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Greenovation: Summer 2008

     by Stephen Morris

My personal involvement with the National Tour of Solar/Green Homes dates back to the early 1990s when, as a marketing consultant for Real Goods Trading Corporation (then of Ukiah, California, now Hopland) we came up with the idea of a National Off-the-Grid Day to encourage people to spend 24 hours off the power grid.

The event created a lot of stir, but without much focus. There were numerous requests from local media to see Off-the-Grid Day in action, but the event was so de-centralized that we didn't know how or where to direct them. The next year we got smarter and made the event a national tour of off-the-grid homes, with a national registry of folks willing to open their homes to the public for a day each fall.

The event grew in popularity, and it soon became apparent that it was not appropriate for a private company to "own" the event. Administration of The Tour was turned over to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) where it has continued to grow and flourish. They, in turn, work closely with regional organizations such as the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) to customize the events for the area. Dates, times, and conditions vary, so it is important to get the most up-to-date information from the ases.org website.

Last year more than 115,000 attendees visited some 5,000 buildings in 2,900 participating communities. The Tour is a featured part of National Energy Awareness Month.quiet zone

There have been many changes since Off-the-Grid Day. There has been an increasing focus on energy-saving techniques and sustainability through building design, energy efficient appliances, and use of green materials during remodeling. What counts as "green" in Chicago is very different from what is "green" in Florida.

Here's a sampling of different approaches to making a home more environmentally friendly.
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New Fuel-Cost Calculator Simplifies Comparisons

One would think comparing the costs of different heating fuels and electric heat sources would be pretty easy. That's not the case. For starters, while we purchase some fuels by the energy content of the fuel, we purchase others by volume or weight—and we use different units for different fuels. Heating oil, propane, and kerosene are sold by the gallon, natural gas by the hundred cubic feet (ccf) or therm (100,000 Btus), firewood by the cord, wood pellets and coal by the ton, and electricity by the kilowatt-hour (kWh).

With rapidly rising energy prices around the country, something unusual has happened. Some heating fuels that used to be quite affordable, such as heating oil, have risen in price dramatically, making competing energy sources such as electricity relatively less expensive. In parts of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, even the most expensive form of electric-resistance baseboard heat is now less expensive than fuel oil.

To help consumers objectively compare fuel costs, BuildingGreen has just launched a sophisticated, yet very simple, online fuel-cost-comparison calculator. The new fuel-cost comparison tool is free on BuildingGreen.com along with a primer on comparing fuel costs (visit www.BuildingGreen.com/calc/fuel_cost.cfm).

BuildingGreen's online fuel-cost calculator considers the heat content of each fuel, the efficiency of combustion by the heating equipment, and the efficiency of distribution. With furnaces and forced-air distribution, there are often very significant distribution losses that raise the cost per million Btus of delivered heat. The BuildingGreen calculator provides default (average) efficiencies but allows users to enter different values if they are known.

From Environmental Building News, www.BuildingGreen.com.

.SIDEBAR: A "Typical" Tour Participant

Organization: LineSync Architecture
Type of Building: Commercial
Square Feet: 2000
Building Style: Creative vernacular
Year Built: 1996-2004 design
Fuel Type: Propane
Window Brand: Eagle
Insulation Type: R-255 effective approximate R-50 with DOE II High Mass software

Building Features: Daylighting, Grid-tied Photovoltaics, Passive Solar, Radiant Floor Heating, Recycled Materials, Sunspace

Other Building Information: Stay in Place insulated concrete form; compact fluorescent light bulbs; low flow toilets; Bioshield floor stain and sealant; recycled wood trim

General Information: The LineSync Architecture Studio entry path winds along a stone wall leading to an arched entry. Curved roof line dormers echo the branches of an adjacent pine. Architecturally designed to be distinct from the 1850s farmhouse, the building incorporates state of the art energy saving features, yet utilizes vernacular barn board siding and masonry stucco for a blend of North American and European agricultural building styles. Designed to be a wonderful workplace, the Studio incorporates garden views from every station. Siding from the 1850s horse barn (located where the Studio now sits prior to its renovation by carpenter ants) is used for interior trim. A colorful radiant slab floor notes the playful seriousness of art in this building.

