Author Archives: Tanja Kern

Green Redesign

Interested in a green redesign for you home, but don't know where to begin? Focus on sustainable materials, indoor air quality, and repurposing items instead of throwing them away.

Green Redesign

Adirondack chairs made from recycled plastic sit side by side on the front lawn.. Photo: Loll Designs

Great home style isn’t about having the newest, most expensive furnishings and accessories. Interior re-designers, or decorators who show homeowners how to reuse what they already own, combine fresh color and a little creativity to get a chic look that is also good for the environment.

“Redesign has always been green,” says Maru C. Willson, a certified interior re-design specialist and the owner of Room Outfitters in Oceanside, CA. “A lot of the favorite tips we do in one-day makeovers really speak to the green philosophy.”

Green building uses eco-friendly materials to build new spaces. Green design can be quite expensive, whereas green re-design is more affordable and good for the environment because repurposing materials keeps them out of the landfill. This approach to decorating creates a style that looks like it was put together over time, with furnishings and accessories that have greater personal significance because they’ve been part of your home for some time.

Green redesign means reclaiming pieces, including furnishings, art and accessories, from those hidden spaces in your home and bringing them to the forefront of a space’s design.

How to Do a Green Redesign
There are a few key tips that re-designers use to do a home makeover. You can accomplish the biggest change simply by rearranging your furniture around an architectural feature or focal point, like a fireplace or picture window.

IRIS, an association of Interior Redesign Industry Specialists, recommends “shopping” in your own house and envisioning objects in different rooms. Take pictures off the walls and carry lighting and accessories from room to room. Look for unique pieces of furniture that aren’t getting a lot of use and move them into the family room or bedroom where they can be appreciated. For example, a stack of antique boxes can be reused as accent tables.

Tables can be created out of almost anything. Fashion one from found objects around the house, such as on oversized planter, and add a glass top to use as a coffee table or an accent table. A beautiful log from the backyard can also make a practical table base. “You don’t have to have a lodge style to have a table like that,” Willson says. “Sometimes it’s the surprise element that brings green to your current style.”

Create artwork from unexpected elements. Someone who is passionate about bicycling, for example, could hang a bike from a hook on a wall above the sofa, an instant conversation piece. Someone who enjoys baking as a hobby might take a cast-iron antique mandoline tray, frame it in wood, and hang it in the kitchen as a decorative accent. “A lot of styles can integrate these elements as a surprise element or focal point,” Willson says.

Reusing fabrics is a clever way to make soft decorative accents. A family quilt can be repurposed as a window treatment by finishing it with grommets and slipping it onto a curtain rod. Clothing set aside for donations might be used for pillows. Solid sweaters can be sewn into knit pillows that resemble those seen at West Elm and Pottery Barn. Eveningwear made of velvet, lace, or silk makes dressy pillows for the master bedroom. “My sister had 20 to 30 designer suits that no longer fit and, in hindsight, those fabrics could be turned into beautiful pillows,” Willson says.

Design a stylish slipcover for an ottoman by draping a tablecloth over the piece, tucking and folding in the loose edges, and using a staple gun to attach the cloth to the base, says Christy Furukawa, an interior designer and owner of Christy 4 Home Styling in Agoura Hills, CA. Give new life to table runners by using them on a fireplace mantle as a backdrop for accessories. You can also drape them over sofas and chairs to add color and pattern.

Another key to environmentally friendly design is paring down. The concept “less is more” is a hard one for many homeowners, according to Anna Jacoby, owner of Anna Jacoby Interiors in Fremont, CA. “Most people don’t have the wrong things, they have plenty of things,” she says. “People should do a careful editing of their belongings to showcase them in a more aesthetically pleasing way.” A rule of thumb is to accessorize with one statement piece instead of 20 smaller knickknacks.

Improve Indoor Air Quality
Paint is an easy way to update the look of your home without a big investment in money or time. Interior re-designers say it takes just a minimal cost for supplies and a little effort to easily paint a room or put a fresh coat of paint on cabinets in a day.

As you look at paint chips, however, it’s important to also consider how the paint you use affects the air quality of your home. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the air inside a home is, on average, two to five times more polluted than the air outside. Paint is a large contributing factor to poor indoor air quality and can emit harmful chemicals, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), for years after application and pollute the air breathed indoors.

The VOCs found in some paints can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and eye and throat irritation. You can avoid these symptoms by spending a bit more on low-odor, zero- or low-VOC paints, which are healthier for your family and pets.

