Author Archives: Monica Michael Willis

Monica Michael Willis

About Monica Michael Willis

The former features director at Country Living magazine, Monica Michael Willis writes frequently about design, gardens, and environmental issues.

An 18th-Century Stone Farmhouse Reborn

Thanks to thoughtful material choices and a spacious contemporary design, a streamlined addition to an 18th-century farmhouse stylishly connects the old and new.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Dec 19, 2013 2:59 PM

Farmhouse Reborn

Photo: Jeffrey Totaro

Over the past 20 years, Jeffery Wyant and Maria Keares Wyant of Wyant Architecture in Philadelphia have become known for their clean, uncomplicated solutions to tricky design dilemmas.

Not long ago, the enterprising team put their skills to the test, when new clients asked them to enlarge the footprint of their 18th-century farmhouse in Elverson, Pennsylvania. “The couple wanted an addition sympathetic to the original architecture, but they didn’t just want to replicate what they already had,” says Jeffrey.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Addition Original House

Built in the late 1700s, the two-story stone farmhouse had a cramped, compartmentalized layout with six-over-six double-hung windows that didn’t let in much light. While the architects tried to honor the provenance of the existing structure, they also wanted to create a new space for the family that was bright, spacious, and contemporary.

Slideshow: Tour the Farmhouse Addition

“We ultimately decided to make only minor modifications to the original living space and instead open it onto the new addition,” says Maria. Because the low ceilings of the existing house didn’t lend themselves to large, gracious spaces, the couple lowered the ground floor of the new addition to gain a more generous ceiling height on the first floor, and also opted for vaulted ceilings on the second level. The addition, which features a sleek master suite and a light-filled great room, expanded the family’s living space by roughly 2,000 square feet.

Besides creating more expansive common areas, one of the architects’ main goals was to redesign and re-orient the entryway. As it was, the front entrance faced out toward the road, but the driveway led straight to the back door, which, by default, had become the family’s primary entrance. To remedy this, Jeffrey and Maria sited the new addition at a perpendicular angle to the back of the farmhouse, thus creating a front entrance the family could access from the existing driveway.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Entry 05

The reconfigured entrance serves to tie the old and new structures together. “When we drafted the plans for the new entryway,” Maria says, “we wanted the connection between the addition and the original structure to be very thin and glassy, with the glass itself becoming a design element that served as a separator.”

This transparency was achieved by flanking the door with fixed casement windows from Pella’s Architect Series. The aluminum-clad windows rise to the second floor, forming a clerestory beneath the roofline, then wrap around the side of the house to fill in the master bedroom gable. “When we first described our idea about the windows to the owners, we used the analogy of a baseball,” remembers Jeffrey, who likens the flow of the glass across the addition to how the leather of a baseball is bound together by one continuous stitch of thread. “All in all, Maria and I felt the windows made the whole composition feel lighter, like the roof was almost floating on top of the stone wall,” Jeffrey says.

In terms of materials, the husband-and-wife team united the exterior of the structures by sheathing the new addition with nearly identical stones purchased from a neighboring farm. Riffing off the house’s original copper downspouts, the Wyants chose a standing-seam copper roof, which they extended down to create the wall at the rear elevation of the addition. “The copper will age and patina,” says Jeffrey. “It was shiny and bright when we first installed it, but it oxidized right away to this warm, bronze color.”

Instead of wood, a Burlington Stone from Stone Source was used on the ground level and the terrace beyond the great room’s glass wall. “The terrace flows out of the family room and is protected on three sides—by the addition, a wing off the 18th-century structure, and the stone guest house—so it feels very intimate, which is nice, since the farmland beyond it is so open and vast,” notes Maria.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Addition Master Bath

The couple also installed a traditional Japanese-style rain chain on the terrace. “The chain hangs away from the building and becomes a water feature in stormy weather. The water’s both visible and audible, as it travels down the chain into the stone drainage bed below,” says Maria.

Besides the spacious master bedroom and its 400-square-foot deck, the second level of the addition includes a home office and a wide stair hall that connects the original and new portions of the house. Sustainable palm wood paves the floors. And the striking staircase features reclaimed lumber for the treads and a custom-designed railing made from plate steel.

Outfitted with a freestanding soaking tub, the open-design master bath pairs standard-issue white tiles with Erin Adams’ Zen Weave graphic tiles from Anne Sacks, not to mention 12-by-24-inch porcelain tiles with a copper patina, installed horizontally.

