Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Water, water everywhere?

Sometimes I feel a bit like the Rosanna-Rosanna Danna character that Gilda Radner created on Saturday Night Live. It was like that for me when I first explored my choices for showers and toilets. I was under the mistaken impression that except in those rare cases in California when there wasn't enough rainfall or snow that the globe didn't have a sustained water shortage issue. Or if they did, it was weather-related and would merely mean that every several years we'd have regional droughts and be urged to curtail our water consumption. Oh, did you say water shortage?

But upon further investigation, I've learned that water is a scarce resource as is oil or wood. I'll credit Fine Homebuilding magazine for many of the details that I am about to impart here. But any casual web research will confirm that water is a commodity that must be nurtured and tended to carefully. And in spite of the EPAct of 1992, it seems to go mostly unnoticed that water, as with electrical consumption, was addressed with standards that now seem to be craftily skirted by manufacturers. Thankfully, this law is why many of the new toilets are meeting higher European standards.

But consumers seem to be generally unaware of how irresponsible it is to waste water. Think about it, you don't see car ads (not even for Hummers) that feature the general wanton consumption of gas. However, there are many slick ads for the ultimate shower experience, featuring a glassed-in unit with sometimes 3 or 4 pulsating shower heads. Some boast that they deliver 32 gallons of water per minute. As Alex Wilson, president of BuildingGreen (www.buildinggreen.com) describes it: "profligate waste, tantamount to outdoor air conditioners in the courtyards of Saudi oil sheiks."

So what's the situation with water shortages?

1- Global warming is causing watershed changes and places like the Western United States are greatly affected. Some of the fastest growing cities, Las Vegas and Albuquerque as example, are expected to chronically fall short of their water needs in the next decade, even in the best of weather circumstances. And remember that these locations are expanding their populations and thus expanding water consumption.

2- There is, and always will be, a finite amount of water on the planet. So as populations increase, the same water will be cycled over and over to meet demand. And that cycling requires energy to purify etc. This is a global issue and the situation is already dire in China and Africa.

3- Long, powerful, consumptive showers mean hot water needs to be generated. And that leads to significant energy consumption in order to facilitate the 80 gallons per minute set-up that I recently saw advertised as a "vertical spa environment."

4- Water is a shared commodity. I read an analysis that for every 3 people who put in one of these over the top systems, it negates the efforts of 100 people putting in efficient products. There are Hummer water users living among us!

What to do?

* Think twice before installing multiple shower heads. Install low flow units.

* Repair leaking toilets; replace old water-consuming toilets.

* Limit the number of those long luxurious showers. Luxuries are to be savored and indulged in only occasionally-- thus making them special!

* Don't run the water unnecessarily while brushing teeth, shaving, and washing dishes.

* Hold out for a full load of dishes, or use a shorter cycle. Same for the washing machine.

* You don't have to flush every time.

* Be responsible about water usage in your yard.

Other useful tips and information here:


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Filling out your jeans

I'll admit it, I am always looking for that fabulous pair of blue jeans that are stylish and comfortable. As a result I have a closet full of them. Some are far too low for anyone over 20 to wear. Others are for my "fat" days. And still more probably looked ok in the dressing room, but by the time I got them home the magic had gone. I feel guilty at the waste of my hard-earned money to buy them at silly, inflated prices. I am also embarrassed by the way they pile up on that unreachable part of my closet. Many end up at Goodwill and that asuages the guilt some.

Today, I'm a new fan of jeans. Not as a fashion statement, but as an integral part of a "green" renovation. There's new meaning to the phrase: "she really fills out her jeans."

For me, filling out your jeans has come to mean using them to keep the cold out in winter and the heat out in summer. It's all about filling in the cracks and crevices between sheet rock with your Levis, Jordache, Sevens and Gaps. Anyone who has been around when fiberglass insulation is being installed, will appreciate the difference when your R-value comes from a batting made of comfortable blue jean material-- or natural cotton fiber insulation, as it is known. I stayed away from the house on the days when the old fiberglass insulation was being removed and reused in the attic for additional insulation. But I was happy to hang around Cemil and the crew when they brought in the blue fiber bundles. I found myself going through the house and patting the exposed framing with the blue insulation. It just felt so soft, like a broken in pair of blue jeans.

I couldn't wait to research this ingenious reclamation product of a ubiquitous and natural material (as I'm sure my closet of jeans isn't unusual). Of course, I read the caution about how this material can hold in mold once it has gotten wet. Cemil pointed out that any insulation product can do that. So don't let it get wet! Furthermore, when the blue jean insulation dries out, it can still be effective as it retains its ability to provide R-value. The same can't be said for fiberglass insulation. It is also treated with a natural fire retardant so it is comparable to fiberglass products in this regard.

