Greener Lives loves to share ideas about healthy and sustainable interior design, creating greener homes, discovering amazing eco-friendly products and exploring a bit of all things green.

Monday, June 6, 2016

How green can and should buildings be?

People are always asking me: What makes buildings green? Jason McLennan has an answer, an 81-page answer called the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Even though most of the 81 pages in the LBC guidelines are in full color and have background scenes like green buildings, a girl and a cat looking out a window (truly) and someone meditating, the Living Building Challenge is the most rigorous certification standard for green buildings in the United States. McLennan created the LBC in 2006 and began certifying buildings in 2010, but only 11 buildings have been certified for meeting the full standard since then.

Not everyone is put off by the challenge. In April, famed actor Leonardo DiCaprio commissioned McLennan to design "Blackadore Caye, a Restorative Island," a 68-villa eco-resort on a private island in Belize. All construction on the 104-acre site will meet the LBC standard. McLennan is a practicing architect and the former CEO of the International Living Future Institute, which runs the Living Building Challenge.

The 81-page, full-color guidelines to the Living Building Challenge are not fine-print checklists.

The Living Building Challenge is a vision of what green can be, and it's different from other building certification systems in integral ways. As McLennan explains in Green Biz magazine: "All of the green building programs that exist in the world are built around a notion of doing less harm, so we turned that on its head and we're trying to define what 'good' looks like, which is a very different thing." He adds, "Instead of buildings that are less likely to give you cancer, how about buildings that can't give you cancer? Instead of buildings that produce less pollution than the average building, how about a building that produces no pollution?"

Other green building certification programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Green Globes are points-based systems. They require that projects meet certain criteria in a number of categories. Then, projects are awarded points for meeting other optional criteria. Depending on how many points they achieve, projects can be certified at different levels like Silver, Gold and Platinum. (Let me note here that I am a LEED Accredited Professional, and a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED system.)

One complaint about LEED, the most widely used green building certification system in the United States, is that project managers can pick and choose easy points to gain higher certification levels. With the Living Building Challenge, it's an all or nothing proposition. The guidelines provide the criteria, and projects must meet them all to be certified. There are no points. On the other hand, the Living Building Challenge does offer two types of certification that do not require projects to meet all of the guidelines: Petal Certification and Net Zero Energy Building Certification. The LBC guidelines have seven performance categories, which it calls "Petals": Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty. I love that the LBC recognizes that aesthetics and psychological well being are an important part of building design and construction.

In a sense, a fully certified LBC building is a mini-city. It has to have "Net Positive Energy" so that the building generates 5% more energy on site without combustion than it needs. It also has to have "Net Positive Water," which means that 100% of the water for the building has to be captured, recycled, reclaimed and purified on site. All storm water and water discharge has to be treated on site, so it does not use the municipal sewage system.

The VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver is a Living Building Challenge fully certified building

One important difference between the LBC and other certification systems is that the LBC does not award its certification until after the building has been operating for a year and has the statistics to prove that it is actually performing to the standards for which it was designed. This is a requirement that LEED and other certification systems need to adopt.

In addition to the 11 LBC projects that have received full certification, another 33 have received one of the partial certifications and 301 projects currently are registered to participate in the LBC system. With those kinds of statistics, I have to wonder: how rigorous a green building standard is too rigorous?

The LEED green building certification system addresses all of the LBC criteria except waste water, happiness and beauty although LEED has lower requirements in many areas, including energy and water. In the 16 years of its existence, LEED has certified more than 74,500 commercial buildings for a total of 14.4 billion square feet of commercial space as well as nearly 206,000 total LEED for Homes residential units around the world. LEED also has been adopted by many municipal, county and state governments as a requirement for new government building construction, which is a real accomplishment, I think. Yet LEED would be untenable if it required municipal governments to build facilities that did not use municipal sewage treatment plants. For now, we do need LEED, and it is not in competition with the LBC.

