a not-for-profit design-build program, and professor of architecture at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, KA., says the “tendency to look toward more efficient living and general disdain for ‘McMansions’ is particularly evident in younger people who see their footprint as having some consequence.”

He suggests that living in small spaces is made easier by open designs that embrace technology. Those types of homes allow people to create rooms, move walls around as needed and build in as much flexibility as possible.

A Place for Everything
When living in small spaces, that old parental guideline—“A place for everything and everything in its place”—really holds true. Dirty dinnerware, opened mail, business paperwork—it’s all out there. So, a first rule for living well in small spaces might well be to develop the “pick up after yourself” habit.

But stuff can’t be put away if there is no place to put it. A next step might be to honestly look at this real baggage we carry with us and see how much we still want to own. Boxes of stuff often are rearranged, moved with us, rarely opened, and even less frequently used. Examine it. Make the truly prized pieces part of your life. Donate the good stuff you don’t need. Recycle the rest.

Next, evaluate your space or space-to-be. Be open to possibilities. Plan kitchen cabinets to the ceiling or discover another use for this often-wasted top space. Think vertically. Seek possible areas for storage racks or wall-mounts. Televisions, for example, don’t always have to take up floor space. Look under furniture and cabinetry. Spaces under beds or under sinks can often be put to better use. Consider spaces between interior wall studs for built-ins, unused spaces under stairways for storage, pocket doors to eliminate swing space needs and varying ceiling heights to add spatial interest.

Look critically at furniture. Some furniture might offer extra uses such as a bed that converts to a sleeper for guests, an ottoman or bench that opens for storage, and tables that contain drawers or have extensions available.

Part of living well in a small space also means not feeling cramped, which means paying attention to details. If building new or remodeling, look where windows or half-doors might “extend” the eye’s views beyond a room. Plan skylights for added volume and light. Vary ceiling heights to add interest and volume.

Perfect Fit
Once you’ve culled your stuff and identified the spaces within your space, you’re ready to personalize. Small spaces no longer necessitate having to use products that sacrifice quality, style, or features to accommodate size. Today’s marketplace offers a wide range of high-end compact products.

“High-quality appliances make life a lot easier,” says Angela Warner, a third-generation veteran salesperson at the family-owned Warners’ Stellian appliance stores in St. Paul, MN. Today’s compact appliances, particularly the European brands, have all the modern conveniences but are just smaller, she says. Homeowners are limited only by their budgets. Some examples include: 24-inch-wide, professional-style gas ranges; two-foot-wide, all-stainless refrigerators; convenient dishwasher drawers; four-burner cooktops and compact washer-dryers.

Even tools for working around the home pack quality in a small size. Milwaukee Electric Tool out of Brookfield, WI, has long been known for its tools for professionals. One of its latest products is a powerful yet lightweight 12-volt subcompact driver. Ideal for all kinds of home repair projects, it weights only two pounds and uses a lithium-ion battery so there are no cords to clutter a tight workspace.

Build your space to meet your needs with today’s many storage systems. A variety of shelving and drawer systems can be affixed to walls and set up quickly. For those who can’t drill into walls, there are other options such as elfa® freestanding™, a shelving and drawer system from The Container Store.

Keeping the light and openness of a small space is important but privacy is needed as well. RAYDOOR®, based in New York, is one of many companies that manufactures panels that allow light to travel through the space while dampening sound transmission. Other RAYDOOR products include a telescoping sliding wall without floor tracks, as well as pivoting, folding, and fixed panels.

Solar Thermal Collection and Delivery

New systems go beyond roof panels

Photo: Flickr

Unlike photovoltaic systems, which convert the sun’s energy into electricity, active solar thermal systems transform sun-heated fluid into space heat and hot water. Systems consist of electric pumps, fans, complex controls, storage tanks, and collectors.

Two types of collectors gather solar rays: flat-plate and evacuated-tube. Flat-plate is the more common type and has been around longer. Evacuated-tube is a more recent design.

A flat-plate collector consists of an insulated, waterproof metal box. The top side faces the sun and has a glass or plastic cover that acts like a greenhouse, letting in the rays and holding in the heat. Inside the box is a specially coated dark-colored absorber plate and pipes containing circulating fluid. Evacuated-tube collectors include a dark-colored absorber plate and parallel rows of vacuum tubes, all connected to one header pipe. Tube designs include glass, glass-metal, and glass with fluid flow paths.