I'd read the back and forth about cellulose vs. "batted" insulation techniques and I can personally attest to the sound-dampening quality that the blue jean insulation has in my project. Cemil mentioned using it before in home theater installations for that very reason. It's really quite noticeable. In this project, most of the additional insulation is needed in inside walls, so it makes the decision of the batt vs. blown product easy.

Imagine my surprise, when my new Bosch dishwasher came in and instead of their using the "pink" insulation product, I noticed that they used the blue stuff instead. Clearly Bosch finds it to be a comparable product and one that is consumer-friendly. Who wants formaldehyde in their house, anyway?

Blue is the new pink, as far as I'm concerned.

More information can be found here:


Friday, January 19, 2007

Beneath the Surface: part 2

I think I now know what Jacques Cousteau must have felt the first time he plumbed the depths of a coral reef. There are so many beautiful surfaces that I’ve discovered and I can hardly wait to see them in situ.

My favorites that I’ve decided have to be included in this renovation.

Richlite: www.richlite.com

Manufactured of paper-based fiber composites, it is used for a variety of architectural, food service, recreational and industrial applications. All Richlite® materials are manufactured out of environmentally sustainable resources harvested from certified managed forests in North America.

My review: This is the staple of most green home interiors. It’s a hearty product and most of us have experienced it through cutting boards that were made popular in the last few years. It’s a bit ordinary looking…… until use and age burnish it. I’ve chosen sage green for my Butler’s pantry and I can’t wait to really give it some harsh treatment so that I can discover its true inner beauty.

Euro Stone: www.eurostonecountertops.com

Quartz-based surfacing material with unique characteristics. Leading edge technology mixes 93% of Quartz material and 6-7% of a polyester resin binder to produce a recomposed material with physical properties and performance characteristics better than natural stone.

My review: This garnered many accolades from almost everyone who has seen the 2" x 3” sample that I’ve been carrying around. A beautiful stone that combines the best of Vetrazzo (www.counterproduction.com) with the refinement of marble or granite. I’ve chosen a rare stone color of green for the countertop in the guest bathroom.

Oceanside Glasstiles: www.glasstile.com

Glasstile is made from silica sand, an abundant natural resource, and up to 86 percent recycled material. They use more than two million pounds of glass from curbside recycling programs (called cullet), turning waste that would otherwise end up in landfills into expressive and sustainable design materials.

My review: These are the people who created the Ann Sacks glass tiles (www.annsacks.com) that became so very popular through distribution in the upscale Waterworks chain in the last decade. Who doesn’t appreciate the luminescence of glass as a backsplash, a countertop or shower surround? I’ve chosen a tranquil Cane color in small tiles for the mater bath oversized shower unit. With a natural pebble rock stone floor, I won’t want to leave the shower.

I am also using iridescent green “ribbons” to contrast with the white subway tiles that I’ve decided on for the guest bathroom.

3 Form: www.3-form.com

Recognizing a fundamental need in design and construction, 3-Form created the first customer centric resin product offering high-level aesthetics without ever sacrificing safety, affordability or environmental responsibility.

My review: The most ingenious and design-forward product that I’ve discovered thus far. Interior Design magazine just concurred by naming it in it’s “Best of the Year” issue (No. 15). I just LOVE the variety of this product. They produce both plastic resins and glass forms. The uses for this product are many. I am using a thick glass piece that envelops a layer of, what looks like, grass cloth, for a bathroom countertop in the master bath. The design I chose is called “pineapple weave”

I’ve also chosen it as a backsplash to separate the open-style kitchen from the greatroom. It will back the Viking cooktop and serve as a beautiful way to collect any spray from cooking before it splashes into the other room.

The resin pieces will create movable “privacy” walls in both bathrooms for the toilet area. And thinner version of the resin will be used in the top row of kitchen cabinets in order to break up the bank of wood with a bit of fun opaque material. Finally, I am using it in the pockets of the sliding doors so that I can create a soft glow of light while also giving necessary privacy.

I have spent literally hours picking out samples and designing my own in order to come up with the optimum mix. They will all be reused as stylish and unique coasters. Anyone who loves design will feel like a kid in a candy store when they see the varieties of this product.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Beneath the Surface: part 1

As someone who was using to picking out slabs of marble, concrete or limestone for a renovation project, the choice of suitable green surfaces was an intimidating one. I admit to having been unappreciative of what science and technology have managed to do in the creation of faux surfaces. Ok, I’ve always been a snob about using “real” stone whenever financially possible.

