by flickr user caveman_92223

When we think of where our energy comes from, we more often than not envision the billowing smokestacks of a coal plant.  It’s true that coal is a major source of energy for most Americans, accounting for over 50% of our energy production according to the Department of Energy, but it’s also important to remember that it is not our only source of energy.

Take, for instance, the massive proliferation of wind power over the last few years.  In 2008, new wind projects accounted for 42% of new power-producing capacity for the United States, and an additional 10,000MW of new capacity were brought online in 2009.  According to the American Wind Energy Association, this sets the U.S. on track to produce 20% of our electricity from wind by 2030,

Wind power accounts for nearly 2% of the electricity produced in the United States, but represents a power source that is considered more-or-less environmentally-friendly.  Wind turbines, after production and installation, do not necessitate the use of fossil fuels to produce energy.  The attributable benefits are substantial – the wind power fleet in the U.S. avoids an estimated 62 million tons of carbon dioxide annually – an equivalent of taking 10.5 millions cars off the road and conserves 20 billion gallons of water annually otherwise slated for cooling or steam production in fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants.

Compared to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, wind power is indeed an environmentally-option, but is beset by some other challenges.  One of the foremost is local opposition to the aesthetic appearance of a wind farm on agricultural or ocean landscapes (notoriously, construction on the Cape Wind Project was delayed for years for this reason).  There have been accusations that wind farms disrupt migratory bird patterns, and that windmills produce low-level vibrations and noise (a claim which has yet to be scientifically verified).

Still, the future of wind looks bright – the DoE’s Wind and Water Power Program notes the proliferation of small scale and distributed wind turbines, large-scale offshore wind projects, and 20% targets for wind production by 2030.  Weaning ourselves off of fossil-fuel consumption can only mean good things for the state of the planet.

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The building at 222 Bowery, in Manhattan, was built by the YMCA in 1885 to be its Young Men’s Institute. But over the decades on the way to its current LEED Platinum status as the headquarters and flagship retail store of Green Depot,  it has been everything from a Buddhist meditation center to the home of William S. Burroughs–and most recently, a restaurant furniture supplier. Architects Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena of Mapos, LLC saw value and beauty in the building’s past lives, and sought to preserve elements of them for its current incarnation. In the process, they not only created a unique and dynamic environment for the company’s operations and sales, but managed to preserve and recycle resources (and help us continue preserving them) like the green design champs they’re known to be.

To coincide with an article in the current issue of GreenSource magazine about their work on the project, we took a moment to speak with them about their involvement in green building and what they’re excited about for the future.

Green Depot: Were you guys involved in green architecture and design before you got the Green Depot commission?
Colin Brice: Yes, we were. We didn’t and still don’t really market ourselves as “green architects” per se, but sustainability has always been a big part of what we do and how we work—it’s who we are. In terms of marketing, we focus more on the attention we pay to how we work to understand our clients’ values and design with them in mind—the green part is in the second paragraph, if you will. But it’s always been a fundamental part of our design process.

GD: Do you guys follow what’s going on in the green building movement in general, or do you pretty much stick to your own inspiration?
CB: We definitely keep up what else is going on. We take classes, go to lectures, participate in forums, even teach classes and give lectures ourselves sometimes. We try to play a really active role in the green building community.

GD: What are you most excited about, as architects, with regards to green building? Is there a kind of green building product or philosophy that you see really catching on among your clients and other architects?
CB: I’d say what we’re most excited about is the growing awareness among building owners that green building and design are things that they can do; that they can afford. And one of the things we find really interesting is the growing understanding among business owners that going green is about more than just building materials and green products—that their business practices and maintenance habits are just as important, if not more so, than their construction techniques. For example, it only does so much good to use all-green building materials if you have your air conditioning cranked all the way up with the windows open all the time. Things like that are only just starting to become part of the general consciousness, but they definitely are becoming so—and it’s nice to see. Even the LEED criteria are being updated all the time to reflect more of that way of thinking, and it’s great.

Another thing we’re excited about is that the more fundamental principles of green building, which start before the materials are even considered, are becoming understood by the general public—like the importance of repurposing existing buildings instead of building new ones, choosing the best orientation for the majority of the windows, and making the best use of prevailing breezes. Something like 75% of green design, in terms of energy conservation, can be handled at that level if you start there—and considering those things doesn’t even necessarily involve any more expense than not considering them. Then choosing energy-efficient materials and power and ventilation systems make up only the other 25%.

GD: Are you working on any green projects at the moment that you’re really excited about?
CB: We actually have two—one is a residence in upstate New York that is probably the greenest project we’ve ever done. The owners aren’t applying for LEED certification, but they’d certainly get it if they did—they’re going all out, starting with things as basic as the orientation of the house, like I was just talking about. But on top of that they’re installing geothermal heating and cooling, radiant-heat flooring, sun shading for the massive windows, and lot of recycled materials. It’s really an amazing project, incorporating a lot of passive house principles.

Then we’re also working on a new office for a big internet company, and recycling is playing a huge role in the design process for that project. The previous tenant left everything—all the cubicles, chairs, lighting—and we’re taking it apart to reassemble it as new furnishings and new lighting. We’re actually calling the part of the project that’s usually called demolition “disassembly” instead, for there are very few dumpsters involved. And a fun part of that project is that we’ve developed a new working process to help keep the employees involved in the design process. As a company, they place a huge emphasis on their identity as a community and preserving their sense of that. As architects, we feel it’s important to be able to tap into a community’s values and create environments that support its goals. So we’ve been meeting with this client throughout the process and have come up with games they can play to help them figure out what they as a group want for their office, and they’re really enjoying it.

