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Interiors: Start at Home

Four ways to bring green design into your life.

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The American Lung Association's Health House program (www.healthhouse.org) offers guidelines for how to construct a healthy home. According to its Web site, a Health Home costs just 3 to 5 percent more than traditional construction, but can save money through a 30- to 40-percent reduction in utility bills. So green design can pay off too.

What really sets green building apart— because you can't tell just by looking at it — are the ethical decisions that come into play. The challenges seem large, but it may be reassuring to know that the following are some simple things you can do to make a difference in your home. Some are as easy as screwing in a light bulb.



1. Healthy materials

With paint the issue is the chemical gasses emitted during drying and shortly after, called volatile organic compounds or VOCs. For those with families in the house while work is being done, or with sympathy for the worker, nontoxic paints are easy to come by. Try Sherman Williams' Harmony zero VOC paint or Benjamin Moore's Ecospec paint.

Off-gassing of synthetic materials is another health concern. That new house smell is the smell of chemicals in the air. New carpet can emit VOCs when first installed. If you select carpet for your home, unroll it before installing and let it off-gas in a ventilated space.

Traditional types of insulation are made with fiberglass and fomaldehyde, which is unhealthy to breathe. Cellulose insulation is made from recycled newspapers and can be blown in wet so it fills gaps well and is more energy efficient.



2. Eco-friendly materials

Think about using materials that won't have to be replaced and end up in a landfill. Such materials as stone, which doesn't wear out, can be used for countertops. Soapstone, which is nonporous and doesn't require any sealers, is mined nearby in Schuyler. Vinyl is pervasive in construction but is very detrimental environmentally. It's used for piping or flooring. As a sheet it comes in many patterns but is not very durable and has a very toxic life cycle. Linoleum is a good alternative. It's made from natural materials — wood, resins — and has been making a comeback in recent years.

Another major environmental concern is using wood that doesn't deplete our forests or come from logging in old growth areas. Fiber wood comes under the category of recycled materials. It's similar to particleboard, but it's made of straw and can be used for cabinet boxes or other hidden uses in the house. Certified wood is approved by the Forest Stewardship Council and insures that wood products come out of the forest in an ecologically healthy way. [See Home Front, page 4.]

Salvaged wood and parts are a way to recycle, but the character of old wood comes at a premium. Oftentimes the wood comes from hundred-year-old warehouse beams that are re-milled. Mountain Lumber (www.mountainlumber.com), which specializes in longleaf pine, reclaims wood from demolition sites and mills them in Ruckersville.



3. Saving energy

Buying goods locally probably is the most important thing you can do to save energy. The key is not that the products be distributed locally, but that they are harvested, mined or manufactured locally.

With something like a refrigerator that is constantly operating, it's not just about saving energy, it's also about saving money. You can really lower your monthly energy bills significantly by using an Energy-Star-rated refrigerator. With the dishwasher it's more about water efficiency. And in the shower you can use low-flow fixtures.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs can have a significant effect on energy bills if installed throughout the house. They cost more but last 10 times as long and reduce your energy use for each fixture by 66 percent. In addition the light is more natural and doesn't create heat like regular incandescent bulbs, which cause higher cooling costs.



4. Bringing the outside in

The idea of including nature in your design seems like an obvious one. Windows and sunlight are desirable in a home, but they can also affect your health. Studies have shown that humans respond to nature. A Harvard scientist coined the phrase "biophilia," which means, in essence, that humans need other organisms to survive. So that view of the garden is actually a health benefit! In addition, natural light can be used to heat a home. Positioning a house to take in sunlight, which can be absorbed and released with a dark stone floor, can save heating costs.

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