There are many no- and low-VOC paints on the market today that roll or brush on like regular latex paint. Some widely available brands include Freshaire, Mythic, and Sherwin-Williams Harmony paint.

Tips for New Purchases
Sometimes it is necessary to update your interior decor and accessories with new purchases. Furnishings and surfaces may get shabby or beyond repair, and outdated accessories may call for a fresh replacement.

If you do have to buy a new accessory or piece of furniture, make it something durable that you will want to hang on to for a long time. Handcrafted items, particularly made by local artists, make interesting focal points for any space. Choose elements crafted from renewable natural materials, such as organic cotton or bamboo, which renews itself in just three years. If possible, opt for items that can be sourced and made locally, reducing your carbon footprint on the environment.

Cover floors in eco-friendly materials like sustainable wood and ceramic tile. If you are a lover of traditional hardwood or bamboo floors, choose lumber that comes from sustainably managed forests. Dozens of types of wood are produced in FSC-certified forests in which the trees are regenerated, biodiversity is conserved and air and water quality are preserved. Visit the Forest Certification Resource Center web site to find woods that are sourced by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Several manufacturers now make ceramic tiles using recycled post-production waste, making them logical eco-conscious choices for your home. Shaw, Mohawk, Crossville, and Daltile all make ceramic tile that include recycled materials.

If you need to buy new furniture, be sure that what you purchase is durable and multitasking. You can purchase a sofa for a few hundred dollars, but odds are it will end up in a landfill after a few years. Your best bet is to purchase a well-crafted wood piece covered in high-quality fabrics that will last through years of living and cleanings.

Redesigning your spaces can be an efficient and effective way to update your home’s decor. By cleverly reusing your favorite furnishings and accessories; or purchasing durable, eco-friendly replacements; you can reduce landfill waste and stretch your decorating budget.

Cut the Costs of Home Heating

Keep warm and comfortable this winter and lower your utility bills with some energy-efficient home improvements.


Making homeowners’ heating systems energy-efficient is the answer to lower utility bills, the experts say. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to do that.

Simple Steps to Take
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), heating and cooling account for 50 to 75 percent of energy used in the average American home. Making smart decisions about your home’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system can have a big effect on your utility bills and your comfort.

To have an efficient heating system, you must properly maintain it. Check your unit’s filter monthly and if it looks dirty, change it. At a minimum, change the filter every three months. A dirty filter will slow down airflow and make the system work harder to keep you warm or cool, which wastes energy. Clean filters also prevent dirt from building up in the system, which can lead to expensive repairs in the future.

Installing a programmable thermostat, which costs around $200, and setting it to a lower temperature—even by a degree or two—can impact costs. The installation is a relatively easy DIY job.

Lowering the temperature on your water heater from 140 degrees to 120 degrees can also save you 6 to 10 percent a year on energy bills.

Get an annual HVAC inspection to keep the system running efficiently. Typical maintenance includes checking thermostat settings, tightening all electrical connections, lubricating moving parts, and inspecting the condensate drain and system controls. In addition, checking all gas or oil connections will alleviate the chances for dangerous gases escaping into your home.

Leak-Proofing Your Home
Air leaks raise a home’s energy bill and make a house drafty and uncomfortable in cold weather. “Much of our existing older housing today would not meet today’s stricter energy codes,” says Bohdan Boyko, an energy-efficiency specialist with U.S. GreenFiber, a manufacturer of natural fiber insulation in Charlotte, NC. “We have learned an awful lot in the last 20 years about window technology, the requirements for higher R values of insulation and about more efficient HVAC systems.”

To find out how drafty your home is, call your local utility company or a certified heating technician to request a home energy audit. Costs average around $400. A technician will usually set up a “blower door” test that measures a home’s air tightness and use an infrared camera to check for temperature differences anywhere leaks occur.

You should also check the air tightness in your home yourself. In older homes, leaks can usually be found around windows, doors and fireplaces. Other less obvious places to look are electrical sockets on exterior walls, baseboards, ductwork, and recessed lighting. ”Recessed lighting is a huge energy-waster where heat will escape up past the lights and into the attic,” Marowske says.

Some of the biggest leaks are usually found in the attic or the basement. In the attic, look for holes along the top wall that leads down into the house, such as those for wiring and plumbing. Check for insulation that is dirty around the edges, which indicates that air has passed through. Feel for drafts around gaps and cracks. In the basement, check for drafts along the top of the basement wall or crawlspace where the cement comes in contact with the frame of the house. Plumbing and dryer vents are another potential source for leaks.