Special Considerations: Available from 10 am - 1 pm. Please leave pets in the car. There are 3 cats on the premises. Due to allergies, no animals are allowed in the building.

Directions: From Brattleboro: Route 9 W to traffic light in Wilmington: Take a left. Pass the restaurants and park. Go up the hill. 3rd house on left. Go up the driveway. Use the path on left to go to the studio behind the farmhouse.

High Road to Greenovation

by David Johnston

When Wanda Urbanska, host of the public television series Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, called to see if I could help "greenovate" her home, I said, "Sure." Urbanska had just purchased 1956 brick ranch house in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Recently remodeled, the home had a new kitchen, new hardware floors and a fresh coat of paint. An east-facing sunroom had low-quality windows, which lets in heat during summer and cold in winter. Urbanska wanted to use her home's retrofit as an example of how to make a conventional house healthy. She was committed to buying from local suppliers. Natural Home editor-in-chief Robyn Griggs Lawrence joined me at Urbanska's house to help determine steps in greening the home. The energy conservation retrofit was Priority No.1. Lawrence focused on eco-decorating and finishes. Once her eco-remodel was complete, Urbanska furnished her home with finds from local resale stores. She also added Magnolia Lane's hemp window treatments in the living and dining areas and hemp bedding in the bedrooms. "My house is transformed," she said. "I now live in a green home, a healing environment. I've never been happier with a house."

PRIORITY 1: Improve Energy Efficiency

PROBLEMS: The biggest problem was an attic stairway that provided a perfect thermal chimney to draft heat through the uninsulated rafters and attic vents. Also, poorly made, double-glazed windows had about ¼ inch of space between the glass panes; glass should have a ½-inch air space to reduce heat loss.

SOLUTIONS: In the attic, we sprayed closed-cell polyurethane insulation on the rafters and sheathing to keep heat from pouring out through the roof. Insulating the rafters also helped mitigate heat loss through recessed can lights built into the ceiling. These recessed cans allow heat to rise through the ceiling in winter and pull heat from the attic into the living space in summer. Urbanska also installed Energy Star, double-pane, low-E windows manufactured by Norandex. COST: 34 new windows: $10,000 installed. Attic insulation: $10,000 installed.

PRIORITY 2: Revamp the Bathroom

PROBLEMS: The main bathroom's pink décor, dated cabinet and awkward configuration gave away the home's age. Urbanska said it was always cold.

SOLUTIONS: We completely renovated the bathroom, bringing in a Vortens dual-flush, low-flow toilet and low-flow showerheads. We also installed a hardwood Provence vanity with a distressed finish and a granite countertop (mined locally in North Carolina), crafted by Forms and Fixtures in nearby Greensboro. We replaced the vinyl flooring with natural stone tiles, which surround the original porcelain bathtub.

We insulated the exterior wall and the wall between the bathroom and the kitchen with NCFI spray foam. We insulated the floor under the bathrooms and bedrooms with Johns Manville formaldehyde-free fiberglass.

COST: Vortens dual-flush, low-flow toilet: $675. Low-flow showerhead: $75. Forms & Fixtures vanity: $3,090. Tile floor and tub surround: $2,100. Interior wall insulation: $600. Under-floor insulation: $300. Panasonic Whisper-Quiet bath fan: $208. Labor: $3,600.

PRIORITY 3: Renovate the Dated Kitchen

PROBLEMS: The previous kitchen remodel was adequate but not beautiful, with appliances that weren't energy-efficient. It was topped off by popcorn ceiling that Lawrence urged us to remove. Making a home more beautiful and livable—and therefore longer lasting—is one of the greenest things we can do.

SOLUTIONS: Because granite can be obtained just outside of Mount Airy, replacing the laminate countertop and backsplash with the North Carolina Granite Corporation's signature "salt-and-pepper" granite was a no-brainer. North Carolina Granite uses no chemicals and repurposes every scrap, resulting in a zero-waste operation.

Following Lawrence's recommendation, we added a recycling center to the built-in pantry and installed Energy Star KitchenAid appliances. Urbanska added a personal touch by repurposing her mother's 1960s novelty skirt into kitchen curtains.

