THE MOVEMENT to a greener lifestyle has become a significant factor influencing the choices we are making in our lives every day. By now we’ve all probably bought some CFL bulbs to save electricity, taken steps to make our homes more insulated and energy efficient, and tried to cut down on our driving. These steps are a good start, but in actual fact we are on the threshhold of a true lifestyle revolution. Since most of the energy consumed in our modern lives is used to heat, cool, and illuminate our homes, the biggest impact on energy use will happen by making all of our buildings more energy efficient and our purchases less polluting. From new construction methods to chemical free paints and recycled carpet, environmentally friendly products that we’ve only seen in public buildings and schools are quickly becoming commonplace in private homes. People are actively seeking out products that have the least impact on the earth — reclaimed woods and organic crops, for example. Here are some of the amazing changes that may appear in your home soon.
Breathable, Sustainable Paint
V.O.C.’s (or volatile organic compounds as they are known in science) are the harmful chemicals in paint fumes. The newest, greenest paints are formulated without these compounds, which are known to pollute indoor air. These paints have little or no odor, are safe to work with, and leave behind far less pollution when manufactured. Check out DevineColor.com/paints to learn more.
It’s already here, and will be commonplace in the near future. The nylon and plastic fibers of carpet can be infinitely recycled; when the carpet is soiled, it is returned to the factory, melted down, and woven into new carpet again. This is known as a cradle-to-cradle solution, a process which neither takes from the earth nor pollutes it. Not only does this keep millions of cubic feet of old carpet out of landfills, it drastically reduces the use of raw materials too, cutting down on air pollution. If you purchase Shaw carpet’s Eco-Worx product, they guarantee that when you are finished with it, they’ll pick it up and make it into new carpet. You can visit them at ShawContractGroup.com
Solar and Geothermal Heating
We are all familiar with solar electricity; a million homes on the West Coast are slated to have solar power in the next few years. Even more exciting, simple and smart home designs will make a big difference in the future energy needs of our homes. Passive solar heating means capturing and using the sun’s warmth to heat a home. A solarium area with large windows and a concrete floor, facing south, can be closed off from the rest of the home to heat the air inside. When the sun sets, the area is opened to the rest of the house and the warm air and heat stored in the concrete floor are circulated to warm the adjoining rooms and reduce the artificial heat needed. There is a great explanation of how this works at FlorianProducts.com
Similarly, geothermal heat is becoming more common, in which several deep wells are drilled under a building and pipes are installed which carry water down into the earth to be warmed up and circulated around the building on the surface. These methods are already in use in wilderness homes, in areas with natural hot springs, and in some newer public buildings, and one day could be offered as design options on suburban homes. While these systems can’t supply all of our energy needs, they can reduce consumption by 25% or more, which would be a massive energy savings if they became common nationwide. While these systems are more expensive up front, the cost savings are real and for the life of the home.
Daylighting is the use of natural daylight to light the interior and reduce the need for electric light. It is commonly used in large commercial and public buildings, but natural daylight is so appealing that more and more of us are bringing it into the home. We’ve all seen solar tubes, which are small skylights that magnify sunlight and pipe it into dark rooms. But there are newer, brighter products on the horizon – large glass blocks inserted into an exterior wall in a random pattern to provide light but limit the view inside; or frosted plastic roof panel systems that allow the brightness of the sun but not the heat. If systems like these are combined with lights that turn on automatically as needed and shut off when the room is unoccupied, energy savings are dramatic.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the miracle of bamboo, the one truly sustainable wood-type product. Since it is really a grass, bamboo grows to maturity in only five years, and can then be replanted on the same soil, without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. It can be laminated for flooring and furniture, and woven into soft fabrics for bedding, towels and clothing. And while it is growing, it is adding to the green canopy of the forest. Truly, there is no downside to this miracle plant, and as time goes on it will become a much bigger part of our lives at home.
To avoid cutting down our remaining forests, manufacturers are sourcing wood by salvaging cut logs found at the bottoms of rivers, left from the days when logs were floated downstream to the mills, and millions of logs were left sunken or stuck along the banks. Rubber plantations have also become a large resource for sustainable woods – after spending twenty five years producing sap for rubber, the trees are cut down and the wood, (which is a fine hardwood), is sold for furniture; a new tree takes its place and the process starts again. Manufacturers of wood floors and furnishings can earn certification of sustainable practices from the Forest Stewardship Council, by proving that the woods they use are not from endangered forests and that trees are replanted. You can learn more about this process at Rainforest-Alliance.org
When shopping for these products, it is very important to ask about the sources of the woods used, because illegal logging is depleting rainforests all over the planet to feed American desires for inexpensive wood floors. The low-priced goods sold at the big-box stores, which are imported from Southeast Asia, are a large part of the problem. Look for the FSC label, which ensures that a chain-of-custody report is filed and the source of the wood is traced back to its origin. Thus wood floors are one instance in which buying American can actually be good for the planet too. Today’s engineered wood floors are more stable than old-fashioned planks, and produce twice as much flooring per tree. We use an excellent company right here in South Carolina that is an FSC member and employs local labor. You can visit them online at AndersonFloors.com Purchasing product that is produced as close as possible to home saves the energy consumed when things are imported from across the world, and promotes the local economy.
Upholstered Furnishings Return to Quality
Manufacturers of sofas and chairs are looking into big changes in the materials that go into them. The price of petroleum products is driving up the price of foam rubber at an alarming rate, and the demand for healthier materials that don’t emit poisons into the home is increasing. Natural rubber is being reintroduced for sofa cushions, since it is a renewable resource; and organic cotton is becoming available for the cover. Cotton is one of the most pesticide-intensive crops grown today, so changing to organic growing methods will not only keep poisons out of our homes, it will keep them out of the fields and streams too. While these furnishings are still expensive, there is one thing you can do immediately to improve your green lifestyle – buy the best quality furniture you can afford, and buy pieces that are made close to home. We have our sofas built in Hickory, North Carolina with hardwood frames, and they can be expected to last a lifetime. Since the cheaper-built sofas need replacing every 3 – 5 years, in the long run it saves money to buy the best quality, and could potentially keep millions of broken-down old sofas and chairs out of landfills.
Simple, relatively inexpensive systems are already available to manage and conserve our water at home. Automatic faucets that turn on only when hands are being washed are common in public places; in the average home, they will save 30% of water at the sink. Going one step further, the kitchen sink will be operated with a footpedal, which saves gallons of water while rinsing dishes. New toilets will have the option of flushing with only half of the amount of water if only liquids are in the bowl. In the laundry room, the rinse water, known as “gray water” will be collected and stored, and filtered for use in outdoor irrigation. And a simple system of barrels can provide water for the garden just by collecting rainwater from downspouts on the roof of your house. All of these products exist today, and they can be installed before we reach the point where water-use restrictions make it necessary.
It’s exciting to see the new products and ideas that will not only be helping our environment but improving our lives and the health of our families. We can take responsibility for our environment simply by paying attention to our purchases and looking for labels like organic, sustainable, responsibly harvested, locally sourced, reclaimed, and handmade.
Kerry Ann Dame is an interior designer, and the owner of Bungalow Heaven, LLC and Posh Living, LLC in Surfside Beach. She can be reached at (843) 238-0078 and at bungalowheavendesigns.com