Sunday, March 25, 2007

How Green Can You Go?

This week was full of starts and a few stops. By that I mean, we were all ready to move into final stages of putting in the finishes when we made some interesting discoveries. I’ll try to highlight a few of them here.

Flooring. EcoTimber ( ready to be laid, but we spent the week waiting for the Eco Urethane adhesive from DriTac. It arrived a week late and has delayed our start. As it turns out, that was for the best, given some of the changes that we’ll be making after our preliminary energy audit (see later discussion) and the relocation of floor vents.

Packaging. Meanwhile, we began to remove the packaging from the pre-engineered white maple that we are using. And I came to really appreciate the “ungreen” nature of packaging. The plastic and cardboard just kept piling up higher and higher. Yes, it all ended up at the recycling center, but it does raise an interesting question. When are we going to get serious about sustainable packaging? Especially for “green products.”

The adhesive was the worst “green packaging” offender that I’ve experienced. It came in very sturdy plastic containers that were individually placed in thick cardboard boxes and firmly held in place by styrofoam blocks. Way too much packaging!

Our pre-energy audit.

Early on, Cemil had researched to find a consultant that would come in and advise us on just how we can maximize our construction to make a very energy efficient home. Well, we were amused and impressed with the team from ReNu (

Their mission:

"The emphasis of our company is to help homeowners make their homes not only better looking but also more energy efficient, more comfortable, safer, and healthier to live in. We perform 'Healthy Home Assessments' and do all the remediation work that would be required to bring a home back into shape. You could think of us as Personal Trainers for your home"

Their methodology:

Cemil and I were reminded of “Ghost Busters” when the ReNu team showed up at the house with 4 people and enough equipment to climb Mt. Everest. An infrared camera was used to point out all the leakage—through walls, around light sockets and electrical outlets. It was clear, that we still have a lot of work to do to “seal” up the house in order to “tighten” it up. But as we do that, it’s important to realize that a tight house requires sources for fresh air to balance it out.

As Robert Mitchell, President, kept pointing out “a tighter house is what we all want but that means a source for controlled fresh air.

The results:

Because we are using ReNu in 2 phases, we won’t know how we perform until we implement their recommendations. A few key areas that we will address in order to have a more energy efficient home:

*use lots of foam to seal the cracks and crevices
*use mastic to seal the grills and exterior exposures
*pay close attention to creating a tighter seal in the crawl space beneath the house
*think about using solar thermal to help diminish the energy used for hot water production
*relocate existing floor vents for AC and heat to ceiling and on walls opposite the windows because our heater unit is in the attic and it is more efficient than what the route that is currently used for getting the heat/ac to floor ducts which are currently placed under windows.
*insulate all the plumbing
*add extra insulation to the attic by using blow-in cellulose
*don’t oversize your heat or AC—bigger is not better in this case

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Paint the Town Green

It might seem unusual to be painting the walls of a project that is only half way done, but Cemil feels that having a coat of paint on them would protect the "prone to dings" sheet rock as we head into the installation of cabinets and finishes. I didn't argue because I was so curious about the colors and various paint brands that I had been researching.

So Lester was called in to put up the first coats of paint. I had carefully provided him and Cemil with a spreadsheet of all the colors and paints. All totaled, I ended up using 5 different brands and 10 colors. I'm sure Lester was curious about my hanging out with him all day and "interviewing" him on his opinion about the various paints. He provided some valuable feedback and I got to experience the painting part with him. While I'm not sure I converted Lester (he's a loyal Kelly Moore guy), he did agree that the quality was good, the colors nice, and the lack of smell was new for him. He didn't even have to add vanilla to the paint to kill the odor and I reminded him about the advantages of no lingering off-gassing. He's more informed after our 3 days together, and time will tell if he begins recommending these paints.
Lester and team

Let me first confess that I didn't try AFM Safecoat, the "primogeniture" of green paint companies, because Cemil had not been pleased with its coverage and I found the colors to be less than inspired. Though the president of the company did tell me that they were launching some new "decorator colors." Besides SFM Safecoat (, by virtue of longevity, is on every one's green paint check list.

I wanted to try some new brands. After having gotten my paint education at two bay area "contractor" paint stores, Gray's Paints in Palo Alto area and Tamalpais Paints in Marin as well as "green" paint resource, Ecohome Improvement in Berkeley, I was armed with gallons and quarts from 5 different brands.

Yolo Colorhouse.

American Pride.

Aura from Benjamin Moore.

Sydney Harbour.


And the review:

Yolo. My favorite. The colors are wonderful. I've met the two founders of this company and their creative backgrounds in the ad agency world comes through when you look at the color palette choices, the packaging and the attention to final product. While there isn't an extensive choice of colors with Yolo, the ones the do have are "tried and true" winners. And they coordinate in a way that makes you feel as if a professional designer chose your colors. The product goes on well and even the deepest of colors covers in two coats. There was absolutely no odor with the paint and Lester agreed that it was an impressive product. My only complaint is that it doesn't come in quart sizes. Price: $40 a gallon.

American Pride. More colors makes them a good addition to Yolo. The paint is equally "green" with no smell and also coats well in dark colors. They, like Yolo, have large swatches that you can buy and tape to the wall to see how the color looks without having to paint a sample. As was the case with Yolo, the eggshell finish wasn't chalky in the least.... as some have complained. And it comes in quarts. Price: $36 a gallon.