The Living Building Challenge presents a vision for our future based on changing our present. Buildings consume 47.6% of the energy and 74.9% of the electricity in the U.S. We can never have a future where we do not rely on fossil fuels and do not use up all of our ground water in desert cities if we don't know how to design and construct self-reliant buildings. The Living Building Challenge shows us just how green today's buildings can be, and we should start building more than two truly green buildings a year. Our present and our future demand it.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Soy bathtubs and grout-free showers

I love discovering new green design products. In online newsletters, magazine ads, trade shows and unsolicited samples in my mailbox, I am always on the lookout for the latest in green technology, creativity and beauty. I would like to share some of the promising products that have crossed my path recently. Some of them have just come on the market, and some of them are just new to me (and I hope to you). Caveat #1: The information that I have about the products is based on the manufacturers' literature and their sales reps' answers. Caveat #2: I have not personally used any of these products in a design, so I don't know whether or not they will perform as their manufacturers say they will. All of that said, here's the cool stuff.

Cosentino is well known for its Silestone engineered stone counter tops that are made of quartz chips and a binder. In 2014, Cosentino released Dekton, a revolutionary product that presses quartz, porcelain and glass into slabs using what Cosentino calls a Particle Sintering Technology (PST). The process applies 25,000 tons of pressure and then bakes the product at an extremely high temperature to mimic the metamorphism or change in form that rocks undergo over the centuries in nature. Talk about a big vision.

The color Trilium from Dekton's Tech Collection

This year Cosentino released its first Dekton product that includes recycled content. On top of having 60% recycled content, Trilium from the Tech Collection is a beautiful surface material that looks like gray slate seductively splotched with rust. Because it is available in .8 cm thickness and 126" x 56" size, the Trilium product can be used as a solid surface wall covering for showers - without the grout lines of tile! Dekton also can be used for counter tops, siding, facades and flooring.

Wetstyle, a manufacturer of bathtubs, lavatories, sinks and bathroom cabinetry, has completely abandoned porcelain and developed its own eco-friendly, thermo-insulating material called Wetmar Bio, which is made primarily of soy and mineral stone. They also have developed a soy and vegetable extract sealant to replace the petroleum-based resins that are used in standard porcelain bathroom fixtures. Petroleum products off gas toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Wetstyle's bathroom products are not just sustainable but stylish.

A bathtub from Wetstyle's Calligraphy collection

The back splash tile above the vanity in a bathroom or a powder room is essential to establishing the room's design and style. The color, shape and patterning of the tile can create anything from a sense of whimsy to a feeling of elegance. Happily, there are many beautiful recycled glass and porcelain tiles in different shapes, colors and patterns to create a palette of designs. Unique Building Products has a truly unusual and beautiful tile series. The Bleeker Street collection is made of small pieces of glass upcycled from broken stained glass. The rectangular pieces of glass have been glued together to create an irregular running brick pattern. The depth of the glass pieces are a quarter of an inch, more or less, so the surface is uneven rather than smooth although it isn't sharp.

UBC's Bleeker Street collection in the Green Blend color

I'm going to remodel my bathrooms this year, and I'm considering the Bleeker Street Green Blend for my master bathroom vanity back splash although a little voice keeps whispering, "You know it will collect dust...." The other little voice says, "But it would be perfect with the Vetrazzo recycled glass counter top you want to use." I expect to find out which little voice wins by the end of the year. I'll let you know.

Monday, May 16, 2016

That "new carpet smell" doesn't just smell bad - it's bad for you

One of my former clients called me this week because she has moved across the country and wants to paint her new home in some of the same colors that we selected for her Tucson home a couple of years ago. After I emailed her the paint schedule for her former home, she mentioned that she was replacing all the carpet in her new home. I emailed her a tip on which green carpet certification to use to select a healthy carpet, and I'm glad that I did because the carpet salesperson my client is dealing with told her that none of their synthetic carpets off gas toxic chemicals, which is impossible.

Carpets that are made of synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, polypropylene (olefin) and acrylic are petroleum products. Petroleum off gases volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are carbon-based compounds that evaporate easily when they are exposed to the air. VOCs are the source of the "new paint," "new carpet" and gasoline smell. Carpets also have fire retardants, which are very toxic, and they have semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs). SVOCs are carbon-based compounds that only partially evaporate when exposed to air, so they leave toxic microscopic particles behind. Some VOCs persist even after that new carpet smell is gone, so it is not enough to simply air a carpet out before installing it or to not occupy the house right after the carpet is installed although both of those things are good ideas.

If you are going to buy a carpet made of synthetic fibers, the best thing to do is to buy one that carries a Green Label Plus certification. This certification means that the carpet has reduced levels of VOCs. The certification must include the "Plus" since a standard Green Label certification does not require very high standards for its products. Also, it is important to get a carpet pad that has a Green Label Plus certification. The Green Label certifications were developed by the Carpet and Rug Institute, which is why they include the initials CRI. While the CRI is a trade organization of carpet manufacturers, the testing for certification is done by a third party, so it is a reputable, non-biased certification.

