Saturday, June 30, 2012

Going green, living healthy -- Home construction and furnishings

This is part of a series of posts on Going green, living healthy. The first post is here. I'm not an expert on this subject, so if you find errors please let me know. I have tried to provide pointers to my sources where possible.

My first awareness of "green" home construction was around 2006-2007 when I looked at new homes by The Good Project in West Sacramento by a company called LJ Urban. Unfortunately, the company closed down and the project was taken over by S360 Development, probably because of the challenging market for real-estate at that time.

Even though the homes were not in a location that was of interest to me, I went there for a tour. Instead of the usual sales office, they had informal dinners that people could sign up for to get a tour of the homes. I'm glad I did because it completely altered the way I look home construction and home furnishings. In the model home, they had boards explaining the different features. There was a PDF brochure that described all of these features, but I'm unable to find that now. But I'll try and summarize some of the things that I learned from that visit.

What makes a "green" home different from a regular home? Here's a partial ist of things.
  • Use of sustainable building materials: Usually using reclaimed wood from buildings that were torn-down, or using wood from renewable forests.
  • Environmental conservation at the time of building: For example, preserving trees on the land where the home is built.
  • Use of sustainable furnishings: Keeps environmental impact in mind during production (e.g. fewer toxic bi-products), non-toxic finishes such as water-based finishes (as opposed to petroleum-based).
  • Water conservation: Typically low-flow plumbing fixtures.
  • Energy conservation: Typically includes insulation, lighting fixtures, etc. (I'm not big on the use of CFLs because of their light quality and the fact that they contain toxic materials and require care during disposal.)
"New home" smell

The first thing that struck me as a entered the home was that there was no "new home" smell. Turns out that new home smell is actually an off-gassing of a bunch of chemicals from the new furnishings (cabinets, carpets, paint, etc.), most of which are known to be toxic, but the levels of which are considered "safe".

Here's what Build it Green says about this on Page 10 in their Green Building Guidelines:
On average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, yet the air in new homes can be ten times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to air pollution. A report in the New England journal of Medicine states that 40% of children will develop respiratory disease, in part due to the chemicals in their homes.
A common source of indoor air pollution is the offgassing of chemicals found in many building materials. Kitchen cabinets, countertops, shelving and furniture may be made from particleboard or medium density fiberboard. Some of these pressed-wood products are made with adhesives that release urea formaldehyde—a known carcinogen—into the home for years after installation. Also, many paints, floor finishes, adhesives and sealants emit unhealthy volatile organic compounds (VOCs). That “new house smell” is a telltale sign that there are harmful chemicals in the indoor environment.
The homes at The Good Project were different. They used formaldehyde-free cabinets, a different type of sectional carpet that allowed replacement and recycling of small sections (FLOR), and had zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. Even the kitchen counter-tops were made of a different material, but I can't remember what it was. It turns out that most most of these are easier on the environment during production (because there are less chemicals involved and as a result less toxic waste as bi-products), so what's good for the environment is also good for us. The only catch is that perhaps these cost more to produce and may not be as durable. (I'm speculating here and don't know this for a fact.)

Conventional home builders

During the post-housing bubble years, I found that a lot of companies switched to using low-VOC paint and water-conserving plumbing. They introduced solar panels on the roofs (something I don't particularly care about), but they continued to use regular furnishings such as cabinets, carpets, and paint. As awareness increases, it looks like many of them are trying to move in the direction of using sustainable and more safe materials, albeit very slowly.

Furniture

When shopping for furniture, I always ask about whether the furniture is formaldehyde free. I am yet to find a mainstream retailer whose entre line of furniture is eco-friendly. Over the years, I've found some of the mainstream furniture retailers, such as Crate & Barrel, now carry a few pieces that are eco-friendly and are certified as low-VOC, but you have to look really hard for them. They may be made from reclaimed wood or FSC-certified wood, which typically comes from renewable forests.

With respect to office and home-office furniture, one of the companies that seems to be very environmentally conscious is Steelcase. Many of their products have LEED certification and there's a focus on recyclability.

While I'm not certain, similar principles would probably apply to things like curtains and other home furnishings.

Improving indoor air quality

If we have to live with conventionally built home, it might be worth investing in an air purifier. IQAir, for example, claims that their GC MultiGas air purifier will "strip VOCs from the air." Of course, leaving the windows open a lot would also be helpful, but may not be an option in extreme weather.

Organizations certifying buildings and furniture
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