COST: Granite countertops: $4,000. Smooth ceiling: $234. Recycling center: $55. Energy Star KitchenAid appliances: $5,946. Curtains: $30. Lights: $288. Labor: $4,365.

PRIORITY 4: Relocate the Laundry Room

PROBLEMS: The laundry room was in the basement, and the historic washer and dryer had to go. The bigger issue was relocating the laundry area upstairs to a more convenient location. This was a challenge, given the first floor's small footprint.

In the basement, we also discovered a relic: an old oil-fired furnace that looked like a bank vault. SOLUTIONS: Replace the washer-dryer with Whirlpool's Energy Star Duet combo front-loading steam washer and sensor dryer. Creative input from Urbanska's friend Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House book series, resulted in a built-in room divider between the sunroom and the study to house the appliances and provide much-needed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the study. Urbanska also added a free-standing rack dryer inside and a clothesline outdoors.

We replaced the heating and cooling system with a Trane high-efficiency heat pump, which should save Urbanska 30 percent on her utility bills. A heat pump is the perfect solution for Mount Airy's climate with its high cooling necessities and mild winters.

COST: Whirlpool Duet washer and dryer with pedestals and tower: $3,485. Room divider: $350. Built-in bookshelves in study: $801. High-efficiency Trane heat pump: $8,780. Labor: $4,189.

PRIORITY 5: Improve Indoor Air Quality PROBLEMS: Painting is the most common home improvement of all, and doing it with nontoxic paint is the simplest way to assure good indoor air quality. Paint can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air for several years.

Though most of the house had hardwood floors, the bedrooms were carpeted. Carpet acts like a sponge, absorbing dust and other particulates as well as gases such as formaldehyde. When the temperature and humidity rise, these gases can be released back into the home's air.

SOLUTIONS: Urbanska selected Ace Hardware's Ace Sensations low-VOC paint. In keeping with her buy-local commitment, we chose Tennessee oak flooring with a cherry finish for the bedrooms. Urbanska installed Hunter Low Profile exterior-grade ceiling fans in all three bedrooms and the living room and replaced the existing one in the sunroom.

COST: Ace Hardware low-VOC paint: $250. Tennessee oak flooring: $2,000. Ceiling fans: $588. Labor: $5,020.

Excerpted from Natural Home, a national magazine that provides practical ideas, inspiring examples and expert opinions about healthy, ecologically sound, beautiful homes. To read more articles from Natural Home magazine, please visit www.NaturalHomeMagazine.com or call 800-340-5846 to subscribe. Copyright 2008 by Ogden Publications Inc.

Low Road to Greenovation

by Kim Wallace and Trevan McGee

Accent your area.

Lay a few area rugs down on hardwood, tile or linoleum for a carpetlike effect without harmful glues. Choose rugs made from natural fibers such as cotton, wool, hemp, bamboo and sisal, and look for vegetable dyes or no dye at all. Rugs made from recycled materials are another green option. Set the mood.

Turning the lights down makes for an inviting atmosphere, and it saves electricity. A compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) has a 10,000-hour lifespan. New low-wattage CFLs work with conventional incandescent dimmers and cost about $20 per bulb.

Found it.

Finding free or cheap furnishings is tons of fun, and your budget will thank you. Check Craigslist (www.Craigslist.org), Freecycle (www.Freecycle.org), thrift stores and curbside pickup for unique pieces that need a makeover. Breathe new life into hand-me-downs by reupholstering with fresh, breathable fabrics such as organic cotton, hemp or linen.

Lose the shoes.

Here's an easy one: Take your shoes off when you enter your home. Shoes track traces of dirt, dust and other toxins into the house, which leads to poorer air quality and more vacuuming and cleaning. Designate a place near your entryway for footwear.


Follow this recipe to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Befriend your dishwasher.

In general, a regular dishwasher cycle uses less water than handwashing. Skip the prerinsing and save even more. For caked-on food, soak in cold water (to avoid using energy to heat the water). Some dishwashers have a heated dry feature; turn it off and either towel or air dry.