GD: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Colin. We look forward to seeing some of your future work!

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flickr user wisemandarine

beautiful black compost!

Composting is a stupendous way to make a significant environmental impact.  Here in New York City, roughly 30% of all material carted off to the dump is compostable vegetable material.  When an organic compound, like food waste, decomposes in an oxygen-free environment (say, buried under tons of garbage and soil), it undergoes enteric fermentation, the byproduct of which is methane.  Methane is an extraordinarily powerful greenhouse gas – about 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

For that reason, as well as the reduction in GHG emissions related to carting off extra waste, composting at home can have a significant environmental benefit.  People are wary of composting in the city – in a small apartment there are fears of odor or of attracting pests – but a properly-managed compost bin can avoid all of these problems.  Here are a few tips for healthy compost management.

1. Always think Greens and Browns.  Greens are fresh, moist, nitrogen-rich materials like fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds and tea bags.  Browns are dead, dry, carbon-rich materials like dry leaves, potting soil, egg shells, bread, grains, nutshells, paper towels and napkins, and shredded newspaper.  Having equal parts greens and browns is essential to a healthy compost pile – without enough browns, the pile will develop a bad odor.  Without enough greens, the pile will stagnate.

2. Layer! A healthy compost pile is like a lasagna – always have a layer of greens buried by a layer of browns.  This ensures that decomposition will proceed at a timely rate, avoiding all odor or pests.

3. Choose the Right Bin. There are any number of different bins for different purposes – for backyard composting, for composting in the kitchen, or even on a fire escape or landing.  Some green product compost bins, like the RSVP Compost Pail, only hold foodstuff in your kitchen to later be transferred to a composting system.  Some have odor filters.  The most advanced compost bins, like the NatureMill Plus edition, are electric composters that keep the food scraps heated to significantly speed up the composting process.

4. Don’t Put in Non-Compostables! Meat and fish scraps, cheese and dairy products, fats and grease, and animal feces don’t compost well and will almost certainly attract awful smells and bad pest infestations.  Avoid these!  Also remember that recyclable materials – glass, metal, or plastics, are not compostable.

5. Troubleshoot! The way your compost bin smells or acts can indicate various problems.

  • Rotten-egg odor means your bin is too wet – make sure to turn the pile and add browns.
  • An ammonia odor means there is too much green, nitrogen-rich material.  Slow decomposition means there is a lack of air, moisture, or an improper balance of green and brown.
  • A low pile temperature (decomposition naturally produces heat!) indicates that the pile is too small, there is insufficient moisture, poor aeration, a lack of nitrogen, or that there is weather is cold – a problem remedied by insulating with straw or increasing pile size.
  • A high pile temperature means the pile is too large, or isn’t being aerated enough.
  • Pests arrive when there are wrong materials in the pile, greens are not fully covered by browns, or the bin isn’t rodent-resistant.

a slew of options are available for the home compost enthusiast

Green Depot carries multiple bins and buckets, and other green products to help you start composting at home.  For larger, more ambitious outdoor bins remember to take a look at the sustainably-harvested lumber we carry.

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Buying Local: Why Bother?

October 7th, 2010 | Posted by cramcharran in Environment - (0 Comments)

Everywhere we go these days, we see signs admonishing us to buy local. But why? Sure, it’s kind of old-timey cozy to buy from your local farmer every now and then, if you have access to one. And maybe the owners of that hardware store down the street are nice, so you like to give them business. Sometimes. But at the end of the day, Home Depot has way better prices, and so does Trader Joe’s, and they have everything you want in one place. And we’re in the middle of a recession, after all–so why bother with this local stuff? What’s in it for you?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. The reasons for buying local produce alone could fill a whole book (and have filled several), starting with the fact that local food is fresher, since it spends way less time on its way to your table than food from faraway places does. Not to mention that buying local produce usually supports small-scale farmers, who are more likely to farm sustainably (saving the environment while also providing you with healthier food) than industrial food production plants.

But there are benefits to buying much more than just food locally. For one, buying anything made and sold in your area stimulates your local economy by keeping your money circulating within it longer. If you buy from your local hardware store, for example, increasing their revenue, they are able to employ more local people—creating more jobs in your immediate area (jobs that you and people you know might need). And it’s worth noting here that at the time of this blog post, most new jobs are being created by smaller, local—not global—businesses.

Then there’s the reduced environmental impact: Buying something that was made near you from a shop near you saves the energy that would have gone into transporting it from, say, China to Amazon.com and then across the country from Amazon’s warehouse to your house. This is why the question of where a product is made is such a big part of Green Depot’s green filter, which the company uses to determine what items truly qualify as green products. Our green filter also looks at how socially responsible a company is, whether it protects our air quality and the environment and whether it conserves energy and natural resources. The green filter as it’s applied to our online shop is generally oriented to the New York area, where the company is based. But each Green Depot location carries a wide range of products local to its own area, and it’s easy to find locally sourced goods in your own area—a good rule of thumb is to avoid big-box stores and nationwide chains, stick to smaller shops, and look carefully at packages to see where the things you buy regularly are made.

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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

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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.

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