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.

Are you one of the millions of Americans trying to make your dollars stretch by taking a “staycation” this summer?  Hanging around the house can be a good thing. You get to tackle projects you don’t have time to get to during the year, and you can invite friends over who you never see—even though they’re local.  You invested in all that patio furniture, in your deck, in your barbeque—so show it off by making a nice dinner for friends and serving it outside in the backyard.

We’ve got a couple of recommendations for green products that’ll help you entertain in style, without sacrificing your environmental values.

Soji Solar Lantern

Light up the evening with the Soji Modern Solar Lantern. These elegant lanterns have a solar panel that collects sunlight during the day, stores it in a rechargeable AAA battery,  and then lights up the night with very efficient LED lights. They’re portable and freestanding–they don’t require extension cords running across the grass into the house or garage! Comes on automatically at dusk unless you turn it off.  They’re made from hard plastic, so they’re durable, and they’re pretty affordable, too.

Wasara plates

Whether you’re serving chili, grilled vegetables, burgers and chicken, or old fashioned corn on the cob, make your clean-up job easier by using these cool disposables. Nope, they’re not paper or plastic. Wasara plates, bowls, and cups are made from 100% tree-free rapidly-renewable materials: sugar cane fiber (bagasse), bamboo, and reed pulp. They’re much more elegant than anything you’ll find in your local supermarket, and they fit comfortably in hand.  Strong, oil- and water-resistant, good for hot and cold foods, and best of all: fully compostable. Available in multiple sizes and types.

Fair trade napkins

Use cloth napkins as an alternative to throw-away paper. These fair trade, 100% organic cotton napkins are hand woven by rural women in Guatemala using centuries-old techniques and looms. Income from weaving helps support their families and maintains ancient cultural practices. After the party, just throw them in the laundry with your colors.

Woolly Pockets "Island" planter

Finally, bag spending money at the florist, and consider this cool alternative “plant in a bag” for your table centerpiece: Woolly Pockets Freestanding Islands. They’re made of 100% post consumer recycled plastic felt, and they’re lined so they won’t leak all over a nice table. Fill them with lush plants during the summer, and bring them indoors in the fall to enjoy year-round. Made in New York by a very cool company.

NatureMill composter

When the party’s over, remember to compost your leftover food! Corn cobs, soggy salad, watermelon rinds, and stale buns can all be enjoyed by worms or bacteria and fungi.  Check out the Worm Factory, and the NatureMill composter that fits under the counter in your kitchen. And several months later, you’ll have an excellent, nutrient-packed soil amendment to use in your garden outdoors, or on your houseplants.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

The dog days of summer are upon us, and many of us are sweltering in the heat. If you live in a big city, you may feel worse than your country cousin due to the “urban heat island effect”. In an urban heat island, temperatures may be 6-8ºF warmer than surrounding rural areas, fields, or woodlands.  Urban heat islands are caused by a combination of factors:

  • Loss of vegetation that shades buildings and cools the air through evapotranspiration
  • Hard surfaces (buildings, streets, and parking lots) that absorb solar radiation and radiate it back to the air/atmosphere
  • Waste heat from electrical use, water heating, car & truck exhaust, and other thermal and mechanical sources

The temperature differentials are worse at night, when hard surfaces like asphalt pavement, brick, and concrete radiate the heat they absorbed during the day back into the air. Calm air also makes it worse.

The urban heat island effect causes a number of problems. It exacerbates normal summer discomfort for everyone—causing people to crank up the air conditioner (and yes, generate more waste heat), and it makes elderly or sick people more susceptible to problems brought on by heat waves. It’s tough, and sometimes dangerous, for athletes and for those who work outdoors–such as construction workers, roofers, police officers and highway workers. Higher temperatures also increase smog formation, which boosts health risks to the elderly, children, asthmatics, allergy sufferers, and those with respiratory problems. Finally, stormwater runoff from paved urban areas causes excess warming in creeks and lakes, which can damage ecology in those environments.