“We’re fortunate our clients were so open-minded. They gave us the freedom to design something modern and contemporary and in contrast to the historic structure,” says Jeffrey. “I think everyone was proud of the outcome.”

For a virtual house tour, click here. To learn more about the architects and other projects, visit Wyant Architecture.

The Container House

Thanks to thoughtful material choices and a spacious contemporary design, a streamlined addition to an 18th-century farmhouse stylishly connects the old and new.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Mar 5, 2021 3:17 PM

The Container House


Drive past any port in America today and you’re bound to see row upon row of empty shipping containers stacked, like so many colorful building blocks, one atop the other. Due to the United State’s ongoing trade imbalance with countries like China, roughly half of the shipping containers that enter our ports never make it back to their points of origin. Not surprisingly, this growing glut of steel cargo containers has prompted more than a few creative minds to start thinking outside the box. One of them is Peter DeMaria, an innovative California architect who has spent the last decade exploring the potential of these retired containers as affordable building materials.

Getting Started
“For me as an architect, the challenge had always been how to give my clients the highest level of design while still keeping the projects on budget,” say DeMaria, one of the country’s first architects to incorporate steel cargo containers into residential designs. Indeed, soon after he built his own home in 2003 (and saw firsthand how even a small change in the cost of materials can wreak havoc on the bottom line), DeMaria took a year-long sabbatical and started searching for alternative building materials that could add value to his projects while helping to reduce costs. Shipping containers showed exciting potential. “They’re widely available, inherently strong, and inexpensive when compared with more conventional building materials like steel and concrete,” says the architect. They’re also resistant to fire, mold, and termites, and made of heavy-gauge steel, a material meant to last centuries. Plus, DeMaria adds, the containers’ uniform sizes (they come standard in 20- and 40-foot-long sizes) lend a level of predictability to projects that are usually anything but predictable.

Building Blocks: The Redondo Beach House
In 2006, DeMaria got his chance to build his first container house in Redondo Beach, California. “We were lucky to find clients like Sven and Anna Pirkl. They not only wanted a residence made out of containers but they were creative and bold enough to push the envelope with me,” notes DeMaria. “It was a match made in heaven,” concurs Sven Pirkl, who along with his wife, an artist, envisioned a modern, loft-style house that was both eco-friendly and budget-minded.

Redondo Beach Container House Slideshow
In DeMaria’s hybrid design for the Redondo Beach House, conventional stick-frame construction combines with eight repurposed steel shipping containers to form the two-story home. The contemporary house sports four bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, and a soaring 20-foot-high living room outfitted with glass-panel airplane hangar doors that fold out to create a seamless indoor-outdoor living space. To play up the industrial good looks of the containers in their new home, the Pirkls chose not to cover-up the corrugated steel walls with siding or to replace the sturdy maritime wood floors that come standard in cargo boxes.

For long-term energy savings, low-flow plumbing fixtures, LED lights, and Energy Star appliances were installed throughout the house. Stick-frame walls were insulated with UltraTouch, a recycled denim material, and the rooftops and walls of the containers were painted with a thick coat of white ceramic insulating paint originally developed by NASA. And thanks to simple passive solar techniques, like orienting the building to catch the prevailing breeze, the house remains cool and comfortable year-round.

Once all the bills were tallied, using steel containers for more than half of the Redondo Beach House’s 3,500 square feet equaled big savings. At a time when the average price of building a custom home in their area was upwards of $250 a square foot, the container project cost roughly $135 a square foot to build. Best of all, says Sven Pirkl, “We’ve been living in the house for five years, and we’re still very happy.”

The Container House


The Future of Containers

Since the Redondo Beach House, DeMaria has built nearly a dozen container buildings, including a residence and gallery in Venice Beach and a community center in East Los Angeles. He’s also working on affordable housing projects in the U.S. as well as the Middle East, and just breaking ground on a custom family residence in Mar Vista, California “We’ve streamlined the process and learned more about what the containers can hold up to and how we can modify them,” notes DeMaria.

Most containers come in 20- and 40-foot models and generally cost between $1,650 and $3,000 each, depending on size and wear and tear. One-way containers that have only made one passage are usually in the best shape and demand a premium. For residential projects, DeMaria prefers High Cube models, which have a taller 9’6” ceiling.

Another thing he’s learned is that there’s a whole contingent of design-minded home builders who’d love to live in a container home but can’t necessarily afford to commission an architect. To address this groundswell of interest, DeMaria created Logical Homes (, a web-based portfolio of seven affordable model container homes. “We don’t believe good architecture is something that should only be experienced by the wealthy,” says DeMaria, “so we changed the way we deliver our product.” The model homes, which DeMaria refers to as “next-generation prefab,” come in 16 different configurations, all of which are available as is or tweaked to the buyer’s specifications.