Absorber plates typically include long strips of metal covered by a special coating. New technologies now produce coatings that are highly efficient. The absorbed radiation heats the circulating fluid.

Solar System Concerns
Flat-plate collectors have a simple, sturdy design. However, that design does allow them to lose heat through convection and radiation. Wind loads, which can carry away the heat, must be calculated.

Evacuated tubes can operate even on cloudier days. They use somewhat fragile glass — think of an insulated vacuum-sealed bottle. However, they may have some problems where snow or ice may accumulate and need to be removed. There can also be problems if breakage or damage destroys the all-important vacuum or from heat buildup if there is not an adequate draw on the system.

Collectors can be open- or closed-loop types. In open-loop systems, household potable water is pumped through the collector. The collector must be drained during long periods of freezing weather or use a drain-back system. While efficient, open systems may have corrosion problems if hard water damages components.

In closed-loop systems, an antifreeze-like solution passes through a heat exchanger mounted near the home’s solar water heater. Closed loop can lose a bit of efficiency during the heat exchange process and there is some maintenance required with the fluid.

Solar System Requirements
When selecting a solar system, homeowners need to learn how much solar energy is available to their home, a term known as “solar constant.” Other considerations are a home’s latitude; available surface for the collector, trees, or buildings that would shade collectors; the collector’s location and how much it deviates from magnetic South; and the distance from the collector to the solar storage tank.

At certain latitudes, radiation in winter and in summer are quite different because of the angle of the sun in relation to the Earth. Even the pitch of the surfaces where the solar panels will be placed must be checked with tilt angles and orientations varying considerably between locations. Most solar panels are mounted on roofs and the angle is preset by the roof angle. Angles greater than the optimum will reduce efficiency.

A home’s roof space may not even face south or may not be strong enough to support the system. If roof areas will not work, homeowners can also consider exterior walls, free-standing or ground systems.

Another factor is the home heating system. Solar thermal systems are well suited for radiant floor heating systems and boilers with hot water radiators. Forced-air systems using a heat exchanger work but lose some efficiency. Solar collectors, however, do provide or assist with hot water needs for a household.

In northern climates with very cold temperatures or long periods of cloudy skies, a backup system will be needed. A house that is drafty and lacking in energy efficiency will need backup. Even the comfort levels of household members — especially elderly members who prefer a higher thermostat setting — need to be kept in mind. Lenders and building codes may also require a backup system.

Possible Restrictions
Check out local codes or covenants that may restrict options. Some municipalities have objected to systems obstructing side yards, unlawful height additions on roofs, violation of historic district regulations, and excessive roof loads.

Cost may be a factor. To make a solar system cost-effective, it should be used most of the year and not sit idle in the summer. Year-round hot water operation improves the cost effectiveness of the system.

A system works best for a budget if it can provide 40 to 80 percent of a home’s heating needs. An active system that supplies less than 40 percent of a home’s heating needs does make much economic sense.

When shopping for a system, compare certified solar collector equipment by checking ratings stickers from the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation.

Costs for an active solar heating system vary greatly and, in part, with competition in the marketplace. In Wisconsin, for example, where there is little competition, an evacuated-tube system for hot-water delivery only in a single-family residence costs between $9,000 and $12,000.

Solar Power Incentives

Solar or photovoltaic systems are an increasingly popular way to offset rising utility bills — just place them in the sun and let them go to work converting sunlight to electricity.

Solar or photovoltaic systems are an increasingly popular way to offset rising utility bills — just place them in the sun and let them go to work converting sunlight to electricity.

Photovoltaic (PV) systems have no moving parts, need little upkeep, and are simple in design. The sun provides the free energy and the silicon used in making PV cells is one of the most abundant materials on earth. However, refining the silicon and making the cells is expensive and solar cells are somewhat inefficient. Standard PV efficiency is currently at 12 to 14 percent with suggestions that the upper limit is 30 percent, so until recently homeowners have needed large, costly systems to collect enough energy to power their homes.

The economics of solar is changing due to rising energy prices, technological advancements, and government incentives. According to Noah Kaye, director of public affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, DC, skyrocketing natural gas prices have translated into electric rate hikes. At the same time, technology improvements and improved manufacturing have slashed the cost of solar by 95 percent since the 1970s. In addition, a suite of incentives and other policies are now encouraging consumers to go solar.

