How We Built a Green (Lite) House

For (mostly) selfish reasons, we chose to be environmentally responsible when we remodeled our College Park home.

We are probably like a lot of people. We like to be aware of what we consume and what we waste, but we’re not fanatical about living a green life. We eat junk food on occasion and we often forget to bring our own bags to the supermarket. We’ve been known to drive to breakfast instead of walking to Christos, only a block away. You might say we live “green lite.”

So when we took on the enormous task of remodeling our two-bedroom, one-bath College Park cottage a few years back, we tried to be sensitive to the environment by using sustainable or recycled materials. But to be honest, a lot of our reasons for going green were selfish: an eco-friendly home costs less to maintain in the long run, looks better and provides a healthier place to live.


Green Lite House
Illustration by Brian Nutt

After a contractor was hired and plans were drawn, the remodeling got under way. It was a job that ultimately required our constant involvement.

High on our list: finding a substitute for fiberglass insulation, the fluffy pink stuff in almost everyone’s attic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publish a pamphlet called “Fiberglass Training Guide.” Written to educate construction crews, it starts, “Did you ever hear of ‘itching powder?’ You could buy it years ago in stores that sold gags and jokes. If you have ever worked with fiberglass, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was the main ingredient in itching powder. But itching isn’t the only problem. . . . ”

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the microscopic slivers of itchy glass in fiberglass insulation can become lodged in your airway, potentially causing bronchitis, cancer and permanent lung damage. Even slight contact can cause respiratory problems and what’s called “fiberglass warts,” a skin infection.

Insulation manufacturers disagree.

We didn’t want the pink stuff for insulation, but the contractor said there wasn’t an available alternative. (Contractors tend to be creatures of habit, sticking with building materials they are accustomed to using, regardless of the damage to the environment.)   

So we found an alternative ourselves: Cotton insulation made of recycled scraps of blues jeans. We had to shut down construction for two weeks while a company in South Carolina, Inno-Therm, shipped 27 giant rolls of soft, blue cotton, treated with boric acid to make it bug- and fire-proof. The blue-jeans insulation costs about 20 to 30 percent more than fiberglass, but with no concerns about handling or breathing the material, installation was much faster and cheaper. Instead of several workers in masks and gloves, one guy in a T-shirt, working half a day, was all it took—and he napped on the rolls during lunch. Sound-damping and glass-free, our blue blankie has a higher R-value (a measure of thermal resistance) than the traditional insulation. Keeping our home comfortably cool, even now that it is twice its former size, costs less than $100 a month.

Bamboo, Inside and Out
The next big decision concerned flooring. Carpeting was the least expensive route to take, but the materials that go into making it are laced with chemicals. The smell of new carpets doesn’t come from nature; it’s a vile mishmash of formaldehyde, toluene, benzene and acetone (been in a nail salon lately?), which doesn’t go away with cleaning or age.

We chose natural flooring made from an abundant resource that quickly regenerates and doesn’t require pesticide applications. Today, bamboo flooring is stylish and hip, but back when we began remodeling our home it was as rare as a unicorn.

Getting a sense of how bamboo flooring would look and figuring out how to get it were things we had to do on our own. A California company we found on the Internet sent us floor samples, which we passed around to “ahs” of disbelief. Amazingly, we found a local supplier of bamboo flooring.

Our floor now looks beautiful, and the bamboo material is denser than oak or teak, having been created by a heating process that practically guarantees no warping. The grain pattern and darker spots where the stems join are unlike those of any other wood, and we get a kick out of showing the floor to people. Now its markings echo the living stands that grow outside.

Using ‘Safe Paints’

Joseph Hayes and Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor
Joseph Hayes and Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor

Once the walls were up and the floors were down, it was time for color. Paint with low-volatile organic compounds—the kind that doesn’t smell or leave you nauseated or faint—was easier to obtain than the insulation.

The dizzying perfume of ethylene glycol and ammonia (standard paint ingredients) can cause headaches, stomachaches, and liver and kidney damage, according to the EPA. These standard paint ingredients are overlooked dangers, but they are so easy to avoid. Our painters thanked us, and the guys were even happy to redo a wall when we changed our minds about the tint. An amazing selection of safe paints is on the market now, made with everything from clay pigments, citrus peel and beeswax, to that old standby, milk paint. Even big producers like Benjamin Moore and The Freshaire Choice from The Home Depot are in the game.

We didn’t have the budget to install solar-energy panels on our roof, but we went with the next best thing to dramatically reduce our demand on the power grid—compact florescent lightbulbs. These lightbulbs have been the poster children of the green movement, and they’re among the easiest green products to put in a home. For manufacturers and retailers, CFLs mean profits. Walmart sold 100 million of the swirly bulbs in 2007, and the Energy, Independence and Security Act, originally the Clean Energy Act, passed by Congress in December 2007, will phase out Edison’s incandescent invention by 2014. Australia wants them out next year. Philips, Europe’s oldest bulb manufacturer, is discontinuing traditional lightbulb manufacture by 2016; Toshiba, which has made lightbulbs for 120 years, plans to switch to CFL production completely by 2010.

We added up the number of fixtures we’ve changed to CFLs and were surprised to find that the total was 39. According to various online calculators, the swap from incandescent bulbs to CFLs saves us $307 a year – more than $1,600 over the life of the energy-saving bulbs—and cuts nearly 4,000 pounds of CO2 emissions annually.

One Man’s Trash Is . . ., an online sourcebook of environmentally responsible building practices, says construction of a 2,000-square-foot house like ours typically generates 8,000 pounds of waste. To reduce the amount of waste we contributed to landfills, and to cut back on the energy and air pollution associated with making new materials, we recycled pieces of our old home. We salvaged our 1950’s-era jalousie windows, baseboards and molding, prying them out and sanding them down for reuse. We also saved a cypress wood shelf from a house that was about to be demolished down the block. Two junk-shop sideboards—with the addition of Mexican ceramic sinks, kitchen faucets and heavy coats of nontoxic shellac—were transformed into bathroom vanities. Doors, kitchen cabinets and a gorgeous leaded-glass window were found at a home in Winter Park undergoing reconstruction. Handmade cabinets that were dumped on the side of the road, the victims of a wealthy resident’s whim, now fill our bedroom and office. An ancient computer monitor escaped the landfill and, faux-marbled, is now an arty showcase for our digital travel photos.

Outside, instead of water-hungry grass, we have bamboo joined by a lawn of purslane, a Florida native succulent that needs no watering or mowing. It blooms with lovely pink flowers every afternoon, and it’s edible. Purslane is grown in Turkey as a vegetable; upscale restaurants are always throwing it into salads. We could graze on it, but we’re not ready to go quite that far with the green thing.

We compost, and grow bananas and lettuce. We have timers, dimmers and motion-detectors on lights that we’d normally forget to turn off. The fireplace we designed and decorated with recycled glass tiles burns the bamboo that has to be thinned from the garden every year, lowering our heating bill.

Yes, non-VOC paint, cotton insulation and energy-saving lightbulbs cost more up front than the standard materials that go into building or remodeling a home. But our health and peace of mind were and are worth the investment. We believe that our grandchildren are safer in our home because of the choices we made. Call us environmentalists or idealists, but given the option of easy and potentially harmful, or difficult and mindful, we’d do it all the same way. Because, when you look at the result, the project wasn’t really that hard at all.

And, again, in some ways, our intentions were really sort of selfish.

Categories: Features