Build it Green
a growing cadre of environmentally concerned architects, designers and contractors
by Larken Bradley
One day several years back, actor Woody Harrelson and members of Greenpeace held a demonstration on the Golden Gate Bridge protesting the clear-cutting of old growth redwoods. Novato contractor John Shurtz “had an epiphany,” he says. While unloading old-growth redwood lumber from his truck for use on a home-building project in the hills of Sausalito, the protest caught his attention and he got the message.
A contractor for more than 25 years, Shurtz, now owner of Green Builders of Marin, helped lobby Home Depot to get the corporation to stop selling old-growth lumber. Over time he has gradually introduced more and more sustainable building practices into his construction and renovation projects.
One thing led to the other, and “next thing I knew, I was a specialist,” Shurtz says with a chuckle.
As to the impact of his newfound awareness on his work, “I’m so much more passionate about what I’m doing because I have so much more to offer,” he says. “My guys”–the construction workers in his employ—take “much more pride in what they’re doing,” he reflects.
Here’s what I’ve learned about green, sustainable home building and architecture. It’s beautiful, made of top-quality materials, and is good for the health. It seldom costs a dime more than its mainstream, non-ecological counterparts.
It’s also very cool. The cool factor comes from the fact that recycled denim blue jeans are being used as wall insulation. Cellulose derived from reclaimed newspaper is doing the same job.
Mineral-based recycled glass is being transmuted into Vetrazzo, multi-colored, high-style countertops by Berkeley manufacturers Counter/Production.
Old-growth timber scavenged from razed Australian soccer stadiums, Kentucky tobacco barns and Chicago meat-processing plants is being laid down as fashionable wide-plank flooring, available from San Rafael’s EcoTimber.
This green shopper’s sleuthing mission was full of enlightening finds, including the discovery of health-promoting home plans designed by noted architects, which can be purchased readymade. These schematics emphasize the use of fresh air, natural light and nontoxic building materials to create a healthy living environment.
A growing cadre of architects interior designers and contractors are walking the talk and making personal environmental concerns the foundation of their work.
San Rafael interior designer Victoria Schomer has been in the business for more than 30 years and is the recipient of an American Society of Interior Designers Design for Humanity Award.
Many of her clients who find themselves sick–their immune systems compromised from ecological and chemical assault–come to her for help in switching to healthy floor coverings, upholstery and paints. “It’s the heart and soul of what I do,” she notes. Schomer has even started her own painting company, in which she uses nontoxic paints. “I rarely do a job that doesn’t have ecological tones to it,” she says.
Like others in the field, she finds herself educating consumers out of misconceptions surrounding sustainable products. All the specialists I spoke with maintain that green materials have risen to the level where there’s no compromise of aesthetic appeal, durability or cost.
Marin native Carolyn Robbins—an interior designer in practice for three decades—who specializes in the renovation of old buildings, uses existing materials wherever feasible. “Growing up in Marin gave you an environmental benefit,” she reflects.
Robbins’s recent projects include a low-budget interior renovation in which she tied slender bamboo poles together to create molding. In a Marin Designer Showcase home, brown paper grocery bags were torn and glued to the walls of a teenager’s room.
Another 30-year interior design veteran, Deborah Coburn, has designed the interiors of several model homes, including straw bale houses, which have become sustainable architecture prototypes.
Coburn’s green design vision came into focus years ago after she developed a chronic cough from exposure to toxic substances in a furniture warehouse. She can now be seen regularly at home and ecology shows displaying her Palette-of-Place nature-based color schemes. “Nature has it all figured out,” Coburn observes. “We are hungry for connection with mother earth.”
Along with recycled old-growth lumber, some of which was once used for railroad ties in Southeast Asia, EcoTimber of San Rafael is also purveyor of hardwood flooring sanctioned by the Forest Stewardship Council as being from an ecologically well-managed forest, reports Dan Harrington, the company’s marketing director.
Leading the green wood-flooring movement is bamboo. In addition to being beautiful to the eye, bamboo grows a foot per day and takes just five years to reach maturity. In contrast, hardwoods take from 50 to 200 years to reach their prime.
Building a home? Pre-designed green home plans can be had in a flash. “We seek out plans or architects that have designed homes that meet our healthy and green criteria,” says Christi Graham of Healthy Home Plans in Mill Valley, whose firm also answers customer questions about the designs, and fills orders.
Explains Graham, “Most architects don’t have the ability or the desire to market their own home plans…” Included in Healthy Home Plans’ plan package is an artist’s sketch; foundation plan, detailed floor plans; cross-sections; electrical schematics; elevations; roof layout; general specifications; and healthy-building specifications.
In August the firm—along with architects David Arkin and Annie Tilt in Albany—was one of 11 winners of the prestigious 2003 Western Home Award, co-sponsored by Sunset Magazine and the American Institute of Architects.
As to choosing green building practices over those known to harm the environment and compromise health, “there’s really no reason not to,” says Sausalito architect Whitney Schrauth, whose firm, Sustainable Architecture, specified that 75 percent of a recent project’s demolished products be reused on-site, and “not go to landfill.” Additionally, doors and windows not appropriate for the new design plan but still in decent shape, were hauled to salvage shops for resale.
Among an exhaustive list of criteria for green, healthy and sustainable homes are those in which:
- lumber has been recycled or is made from bamboo, palm, cork or some other fast-growing, nonthreatened species;
- fly ash—a coal by-product—is combined with cement to reduce waste and pollution;
- noxious paints, adhesives and sealants are avoided in favor of those with low toxicity content;
- solar lights installed in dark hallways and closets. Skylights are substituted for energy-draining lighting;
- radiant heat emanating from the floor via hot-water piping replaced forced-air furnaces;
- energy-efficient appliances take the place of resource-hogging washers, dryers and refrigerators;
- natural airflow, via cross-ventilation, substitutes for mechanical cooling systems;
- tankless hot water heaters replace run-of the-mill models that keep water heated constantly;
- mold and mite-ridden carpets are removed and replaced with friendlier products. Natural linoleum made from linseed oil replaces vinyl; and
- water-efficient landscapes with drip-irrigation systems replace high-maintenance gardens.