Before beginning my research for this project, I guess I always thought that a slab of granite was a “natural” choice. What I didn’t think about was how much we destroy the earth and the way workers are exploited in the excavation of that beautiful natural material. I attended a presentation about 6 months ago at Green Fusion Design Center (www.greenfusiondesigncenter.com) and the speaker showed photos of an inactive quarry site in Italy. It looked like a World War II bomb site. Seeing those those photos reminded me of a time about 5 years ago when I had gotten lost while driving around northern Italy. I came upon an abandoned excavation site and noted then on how much it marred the picturesque environment that surrounded it.

A little more research revealed how deplorable the conditions are for the workers (in Brazil, they are children) tasked with removing those slabs. Their working conditions and what they get paid makes Kentucky mineworkers from the 20’s look like they had plum jobs. Then there’s the energy consumption from shipping the product across the globe. Talk about a carbon footprint…. Well, I can’t look at a marble slab again and see its unadulterated beauty.

But I am not a Marmoleum person (www.themarmoleumstore.com). And I just don’t go in for those rustic Santa Fe style tiles either. And that’s why I felt intimidated. After all, I pride myself on coming up with a solution for just about any situation. But this one, I felt, wasn’t going to be easy.

Happily, I found my own vein of beautiful substitutes that don’t destroy the environment in being produced and don’t cause workers to suffer a premature death from some debilitating lung condition. In fact, I found so many lovely surfaces that I’ve sprinkled them throughout the house.

First, there just has to be some stone in my home. Through research, I found that soapstone is being quarried responsibly in North America. But there are only two places that I discovered: Ottawa, Canada www.soapstonecounters.com and Virginia www.alberenesoapstone.com. Cemil made a phone call to Virgina and we learned that they are not actively pulling out the soapstone today, but have enough product to meet current demand. Plus, the energy to ship from Virginia is far less costly than bringing it in from Europe. Soapstone has made a resurgence due to a Finnish company that uses it to create house-warming ovens of all types (www.tulikivi.com). Check out www.vermontsoapstone.com for a good primer on the various applications of the product.

I became enamored after seeing a large Tulikivi fireplace in Green Fusion that generates enough gentle heat to keep their warehouse warm on the dampest of Northern California days. Customers seemed to purr like cats as they sat on the soapstone benches around the insert.

There is a great discussion here about soaptone: http://ths.gardenweb.com/forums/load/kitchbath/msg1202232932093.html?10

I am excited about having some stone in my house and this time it’s going to surround the fireplace insert. I can’t wait to put my hands on the hardened, soapy-feeling talc of my new soapstone from Virginia. So perfect for a girl from the South! And I’m sure it will be a favorite place for Milla the cat.

Next posting: part 2 of my surface discoveries

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Power of the Flush

Oh the conversations I have had about toilets lately. Truth be told, I had become toilet-knowledgeable before I began this project. I can’t explain why toilets interest me, but they have for some time. Needless to say, my unique knowledge has made for some interesting dinner conversations.

Several months ago, I helped a friend replace a toilet in her SF apartment and she ended up blogging about our experience (www.downtheavenue.com). Much of the information that I collected for her has served me well this past 2 weeks as I was making my toilet short list for the Sonoma renovation.

A few toilet facts from www.worldtoilet.org:

· An average person visits the toilet 2500 times a year. About 6-8 times a day. You spend about 3 years of your life in the toilet.
· Poor toilet condition is a worldwide problem. More than half of the world population has no proper sanitation.
· Suppression of urination due to dirty toilets can lead to kidney and bladder diseases. In order to avoid visiting public toilets, some people refrain from drinking and suffer dehydration.
· Most toilets are designed incorrectly.
· Females take 3 times longer than males.
· Toilet remains as a 'taboo' as people are shy to discuss the subject.
· There are toilet associations worldwide promoting toilet education and culture.

So I am not totally alone in my toilet fascination.

Thankfully, toilet technology has progressed significantly in the last 20 years. The 1.6 GPF toilet is now de rigueur in any toilet line. Kohler, www.kohler.com, for example has a 1.28 gallon flushing option that saves up to 2,000 gallons per year. But the leaders, and those companies most often named for their efficient design and low water use, are Toto www.totousa.com and Caroma www.caroma.com. The latter is known for their dual flush systems (for the “yellow, let it mellow” advocates).

