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.

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....

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Six tips for home decorating on a budget

You've finished your spring cleaning, but clean just isn't enough. You're ready for a new look, but your wallet isn't ready to spring for a house full of new furniture or even a room of new furniture. Giving your home a new look doesn't have to cost a fortune. Here are six decorating tips that will fit any budget (or lack of budget).
Move it all around: Before you buy new furniture, shift what you have around. Float the sofa grouping in the room on an angle. Bring that small chest out of the bedroom to use as a television stand. Swap rugs and accent pillows from different rooms. Combine lamps from several areas so that the lamps in the rooms don't match. Everything doesn't have to be symmetrical or match!
Choose a healthy paint: One of the simplest and least expensive ways to create a new look is by painting. Even adding one or two accent walls to a room will make a big difference. Be sure to choose a no-VOC paint and avoid that awful "new paint" smell. VOCs or volatile organic compounds are toxic chemicals that off gas easily and can cause everything from scratchy throats to cancer.
I designed and furnished this girl's bedroom with designer Lisa Reeves as part of Habispaces, a pro bono project where the two of us designed bedrooms for kids who were going to live in houses rehabbed by Habitat for Humanity Tucson. The girl asked for a room with walls painted in four different colors. The colors are based on a tie-dyed pillow that she owned.
Change the accessories: The little things do make a difference. Reduce your accessories and clutter for a cleaner look. If moving your existing accessories around doesn't make a difference, visit thrift stores and yard sales for inexpensive pillows, lamps, rugs, dishes, artwork and other accessories. Add plants to animate the space and help purify the air.
Don't toss it, update it: Durable furniture is inherently green, but at some point, you may get tired of looking at the same furniture, even if it is in good shape. You can slipcover upholstered furniture to change your style and color scheme. The seats on upholstered dining chairs can be easily reupholstered with inexpensive fabric. Existing wood furniture and cabinetry can be refinished and re-stained with water-based finishes or painted with no-VOC paint.
Step five from "How to Reupholster a Dining Chair (Even if You're a Beginner)" from Parentables
Use used furniture: Selecting used furniture is a great way to decorate since it keeps furniture out of the landfill. If your used or new furniture has exposed plywood or particle board, seal it with a zero-VOC furniture sealant to reduce the off gassing of urea formaldehyde, a carcinogen.
Make it new: Even if you want to use new furnishings, you don't have to buy everything at once. The important thing is to have a plan. Develop a furniture floor plan, a color palette and a style for your home, and then select individual, new pieces that fit your plan. If you just buy a piece here and there without thinking of the look you want in the end, you can end up with a hodgepodge rather than a coherent or stylishly eclectic look.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sneak preview of a home remodel

I spent much of last year remodeling a small (800 square foot) bungalow and a separate studio apartment. I'd like to share photos of the home's new dining room and kitchen/utility room.

The biggest challenge with the dining room is that it's tiny, and it's a pass through from the living room to the kitchen. So half the room has to be dedicated to traffic flow. The solution to the problem: a custom triangular dining table and benches. Using a glass tabletop helps give the room a sense of open space. The silver finish of the metal base coordinates with the stainless steel appliances in the adjacent kitchen.

A triangular table was custom built for a tiny dining area

Here's a "before" photo, so you can see where we started with the kitchen. As you can see, there was an old O'keefe and Merritt stove that was too big for the room, and the kitchen and utility rooms were separate spaces.

The view of the kitchen (below) is taken from the dining room. Originally, there was a wall with a archway between the dining room and kitchen. There also was a wall with a doorway between the kitchen and the utility room. We took out half of the wall and the doorway between the kitchen and utility rooms to create a galley for full-size kitchen appliances and a stacking washer/dryer.

In the photo foreground, you can see that we took out the top half of the wall on the leftside and the doorway. We also cut back the wall on the right side, so that the dining area and the kitchen would feel larger and more open while the two rooms also would feel like discreet spaces.

Separate kitchen and utility rooms were combined into a single space.
Part of the fun of doing this design (along with knocking out walls) was being able to create a sustainable home.

Here are the green features found throughout the home:

Energy Efficiency

Energy Star-certified kitchen and laundry appliances
Double-cell cellular shades
Compact florescent lighting

Water Efficiency

Dual-flush toilet
Kitchen and bathroom fixtures certified by Water Sense for low water use

Indoor Air Quality
Paint with no toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Quartz kitchen and bathroom counter tops and shower walls certified by Greenguard for low toxic emissions
Latex queen mattress with no toxic fire retardants

Recycled Content
Bathroom and kitchen floor tiles include 49% recycled ceramic content 

I'd love to be able  to include this many green features in every home that I design!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Worried about air pollution? Get out of your house!

Believe it or not, the air inside homes is typically three to five times more polluted than the outside air. Indoor air can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. One reason indoor air is getting worse is because we're making our homes more energy efficient. Talk about ironic.

The biggest cause of bad indoor air quality (IAQ) is volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Know that "new paint" or "new furniture" smell or even that "new car" smell that people love? That new paint, furniture, car and more smell happens when carbon-based chemicals in the products off gas easily. Like gasoline, all VOCs evaporate when they're exposed to air. That smell may make you think something is fresh and new. It may be new, but it's not fresh.