There are a number of green building materials and practices that urban individuals and organizations can use to mitigate or reduce the heat island effect:

Plant trees. In summer, they create shade which reduces air conditioning loads on a building, and in winter, they shield buildings from wind and unwanted heat loss. They also produce oxygen, and create bird & animal habitat.

Green roof with walking path

Install green roofs and walls. These are vegetated, carefully engineered surfaces that support plant life, and keep the building cool. They provide other benefits, too, including improved drainage (protects underlying roof and reduces stormwater runoff), recreation for employees or occupants, and even herb or vegetable growth. Green roofs also improve air quality because plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, and filter out other contaminants. Although green roofs may cost $10-$15/sf more than traditional roofs, these costs are offset by energy savings, longer roof life and reduced maintenance costs, and by various grants and tax incentives.

GAF green roof system, showing drainage mat & moisture barrier

Green Roofs have enjoyed increasing popularity in Europe over the last decade, with government incentives stimulating a multi-million dollar industry.  North American planners, builders and consumers are also beginning to consider green roofs for malls, schools, hospitals, and homes. In New York State, green roofs have been installed at the Bronx Zoo, Cornell University, Pace University, the Bronx County Courthouse, and at Rockefeller Center Roof Gardens.

White roof coated with Bulldog Durex.

Install a white roof to increase reflectivity (albedo), so that solar radiation is not absorbed by your roof to be re-radiated later. For flat roofs, Green Depot recommends Bulldog Durex Elastomeric White Roof Coating.  It’s a flexible, mildew- and UV-resistant waterborne roofing topcoat made with 100% acrylic resins. It reflects heat from the roof surface: lowering cooling costs, and extending the life of roof membranes and surfaces. It can be used over a variety of existing roof surfaces, including metal, asphalt, masonry, and EPDM.

To learn more, visit Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s Urban Heat Island site, or the independent site Urban Heat Islands, or the US EPA’s site on the Heat Island Effect.

After three nail-biting months, it looks like the BP oil spill in the Gulf is finally being sealed. This week, drilling engineers are expected to complete the “bottom kill” relief well linked to the main well that had been capped and plugged on July 15th. A combination of mud and cement will be pumped into the well to plug it permanently. Since the oil spill began, an estimated 190 milllion gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Solar ad campaign from 1BOG

In a post on July 12th, before the successful capping, I described the spill in Prius-mile equivalencies: how many hybrid car-miles could have been driven with the lost oil, and  I said that if 1 million Americans bought hybrid cars in the next year, they could save 270 million gallons of oil–three times more than what had been spilled to date.

The solar dealer 1bog (One Block Off the Grid) has done something similar—but with better graphics—describing the oil spill in solar panel equivalencies.  In one scenario, they take the area affected by the spill (roughly the size of Kansas) and calculate how much power could be generated by a Kansas-sized block of solar photovoltaic panels. They estimate that all the electricity needs of the United States, Central America, and South America could be met by such a vast array: for 25 years. (Why not indefinitely–as one commenter asked? Because after 25-30 years the panels lose efficiency and should be replaced). In another scenario, they point out that the spill has cost BP $32 billion to clean up, an amount, they say, that had it been spent on solar panels instead, could have provided enough electricity for all of Los Angeles County for 30 years.

So it’s clear from these whimsical yet hard-hitting ads that solar can indeed pack a punch if enough is invested in it, displacing significant amounts of electricity generated on the fossil fuel-based grid.

Solar array at Hancock Shaker Village

In my neck of the woods, the Hancock Shaker Village recently installed a photovoltaic array on and adjacent to its visitor center, supplying the museum and grounds with 66% of their power needs.