I found many useful resources for toilet research. I don’t know who Terry Love is, but I found his comments to be helpful, http://www.terrylove.com/crtoilet.htm.
I also recommend www.greenhomeguide.com, especially for their discussion on skid tracks.

At the end of the day, it comes down to comfort. And by that I mean: seat comfort, comfort with the flushing "action." I’ve made it my mission to have as many conversations as is delicately possible in order to collect real-life testimonials. But my best suggestion is to take a week to visit many toilets and don't forget to raise the lid and notice the brands. Make notes of the way they sit and how they flush and any possible spray associated with the flush, whether you are pleased with the noise level, and check to see if there are residual issues. Yes, do talk with people about their opinions on toilets.

I was recently at an elegant luncheon at La Grenouille French restaurant in New York City and had a very enlightening conversation with a high-powered attorney friend who told me about her recent experience with a Duravit www.duravit.com toilet. She had it installed recently in her upscale condo and was horrified by the water that sprayed out everywhere when she flushed it. She hadn’t wanted a toilet/bidet in one, but that’s what she felt she had. She immediately had it removed and replaced it with a very suitable Toto Pacifica unit, www.totousa.com.

As I narrowed my options, several considerations took precedence. First, I had a very small space in one bathroom and that meant that I needed to choose a wall-hung unit. You see many more of these in commercial applications and abroad. So my choices were limited to a few Duravit models, one from Porcher and several from Caroma. I was a bit “gun shy” after my conversation at La Grenouille, so I made it my mission to track down the Duravit Foster and try it out for myself. Well, yesterday I found one and I’m happy to report that I had a very satisfactory experience and nothing that shouldn’t have gotten wet did.

Another consideration, which informed my final choice of the wall-hung unit and the Toto, was my desire to make this home as easy to maintain as possible. Clearly not having to clean around those knobs that secure the toilet was a plus. The Toto unit has a totally enclosed trap which means….. no knobs to collect God knows what. And the benefits of a wall-hung unit are obvious. But there are some challenges in the installation part and I found this discussion very helpful and I’m sure Cemil, my contractor, was delighted when I passed on the URL to him: http://ths.gardenweb.com/forums/load/bath/

Who knew that toilets could be such a fascinating endeavor and engender such spirited discussions? But given that we spend 3 years of our life on them, it’s worth the attention.

Duravit wall-hung toilet installed

Geberit carrier before final bowl installation

Saturday, January 6, 2007

7 Steps to Effective Appliance Decision-Making

I feel as if I have been on the Iraq study group for the last week. I can't help but feel my new appliance choices are the most important, if not the most expensive decisions, that I have made thus far in the project. Of course, I am being a little dramatic. That's only because I am in spreadsheet hell. I've tried to capture the details by making copious notes. And like the Iraq study group, my decisions/recommendations are merely based on an unscientific combination of information, insight, personal biases, and gut. Oy vey. But I've got the facts to back up my decisions when I question them next year........

My objective was to make informed choices that address price, performance, greenness and aesthetics for the following appliances:

Cook top, double ovens, 2 dishwashers, refrigerator, washer/dryer, wine chiller, microwave. While I can't save you the informational hunt, I can give you a road map that should shorten the journey a bit. My 7 steps to effective appliance decision-making:

1. Start with a short list based on general reading, manufacturer's web sites, and what you've liked in the past. By starting here, you can begin to rule out based on the greenness and performance filters. You will be surprised by how poorly some of your favorites are rated.

2. Then go to your trusty Consumer Reports online www.consumerreports.org. It's worth paying for the subscription and they have a fairly good "green" ratings area.

3. Then, and only then, go to the Energy Star site www.energystar.com. I suggest this because it is organized alphabetically by every possible brand, model that you can imagine has ever been made. To go there without a short list is not a good idea. Compare the short list ratings and that should give you "finalists."

4. As you go the the next step, realize that you should be ready to stay committed to your favorite or let it go for the next one on the list if you read some disheartening reviews. You must be aware of which you are doing, rather like watching the Westminster dog show. If you have a favorite and you will not be deterred with any bad reviews, then stay vigilant. If you are really equally divided between two products, then let the reviews guide you to one over the other.

5. Now for the subjective phase. The reviews. Remember that they are opinions. Some informed, most are not. But they are worth gathering with the caveats mentioned in step 4. Various sites that help you gather what's been written:


6. By now you've noticed the business model for "hosting" reviews. By that I mean, most of these sites pay the cost of maintaining the web site by advertising and "deal flow." That means, that the site you are on will encourage you to buy through one of their sponsors and entice you to do so by providing price and model comparisons as well as reviews. I appreciate that information and it's very handy for the next step that you will need to take.