Logical Homes contemporary designs range from the compact 320-square-foot Kara (pictured below), which features a roll-up garage door that opens onto a 270-square-foot porch, to the 1,692-square-foot Seto, a three-bedroom family home, which can be affordably expanded to five bedrooms by simply taking off the prefabricated Techno roof, adding more containers on top, then putting the roof back on—no moving out required! “We never want anyone who moves into a container house to feel like they’ve had to make compromises,” says DeMaria. As such, customers can customize the seven basic models, including sheathing the corrugated steel walls in siding to camouflage their industrial pedigree. The models range in price from $49,000 for the smallest unit to $449,000 for the supersized 3,560-square-foot version of the Seto, which includes five bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, a great room, second-floor deck, twin garages, and a covered front-porch with a built-in fireplace.

Logical Homes De Maria Container House Kara 320 800w

It’s just a matter of time before people become comfortable with the idea of building with containers and start embracing the technology, says DeMaria. “We’ve got a lot of things in the works, and once the projects all kicks in, container architecture is going to blossom. There’s no doubt.”

To see more of the Redondo Beach container house, take our House Tour slide show.

To learn more about Peter DeMaria’s work, visit DeMaria Design. To price containers in your area, click here.

Hudson Passive Project

Thanks to thoughtful material choices and a spacious contemporary design, a streamlined addition to an 18th-century farmhouse stylishly connects the old and new.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Aug 6, 2014 12:56 PM

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

For Dennis Wedlick, the conservation-minded architect who masterminded the Hudson Passive Project—New York State’s first certified passive house—passive building is nothing short of revolutionary. Based on design models established by Germany’s Passivhaus Institut, passive dwellings basically heat and cool themselves, often slashing typical heating bills by upwards of 90%. Although more than 30,000 of these ‘zero-energy’ buildings have been erected in countries like Austria and Germany, passive houses remain rare in the United States, says Wedlick, whose residence in Claverack, New York, is one of only 11 U.S. projects to be awarded certification from the Passive House Institute, the American arm of Passivhaus Institut.

Not to be confused with passive solar, which requires architects to calibrate their designs to maximize solar energy, passive houses focus on minimizing the amount of energy used to heat, cool, and operate a dwelling. Unlike more traditional green residential designs, which often rely on technologies like solar panels and wind turbines, passive houses come close to achieving near-zero energy consumption by being super-insulated and airtight. To achieve this, builders insulate the entire envelope, including the walls, roof, even the foundation, and meticulously caulk, seal, and tape every possible gap or opening in the house so that the structure is so airtight it could literally hold water.

Related: House Tour—Hudson Passive Project

In addition to eschewing structural elements that might serve as thermal bridges (allowing hot or cold air to escape), passive design also relies on strategically placed windows to ensure the home gains more heat than it loses. Last but not least, passive houses tap into the energy and residual heat (from, say, a clothes dryer or a pot of pasta cooking on the stove) that exist in the house through an advanced heat-recovery system. “I call it a magic box,” says Wedlick. “It’s the only mechanical equipment required in a passive house. It brings fresh air in and exhausts stale air and brings fresh air in, all the while transferring the heat to the new air coming in.” And ‘airtight’ doesn’t mean you can’t open the windows, notes the architect. “Passive houses operate like any other house. They’re just a lot more efficient.”

Photo: Elliott Kaufman

Although Wedlick spent several years refining the eco-specifications of his design using thermal modeling and precise climatic information provided by Passivhaus Institut, the Hudson Passive Project took only about six months to construct once actual building got underway. Wedlick received grant money from the New York State Energy Research Development Authority, and tapped Chatham, New York, custom builder Bill Stratton to oversee construction.

Although high performance and energy efficiency motivated the project, Wedlick was equally attentive to the look and feel of the three-bedroom, two-bath home. With its exterior stonework, timber frame, and pitched roof, the house, which is situated on seven acres in the Hudson River Valley, pays tribute to the Dutch barns that were once common in the region. “The aesthetics of the structure have a lot to do with the message of the house,” says Wedlick, who wanted the residence to have a strong connection to nature and give the impression that the house is as healthy indoors as out. To this end, Wedlick opted for a striking two-story wall of triple-paned windows on the structure’s southern exposure as well as soaring, cathedral-like ceilings with bow-arch beams, which give the open, loft-like interior a roominess that belies its compact 1,650 footprint.

