KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Apr 08 2013

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Fifty shades of green: Making decisions (and compromises) inside a green maze

Green Maze

Even though I’ve been interested in the environment since the early 70s, I started integrating it into my interior design practice only about 15 years ago. Back then, words like ‘sustainable’ and phrases like ‘carbon off-sets’ and ‘off-gassing’ were just being introduced in the building trade. I had a few good years of growth within this early part of the green movement and loved speaking to people about what sustainability in design can offer. In those days, it was pretty much about bamboo floors and fluorescent lighting.

We all now know that green design (or just plain DESIGN, as I like to call it) involves so much more than that, and a well-built, well-designed ‘green’ home is one that maintains a holistic approach, incorporating both the building science and the interior materials.

Manufacturers began to realize that their product would be a more saleable one if it touted a ‘green’ label, and they could even save money in production by various means: reducing waste, closed-loop manufacture, pre- and post-consumer recycling, etc. So now there are
literally thousands of products out there that are claiming to be green. Some are certified by third-party testing, while others simply claim their product to be green by virtue of, well, cuz they say so…

Positioning yourself as a green designer, builder or remodeler can put you ahead of the curve with your competitors, which will translate into more sales for you. But in this economy, it can’t cost more than ‘regular’ design either.

So how do you or I, as a designer, architect, builder or specifier, make decisions about what green products to use? Are they really as green as they claim they are? And can I offer them at the same price?

For example:
1. Even though it’s a ‘natural’ product, how green is a slab of granite? What green countertop material alternatives are out there?
2. Can I find some gorgeous light fixtures that are energy efficient, low cost and don’t cast a bluish-green light?
3. Can I find kitchen cabinets that are made with no added urea formaldehyde plywood and low VOC finishes that don’t cost a premium?
4. What if the homeowner wants something that I don’t consider to be ‘green’?
5. How can I know what the product manufacturer says about their ‘green’ product is true?

The list goes on, and you get stuck in the green maze. It’s too much work to keep it all straight, and it’s so confusing. Let’s examine question # 1 – granite. People like it for it’s hard, durable surface and upscale look. It’s long been the number 1 choice in countertops, and even though it’s at the top of the price range, it’s still very much in demand by consumers.

Here are the green pros and cons of granite tops:
– Rich look with varied patterns and colors
– Hard surface that is very durable; resistant to heat
– Sinks can be undermounted
– Surface can handle hot pans
– Can resist most stains when properly sealed
– Porous
– Must be chemically sealed periodically
– Granite can be scratched and leaves watermarks if not cleaned up immediately
– Marble can stain and chip easily
– Seams are very evident, especially if the surface has a clear pattern
– Marble and granite are mined deep in the earth
– Stones are quarried from around the planet, including China, Brazil, India and Africa. Depending on the location, they may have significant detrimental local impacts, including water and air pollution, waste, and risk worker health
– Significant embodied energy costs, especially when coming from far distances
Maybe granite isn’t the greenest choice for your project, but the homeowner insists on it. Here’s where a compromise might come into play. A more sustainable choice might be manufactured quartz, which is just as hard as granite, requires no chemical sealing and resists staining. It can be slightly more sustainable than granite in that there’s one or more manufacturers located inside the USA. Some of the bigger quartz composite companies are located overseas, so trying to select one located in the US would save on long-distance fuel costs and carbon emissions. If that still doesn’t cut it, and he or she is hell-bent on granite, go for it. But offer a more sustainable item for the cabinetry or flooring, or specify LED lighting or high-tier EnergyStar-rated appliances. The point is to give the client what they want, stay within the budget, offer alternatives that are green and affordable, which will involve some compromises and heavy research on your part. Keeping your design as local and low-impact as possible is the solution, and the best way to get as close as possible to a truly green project that you can be proud of. Green design will never be perfect, it’s continually evolving, and that’s what makes it one of the most exciting fields to be working in today, and I’m grateful to be part of it.

– Patricia Gaylor

This entry was posted on Monday, April 8th, 2013 at 11:04 AM and is filed under Green. 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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