Even a Green Label Plus certified synthetic carpet will off gas because it is a petroleum product. For someone with multiple chemical sensitivities or a compromised immune system or for someone who wants the healthiest carpet on the market, I recommend a wool carpet although they are very expensive.Wool is a natural product (thank you, sheep!), and it does not inherently off gas chemicals. Because wool is naturally fire resistant and stain resistant, wool carpets do not have fire retardants or stain protectors added. Some wool carpets do have added moth proofing, so I recommend asking the flooring retailer about that and avoiding it. Wool carpets also will last a long time - think of the 19th century wool rugs that are still around. There are some people who are allergic to wool for whom a wool carpet would not be suitable.

Whatever kind of carpet you buy, be sure and maintain it by vacuuming it regularly using a HEPA vacuum cleaner. This type of vacuum cleaner uses a high-efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) filter that captures minuscule particles of dust and pollen that can aggravate allergies and asthma.

All of that said, I really don't recommend carpeting. If you have ever pulled up an old carpet and seen the accumulated dirt, dust and disintegrated carpet pad under it, you know why. Also, most people can't afford a wool carpet, so they are stuck with an ongoing source of off gassing VOCs (their new synthetic fiber carpet).

Do you want to step out of bed onto a warm, soft surface in the winter? Do you want a soft surface in the nursery where you can sit on the floor and play with your baby? Install a hard flooring surface - tile, wood, cement, cork, bamboo, linoleum - and put down a large rug. That way you can periodically pull up the rug, shake it out or send it to the cleaners and clean the floor under it.

This is a classic example of using a warm, soft rug to avoid the chilly shock of a hard bedroom floor when getting up in the morning. Architect: Derek Skalko of S2 Architects

When it comes to health, selecting carpet is definitely a choice between bad, better and best, which is to say non-certified synthetic carpet, certified synthetic carpet and wool carpet. You're probably wondering, "So how much more is this going to cost me?" Depending on where you shop, the answer could be "Not a dime more." Last month when I was in a big box hardware store looking at carpets for my mother-in-law's home, of course, I checked to see which carpets were Green Label Plus certified. The store sold only one brand of carpets, its house brand, and they were all Green Label Plus certified, and so were their carpet pads. Green carpets are going mainstream, but be sure that you read the label, and make sure it's the right shade of green.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Paint murals, work on worm composting and more - do it for the kids

Stop by schools in your hometown on Sept. 28, and you’ll find students, teachers, parents and community volunteers planting gardens, installing water harvesting systems, painting murals and doing more to make local schools healthy and productive places for students to learn. The local volunteer projects are part of the second annual Green Apple Day of Service, a global event.

Green Apple is a project of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council. The Center for Green Schools is committed to placing all children in schools where they have clean and healthy air to breathe, where energy and resources are conserved, and where they can be inspired to dream of a brighter future. 

You can discover the details about which schools in your area are participating in Green Apple Day, their project plans and how you can participate by checking

Last year, Presidio Schools was one of two Tucson schools that participated in the first Green Apple Day of Service. The community came together for a block party to build a tortoise habitat and break ground on a garden. The students decorated pavers for the garden. This year Presidio is hosting workshops on water conservation, a competition for students to design a human-powered water pump for their rainwater harvesting system and other activities.

Children decorate pavers for their new school garden at Presidio School's 2012 Green Apple Day
Erin Foudy, Presidio’s director of campus conduct and the co-coordinator of Presidio’s Green Apple project, says that one of best things about last year’s block party was that it brought the school’s community and the community at large together to pitch in and do something good for the students at Presidio. She adds, “We’re really excited to do it again this year.”

This year, the Sonoran Branch of USGBC-Arizona has been instrumental in finding and assisting local schools that are participating in the Green Apple Day of Service. Tucson’s Green Apple Day of Service is sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Center for Green Schools, the City of Tucson and the Environmental Education Exchange. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to a prosperous and sustainable future for our nation through cost-efficient and energy-saving green buildings.  For more information on USGBC, visit

So come out on Sept. 28 and volunteer to install those gardens, paint the murals, attend the workshops and help your local schools become more sustainable. You can find details about Green Apple projects being held in your area at
As the Center for Green Schools says, “Where we learn matters.”

