Graham's Floorplan

Graham Hill is the founder of TreeHugger, a prominent sustainability website dedicated to environmental inspiration.  Recently, Graham launched the LifeEdited project, an open-source contest to help him redesign his small apartment to be as comfortable, and environmentally-friendly, as possible.  Green Depot has partnered with Life Edited, and we were fortunate to get to speak with him about it.

Green Depot: So, we know that you’re the founder of  Could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with that project?

Graham Hill: Well, I’m an entrepreneur.  I had done a bunch of work with the internet, and opened up an internet shop in Seattle in the 90s so I had a lot of experience with that.  I’m passionate about being green, and I saw that something was missing on the internet.  I wanted to building something to inspire, by hope, instead of by, you know, fear.  Solutions weren’t being aggregated into one place on the internet.

GD: That’s really great.  Could you tell me, then, a little bit about how you got the idea for LifeEdited?

GH: I guess I knew a bunch of key statistics, so my sense of things [about living space] was pretty much based on those statistics, and it made me want to rethink some things.  You know, homes in the 1950s were on average 1,000 square feet, and now they’re 2,300 square feet.  At the same time, family size has gotten smaller, so we have so much more space.  But somehow in that time, shopping also became a hobby, and we had all of this space, but we still had this new need for a new industry – the storage industry – to keep all of our stuff.  The new storage industry is 22 billion dollars large.

At the same time, happiness levels have remained about the same, and our environmental footprint has really ballooned, and we’re saving less and borrowing more.  So this was a new equation for me to explore.

Personally, I’m happy with a few bags, when I’m traveling or living abroad.  I’m happy with the space in have in, like, a hotel room or wherever.  Larger spaces didn’t make me happier.  And you probably know that in New York City 80% of our environmental footprint comes from buildings, and there are so many simple technologies and idea to apply to our buildings to lower our footprint.  I’m interested in creating compelling, small places, and lowering my costs to make me happier.

GD: So, just to clarify, are you buying a new place to apply the ideas from the contest, or are you just renovating your current apartment?

GH: Yeah, I bought two places – one is 350 square feet on the 6th floor, the other is 420 square feet on the 2nd floor.  I’m living in the 350 square feet one in the interim while we retrofit the 420 one, and then after that’s done we’ll renovate the 350 square feet and I’ll probably try that one out for a little bit, too.

GD: The project is really democratic, or open-source – anyone can submit a design.  Has the response to the contest been good so far?

GH: Yeah, I’m very happy with it.  We’ve gotten a fair amount of press.  But more important than that, you know, is that we’ve gotten around 35 submissions already, and we still have two months to go.

GD: Are you finding that most of the entries are being done by designers and architects, or are you getting responses from amateurs as well?

GH: Well, we’re totally open for everyone.  Anyone can submit.  But we’re getting some very talented 3D modellers so my guess is a lot of them are designers and professionals.

GD: And you’re working with Green Depot now on the contest?

GH: Yeah.  Green Depot is a sponsor, and when we’re ready to begin building it we’re going to be getting some of our stuff from Green Depot.

GD: How soon are you going to begin work on the project?

GH: Well, the contest is over January 10, so it’ll be the Spring before we even begin anything.

GD: Are you finding the submissions to be really innovative?  What are some of your favorites?

GH: There are so many!  Really incredible – stuff coming out of the floor, out of the ceiling; rotating walls, folding chairs that go flat that you can hang on the wall.  I’d really suggest just having a look around at the website.

GD: Is there anything else about the project that you’d like to mention?

GH: Yeah, two things.  One, the success of the project really relies on the submissions.  We have really great people submitting and it’s a great opportunity for designers – there’s a $70,000 award, tons of media, so people need to submit and get the word out about the project.

Also, you can sign onto the site and comment.  The idea about open-source design is not about the final deadline, but about the jury and the crowd to offer suggestions to evolve the design, and to talk about the positive and negative aspects to make them as great as they can be.

You can check out more on the Life Edited project by clicking here.  For green products, green building materials, and other green lifestyle tips, you can always click on

by flickr user tambako the jaguar

As tightly as we might insulate our homes – filling every nook with environmentally-friendly fill insulation, and caulking every crack and draft – windows are still a major drain on heating and energy bills.

The R-value is the standard unit of how insulating a construction material is.  Conventional fiberglass battens typically have an R-Value of 10.9; some more-efficient green insulations can have R-Values up to 13.  An average glass window has an R-value of one, meaning that a significant amount of energy can pass through a standard window.  Researchers have determined that windows in the U.S. consume about a third of a building’s heating and cooling energy – roughly 4.1 quadrillion BTU of energy.

So, upgrading windows to super-insulated ones presents an opportunity to substantially reduce energy-consumption and lower the cost of heating and cooling a home.

Most LEED-certified buildings use insulated glass.  These are windows with two or three panes stacked in the frame.  The space between panes traps air and significantly increases their efficiency, sometimes providing an R-value rating of two or three.  The most efficient standard insulated glass windows have argon or krypton gas between the panes.

The most efficient type of insulated windows are vacuum glass panels under development by Guardian Industries, and expected to arrive on the market by the end of 2010.  These work on the same physical principle as a thermos bottle – by creating a vacuum between panes of glass, energy cannot transfer through by convection or conduction.  The panes are then coated with a material that reduces radiative heat transfer, providing an R-value of up to R-13. That means a vacuum-glazed window is as insulating as a brick wall, and can help add thermal energy to a house, instead of leaking it – sort of like a garden greenhouse.

Radiant heat flooring warms a room by allowing warming tubes just under the floor’s surface to send heat upwards from the floor itself. At this point, it’s one of the most energy-efficient ways to heat a building, standing far ahead of conventional forced-air central heating and radiators. In fact, it so efficient that it’s recommended by the Passive House Institute, which we wrote about recently here.

With traditional forced-air central heating, warm air is blown into the room and immediately rises to the ceiling—making for a lovely warm ceiling (which nobody needs), but cold floors. Radiant heat, on the other hand, takes advantage of heat’s natural tendency to rise, making the best use of its journey upward by starting at the lowest point in the room. This process is generally far more efficient than any other form of heating, heating the room faster, keeping it warm longer, and allowing the thermostat to be set to up to 8 degrees lower than usual to obtain the same level of warmth. This results in not only lower energy bills, but less fossil-fuel consumption to provide the power that most heating systems require.

An added benefit of radiant heat is that it doesn’t dry out the air the way radiators and forced-air central heating systems do, so there’s less need for electric-powered humidifiers. But possibly the best thing about radiant heat is that it keeps your feet warm—no more freezing tootsies when you first get up in the morning!

Among its many other green products related to keeping your home warm efficiently, Green Depot carries various components for a radiant heat flooring system. The Complete Radiant Panel is an easy-to-install, modular panel with heating tubes built in, for quick sub-floor assembly. Warmboard Radiant Heat Subflooring is plywood subflooring with grooves for heating tubes pre-cut, and Tyroc is a super-insulating overlayment for cold, damp concrete floors that you can lay your radiant heat flooring panels directly on top of. And soon to be added to the lineup is NuHeat, a system of soft mats with heating elements built in—sort of like an electric blanket for your floor. Neat, huh?

As we try to travel in greener directions through the wild, wild west of the consumer market, there are plenty of markers along the way to guide us–in the form of eco-labels, those little green symbols printed and/or stuck on nearly everything you can buy these days. There are symbols indicating that a product is organic, chlorine-free or grown upside down without soil; that it was made by people paid a fair wage or by chickens allowed to go for walks in the sun. If there’s an environmental issue worth considering, there’s an eco-label related to it—which on one hand is fantastic, but on the other… Well, it gets to be a bit much. After a while, all the symbols seem to fade into a solicitous green haze with about as much meaning as the words “As seen on TV!” on the box of the latest trendy gadget. And what’s worse, some of the labels don’t even mean what they appear to. Who would guess that their “free range” chicken might have never even seen the open sky? And others don’t mean very much at all, like organic labels on fruits and vegetables that aren’t normally grown with pesticides to begin with.

But we’re not likely to see any fewer eco-labels anytime soon–we’ll probably only see more, and some of them are genuinely useful indicators of qualities you might actually care about. So with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down of a few of the most commonly seen eco-labels and what they mean, then a list of places where you can learn more about these online and look up the rest of them, too.

EnergyStar is probably the most often-seen eco-label. EnergyStar is a joint program of the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the U.S. Department of Energy, and it awards the EnergyStar label to household products, homes and nonresidential buildings that meet its energy efficiency requirements. Its standards are lower than those required for LEED certification, but it’s a decent start.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program run by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization with no government affiliation. LEED provides third-party verification that a building project followed green building procedures, meets energy efficient performance standards, and is a health place to live or work. The main criteria for evaluation are sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, the use of sustainable materials (e.g. low-VOC paint, green insulation) , and a healthy indoor environment. The program is based on a system that awards a silver, gold, or platinum certification level, based on the number of points a project was able to win by addressing the various criteria. Certification is entirely voluntary.

USDA Organic This label indicates that the product meets the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for using the word “organic” in its labeling. These standards vary for the different products that are eligible for the label, which include not only food but personal care products as well. But most require the absence of synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and sewage sludge in the production process. You can find a table outlining the different requirements for different products here.

Fair Trade This symbol indicates that the product has been certified by TransFair USA, which is the only U.S. member of FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, the Germany-based umbrella organization for a group of 20 international fair trade certifying nonprofits). Fair Trade Certification standards help farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and helping them developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. The label signifies that the product was grown by small-scale farmers who are democratically organized, either in a co-ops or unions; that the buyer paid up to 60% of the cost of the raw materials in advance, that a fair wage was paid and no child labor was used in production, that none of the 10 worst pesticides were used in the growing process, and that the buyer paid additional premiums to go toward services to support and develop the farm community.

FSC The FSC label indicates, essentially, that a wood product was grown in a forest that is being managed responsibly and sustainably. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), certifies forest managers and manufacturers of wood products that it determines are managing forests and using forest products responsibly and sustainably. Among their major concerns are not allowing logging practices to destroy forests, protecting the habitats of endangered wildlife, and making sure the profits from commercial forest endeavors are shared fairly with communities living in the forests. The FSC is not affiliated with any government, is a nonprofit organization, and certification is entirely voluntary.

For more info on these and literally hundreds more eco-labels, see these links:

Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices Eco-Label page

The Global Ecolabel Index

Inhabititat’s Eco Labels 101

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock

Part of being an environmentally- conscious consumer is knowing where, and from whom, we source our products.  This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with Kevin Stasi, the sales manager of Ivy Coatings — one of Green Depot’s suppliers that produces low- and VOC-free paints.  As we’ve written about before, “new paint smell” is actually the odor of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) offgassing into the air we breathe.  VOCs can cause headaches and nausea, damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system, and some are known to be carcinogenic.  For these and other reasons, we are glad to carry Ivy Coatings’ products and to have had the opportunity to speak with Kevin, who has been with Ivy Coatings since its very beginning.

Green Depot: To get started, we were wondering if you could tell us a little about Ivy Coatings – how you got started, and your outlook on the environmentally-friendly paints you supply.
Kevin Stasi: Well, Ivy Coatings has actually been around for a while – probably five to six years.  Three or four years ago we began targeting commercial and residential customers, rather than governmental and institutional customers, who were our initial focus.  From the very beginning, we were reaching out and searching for quality vendors, and as we’ve pushed out towards the mainstream – commercial and residential customers – we’ve continued searching for good partners.

GD: Was your goal when you began to produce specifically environmentally-friendly paints?
KS: When we began, our goal was to develop a good-quality paint first; then we focused on the VOC-free aspect of our product.  We thought this out from the beginning.  We didn’t want to rush to market with an inferior product, and to do the same thing as the big guys like Sherwin-Williams or Benjamin Moore – some of these companies have made improvements and produced elite VOC-free paints, but builders and designers complained that they were milky or chalky, and were using 30% more product to do the same job that standard paints would.  So we started out with quality in mind.

Some of these elite environmental paints, as well, weren’t “true” VOC-free.  They contained 30 to 60 grams of VOC per liter.  This wasn’t what the consumer was really looking for.

GD: So you began with quality in mind; when did you begin to think more about the VOC content of your product?
KS: Our product has gone through some adjustment.  When we were in a more institutional, rather than residential, phase, our product was good quality, so what we wanted to do was lower the VOC content and not lose any quality.  The concept was to make the product appeal to architects, designers, and builders and be able to say it was good quality, as well as VOC-free.

But we not only wanted to say it was good quality, but that the price point was also good for homeowners.  In the market, VOC-free paint can run up to forty, fifty, or sixty dollars per gallon.  This was not good for institutional builders, who have to buy in huge amounts.  For the customer, we wanted to be able to say that there would be no smell, and to wipe out the extra cost for VOC-free paint.  We want to be distinct as a marketing decision, but also communicate our core reasons for the brand: quality that you can feel good about, with no offgassing.

GD: What do you consider to be some of the main benefits of choosing VOC-free paints over standard ones?
KS: Well, there is no smell when it’s applied.  Of course, that’s very subjective and when you first open the can you might notice a slight odor.  But when I take our product to trade shows and open a can at the booth, 99% of people can’t smell anything.  When you apply the paint, though, there is no smell and you can’t even tell that the painters are painting.  You know first thing when painters are using standard paints – but not with Ivy, even when it is wet, and even during application.

A huge benefit is that because there is no smell, there is a quick return to occupancy.  A major drawback of standard paints, especially in commercial offices, is that people move out to avoid the fumes, and employees call out sick to avoid the odor.  Some people are very sensitive to that smell.  Ivy Coatings doesn’t have that.

GD: What do you consider the major environmental benefits of your paints?
KS: There’s a lot!  From the immediate sensitivity to the health benefits alone.  That’s for all VOC products.  Anything that offgasses, including furniture and carpets, people are inhaling.  This can lead to serious health conditions and even cancer.

Even if a paint stops smelling, they continue to offgas for years.  So now, the office or even home, with a carpet, furniture, becomes a mixture or soup of offgassing.  We always push to be as clean as possible.  Knowing that the space you’re working in is healthy and is a properly-ventilated space can increase productivity, even in the home.

GD: You mentioned earlier that you want your product to be accessible to the mainstream.  What’s your approach to that?
KS: Over the last five years, costs between standard and green products has begun to shrink.  Ivy tries to make that gap as small as possible, but the gap has decreased across the board, especially for construction materials which are about the same now.  Seven years ago, the emphasis for construction materials was on recycled materials, but then we realized being environmentally-conscious went beyond that to health – so new features, like daylighting and toxin-free products allow owners to lease at higher rates, to rent at higher rates, and to rent out fast.  Customers see that by going green, their energy savings can be 20-30% less than standard.  People are looking at their buildings, and seeing that financially, going green can help people save money, and that is what really is compelling.

GD: Thanks a lot for the opportunity to speak with you!

Ivy Coatings produces a full line of low-VOC and VOC-free paints.  They showcase their products at Green Depot’s flagship store, at 222 Bowery in New York, NY.

In our series on passive houses this week, we’ve discussed the merits of saving energy by using condensing driers, of tightly insulating homes to achieve super-efficient energy standards, and we’ve talked about the general merits of building a passive house.  One of the things we’re also interested in are examples of passive buildings – of homes built in the U.S., as well as passive homes, schools, and office buildings built around the world.

As the New York Times reports, there are currently 25,000 passive house-certified buildings in Europe.  In the U.S., however, there are only 13.  While passive design in Europe is well-established – tested by time, certainly (the first homes were built in 1990) – the standard has taken longer to catch on the in United States.  Materials rated efficient enough for the standard are more difficult to find here, and designers who are certified in, and understand well, the criteria are few and far between.

This is not to say, however, that people in the United States haven’t risen to meet the challenge of passive house construction.  Our mention of the Habitat for Humanity home proves as much.  The Times article on the Landau home does, as well.

image courtest of root design build

One of the first homes in the U.S. built to the standard was Shift House, in Portland, Oregon.  As the Williamette Week wrote last year, the Shift House was designed not only to meet the stringent standards of Passive House certification, but was also deliberately designed to be highly aesthetically-appealing.   Another unique aspect of the Shift House was its use of an 8-inch-thick structural insulated panel, or SIP, that acts as the primary pressure envelope for the house.  Even other passive houses in the U.S. don’t utilize this technology or this emphasis on design – proving that even for architects and contractors, there are a variety of materials and techniques available to build passive homes.  Green Depot offers some of those materials in the green building materials department.

While in the U.S. we might only have 13 existing structures, in 1997 there were only ten passive houses in existence in Germany, where the standard was first invented.  The current record of 25,000 European passive buildings then represents an enormous and astonishing leap forward.  But in Europe, it is not only residential houses that have been built to the passive standard.

neue burse residential hall. image courtesy passiv haus institut.

Case in point: the Neue Burse residence hall, or dormitory, located at the University of Wuppertal in Wuppertal, Germany.  The building, which was originally constructed in 1977, was deemed to be a massive energy sink that required significant amounts of energy to keep in operation.  It was decided to refurbish and retrofit the building to passive standards.  Construction was completed in 2003, and represents the largest residential building in Germany to comply with the passive house standard.

social housing in kassel marbachshoehe. image courtesy of passiv haus institut.

In Kassel-Marbachshohe, city officials undertook the ambitious project of ensuring that their next public housing development meet the passive standard.  While building specific-user residential homes on empty lots provides the architect with a significant degree of free in designing a home for energy efficiency, designing in tight urban spaces offers new challenges.  Despite this, however, 40 residential units in a multi-story complex were constructed using public funds, and the building was able to meet an 82% increase in energy efficiency over conventional construction (page in German).

office building sportplatzweg. image courtesy hermann-kaufmann architects.

In 1999, the German architecture firm Hermann-Kaufmann designed an architectural office space to passive standards (page in German).  As described on their project page, the building experiments with new materials: the staircase is covered with fabric, and the base of the building is covered with painted oriented strand board (OSB).  The Office Building Sportplatzweg, situated on an open expanse, is a brilliant example of how architectural design can be both ecologically-sound and blend beautifully with the surrounding landscape.

While these buildings do provide valuable examples of the tried-and-true design philosophy of passive house criteria, it is still somewhat disheartening that only thirteen examples exist in the United States.  Consider, though, that presently 160 architects have been trained as passive-house designers, and that that number is expected to rise to 300 by the end of the year, and the picture looks less bleak.

The more awareness that is made of this certification system, and the more the government begins providing tax rebate incentives for passive house construction (in the same way the government already does for LEED or Energy Star construction), the brighter the future of truly energy-efficient passive buildings in the U.S. looks.

Visit Green Depot to get more ideas on building materials and green products to make your home more environmentally-friendly.