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

When it came time to outfit the interior, Wedlick cleverly proved that energy efficiency and luxury aren’t mutually exclusive. He relied on eco-friendly lines from companies such as Baldwin Hardware and Waterworks, focusing on products made to last (yet another important measure of sustainability). In the kitchen, Wedlick installed beechwood cabinets, marble countertops, and premium, energy-efficient GE appliances suited for a passive house. “We wanted to reduce penetration and the number of openings we’d need to make airtight, so we opted for an induction range with no hood,” notes Wedlick. Any exhaust fumes get funneled through the ventilation system.

Hudson Passive House Air Flow System Dennis Wedlick

The bathrooms, which feature low-flow Waterworks faucets and fixtures, are outfitted in marble and recycled glass tiles. For increased energy efficiency, the bathrooms and kitchen were ganged together, back-to-back, in order to share the hot water provided by the home’s single on-demand water heater. Situated on the north end of the ground floor, the master bedroom features sliding barn doors that can be pulled shut for privacy. Tucked under the eaves on the second level, two bedrooms and a study occupy the open loft; skylight windows let in sunlight and provide a sense of spaciousness.

Passive house technology isn’t just for new construction, says Wedlick. “If you’re remodeling to the point that you’re working on the foundation, insulate it. You’ll see a big difference in energy usage.” Replacing windows? Consider high-performance models that eliminate thermal bridging. And if you feel a draft, do something about it. “If you had a leaky faucet in the bathroom, it would be foolish not to fix it, right? It’s the same thing with drafts,” says Wedlick. “It’s a shame that energy-efficient homes have this geeky, hard-to-maintain reputation because they’re actually easy to manage. Any good hardware store can show you what to do to make your house more airtight.”

If the house’s first winter is any indication, the Hudson Passive Project is working exactly as planned. The current owners of the home never turned the heat on last winter, says Wedlick. “In my mind this is a true breakthrough. It reminds us that good building techniques can really be the answer.”

©Elliott Kaufman

For more images of the project, check out our House Tour slideshow. For additional information on the standards and techniques used to build passive houses, visit Passive House Institute US. To learn more about the Hudson Passive Project, click here.

Brad Pitt’s MAKE IT RIGHT Homes

Thanks to thoughtful material choices and a spacious contemporary design, a streamlined addition to an 18th-century farmhouse stylishly connects the old and new.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Jul 23, 2020 10:37 AM

Photo: Make It Right

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, bringing category-3 winds and tidal surges that devastated scores of Delta communities, including New Orleans, where levee breaches resulted in historic flooding across 80% of the city. The now infamous Lower 9th Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, absorbed the lion’s share of the damage. Floodwaters destroyed more than 4,000 homes, and close to 15,000 residents found themselves homeless.

Related: Make It Right: 6 Years After Katrina

Two years later, FEMA trailers housed entire families and block after block of the Lower 9th Ward still had not been rebuilt, which is why architecture enthusiast and part-time NOLA resident Brad Pitt stepped in. Discouraged by the lack of progress in the wake of the disaster, the actor created the nonprofit Make it Right, pledging to rebuild 150 affordable, green, and storm-resistant LEED-certified houses for working families who had resided in the neighborhood when Katrina hit. “These people did everything right,” said Pitt, when introducing the project. “They went to school, they got jobs, they bought their own homes, and suddenly all that was wiped out.”

Pushing Green Forward
Since its inception, Make It Right has functioned as a huge laboratory for sustainable, eco-friendly building innovations. “We had no idea we’d get such positive reception to the project,” says Tom Darden, Make It Right’s executive director. “We basically set out to build the best houses that we could build, with Brad Pitt asking some architects he respected to participate and design houses for us on a pro-bono basis. As a result, Make It Right’s become an initiative that a lot of people are watching in terms of disaster recovery and sustainable building.”

Indeed, the US Green Building Council calls the 16-block area where Make It Right has focused its revitalization efforts America’s largest green neighborhood of single-family homes, with all of the organization’s dwellings qualifying for LEED platinum certification—the highest designation for energy efficiency and sustainability awarded by the Council.

In 2008, Make It Right finished construction on its first six houses on August 29—the very day an evacuation notice for Hurricane Gustav, another category-3 storm, was issued by the city of New Orleans. “We got to see the durability of the designs tested in the real world,” says Darden. Happily, the houses survived unscathed, a confidence builder for the first families to move into the residences.