Friday, August 2, 2013

Your t-shirt is made from the "dirtiest" crop around - cotton

Cotton is touted as a natural product that's better for the environment than synthetic fabrics like polyester. It's true that most synthetic fabrics are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that has been the source of environmental catastrophes and political mishaps, not to mention wars.
Who doesn't love the breathability of cotton clothes and the softness of high thread-count cotton sheets? Cotton is a renewable resource that has supported generations of American farmers. Cotton may be natural, but conventionally grown cotton isn't healthy for people or the environment.
This fun fabric would be perfect for a kid's bedroom. It's GOTS-certified, 100% organic cotton and part of a fabric series based on Mo Willems' "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus." From Cloud 9 Fabrics.
The problems with cotton start in the fields. Cotton covers only 2.4% of the world's arable land, yet conventionally grown cotton production uses 24% of the insecticides and 11% of the pesticides used worldwide. It can take almost a 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers and over 700 gallons of water to grow one pound of raw cotton in the U.S., and it takes just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt.
Organic cotton t-shirt with screen-printed, water-based pigment dye. From Oliviera Textiles.
Cotton isn't just used for fabric. The cottonseed hull, which includes many of the residual pesticides used in cotton production, is sold as a food commodity. The Environmental Justice Foundation and the Pesticide Action Network UK estimate that up to 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, either directly through food oil or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals who have consumed cottonseed hulls.

Cotton boll weevils can devastate fields of cotton, but the chemicals used to control boll weevils and other insects pollute air and water, poison wildlife, reduce biodiversity and jeopardize human health.

The impact of conventionally grown cotton continues beyond the field. Many toxic chemicals are used throughout the process of converting cotton into fabric for clothing and home products, including silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, heavy metals in dyes, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, formaldehyde and more. The World Bank estimates that almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from treating and dyeing textiles.

Sleeping under permanent-press or wrinkle-free cotton sheets - even the famed Egyptian cotton ones - means that you are breathing formaldehyde, a carcinogen, every night. Formaldehyde is used as a finish for all sheets, except for organic cotton, knitted cotton and flannel sheets. Multiple washings will not remove formaldehyde because it persists for years. You don't have to make your bed, but do change your sheets.

Rachel Rodwell is recycling single-use espresso pods into glam metallic fabric. What a great idea. From

What are some options to avoid the dangers of cotton production? Organic cotton is grown without hazardous chemicals although it is still a water-intensive crop. Interesting textiles made of rapidly renewable materials like nettles, soy and corn are available. Hemp, bamboo and linen (which is made from flax) are natural fabrics that typically are grown with fewer pesticides than cotton.

Unfortunately, there isn't one eco-label or green standard for fabrics or textiles, as they're called in the industry. The best certifications are the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Oeko-Tex, which measure the levels of toxins in textiles. Greenguard certifies the level of indoor pollutants emitted by fabrics.

Also, avoid toxic fire retardants that contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). A recent article by The Chicago Tribune showed that, not only are fire retardants dangerous, but they also are not effective.

When it comes to hemp, I think of burlap bags, but Envirotextiles has taken hemp to a whole new level. Ralph Lauren used this beautiful hemp/silk blend for a fabulous evening dress.

There are now many beautiful, sustainable fabrics in materials, weights and patterns that can meet any textile need although they are not available everywhere. I'll let you in on an interior designer's trick. If the sofa you've fallen in love with doesn't have green fabric alternatives, ask the seller if you can provide your own upholstery fabric. Not every store or manufacturer will use COM (customer's own material), but you won't know until you ask.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Turning shipping pallets into architecture and furniture

When I was in college and needed to spend $0.00 on furniture for my first apartment, I came across some peach crates. They were made of wood slats and had fun labels with peaches on the ends. Stacked together, they became an instant and free bookcase. Decades later, those same crates are stacked in my garage (aka storage shed) and filled with stuff I probably should get rid of.

I don't know how many peach crates are being used these days, but 700 million wooden shipping pallets are produced in the U.S. every year, and 150 million of them end up in landfills. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, there are more than 33 million refugees in the world, and the Pallet House Project has found a way to provide housing for refugees while diverting shipping pallets from landfills.

A 250-square foot house can be constructed of 100 recycled pallets by five people within a week using hand tools.

The basic structure can be covered with taurpulin to create an emergency shelter. Later the walls and roof can be finished in materials available locally: debris, stone, mud, earth, wood or corrugated metal. It's a great way to help people in need while preserving the environment. If it could happen on an immense scale, 84% of the world’s refugees could be housed with a year’s supply of recycled American pallets.

Architecture that uses pallets for everything from poolside bars to trim on commercial buildings has been spreading like crazy in the last two years. Other designers are coming up with ways to keep pallets from landfills by using them to construct furniture.

Photo by Rogier Jaarsma. From
This great conference table was designed by the Dutch firm Most Architecture as part of a temporary space for the company Brandbase. They also designed desks for their client's space.

Then, there's the rustic look of DIY pallet furniture like this sofa made by The Ironstone Nest. She includes how-to directions on her blog.

This sofa was built by the owner of The Ironstone Nest, a home decor and re-finishing blog.

In an ironic twist, the look of pallet furniture has become fashionable, so that designers are now building furniture made out of new pallets for a cleaner look or out of materials meant to look like pallets. The Modern Bed by Fabian Gatermann looks like it's made of pallets, but it's constructed of beech wood and rubber. The design is based on the cube forms in Piet Mondrian's paintings. It was created for rooms in a German hostel.

Photo from
Of course, using the pallet form as a design inspiration may lead to interesting furniture, but it rather defeats the original inspiration of up-cycling a disposable item into a functional and even stylish product.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The best DIY world globe pendant light

I don't know how long I've had my world globe, but the USSR is still one nation, according to its map. So most of the nations of Eastern Europe haven't been born yet, and I don't know how many countries in Africa are missing or have changed names or changed borders. In short, my world globe is obsolete, but I love maps, and I'd hate to get rid of it.

It's Pinterest to the rescue. I've been seeking out images of lights made from recycled materials to post on my Pinterest board "Recycled and Up-cycled Lighting." I've found some amazingly beautiful, wacky and ugly lights. There chandeliers made of the most unlikely things: disposable plastic utensils, Bic pens, bicycle chains, plastic milk jugs and even laundry bottles (one of the ugly ones).

As a map lover, some of my favorite recycled lights are made of world globes, so I thought: Why not make a light out of my outdated globe? I'm not really a DIYer. My husband Mark isn't really a DIYer either, but he offered to help since my knowledge of electrical wiring is zip, and he's good with electrical work.

When we bought our home in Tucson, it had some pretty ugly lighting. At the time, we couldn't afford to change it since we and our wallets were busy buying appliances, replacing the flooring and doing other essentials. Now 11 years have passed, and we've started replacing rather than ignoring the ugly fixtures.

You can see why we needed to replace this entryway light. It's hideous!

The first step in the globe-to-pendant transformation was to cut the globe off of its stand and cut an opening at the bottom for the light to shine out and down. I've seen globes cut in half so that you end up with two pendants, but we decided to cut our globe along the 60 degree latitude (south of the equator). So we kept the tip of South America and ended up with enough light for a small entryway light.

The next step was to paint the interior with white paint to seal the paper and to create a reflective surface to help disperse the light. 

The cut globe after the interior was painted white.

We bought a mini-pendant light kit that included all of the wiring and hardware that we needed for the light fixture. We also used an LED bulb. They are long lived, and they also emit very little heat, which seemed ideal for a cardboard fixture.

The mini-pendant light kit.

Not surprisingly, the cut edge of the globe's cardboard was a little rough, so we wanted something that would hide the uneven edge. Mark came up with a great idea to use a flexible car door edge guard to finish the edge.

The car door edge guard installed on the globe edge.

Getting the globe cardboard edge to fit in between the metallic and black rubber sides of the edge guard was a little tricky, but it worked wonderfully, and it's the best looking edge trim I've seen on a globe light. Kudos to Mark for a great idea!

Here's a close-up of our globe pendant light.

Here's the "after" photo of our new globe pendant light.

Talk about an improvement! It's perfect for us, too, because we love to travel, and it goes well with our eclectic art collection. The whole project (basically the pendant kit, car door guard and free globe) cast about $20. Even a really cheap pendant light would cost twice that. To get a stylish light would run at least four times that cost. And it's up-cycled!

Now we just need to replace the ugly matching light in our dining room. Maybe we'll use another globe variant....