Once you know where the air leaks are, make your home draft-tight. Window casings can be made more energy-efficient by removing old, brittle caulking and replacing it with fresh caulk. Single-pane windows should be replaced wherever possible with new energy-efficient models that help block out cold air. If replacing windows is too expensive, you can make single-pane windows more energy-efficient by applying temporary shrink-wrap film to your windows. New weatherstripping and a tight-fitting threshold will also keep heat from escaping around and under the door. You can also hire a licensed and insured contractor to install special insulated units behind electrical sockets, such as those by Frost King.

Your heating ducts are huge energy wasters. Sealing and insulating ducts can improve the efficiency of your heating and cooling system by as much as 20 percent. Use duct sealant or metal-backed tape to seal the seams and connections of each duct. After sealing them, wrap the ducts in insulation to keep hot hair from escaping.

The Department of Energy says that a leading cause of energy waste in the home is inadequate insulation. The good news is that adding insulation is a relatively affordable investment for many homeowners, with a very quick return. Materials for insulation are not expensive if applying “loose fill” insulation, but it is a labor-intensive job that requires proper equipment and installation methods.

An easy way for homeowners to determine if they need insulation is to simply look in their attic. A home is seriously under-insulated if the ceiling joists are visible in the attic, and it can be checked with a yardstick, according to Tia Robinson, a spokesperson for The Home Depot.

The “R-Value” is the rating system used to indicate the amount of insulation needed. R-Values can be required by local building codes, which often change and are usually lower than the R-Values recommended by the Department of Energy. Batt insulation, or rolls of insulation, has a lower R-Value because it is denser, so the recommended value is lower than loose fill. In cooler regions, it is recommended to have batts with an R-Value of R-13, and R-19 is recommended in warmer regions. Batt insulation is a bit more expensive, but is not complicated to install correctly for the DIYer. Albeit, it is still a fairly laborious job.

Small lifestyle changes can also help lower the cost of your energy bills this season, according to Chris Seman, national director of operations for Mr. Handyman, a national full-service repair and maintenance company. Restrict your use of bathroom and kitchen air ventilators, which tend to push warm air out of the house and make your furnace work harder to replace the heat. Install window coverings and turn blinds “up” so that they can trap cool air coming from the window before getting into your living spaces. Adjust ceiling fans so that they push air down to help circulate heated air that rises. Also, purchase a home humidifier; humidified air feels warmer than dry air, according to Seman.

Buying a New Furnace
In older homes with an original heating system in place, it’s often smart to simply install a new energy efficient HVAC unit that is rated by Energy Star. Homeowners should consider replacing their old heating systems if they plan on staying in their home for at least five years. Basic heating and air conditioning packages for an average size home will run between $9,000 and $12,000. Although this can be a big investment for many homeowners in today’s tough economy, many companies offer 12-month, same-as-cash financing or five years of zero-interest financing. “What you’ll save in energy efficiency and repairs on an older unit makes it worth it,” Marowske notes.

Today’s new and improved furnaces can be up to 97 percent energy-efficient, which means 97 percent of the heat produced is being used in the home and not pushed out the chimney. Forced-air furnaces last around 20 to 25 years and have a number of features meant to optimize your home’s heating. Newer models offer variable speed blowers that fluctuate the amount of air being pushed through the ducts depending on what the home’s thermostat measures. A two-staged gas valve can also fluctuate how high the furnace fires, depending on the temperature outside. A mild, 40-degree day may call for a furnace to fire only halfway, thereby using less energy than a chilly 10-degree day.

If you heat your home with a hot water boiler, experts recommend converting to gas heat for greater efficiency. New replacement boilers, however, are smaller than older models and can have 75 to 80 percent efficiency.

In some areas of the country, geothermal heat pumps, which capture heat from the earth through pipes drilled into the ground, are a solid eco-friendly alternative to other types of heating. Installation can be quite costly, but the long-term savings on utility bills can be around 50 percent. Generally speaking, a geothermal heat pump system costs about $2,500 per ton of capacity, and an average home would use a three-ton unit costing roughly $7,500. In addition to the cost of the unit, homeowners also have to pay for drilling, which can run anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.

No matter what method of heat you’re after, it’s important to choose a trained heating specialist. Technicians certified by The North American Technician Excellence Association are third-party certified in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration.

Resources for Assistance
Several public programs are available to help cash-strapped families cope with rising energy costs and get help paying utility bills: