Author Archives: cramcharran

A passive house in Austria. Image courtesy the Passive House Institute.

One of the main principles of passive house construction (read about this fantastic energy-saving way of building in this recent New York Times article) is making the building envelope as close to airtight as possible–to keep heat and cold from leaking in and out where they’re not supposed to. Several construction techniques unique to passive house design help achieve that goal, most notably the principle of keeping the inside and outermost layers of the house detached from the framework studs so they don’t have to be punctured for screws. But special construction techniques aren’t the only way to keep your house airtight: If you’re building from scratch, you can reconsider what appliances you’ll be installing, too.

Your clothes dryer (if you even use one) is especially important, because the exhaust vent leading to outdoors a traditional dryer requires typically allows far more air in and out of the house than just the hot air from the dryer. A more energy-conserving option is a condensing dryer. These dryers dispose of hot, damp air by turning the water in it into condensation and draining it away, then keeping the heat from the air to keep drying the clothes–as opposed to just sending the heat and moisture outside as waste, like a conventional dryer does. And since a condensing dryer doesn’t send anything outside, it doesn’t need a vent—so you don’t have to cut a leaky hole into your house for one!

And while you’re saving energy by installing a condensing dryer in your house, you can save it inside the machine, too. Wool Dryer Balls look like tennis balls, and dropping a few in the dryer with your clothes not only shortens drying time but reduces wrinkling, too. And there are countless green cleaning products for the wash. Among Green Depot’s favorites: Oxy-Boost is a fantastic alternative to chlorine bleach, and Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder works like a charm without phosphates or fragrances–and comes in a nifty old-timey package, too.

While it’s one thing (and a great thing) to talk about green building, it’s not every day that we meet people who are actually doing it on a grand scale. So to bring a fresh dose of reality to the conversation, we tracked down someone who not only talks the green talk but is decidedly walking the green walk, too. Here’s a short Q&A session with Thom Woglom, a green contractor in Warwick, New York. Thom is a regular Green Depot customer, and with 25 years of experience as a general contractor, he is now the owner and president of Greenway Technologies of Warwick–a contracting company specializing in green building. He kindly took the time to answer some basic questions about the business for us.

Green Depot: Thom, what are some of the reasons your customers have given for choosing a green contractor and green building materials, as opposed to going the standard route?
Thom Woglom:
Well, the community of Warwick is special in that it’s both very rural and is made up of a lot of progressive thinkers. So there’s a big emphasis on nature here, and preserving it. The environment is very much on people’s minds these days–there’s a huge amount of interest in green products. But beyond that, our company (my son is my lead foreman) is unique in that we also offer an electronics-recycling service to the community–and a lot of our green building customers come to us by way of that. We think the key to expanding the green movement lies within forming a sense of community around it, because the biggest changes are happening within communities and are growing from the ground up. So we provide a service for our community that helps it become more green-conscious, and as an added benefit, it brings our green business new interest and customers.

GD: What are some products you use often that you order from Green Depot?
TW: We use a lot of your National Fiber cellulose insulation, your Solatube ventilation and daylighting systems, and your Complete Radiant subflooring. We’re about to start working on a house that will have all of those products and many more–they client is going all-out, with a rainwater containment and reuse system, a freshwater swimming pool, wind power, and even a Permaculture site design.

GD: That’s fantastic! Hopefully one day every house will be like that… But are there any areas of the house where that client chose a non-green option? And if so, why?
TW: Well, one of the reasons we’ve heard most often from clients when they don’t want to go with a green choice is concerns about reliability. People haven’t seen most of these new green technologies in action over a long enough time to feel 100% comfortable relying on them yet. This client’s way of addressing those concerns was to have a backup to each of the major systems. So in addition to solar power and heating, he’s installing traditional fossil-fueled electricity and a furnace, too, just in case the greener systems fail (which, of course, we don’t believe they will). It’s an interesting approach. Many clients are also put off by the pricing for green systems, which are generally higher than what they find at a mass-market discount warehouse, but might not be too much higher than non-discounted traditional systems. But price isn’t the main concern for this particular client.

GD: What about the installation of green systems–is it any more difficult or easier than installing traditional heating, cooling and insulation?
TW: It’s all in how you think about it. Any new system requires learning something new, but the basic tools and techniques of building and installation stay the same. As it happens, some of the older workers who might be resistant to learning new methods are now aging out of the workforce, and we’re taking the opportunity to teach the new systems to the new generation of workers from the very beginning. But ultimately, regardless of age, if you’re willing to learn and read instructions, green building really isn’t any more difficult.

GD: Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise, Thom!

Thom Woglom and his company are currently building their area’s first interactive showroom for green building and landscaping, which will feature everything from super-insulated windows and low-flow toilets to compost makers and edible landscaping.

Many of our readers are familiar with the two most popular rating systems for how energy-efficient a given home is: The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Homes (the most popular) and the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes.

Both require much greater energy efficiency than traditional American building methods even come close to offering–and for that alone they are invaluable. But an organization called the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), featured in a recent New York Times article and based in Urbana, Illinois, is setting a new, much higher bar for energy conservation: By making a home’s envelope close to completely airtight, making the most of the sun’s natural heat by way of big windows facing south and using a combination of Institute-mandated building techniques and green products to keep that heat in the house when it’s wanted (and let it out when it isn’t), a house that passes the Institute’s certification process uses on average 75 to 95 percent less energy than most new buildings built in the US!

Building a home to the Institute’s standards is somewhat more expensive than traditional building, though the extra expense is often more than offset by the savings from lower energy bills. But because most low-income people can’t afford to spend an extra cent more than necessary on building, but stand to benefit from green housing as much as anyone else, Habitat for Humanity has begun to experiment with Passive Solar housing itself.

H4H Vermont’s Green Valley chapter is currently building the first Passive Solar house in New England, on a city-donated plot in the colonial village of Charlotte. And the house is not only PHIUS-certified, but pre-fab, too–it’s made of modular units that are made in a factory and then trucked in and assembled in near-complete condition. This way of building saves vast amounts of construction waste and goes a long way to protect the natural environment of the building site. The house will be the first pre-fab, modular Passive Solar house in the country, and hopefully will kick off a long-lasting trend in this kind of homebuilding.

The project is in collaboration with the nonprofit Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, builder Preferred Building Systems, Charlotte-based passive-house specialist Peter Schneider, and Boston-based architect JB Clancy.  The house was completed this month, and a family of four is expected to move in by Christmas.

If you’ve been in the market for paint lately, you’re surely seen and heard the marketing noise about low- and zero-VOC paints. You know it’s something green, and clearly VOCs are something bad, so you’re intrigued and may even have bought some of this paint by now…. But you may also be wondering: What, exactly, are VOCs?

Well, as it turns out, there is no single definition of a VOC that is agreed upon by regulating agencies worldwide. But the letters stand for Volatile Organic Compounds, which the EPA used to refer to as  reactive organic gasses (ROGs), if that’s any help. Some occur in nature; others are man-made.

In the world of green products, VOC usually refers to a man-made, liquid solvent that gives off toxic fumes. You can often smell the VOCs in paint and other liquids you find in hardware stores–it’s that not-so-nice, often headache-inducing smell you get from wet paint, turpentine, varnish, and products in that vein. But a substance can continue to emit VOCs even after it has dried and you no longer smell anything, often for years at a time.

This is why VOCs are such a big deal when it comes to paint. According to the EPA,  indoor air pollution is one of the top 5 hazards to human heath–and VOCs are a major contributor to it. The EPA recommends the use of low- and zero-VOC paints, and it defines low-VOC as having 250 grams or fewer VOCs per liter. GreenSeal has an even lower limit of 50 grams for low-VOC paints.

Things become tricky, however, when color is added to a base: The VOC rating applies only to the base color, not whatever pigments might be added. So be sure to find out whether your tints are low-VOC, as well.

Then there’s zero-VOC, which is of course the best option. Most zero-VOC paints actually do have very low levels of VOCs, as the EPA requires only that they have less than 5 grams per liter to carry that label. But truly zero-VOC paints do exist–to find them, you simply have to know what you’re looking for on the label.

To start you out in the right direction, Green Depot’s house line of paints and primers, Ivy Coatings, is truly zero-VOC, even when tinted. And it’s available in a huge range of colors, including a set of four subtly different premixed shades of white–for just the right white, which can be more important than many people realize.

Green Depot also carries a number of other low- and zero-VOC coating options, including non-toxic Ana Sova Food Paint (which really is made of mostly food-grade ingredients, including milk proteins), Yolo Colorhouse paints, and a range of not only paints but wood stains, polyurethanes, concrete stains and more from AMF and EcoProCote.

Yellow paint photo credit: Even Roberts/Flickr.com

So you’re renovating, or maybe even building something new, and you’ve finally finished framing out your new walls. Now you’re ready to put up your drywall and maybe some tile, or maybe even wallpaper—but what about the ceiling? Sure, you can just drywall it too (and hopefully you’ve been using recycled-content drywall), but there are several other options to consider as well.

The decision of how to make your ceiling can be influenced by a number of factors beyond your decorative choices. A few things to keep in mind are how much sound transmission in and out of the room you want to allow, whether water and/or humidity will be present, whether the room’s activities require any particular kind of acoustics, and whether you’ll be applying tiles.

Here are a number of green products designed for ceiling use that you may want to consider, and some ideas on how they might best be used in your building project.

1) Recycled Content Drywall
If you’re not already using drywall with recycled content for your walls, your ceiling may offer another opportunity to include it. Typical drywall is made of a core of mined gypsum and two outer layers of non-recycled paper. The mining of gypsum typically launches large amounts of particulate matter into the air, threatening both the respiratory health of the miners and the air quality of the surrounding areas. And like most mining, the extraction process leaves large scars on the landscape at the mining site, and often contributes to soil erosion on the slopes where it is mined.

Instead of mined gypsum, recycled-content drywall is made of synthetic gypsum—a byproduct of the process coal-fired power plants use to limit the amount of acid-rain-causing emissions they release into the air. And not only does the use of synthetic gypsum reduce manufacturing waste, but it’s purer than mined gypsum, making for drywall that’s stronger and easier to work with. As an added benefit, the paper facing used on recycled content drywall is 100% recycled.

2) Tectum Interior Ceiling Panels
A dropped ceiling of rectangular panels, typically made of sound-absorbing (acoustical) materials, is another option. A dropped ceiling consists of a grid of lightweight metal strips that are hung from either exposed beams or a drywall ceiling, which hold the panels in place without screws or adhesive. This allows for easy access to any wiring or ductwork underneath, as well as easy replacement of any panel that needs it. Acoustical panels reduce the amount of noise bouncing around within the room, while also limiting the amount of sound traveling through the ceiling to rooms above.

For a green option, Tectum interior ceiling panels are made of wood fibers that are bound together without chemicals and come from Aspen trees grown in FSC-certified forests. The air-drying, low-energy binding process uses only sand, limestone, salt, magnesium oxide (from seawater), and water that gets recycled after use. The finished panels don’t off-gas at all, and are non-toxic enough to be added to compost piles for soil amendment. So not only do you get a quieter room, for a healthier indoor environment, but you get it without hurting the outdoor environment either! And for even further reduction in the noise coming out of the room , take a look at QuietRock Soundproofing Drywall.

3) Durock Cement Backerboard
If the room you’re building is a bathroom or kitchen, or any other room where high humidity and spilled water are common occurrences, you’ll need to use backerboard –commonly called “blue board,” because a common brand is (you guessed it) blue. Backerboard is typically used underneath tiles even in dry areas, where it acts as a surface stiff enough to keep the surface from flexing and pushing them off—and in wet areas, it provides a layer of water-blocking protection for the framing and surrounding rooms.

Durock cement backerboard is not only resistant to moisture, but mold as well, protecting the room’s air quality. And concrete is so durable that it’ll be a long time before you have to replace it, which saves the waste of valuable resources. And it’s even made of recycled materials—it’s 10-20% recycled fly ash.

Green Your Floor With Bamboo

September 20th, 2010 | Posted by cramcharran in Environment | Green Homes | Green Products | Nature - (1 Comments)

Installing a new wood floor? Instead of traditional hardwood, you may want to consider an eco-friendly alternative: bamboo. It may be hard to imagine that reedy green plant growing wild in your yard making a good flooring material, but some varieties of bamboo (when mature and properly dried) are as hard as oak–and some are even harder.

Photo: chefranden at Flickr.com

Green Depot carries bamboo flooring by Foundations, a New York state-based company that offers click-together “floating” strand boards, as well as traditional tongue-and-groove solid-strip options, both in prefinished and unfinished varieties. Foundation’s strand planks are made of the Moso variety of bamboo, which proves to be two times harder than red oak when subjected to the industry-standard Janka ball test. And Moso isn’t a natural food supply for a pandas, so harvesting it even in the wild doesn’t endanger their habitat.

But why else is bamboo such a good choice? The reasons are many, beginning with bamboo’s rapid renewability, which makes it one of the greenest of green products used in building. A tree takes 80 to 120 years to grow to a size where it can be harvested for hardwood flooring planks, but a bamboo plant reaches maturity in only 3 to 6 years with minimal (if any) fertilization or pesticides, and it renews itself without replanting. This means it requires not only fewer natural resources to thrive, but less labor, as well. And bamboo can easily grow up to a foot a day, so it’s not just fast, but plentiful.

Photo: Ajari at Flickr.com

Bamboo is also a boon to the natural environment itself, in a number of ways. Mature bamboo has a very complex and dense root structure (which, incidentally, is why is can be so hard to get out of your garden), which goes a long way to avoid soil erosion in areas where it’s planted. Furthermore, a bamboo forest absorbs up to twice as much carbon dioxide as trees.

From a social responsibility perspective, as well, bamboo is winner—600 million people worldwide depend on income from it, and the industry employs nearly 6 million people in China alone. And as it grows in popularity, those numbers only expand.

Then there’s affordability, which ties back to bamboo’s ability to renew itself rapidly. The laws of supply and demand are at work here: A product that springs back into place quickly and with so little effort and expense can easily be kept in abundant supply, so prices for it can be lower, even in times of great demand. And its durability gives it another layer of affordability, as many kinds of bamboo flooring can go for long periods without refinishing or replacement. Several brands, including Foundations, coat their pre-finished planks with multiple layers of a water-based, zero-VOC, aluminum oxide-infused polyurethane that doesn’t off-gas at all. Nice!

And that’s not even touching on the design options bamboo flooring offers. Bamboo is available in any number of colors, many of which can be achieved using eco-friendly methods. Heating bamboo makes it darken to a rich amber color without the use of stain, and bleaching it in non-toxic hydrogen peroxide gives it a birchlike white-blond color. Its natural tone is a warm golden hue that lies somewhere in between the two, and bamboo can be colored with traditional wood stains to take it to anywhere from a medium chestnut brown to a near-black ebony.

Bamboo’s narrow-strand structure allows it to be pressed into planks in a number of different formats, unlike wood, which of course comes naturally bound into wide pieces (tree trunks). Some bamboo flooring manufacturers even offer planks made of mixed dark- and light-colored strands, for an unusual streaky look. Still others turn the plant’s fibers the short way, so the cut ends of the stalks are what make up the visible surface. The effect is a sort of small-dot pattern that is unique to bamboo.

As a side note, Green Depot also carries Plybam, an excellent companion to bamboo flooring. Plybam is plywood made entirely of bamboo instead of wood veneer, and it’s perfect for use in cabinetry, furniture, paneling or any other project that usually calls for plywood. Its edges have a multidirectional pattern that offers an alternative to plywood’s striped edges, and is attractive enough to make edge veneers a thing of the past.