Photo: Make It Right

As the nonprofit completes its third full year of building, 75 single-family residences and duplexes have been completed. The structures, which feature jutting rooflines, elevated porches, and bright tropical colors, have been built from plans submitted by 21 high-profile design firms run by such notable architects as Frank Gehry, William McDonough, and Hitoshi Abe. All of the products used in the construction of the houses are analyzed using the holistic cradle-to-cradle philosophy, which basically means that all building materials meet strict green standards and are healthy for the people who dwell there. The affordable homes, which cost $150,000 each, currently shelter more than 300 Lower 9th Ward residents displaced from the storm.

Building Smart, for the Next Storm
While no one would wish another Katrina-like disaster on the city, making sure the new houses can weather the next big storm has always been an overriding objective of the Make It Right design process. Since the Lower 9th Ward experienced sustained flood levels of four feet in the wake of Katrina, Make It Right residences are built at an elevation of five to eight feet, a full two to five feet above the FEMA recommendation. “Every time it rains in New Orleans, it floods to some degree,” says Cesar Rodriguez, the organization Construction Service Manager. “So we wanted to help change how people managed water.”

One way is to collect rainwater in 300-gallon cement cisterns (outfitted with filters and pressure pumps), which homeowners can use to irrigate gardens, wash cars—and ultimately reduce their water bills. Capturing the storm water also reduces topsoil erosion on the properties, all of which are landscaped with hardy, native trees, shrubs, and perennials that require minimal to no maintenance. To control localized flooding, Make It Right’s houses also feature highly porous pervious concrete driveways and sidewalks, which reduce storm runoff by allowing rainwater to seep back into the ground.

Recently, the nonprofit has also partnered with the city of New Orleans on an innovative pilot program to evaluate pervious concrete as a possible replacement for major portions of traditional roadways. “We’re in the testing phase right now, but the Lower 9th Ward could have one of America’s first zero-runoff streets,” states Rodriguez. “We get 60 inches of rain a year in New Orleans and it costs the city about two cents per gallon to pump the water over the levee. Pervious concrete roads cost more upfront, but they could potentially save the city 20 to 25 million dollars a year.”

All Make It Right homes are extremely energy efficient, eco-friendly and are produced using environmentally sensitive construction methods. Photo: Charlie Varley

Home Eco-nomics
Besides being good for the planet, Make It Right’s super-efficient houses save homeowners money, sometimes shaving as much as 80% off the pre-Katrina energy bills Lower 9th Ward residents paid. The homes feature maintenance-free 266-gauge metal roofs that absorb less heat (and cut cooling costs) as well as 4-killowatt photovoltaic solar panels, which harness Louisiana’s bright sunlight to generate electricity for the homes. Some residents, according to Rodriguez, pay as little as $12 a month for utilities on a roughly 1,200-square-foot home—all in a city where the average monthly electric bill runs anywhere from $150 to $200.

Inside the houses, close-cell spray-foam insulation ensures a tight seal against the elements, tankless water heaters cut heating bills by half, and low-flow plumbing fixtures and stream-lined Energy Star dishwashers, washing machines, and fridges conserve water as well as energy. Benjamin Moore’s zero-VOC Natura and Aura paints improve indoor air quality, while formaldehyde-free plywood cabinets from Armstrong and Cosentino’s ECO countertops—made from 75% post-consumer glass, porcelain, and stone scraps—come standard in kitchens and baths. And, in true cradle-to-cradle fashion, the recycled Green Edge carpeting that softens the floors can be recycled yet again when it’s in need of replacement. (Shaw, Green Edge’s manufacturer, even retrieves the old carpets at no additional cost to the customer.)

75 Houses Built—75 to Go
As he looks to the future, Tom Darden hopes Make It Right will become a national model as well as a resource for other groups and communities considering low-income green building and cradle-to-cradle sourcing. While it’s a common assumption that homeowners need deep pockets to build green, Make It Right has proven that adaptable, durable, high-quality LEED-platinum houses can be constructed at a competitive, market-rate price point. “We think the principles we’ve applied to drive down the cost of our houses can be implemented everywhere, not just in communities that have experienced a natural disaster,” Darden says. “If all goes as planned, we’ll work ourselves out of a job at some point and everyone will start designing homes that reach Make It Right’s level of green and sustainability.”

Nevertheless, the human quotient remains the true bottom line for Darden and Make It Right. “The real success story as far as I’m concerned,” notes Darden, “is seeing these families move into an affordable green home that will shelter them safely through the next storm.”

To learn more about Make It Right, visit

Bark If You Love Architecture!

The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Dec 14, 2013 2:29 PM

Man’s best friend gets the royal treatment at Barkitecture Houston. 

Being in the doghouse isn’t such a bad thing when you’re from Houston! On October 27, some of the city’s best architects, designers, builders and artists unveiled their super-stylish takes on the doghouse at the fourth-annual Barkitecture Houston.

Open to the public (and their pets), the free event included “yappy hour” as well as a silent designer doghouse auction benefiting Pup Squad, an animal rescue group dedicated to finding adoptive homes for stray and abandoned dogs and cats. Following are this year’s top Barkitecture winners.


Best in Show

Doghouse Architecture - RdLR Architects

RdLR Architects

The 2012 Best in Show award went to RdLR Architecture for its chic “Le Dog Hausss”, a luxury suite inspired by the elegance of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Form follows function in the colorful structure, which features a covered eating area and an oval interior that mimics the shape of a dog in the resting position.


2nd Place

Doghouse Architecture -Philo Wilke

Philo Wilke

Architecture firm Philo Wilke grabbed second place for its “simply complex” design, whose contemporary slant-roof design and ventilated wood details ensures the lucky canine resident stays cool and comfortable even on the muggiest summer days.


3rd Place

Doghouse Architecture - John Ruelas

John Ruelas

Third place went to designers John Ruelas and Jeff Erlich, who incorporated a graphic sign and a row of columns into their charming “Good Dog” pavilion.


People’s Choice

Doghouse Architecture - Leslie Elkins Architecture

Leslie Elkins Architecture

This versatile wooden structure from Leslie Elkins Architecture (winner of the coveted People’s Choice award) does double duty as a doghouse and an outdoor table. The tabletop shades Fido, while the slotted sides allow him to enjoy the breeze.


Kid’s Choice Award

Doghouse Architecture - John Gay

John Gay

Created to honor all those who rescue—from the Coast Guard to Houston’s Pup Squad—engineer (and very accomplished woodworker) John Gay’s cedar rescue helicopter was the clear favorite with younger attendees.

To learn more of download information on how to build your own doghouse, visit Barkitecture Houston.

For more on doghouses, consider:

Fab Doghouses
“Best in Show” Doghouse Contest Winners
The Doghouse Frank Lloyd Wright Built

“Green” Paint: Sherwin-Williams Emerald

The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated May 7, 2013 10:44 AM

With its new eco-minded Emerald paints and ColorCast Eco Toners, Sherwin-Williams gives homeowners more high-performing, zero-VOC options.


This summer, Sherwin-Williams broadened its eco-friendly offerings with the introduction of its high-end Emerald interior and exterior paints.

The company, which received the EPA’s prestigious Presidential Green Chemistry Award in 2011, plays up the “beauty, washability, and sustainability” of the new zero-VOC line. The finishes emit few odors during or after application and have built-in antimicrobial properties that inhibit the growth of mold and mildew on the paint.

The interior paints also received Indoor Air Quality Certification from GreenGuard, a third-party nonprofit certifying products that meet strict chemical emission limits, and which contribute to healthier indoor air.

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning to Love Recycling

The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Jan 3, 2014 7:50 PM

Rubbermaid Recycling Containers


Thanks to a new crop of thoughtfully designed Rubbermaid recycling products, corralling kitchen recyclables has never been easier.

Fact: According to the EPA, Americans are recycling more than ever. In 2010 alone, homeowners helped keep 85.1 million tons of glass, plastic, paper, and yard waste out of the country’s bulging landfills.

Confession: I’d like to say that I get great joy from recycling, but the reality is I hate all the clutter. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to do my small part. It’s just that I’ve never had a very good system for keeping everything organized. In my hometown of New York City, recycling has been mandatory since 1989. Like my neighbors, I dutifully stockpile soup cans, aluminum foil, wire hangers, soda pop bottles, and towering stacks of newspapers and catalogs, then haul everything to my building’s basement recycling bins every day or so.

I reside in a relatively small apartment with my husband, two kids, and dog, so the ever-present bags of bottles and cans and stacks of newspapers and magazines drive me crazy. I like neat. I like clean. But I don’t have room for the spiffy built-in recycling bins or the oversized plastic storage containers my lucky friends with garages and garden sheds recruit for sorting aluminum, glass, and paper.