Sources of VOCs throughout the home - from Green Build TV

VOCs cause everything from headaches and scratchy throats to respiratory problems. Formaldehyde, which is used in the glue that binds particle board and plywood together, causes cancer. You can't smell formaldehyde, and unlike some other VOCs, it can take up to 20 years to completely off gas. Worst of all, formaldehyde is used as a finishing agent on permanent-press and wrinkle-free sheets. If you have permanent-press sheets, you're spending around a third of your life snuggled under the sheets inhaling a carcinogen. Thinking about that is enough to make anyone an insomniac!

It's time to switch to organic cotton sheets or at least 100% cotton sheets that wrinkle. (Yes, wrinkles are good.) Sheets made of cotton jersey or alternative materials like bamboo and eucalyptus are two other options. Eucalyptus and bamboo sheets are both very soft, and eucalyptus sheets are also antimicrobial and resistant to dust mites.

Eucalyptus sheets are now widely available in many colors like these from Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Back to the irony of green homes that are energy efficient and toxic - it's all about the building envelope. These days Americans are doing everything from caulking window frames and replacing door sweeps to installing energy-efficient windows and adding insulation. The point is too keep outside air from coming in and inside air from escaping by tightening the building envelope.

The problem with tightening the building envelope is that all of those VOCs as well as dust, pollen and other pollutants are trapped indoors instead of escaping out old, leaky windows. What to do? Either open your windows regularly, ideally 10 minutes a day, or install an air exchange unit. The best option is to install a heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) or an energy-recovery ventilator (ERV). Both systems draw fresh air into the home and simultaneously exhaust stale air from the home. During this exchange, the heat from one airstream is transferred into the other to reduce the loss of heat in the winter and cold in the summer. New energy-efficient homes typically come with air exchange units.

For a list of 10 ways to improve your home's indoor air quality, check out my brochure "Clearing the Air: Healthier Living in a Greener Home."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sofa art - good or bad design?

"Sofa art" has gotten a bad rap as bland art that fills the wall above a sofa and matches the sofa's colors without doing much else. The big blank spaces above sofas do need to be filled with something, but that something should be more than a coordinating patch of color, more than another decorative item like a lamp or a pillow. We expect more than that of art.

There's nothing wrong with having art coordinate with the sofa and the living room's colors and style, but that shouldn't be the main reason for selecting the art. Art that obviously was selected to match the sofa makes the room feel artificial as though was generically designed rather than created for your personal home. Whether you search out the art or an interior designer finds artworks for you to consider, select art that speaks to you personally.

One of the great dangers with coordinating the color in the artwork with the sofa and other elements in the room is that you can end up with a "matchy-matchy" design where either a monochromatic room is overwhelming (or underwhelming in the case of neutrals). Get carried away with repeated patterns as well as colors, and you can come up with a design that's stifling and claustrophobic like the room below.

A design by Katie Ridder in styleNorth

On the practical side, there are many ways to hang art above a sofa besides simply using one large painting, print or photograph.

The graphic doesn't have all of the options. This room uses a dyptich design, hanging two paintings that are the same size beside each other. The dark images go wonderfully with the room's blacks and whites, but the focus is on the content of the two striking images.

For more images and thoughts about the good, the bad and the ugly in sofa art, do check out my latest Pinterest board: "Sofa Art - Good or Bad Design?". (You don't have to have a Pinterest account to view these images.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Toilets are wearing skirts this year

Water closet - talk about a way not to talk about that flushing device. Today's toilets may not be a topic for dinner conversation (or they may), but we are passed using euphemisms like water closet. I take that back. Toilets can have "skirts." In fact, I recommend a toilet with a skirt.

What's a toilet skirt? It's a toilet base design that hides the trap so that you end up with solid ceramic sides to clean rather than that dust collection device that looks like a ceramic intestine under the toilet bowl. Here's one of Toto's Aquia dual-flush toilets complete with skirt.

So why choose a toilet that's harder to clean like this Kohler Wellworth toilet? Traditional design. The sleeker look of skirted toilets can be too contemporary for some bathroom designs.

There's a lot more to today's toilets than a (skirted or skirt-less) bowl, tank, handle and flushing device. Dual flush, gpf, Water Sense, ultra low flow, HET - most of the semi-technical jargon deals with water conservation. If you bought your toilet after 1992, it should meet the Environmental Protection Agency's 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) low-flow standard. Even so, you can reduce your water usage another 20% by installing an ultra-low-flow or dual-flush toilet that meets the EPA's 2007 WaterSense certification standards for high-efficiency toilets (HETs).

Even if you want a traditional look for a toilet, you can still get lower levels of water consumption. The Kohler Wellworth above uses 1.28 gallons per flush compared to the EPA's current maximum of 1.6 gpf. Dual-flush toilets feature two flush options. Toto's Aquia has .9 gpf for liquids and 1.6 gpf for solids.

Today's manufacturers are taking water conservation even further with things like sinks mounted on toilet tanks that use the sink's gray water to flush the toilet. These designs are available both as new toilet/sink combos and as after-market products that add a sink to an existing toilet tank.

If you want to get into the latest, craziest toilet on the market, check out Kohler's Numi. It's a combination toilet/bidet with a motion detector that opens the seat when you walk up to it, a seat warmer, deodorizer and music (from Kohler's collection, an FM station or your iPod). It  also has an air dryer for your tush, and it warms your feet, yes, your feet. Oh, and you can pre-program the remote control so that everyone in the household has his or her customized choices for music, warming, etc.

As a dual-flush toilet, the Numi is Water Sense certified to conserve water. I would hope so for $6,390 (retail). Did I mention that it looks like a clothes hamper? And if you're concerned about energy use, those special features add electricity to a fixture that typically does not use it.