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.