Rubbermaid Recycling Products


Solution: Enter Rubbermaid’s clever new Hidden Recycler and 2-in-1 Recycler, both of which are bound to thrill space-challenged recyclers everywhere. My personal favorite is the Hidden Recycler, a five-gallon, soft-sided fabric bag with a lid and sturdy plastic handle, which attaches to the inside of most cabinet doors. Made from recycled materials, the durable waterproof bag keeps up to 36 cans tidy and out of sight, plus the bags can be detached from the frame and machine-washed when dirty. Best of all, the whole contraption costs just $15.99.

Rubbermaid Recycling Products - Enviro


The 2-in-1 Recycler is pretty sleek, too. The receptacle, which takes up 25 percent less floor space than most double recycling units, is divided into two containers. There’s a top bin with a lid as well as a second tilt-out bin on the bottom that makes it easy to separate recyclables from regular trash or to simply keep recyclables organized. Reasonably priced at $39.99, the trash bin also features Rubbermaid’s trademarked Liner Lock system, which guarantees that garbage bags “stay put no matter what.”

If you’re one of the fortunate homeowners with space to spare, Rubbermaid is also debuting its new Stackable Recycler in 20.5-, 24.5-, and 36.5-gallon sizes for both indoor and outdoor use. The heavy-duty units can be interchanged for various sorting jobs and feature hinged front doors that snap shut for secure transport. Prices range from $16.99 to $24.99.

Where to Buy: The new Rubbermaid recycling products can now be purchased online at and Look for them in stores nationwide starting March 15.


The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Dec 23, 2014 11:49 AM

Christmas Tree Recycling - Treecycling

Photo: Cross Timbers Gazette

With the fun and excitement of the holidays behind us, it’s time to do what seemed unthinkable only a couple weeks ago–unstring the lights, remove the ornaments, and figure out what to do with the Christmas tree. If you have an artificial one, the solution is simple: pack it away for next year.  If, however, you are one of the 30 million households that have a real evergreen, consider disposing of your holiday treasure (“It was the best tree ever, wasn’t it?”) in a way that will not only be earth-friendly, but useful. For the record, a tree carted off to a landfill will take up a lot of space–and for quite some time, since the lack of oxygen makes decay a painfully slow process.

The solution: Treecycling.  Most communities around the country have a Christmas tree recycling program in place where discarded Christmas trees are chipped into mulch for gardens (including yours) or shredded for use on paths and hiking trails.  In areas where soil erosion is an issue, discarded Christmas trees can be effective sand and soil barriers and help aid sedimentation management.  You can even put the tree in the backyard to become a bird feeder and sanctuary or, if you have a fish pond, submerge it where it can serve as an excellent refuge and feeding area for fish.

Where to begin?  The National Christmas Tree Association–together with, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based conservation group–offer a zip code locator to help you find a suitable treecycling solution near you.  Check it out and start the New Year off right–and green!

For more on sustainability, consider:

The Meaning Behind GREEN
Salvaging Starbucks for the Holidays
Nest Learning Thermostat: Digital-Age Home Temperature Control

Fighting Hunger—Can by Can

The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated Jul 31, 2020 2:12 PM

Canstruction "Loaded Dice" Gensler-WSP-Flack + Kurtz

“Loaded Dice” by Gensler and WSP-Flack+Kurtz. Photo: Annabel Willis

At the 19th Annual Canstruction Design/Build Competition—an art show and food drive benefiting City Harvest—some of New York City’s finest architects, designers, and engineers create whimsical sculptures made entirely from canned goods!

Last Thursday night, 25 teams of volunteer architects, designers, and engineers gathered at the World Financial Center to kick off Canstruction, an annual building competition and food drive sponsored by the Society of Design Administration and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Instead of bricks and mortar, the design wizards worked into the wee hours of the night creating giant, self-supporting structures using canned goods ranging from green beans and Spam to pineapple rings and black olives.

By dawn, everything from super-sized footwear (“Giving Hunger the Boot”) to a clock tower (“Time to End Hunger”) to a marvelous rendition of the Brooklyn Bridge, aptly titled “Suspending Hunger,” had taken shape. There was a curvaceous sea horse made of alternating layers of blue and gold tins of tuna, and gigantic dice that required five tons of canned goods to complete—enough food to provide a “square” meal for more than 5,000 people.