Aura from Benjamin Moore. The advantage is the access to this through their many outlets. Clearly Benjamin Moore has spent time, money and effort to establish this paint with the professionals. No complaints on the selection of colors. The coverage was as expected with any of their paints. They have yet to launch the semigloss line, but matte, eggshell and satin are all available and perform well to scrubbing. It is fast drying which makes it a favored for paint contractors. The price is competitive. They haven't created an eco friendly PVA yet, so you'll have to use from their old Eco Spec line (seems to be phasing out). There is some odor, so it doesn't feel as green as the other two I've mentioned. Price: $52 a gallon.

Sydney Harbour. An Australian product, this is a beautiful paint line that feels very specialized and high end. The price is $90 per gallon which makes it too expensive for most to use. They do have quarts so I used it on an accent wall. And it was beautiful coverage with virtually no odor either. I can't speak for how it holds up to scrubbing, but it too lacked the chalkiness of the clay and lime paints that are considered the "greenest" of paints. If not for the price, I would have rated this one higher. Price: $90 per gallon.

C2 Paints. I was talked into this as a "low VOC" newcomer. I have to say that the display in the paint store, next to Pratt & Lambert, was impressive. Again, one can buy large sheets to avoid painting splotches on your walls. I've also read that you can return any unused portion and they will "recycle" it for another homeowner who wants the same color. I haven't tried that yet and I do have an extra unused quart. The colors are certainly lovely and coverage is good. But this paint had the odor of any other brand that doesn't claim to be low VOC. So that moves this brand to the bottom of the list for me. Price: $48 a gallon

I won't go into the details on the challenges in VOC ratings with paints. In any emerging industry, the lack of standards makes it hard to compare products accurately. Go here for a good explanation on the paint issues Suffice it to say, that paint is the area that will need to be monitored for the new entrants and measurement standards. As I was told by the owner of Gray's Paints..... it's all about the fact that glycol is the offender and that's the pigment. So, except for milk paint, it seems that there is no real "chemical-free" paint.

My attitude is that voting with your dollars on better choices for things like paint and wood is helping to build demand. That will, in turn, drive innovation and standards. So my advice: don't be afraid of investing in any of these paints I've recommended. Pay a little extra (not much) and enjoy an environmentally-responsible, odor-free, beautiful end-result.

Other useful information:

A handy paint usage calculator:

Monday, March 5, 2007

Giant leaps forwards and small steps backwards

My recent trip was unexpectedly extended by a family emergency. I had lots of time in waiting rooms for reading and idle chatter. It seems that in this week alone, there have been some major announcements and media reports about the state of the environment. And still there are skeptics, I've come to discover.

As a new convert, it means that I've been obsessively focused on the impact that my actions have on the environment. I admit that I am probably a bit "evangelical" about my conversion. But given that I spent the last week in South Carolina, you'd have thought that any kind of evangelism would have been deemed as acceptable behavior. I did find the Whole Foods in SC, but was disappointed to see a parking lot filled with SUV's and other gas guzzling vehicles. And I noticed that everyone in the store seemed to prefer plastic bags to paper or providing their own. And as I am prone to do..... I did take it upon myself to instruct the bagging personnel as to why paper was preferable to plastic. I'm sure my instruction wasn't appreciated in the manner that I meant it. I learned that very few customers bring in their own bags, even with a 5 cents per bag incentive. I can only imagine the attitude at the Piggly Wiggly across town.

I had an unpleasant exchange with the specialist caring for my Mother about why he should believe in any of the "stuff that Al Gore espouses." Seems that he repeated a news report (Drudge Report & Fox News) that Al Gore's lifestyle didn't reflect his environmental platform. I looked up the attacks brought by a group that "promotes personal freedom and limited government." I found a considered response about Al Gore's home energy consumption that reveals his large home (which also is his office and accommodates security detail needs as ex- VP) does consume large amounts of energy, but he purchases most of it from green energy sources and offsets the remainder. He happens to live in a state that produces much of its energy from hydro and nuclear sources. My question to this GI doctor.... "what have you done to help preserve our environment?" I guess if he treated asthma instead of colon diseases, he might not have been so quick to dismiss the overwhelming evidence of atmospheric degradation from CO2 emissions and resulting health issues.

As someone who grew up in the South, I'm often defending my region because of its "illustrious" history. However, the reticence to embrace global warming as a crisis is not limited to the South. The weekend before, I had been in Long Island with friends and was equally surprised to find several deli-style eating establishments that did not recycle glass bottles and thought it unnecessary to do so. So ignorance is not necessarily regionally based.

The media seems to have daily coverage on our environment. Happily, Hollywood recognized "An Inconvenient Truth," by awarding it an Oscar. In the week following, though, the Bush administration is releasing a report (a year overdue) that will show "emissions of gasses by the U.S. that contribute to global warming will grow nearly as fast through the next decade as in the previous decade." Of course, it's not surprising given the general tepid, if not hostile, commitment of the Bush administration to saving our environment. (New York Times 3/32007)

Happy to report some positive things that I encountered on my trip:

* Novartis (Swiss drug company) is providing Prius cars for their drug reps next year.

* PG&E is converting their crew fleet of trucks to biodiesel and alternative fuel vehicles

* Wall Street Journal, that protector of corporate activities, devoted a section in the 2/12/2007 edition to green energy. And they were quite bullish on it making economic sense.

* I met with a NYC apartment developer who is considering retrofitting his buildings to be more green.

Next posting-- about paint