Deciding to Go Solar
Homeowners considering solar must consider the amount of annual sunshine in their area. Available sunlight is specific to the region where the home is located and the way the house is sited with respect to the sun. A house in the woods won’t benefit as much as one on a hill with great southern exposure.

On its website, SEIA suggests that a typical home in Maine needs 291 feet of roof space to meet one-half of its typical electricity needs — only 25 percent more roof space than needed in sunny Los Angeles. Homeowners can get a readout of what the shift to solar would be like for them at, a joint partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy, American Solar Energy Society, Solar Electric Power Association, and Energy Matters LLC,. The site includes “My Solar Estimator,” which provides a general estimate of the required system size and savings by considering a person’s county, utility, and typical energy bill.

Rebates and Tax Credits
Federal, state, local, and utility incentives for going solar continue to grow. In 2009, the U.S. Congress extended federal tax credits for homeowners who install solar, for eight years.

State, local, and utility incentives differ greatly. People can find incentives ranging from tax credits and exemptions to rebates, loans, and grants at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. When visiting the website, consumers should look at the area’s interconnection and net metering regulations, which differ in all 50 states, Kaye suggests. In a majority of states, owners of a grid-connected photovoltaic system can sell any excess electricity back to their local utility, watch the meter spin backwards, and receive a credit on their electric bill (a process called net metering). Some states recognize the peak power/renewable energy value of solar electricity and offer special incentives for grid-connected solar.

Beyond the Solar Roof
Solar cells are moving beyond the roof and are being incorporated into building facades and awning systems, and as glazing for skylights, greenhouse, and non-view windows. Recreational vehicles and boats can use portable PV systems to recharge batteries, and arrays can power solar water pumps and remote cottages and residences. Groups of homeowners might share a solar array and those tied to the existing grid can have backup in case of a power outage. Carports, too, have become a popular application for PV technology — the roof not only provides shade and shelter, but power as well.

Making Solar Energy Mainstream
The solar industry predicts that over the next two decades solar energy will become the best and cheapest choice for most electric and energy applications. Solar power is projected to achieve parity with the national retail electric rate by 2015. PV electricity has already become the choice of hundreds of thousands of mainstream homeowners in Japan, Germany, and the southwestern U.S.

The future for residential photovoltaic technology looks bright. PV bypasses the aging and fragile electricity grid and delivers its power directly to the end user. That fundamentally changes the underlying economics of energy. Local governments are already responding with programs for solar easement to allow access to sunlight for residential homes.

Modular Homes Go Greener

As builders focus more on sustainability, modular homes present new opportunities to go green.

Modular Homes


Modular homes are built to the same local and state codes as traditional stick-built homes. The way they differ is how and where they are built, with some builders going well beyond eco-friendliness to new levels of sustainability.

Modular homes are constructed as three-dimensional “modules,” or boxes. Each module is fully complete with electrical, plumbing, drywall, and some fixtures. The modules are built to design specifications. Instead of being “stick-built” on a home site, up to 90 percent of a modular home might be “systems-built” in a factory, then transported to the site, assembled, and finished.

A modular home has few, if any, design limitations. The average modular home contains three or more modules, but many contain five to ten modules. Modular homes can be built and configured to meet nearly any shape and size, at all price points, from entry-level and multifamily housing up to million-dollar mansions.

Because they are factory-built, modular homes have several eco-friendly advantages over site-built homes. Factories provide a secure and dry construction environment. Computer-assisted drawings and the efficiencies of the production line allow for more precise access to and use of materials. Because everything is based at one site, certain materials can be purchased in bulk and any excess materials can be reused onsite. When modules are transported to the site to be assembled on a permanent foundation and completed, there is less environmental disturbance.

Stick-built construction must deal with problems associated with an outdoor site. There may be a large amount of waste as materials left unused are often disposed of instead of recycled. Inclement weather and inadequate storage can damage materials. Lumber and other supplies must be dealt with where they are dropped off by supply trucks. Open sites are vulnerable to theft and vandalism. Also, those working on the house must deal with inclement weather, such as cold, high heat, high humidity, and rain.