To exemplify the need to stomp out hunger, one group took Alexander McQueen’s iconic lobster claw shoe—famously worn by Lady Gaga—as their inspiration, cheekily reconstructing the high-heeled bootie out of 1,200 cans of Le Sueur peas and carrots. Other standouts included an enormous rendition of the popular Angry Bird game character, a CANtainer ship, and the TiCANic. And for the first time in the New York City event’s history, a group of 19 students from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Manhattan competed under the mentorship of architect Sandra Forman. Their entry, “Strike Out Hunger,” included jumbo bowling pins and a bowling ball, and included 4,041 cans. “The kids started working on the project in August, and they did a lot of fundraising, including selling a t-shirt they designed themselves, to raise the money to buy the canned goods,” said music teacher Yeou-Jey Hsu, the students’ advisor on the project.

A nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1993, Canstruction currently sponsors competitions in more than 100 cities across America and abroad. Since its inception, the group has donated more than 10 million cans of food to organizations working to fight hunger. At the conclusion of the New York City event, all canned goods will be given to City Harvest, making it the largest one-time donation the hunger-relief nonprofit receives annually.

Located at the World Financial Center at 200 Vesey Street in Battery Park City, the Canstruction Design/Build Competition is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until November 21. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to bring a can of food to contribute. To learn more, visit the canstruction site.

For highlights from the New York City Canstruction Competition, check out this CANstruction: A Can-do Design Competition slideshow

Happy Birthday Bon Ami!

The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

By Monica Michael Willis | Updated May 25, 2016 1:34 PM


For 125 years, this hardworking household cleanser has been keeping America’s kitchens and baths sparkly clean—without harsh chemicals or dyes.

Bon Ami Cleaning - Advertisement 2

Photo: Bon Ami 1940 Advertisement

I bought my first can of Bon Ami powder cleanser when I moved to New York City two decades ago. I’d just rented a studio apartment and wanted to give it a good clean, but I didn’t want to use chlorine bleach or toxic chemicals to get the job done.

Related: Cleaning Green: Eco-Friendly Products for Your Home

Up until that point, I’d been mixing my own vinegar-based cleaning products, but my new digs called for something stronger to get through the thick layers of accumulated grime left by the previous tenant. The man at the hardware store suggested Bon Ami when I vetoed some harsher brands, and my enduring relationship with a cleaning product was born.

It took a little elbow grease, but the powder lifted the greasy gunk off the ancient stovetop, and erased the stubborn soap scum on my chippy claw-foot tub, all without leaving a gritty residue. And best of all, the powdery powerhouse was cheap and worked way better than my earlier eco-friendly concoctions.

Bon Ami Cleaning - 1886 Formula

Photo: Bon Ami 1886 Formula

As I’ve come to find out, Bon Ami’s fans go way back. In fact, 2011 marks the family-owned company’s 125th year in business. “A lot has changed over the years. Bon Ami’s weathered the Depression, the chemical revolution, and endless fads, but our commitment to products that are effective, ecological, and affordable has remained a constant,” says Carolyn Beaham West, a fifth-generation family member and spokesperson for the brand.

Indeed, a 14-ounce can of their workhorse scrub still costs less than a buck in supermarkets and hardware stores. And the cleanser’s formulation—coconut and corn oils, a little bit of baking soda, a touch of soda ash, and gentle abrasives like limestone and feldspar, a waste product of quartz mining that would otherwise go to the landfill—remains as pure and simple as when it was first develop in 1886.

To meet growing demand for its earth-friendly products, the Missouri-based Bon Ami recently expanded its line to include dish soap, all-purpose cleaner (good for everything from floors and walls to vinyl car seats), and a liquid cleanser that’s easier to apply to vertical surfaces like shower stalls and bathroom walls, where soap residue and hard-water deposits can be a problem. Packaged in bottles made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic, the new cleaners are also free of phosphates and chlorine. Plus they boast a fresh tangerine-thyme scent that’s derived from essential oils, not artificial fragrances—a boon for anyone with chemical sensitivities.

Bon Ami Cleaning - Products

Photo: Bon Ami

As my relationship with Bon Ami has matured—and my address has improved— I’ve come to rely on the inexpensive cleanser for a lot more than cleaning tubs, sinks, and countertops. I’ve used it to scrub the oxidation from metal fireplace tools scored at an antiques fair, to give my stainless pots and pans like-new sparkle, and to spruce up crusty outdoor grills and plastic patio furniture. I’ve even been told the powder makes a pretty good silver polish when mixed into a paste with water. I’ll let you know how it works if I ever get around to shining up my great-grandmother’s sterling tea set.

To learn more, visit Bon Ami.

For more on green, consider:

Prevent Mold and Mildew
Green Bathroom Makeover
Quick Tip: Improve Your Home’s Air Quality