Don't buy the water.

Fitness and energy waters may be all the rage, but there's no beating pure, unadulterated water. If you're concerned about the quality of your water supply, invest in an under-sink filtration system or a water-filtering pitcher. There's none of the waste associated with bottled water, and it's significantly cheaper in the long run

Down with disposables.

Paper napkins and paper towels are garbage waiting to happen. And while you can buy recycled-paper or other eco-friendly versions, they're still not reusable. Switch to cloth napkins and dish towels instead. They may cost more, but you can use them indefinitely.

When buying dishes and flatware, avoid plastic, which is made from nonrenewable petroleum and may impart odors and hazardous substances into food. Instead, buy metal flatware from a secondhand or consignment store. It will be less expensive than new, and you'll be promoting reuse—and you might come across cool, retro designs.


About 65 percent of your home's water use can be traced to the bathroom, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tweak your throne.

The first sign of a troubled toilet is the sound of running water between flushes. Malfunctioning toilets can leak hundreds of gallons of water a day, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Test your toilet's water-tightness with a few drops of food coloring in the tank; if the bowl shows traces of color after 15 minutes, you've got a leak.

When it's time to replace the toilet, opt for a high-efficiency one. For a couple hundred bucks, a 1.3–gallon-per-flush model will save $100 a year on your water bill, according to the EPA. Start your search for the perfect throne by visiting www.EPA.gov/watersense/pp/find_het.htm.

Just say no to vinyl.

Exchange your PVC-vinyl shower curtain or liner for one made with hemp. The fiber is naturally antifungal and antibacterial. After showers, leave the curtain extended for even drying. To wash, scrub with a bit of borax or distilled vinegar added to water and hang to dry.

Combat clogs.

Baking soda and vinegar work magic on bathtub drain problems. Pour one cup of baking soda down the drain followed by a cup of vinegar (preferably hot) to unclog the drain. The baking soda fizzes after the vinegar combines with it, and it eats away at clogs. If your drain backs up, don't use a declogging chemical; first try a drain auger or "snake." For small clogs, mini-snakes work as well as full-size snakes—and they're cheaper.


Get it covered.

Many conventional mattresses contain hazardous or irritating chemicals such as formaldehyde. While a natural-fiber or rubber-tree latex mattress is ideal, a natural mattress topper over your conventional mattress may be more economical.

Dress your bed accordingly.

In summer, switch your AC off at night, then outfit your bed with lightweight linens and open a bedroom window. If you're still too warm, invest in a small fan; it will draw less energy than cooling your entire home. In winter, lower your thermostat at bedtime—keep it set above 60 degrees, or your pipes might freeze—and add an extra blanket. Or use a space heater in the bedroom.

Excerpted from Natural Home, a national magazine that provides practical ideas, inspiring examples and expert opinions about healthy, ecologically sound, beautiful homes. To read more articles from Natural Home magazine, please visit www.NaturalHomeMagazine.com or call 800-340-5846 to subscribe. Copyright 2008 by Ogden Publications Inc.

Ground-up Greenovation

by Beth Ritchie

Building an eco-friendly dream home for about the same cost as a conventional home seemed daunting when my husband, Luke, and I bought three acres of Virginia forest nearly eight years ago. Our purchase came just before the dot-com crash (Luke owns a software company); shortly thereafter our funds would have evaporated.

Believing fate was on our side, Luke, our two children and I set out to build an environmentally conscious home for no more than 5 percent above the cost of a conventional one.

We set our goals high; we wanted to use green products, but they had to be cost competitive - within 5 percent of a comparable mainstream product. Luke and I vowed to limit waste by choosing a clean design style, ordering supplies conservatively and salvaging whenever possible. As a conservation policy consultant, I'm passionate about the environment, and our subcontractors began to understand my ardor when I climbed inside the Dumpster one day to retrieve a good piece of drywall.

The plan takes shape

To disturb the natural landscape as little as possible, Luke and I planned for site preservation six months before construction began. We hired a professional arborist to assess the health of all trees within 50 feet of the project footprint. The company surrounded the entire impacted area with tree protection fencing and helped strengthen trees within 20 feet of the disturbance area with root aeration mats.