New Certification Process
“The new green aspect to consider is that the industry is working closely in developing the only green certification process for manufactured and modular homes,” says Thayer Long, executive vice president of the Manufactured Housing Institute in Arlington, VA.

“These homes will be built to the National Association of Home Builders green building standard that site-built homes also will meet,” Long says. “In addition, the new industry process will include certifying that the home meets Energy Star requirements.”

LEED Verification
Some modular home companies are already pushing the green envelope. One company is LivingHomes of Santa Monica, Calif. It distinguishes itself from traditional modular builders by integrating a comprehensive environmental program in all of its homes, says CEO Steve Glenn.

“LivingHomes include sustainable building materials, technologies and fixtures that minimize energy and water use and that generate energy from renewable resources, as well as materials that reduce indoor air pollution,” he says. “We also design our homes to maximize natural light and ventilation. All LivingHomes are built to receive a U.S. Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating of Silver or above to verify that they are built in a sustainable way.”

Taking eco-friendliness to new levels, these modular homes use sustainable materials for framing, exterior or interior cladding, floors, cabinets, and countertops. They are even built with greywater-ready plumbing, which means there is separate plumbing from sinks, showers and laundry that can be filtered and reused to irrigate landscaping.

There are also other green options available. Homeowners can consider a home resource monitor to track energy savings, an automatic kitchen composter to process food scraps, moveable walls to create flexible living spaces, a solar water heater, a rainwater collection system, and geothermal heating and cooling.

Construction costs vary. Glenn says customers should expect to see cost savings if they compare prices with stick-built homes of comparable design and quality. The LivingHomes web site notes that its homes range from $180 to $250 per square foot not including design costs, which are 10 to 15 percent of the budget, or permit fees, engineering, transport, installation or foundation.

Green Convergence
One cutting-edge modular home company is merging traditional design with state-of-the-art green elements: New World Home, which was co-founded in 2007 by Tyler Schmetterer and Mark Jupiter and is based in New York City with an office in Atlanta.

Schmetterer, now chief marketing officer, says there are two primary differences between the company’s New Old Green Modular® (NOGM®) home and an ordinary modular home. “First, a NOGM is based on a historically inspired traditional design that evokes the spirit of the past while respectfully integrating all of the modern conveniences and amenities afforded by the 21st century,” he says. “Second, a NOGM home utilizes a whole-systems approach to design, incorporating the most stringent green standards, products and practices in the industry. As a result, a New Old Green Modular home approaches USGBC LEED for Home Platinum certification directly out of the factory.”

Schmetterer says NOGM homes are specifically designed on a regional basis and incorporate climate-specific energy requirements that exceed local energy code requirements. In addition, the design fits in naturally with its surrounding landscape and community. “It is a home that pays homage to the local architectural vernacular instead of contradicting or ignoring history as is so often the case with new construction, modular or otherwise,” he says.

Among the fundamental green aspects the homes incorporate are being USGBC LEED for Home certifiable in Silver, Gold, or Platinum, optimal-value engineering to reduce lumber usage by 15 to 20 percent, 90-plus percent of lumber sourced from sustainably harvested forests and third-party verified, an advanced metering system that monitors resource consumption on a real-time basis, and integrated water collection systems for irrigation.  The company has produced LEED Platinum-certified homes in New York and Georgia.

Schmetterer says one company objective is to develop housing solutions with a 0 percent upfront premium for green products and features. “Customers are then able to fully realize the many cost and maintenance advantages of owning a NOGM-certified home, starting with a minimum 50 percent energy consumption savings starting from day one. Any premium associated with our homes is directly correlated to design-related options and not the many green features.,” he says.

Another innovative modular manufacturer, Boston-based Ecohealth Homes, a division of Chatham Hill Residential Design and Build, LLC, focuses on producing environmentally friendly and healthy homes with a historic New England aesthetic.

Ecohealth Homes’ creator, Michelle Roberts, worked with the nonprofit National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) to specify materials and products for the homes. Specifications address occupant safety, such as single-lever faucets, double-hung windows for upper floors, and built-in escape ladders — things many green building programs ignore, says Roberts. Each home will be inspected throughout the modular manufacturing process by a third-party to ensure all specifications are met. “Building homes that are both sustainable and healthy requires a new way of thinking,” Roberts says.