Sunday, May 11, 2008

It's not easy bein' green... quote Kermit the Frog. We spent most of the weekend watching back-to-back episodes of the show Building Green which we rented on Netflix. On a whim, I searched for anything related to green building on Netflix last week and not much came up. But this show, which I think aired last year on PBS stations, was available on dvd and looked intriguing. As I said, we watched ALL of the episodes in one (okay, two) sittings. It was a building green overload...I was in heaven. Overall, I would have to say that the show suffered from three major flaws:

1) The host and homeowner, Kevin Contreras, built what seems to be, according to our calculations, a $1.2 million dollar house. Let me repeat...$1.2 million. Ryan and I are all about emphasizing that building green does not necessarily mean doling out lots of green. But this show didn't really help us prove our point. Granted, they did choose to highlight various ways to save money but they were mostly trivial suggestions (like using one of those super absorbent towels so you don't have to buy and wash loads of traditional washcloths...hmmm....not enough to make our project come in on budget but thanks anyway). On the whole, they used pretty high-end products, materials and building techniques. On the flip side, it was kind of fun to see how the other half lives.

2) The show was really about what this particular homeowner chose for his own green home. He wasn't all that thorough in his explanations of his choices, meaning he didn't do much in the way of describing alternatives. For example, he built a straw-bale home...but didn't provide information on other options like SIPs, ICFs, earth-berm, etc. It would have been more educational to learn about several available options before learning about his particular choice. In that sense, we learned a lot about his house but not as much about the entire spectrum of green building materials and techniques available on the market today.

3) It was pretty cheesy. More attention to editing would have helped. Like the portion of the segment on feng shui. I'm not opposed to bringing in a feng shui expert (hey, maybe we can afford to since we're going to forgo washcloths in favor of those super absorbent towels!!!) but they spent too long on this piece and the host actually ignored her advice! What's the point?

So after having bashed the show, I would like to say that we actually learned A LOT and that it has helped us gain a better understanding of what "green" really means...and how hard it can be to achieve. Before watching this show, we were primarily focused on constructing a super-tight and efficient building envelope so as to reduce our energy load and carbon footprint. I have spent the bulk of my research time looking into SIPs vs. ICFs, ERVs and HRVs, radiant heat floors, low flow and dual flush toilets, solar hot water and PVs, etc. What I have spent less time focusing on is the green nature of the finishing products we will bring into our super-tight, low energy load building envelope. One of the only downsides to a super-tight home is that it has the potential to make harmful chemicals found in our furniture, floors, clothes even more harmful because the house does not breathe to the extent a typical, less well insulated home would. This is why an ERV or HRV system is SO important in tight homes; it is imperative that air be brought into and out of the house, even if it is accomplished artificially, via technology.

This show made us think a lot more about the types of materials we'll be bringing into the home...anything from flooring stains to paints and wall plasters. Before this weekend, I have to admit that I did some quick exploration into the green credentials of IKEA cabinets and felt satisfied that they were a-okay because they met the German standards for off-gassing. But in looking at the IKEA website last night, I found that many of the cabinets are still made out of particleboard. I am not going to bring a product that I know contains urea formaldehyde and that off-gasses (sometimes for YEARS) into my home. This is for my health, for Ryan's health (who has asthma, by the way) and for the health of our dogs and future children. What's the point in building a home that's healthy for the planet but that makes its inhabitants sick???

So we have committed ourselves to finding only the healthiest products and materials possible for use in the home. And this is why I titled this post the way I did. It's not easy to find healthy, green, formaldehyde-free products that aren't through-the-roof expensive. Kevin Contreras in his gazillion dollar home may have been able to do it but we're worried that our budget will constrain us. However, we're going to remain optimistic, continue researching and do everything we can to meet our redefined goal of "going green."

For example, we think we are going to abandon our initial plan of pursuing IKEA kitchen cabinetry. Instead, we are going to try to find a local cabinet maker who is committed to using wood not treated with formaldehyde or stained with any toxic materials. We hope we can find someone who is able to meet our relatively strict cost criteria. It's tough to match IKEA prices. But our current kitchen design does not include any top cabinets (will use wood or stainless steel open shelving) and the kitchen itself is not particularly large. So we hope that will help reduce costs.

Also, we would like to be able to afford green plywood for use in the house. But if we cannot, there is a great product that can be used to "seal in" the harmful off-gassing that occurs in materials that contain urea formaldehyde. So if we stock up on that, perhaps we can address the flaws of building materials that are not green.

We really hope we can achieve our mission of building a home that is mindful both of the health of the planet and of our family. Please do check out the show "Building Green" because despite its weaknesses, I know it has helped us refine our project goals and was truly an eye opener. I'm off to buy a super absorbent towel now...