We worked with the company to develop a set of tree-protection rules, including financial penalties for violations, and made all contractors sign it before entering the job site. These tree-protection measures cost $34,000 -- about one-third of our total landscaping costs -- but I consider it money well spent. Our neighbors just finished construction without any tree-protection measures. They spent nearly $10,000 to fell three 100-foot trees killed by construction impact. We kept our beautiful trees - and their cool shade.

Our architect sited our home on one of the land's natural slopes to utilize the moderating effect of the Earth's temperature; this is one of the most energy-saving aspects of our home. In summer, it can be 10 degrees cooler on the lower level than in the upstairs bedrooms, so each July we move downstairs to our "summer home." In winter, the window placement and second-story overhang help us exploit the sun?s warmth on our south-facing spaces.

Our contractor was committed to building sustainably while staying within the project's budget. His homebuilding planning method was to budget each individual category: He gave us the estimated prices of the average conventional products we would need in each category, and we added our 5 percent premium to get each category's individual budget ceiling.

One of the contractor's biggest concerns was that his usual suppliers wouldn't carry recycled concrete, drywall, insulation and countertops. To our surprise, in many instances they did - without a premium price.

Searching for green

Although sometimes we located items very easily, finding green products for building and landscaping was a challenge. I used the Internet to track down essential items such as insulation, drywall and hardwood flooring, and our team relied heavily on the growing community of environmental groups to find resources. A nonprofit organization, Programme for Belize, helped me find the ipˆ wood for our deck.

Green carpet proved difficult to find because so many brands include toxic glues, nylon or other environmentally harmful materials. I interviewed a dozen sales representatives to determine the fibers? post-consumer recycled content, what was in the backing and whether the carpet could be recycled after its useful life ended. Perseverance paid off, and I found a few companies that supplied responsible products for reasonable prices.

Occasional disappointments cropped up: Recycled roof shingles were absurdly expensive, and county regulations wouldn't allow us to have a green roof with live plants. To keep within our 5 percent rule, we opted for a conventional product?asphalt shingles?but we did choose the 40-year shingle, so at least we know the roof will last a long time.

What's inside counts

It was surprisingly easy to find appliances, furniture and d‚cor that met our environmental, aesthetic and financial criteria. An interior designer helped us choose natural wood furniture and gorgeous eco-smart fabrics.

Several of our tables are vintage pieces, rescued from yard sales. A childhood friend of Luke's used sustainably harvested wood and hand-applied nontoxic finishes to make our dining room table and an egg-shaped, hollow coffee table.

Our bedroom's wall-to-wall carpet is manufactured from 100 percent post-consumer recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) polyester. Thousands of soda bottles were melted down and spun into plush broadloom roll carpet. We splurged on natural wool area rugs in our great room and put recycled carpet in the bedrooms.

Well-planned lighting is key to minimizing energy use, and our fixtures use LEDs, compact fluorescents and other low-energy bulbs to create layers of light. Programmable dimmers help minimize energy use, as do the great room's electronic shades. They allow light in, but block 97 percent of UV rays, protecting our furniture from sun bleaching. We can control the lights and shades remotely, allowing us to monitor lighting and temperature even when we're not home.

It was also easy to find water- and energy-efficient kitchen and bathroom fixtures, using the Energy Star label as a guide. When choosing kitchen cabinets, we weighed health and environmental concerns and chose cabinets made from FSC-certified wood. We put the leftover allowance in the cabinet category toward items with a higher green-product premium.

Worth the effort

Our home-building odyssey inspired me to write the book Your Green Home: A Practical Guide to Eco-Friendly Building and Remodeling, which awaits a publisher. Our family now enjoys a happy, healthy, affordable home, and we sleep easy knowing it's a little lighter on the earth.

Excerpted from Natural Home, a national magazine that provides practical ideas, inspiring examples and expert opinions about healthy, ecologically sound, beautiful homes. To read more articles from Natural Home magazine, please visit www.NaturalHomeMagazine.com or call 800-340-5846 to subscribe. Copyright 2007 by Ogden Publications Inc.

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