KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Jun 24 2010

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A “not so perfectly green” renovation—navigating through the green maze


Last week I did a live webinar on green interior design on a virtual trade show website called GreenExpo365.com. I’ve done presentations and seminars at trade shows, but this is the first time I’ve done one sitting in my office in my jeans, so it was pretty cool. The presentation was called “Sustainability with Style” and I discussed how far we’ve come in the realm of green interiors in the past few years.

Green design in its infancy was all about bamboo floors and fluorescent light bulbs. And as far as finding green furniture and interior products, it was all very modern-looking, linear stuff that was arguably very pretty, but wasn’t for everyone. Today’s green furniture and cabinetry have many different looks and designs—from the modern to the traditional—so there’s no compromise in terms of style.

Also, defining “green” 10 years ago was very different from how it’s defined today. We’ve learned along the way that it’s not only about alternative products like bamboo, but it also addresses indoor air quality, sustainable forestry initiatives, water conservation and more. The green “playing field” keeps changing every day, as manufacturers are changing the way they design and produce their products. This is all good news, but trying to keep up with what’s going on out there can be confusing. For example, here are some questions that I’ve been hearing lately:

• If bamboo flooring is so much better than using hardwood flooring, how come it’s okay to have it shipped half way around the world? If we used local hardwoods, wouldn’t we also save by not burning more fossil fuel to get it to us?

• If I see a pesticide-free organic cotton sheet set that’s made overseas, should I buy it? Or should I buy one that’s made in this country but isn’t organic? How do I know it’s organic anyway?

• If I buy a water-saving toilet that’s made in Australia, am I really saving anything? What about the fuel it takes to get it here and the CO2 emissions?

Many manufacturers are quick to tell you that their product is green, even though you have no way of knowing that it is. How do you find out? Navigating through the maze of green products that are out there can be so confusing that you might just give up and stick with what you’ve done in the past, green or not.

In my opinion, it’s all about tradeoffs. We are in the business of selling products, green or not. We are all trying to make a living, and it certainly is challenging in the current economy. It’s NOT a perfect world, and being perfectly green may or may not happen. What I try to do is to achieve some sort of a balance between what I think the client should have vs. what they want vs. their budget. It’s that simple.

Let’s look at a “not so perfectly green” kitchen remodel:

• MDF doors on maple plywood boxes painted with low-VOC paints. The MDF and plywood have no added urea formaldehyde

• Cabinetry is made locally

• Soapstone countertop is a natural product but comes from Brazil

• Fluorescent pendants over island

• FSC-certified hardwood floor, waterborne finish

• Energy Star appliances


Here’s the tradeoff: The client always wanted a soapstone top, which is a mined product (not renewable) from Brazil. So it’s not only about the fact that the countertop is taken from the earth and doesn’t “grow back,” but that it’s also shipped from a long distance, burning fossil fuels and adding to CO2 emissions.

But that’s OK. It’s a natural product, one that can be re-purposed after its initial usefulness is over and won’t leach out any toxic chemicals into a landfill. It’s sealed every 6 months with food-grade mineral oil, so there’s no chemical additives, which is great for the user, and also doesn’t off-gas fumes and contribute to poor indoor air quality.

Also, because it was something the client really wanted, I asked her to try to use the highest-tier Energy Star appliances available as a tradeoff to the imported countertop. And the FSC-certified wood floor, fluorescent lights, etc. So one non-green item isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.

We may never be able to achieve perfection in green design. I honestly feel that anything that’s well-designed, enduring, high-quality and well-built is halfway there anyway. As far as I’m concerned, the worst thing you can do is the “quick fix.” Too many of the TV shows you see on design involve quick, temporary fixes, satisfying the user for a short period. Then what? It’s the trip to the landfill and buying more STUFF to replace the stuff you just threw out.

My advice is to THINK—just think about each product and what its impact will be, and decide from there what you want to do. It’s not that difficult if you tackle it that way.

So sit back, relax and enjoy what’s ahead. It’s all good.—Patricia Gaylor

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 24th, 2010 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Green, Kitchen Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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