7. Finding the best price. If you are reticent to place the order through one of the many vendors that were offered up in your review search, then consider the pricing from Sears, Home Depot and Best Buy. By knowing the price differences by MODEL, you will be in a good position to negotiate. I am armed with pages of costs from these vendors and will go into each and see what they are willing to do for my sizable order. Like buying a car, negotiations are part of the game. You can get concessions on delivery, installation (if you need it), upgrades to models, add-ons, extended warranties etc.

I bet you are wondering what I chose? Remember that I spent days making these brand choices on a whole host of personal needs......... at least that's what my spreadsheet work will attest to.

Washer/Dryer: stackable Kenmore HE2
Double ovens: Jenn-Air 30" dual convection/thermal
Cook top: 36" Viking design series
Dishwasher: Bosch
Dishwasher 2: Kenmore 18"
Refrigerator: LG side by side
Microwave: Whirlpool
Wine Chiller: Vinotemp VT 58

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Green is not just the "new black"

It’s this century’s little black dress

I’ve been away from the computer and the project. Truth is, I’ve been in New York City for the holidays. And for the first time that anyone can remember, there was no sign of snow at Christmas. You have to appreciate that something is out of whack with our planet when San Francisco is colder than New York in December.

It was a good visit in so many ways. I got to catch up with dear friends and family members and bring them up to speed on the details of my renovation. I received so much encouragement. Not surprising, my Swiss friend, with whom I spent Christmas, already knew so much about the products I was reviewing and my green construction practices. It just reminds us how far behind the U.S. is with ecology innovation and acceptance.

The plane trip meant that I got to catch up on reading and I tore out some interesting articles and commentaries. I’ve decided that the volume of articles on ecology and the environment is not a statement about “green being the new black,” as my boyfriend likes to say. Rather, it’s due to the curiosity and interest from a public that has awakened to some of the issues and want to know more. The biggest challenge will be in turning that casual interest into lifestyle changes. But in the words of actress Daphne Zuniga, ”the enormity of becoming green in a day would make anyone want to hide under the covers.” Instead this eco activist/actress, in a Shape article, suggests that everyone should start with something small….. such as replacing three old light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs which ends up saving 300 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

I rarely pick up Met Home anymore these days because I find it to be more about chic and modern aesthetics than the kinds of practical guidance that I need in redefining this country home in Sonoma. But I just couldn’t resist picking it up at the JFK newsstand. And sure enough, the bible for all things hyper urban included the usual in cool white interiors but also had many references to green design. I particularly enjoyed an article by Karrie Jacobs, the founding/past Dwell editor, who talked about her new book, The Perfect $100,000 House. She discusses the efficiencies of prefab house construction (we aren’t talking double-wides here). I’ve had many conversations with knowledgeable architects about the ability to create fuel-efficient and cost-effective housing with wonderful features by embracing pre-fab techniques. I suspect that anyone who reads this book will be as convinced as I that an inexpensive but fabulous 1,000 square foot house is possible.

While I normally browse the New York Times online, I was away from it for the week. But I threw the hotel-provided copy into my bag and I wasn’t disappointed by their coverage of green lifestyles. Sure enough, I tore out another handy chart on how we can all make decisions and alter our lifestyles ever so slightly in order to achieve positive personal and environmental results. A few examples:

· Drive 400 miles at 65 MPH instead of 75 ends up saving $7 per trip and 48 pounds of carbon dioxide.

· Buy a vehicle that gets 2 more miles per gallon than the average and save $212 a year and over 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide.

· Replace a 20-year-old refrigerator with a new one and save 243 pounds of carbon dioxide. The tricky part is to make sure you dispose of the old fridge responsibly (see earlier post on reclamation sources)…… and not put it in the garage to hold your stash of party drinks.

It is estimated that we produce 44,000 pounds of carbon per person, per year. So anyway to reduce that number is key. My personal goal for 2007 is to reduce my emissions by 3,100 a year (as recommended by the Kyoto protocol).

Now as I near the time for declaring New Year’s resolutions, I feel good about my jump on my goal of living a more ecologically responsible life.

Alicia Silverstone, actress (from my less “high-brow” plane reading):

We get the message at an early age that one person can’t make a difference, but that’s simply not true. It’s the little things that matter. The people who don’t need a grocery bag because they bought their own, or who shop at the local farmers market, or who buy hybrid cars—these are the real super heroes. They inspire me because they are making a difference, not only in their lives but in the lives of others.