Residences can do the same thing. With prices for photovoltaic panels steadily dropping, they’re more affordable than ever. The federal government offers a 30% tax rebate (with no cap) for solar installations, and most states have their own tax incentives. You can find your state on the DSIRE website database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

Residential PV array by Radiant Complete

In the tri-state area, Green Depot recommends Radiant Complete for residential and commercial solar jobs. Their strengths are in evaluating a project to determine what the clients’ specific goals are (hot water, electricity, or space heating, for example), and the site’s physical parameters (trees and other shading, roof area and angles, building orientation, etc). Then they custom-design a combination of renewable options to fit your needs and budget, and manage the installation using highly skilled professionals.

SolarStar Attic Fan

If you want to cool your house on the cheap and preserve the integrity of your roof shingles and insulation,

Solio Charger

check out the SolarStar Attic Fan. Running on the sun alone (not hardwired into your house), it vents hot air from your attic, keeping the space cooler: preventing destructive ice dams on your roof in winter, and saving you money on air conditioning in the summer.

If you’re a student or a renter on a low budget, there are more green products than ever before on the market. The Solio charger has 3 mini PV panels that allow you to capture and store solar power so you can recharge your cell, iPod and other handheld devices anywhere the sun shines.

Verilux Flashlight

Tired of replacing batteries for your flashlight? You’ll never have to again with the rechargeable, solar-powered Verilux flashlight. Comes with 6 bright LED lights, and casts a wide beam.

So: big or small, there has never been a better time to look at how solar might fit into your life.

Somehow it got to be August, and we’re thinking Back to School.  How many of us realize that our children have become the unwitting generators of a huge amount of garbage?

According to Waste Free Lunches, the “average school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school.”

With that in mind, Green Depot has just brought in an assortment of lunch storage ideas that will turn the disposable paper sack and the ubiquitous sandwich bag on their heads. These green products are much cooler than the vinyl lunch boxes you pick up every year at Wal-Mart. The ones that are hard to clean and smelly.

Say goodbye to endless plastic sandwich bags!

Fresh Snack Pack

The Fresh Snack Pak is what I bought my two daughters last spring, and they’re holding up really well.  You can put a sandwich in it, or get more than one for chips, fruit slices, etc. They look like a little envelope (folds flat when empty), and are made from EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) plastic. They contain no PVC (poluyvinyl chloride), BPA (bisphenol A), or lead.  Just wipe clean with a sponge, or handwash when you’re doing the dishes, and drip dry.

Fluf Lunch Bags

Fluf reusable lunch bags are another cool option. Shaped a bit more like the traditional brown paper bag, the Fluf comes in a few different styles suitable for kids…or just plain Suits. The body is 100% certified organic, pre-shrunk cotton, and the liner is made with phthlate-free vinyl (EVA). It’s removeable, too, for easy washing. A snap closure is easy for little hands to use.

Snack Bag

The handmade reusable snack bag costs next to nothing, and is embroidered with all sorts of whimsical creatures—from chubby little mice to robots.  The outer shell is 100% unbleached cotton; the inner liner is water and stain-resistant nylon. A velcro closure keeps you from…losing your lunch.

Now, for something old and new. The Stainless Steel Tiffin Food Carrier is a sleek, round metal lunch box that’s been used in Asia for years to take food to school or work. New to the States, it’s constructed of food-grade stainless steel, and has sturdy side closures that snap down to keep the lid firmly in place. Each of the two compartments can be heated separately, or refrigerated.

Tiffin Stainless Steel

If you’re sending them to school with pasta salad or last night’s yummy leftovers, the little brats will need something to eat it with. Try these super hardy MicroBites Mini-Utensils. You can use ‘em backpacking, too.

Microbites

You can learn much more on Waste Free Lunches. It’s an an excellent website chock full of tips on how to reduce the amount of trash generated by our kids’ school lunches. Has tips adults can use, too, and even healthy food suggestions.

Using reusables instead of disposables is good for our wallets as parents, and it’s a good way to instill an environmental ethic in our kids.

5 Must-Know A/E Lessons in Green BuildingGreen Depot has been chosen as one of five case studies in green building design in a book by Zweigwhite, a trade publisher catering to architects and engineers. The book, “5 Must-Know A/E Lessons in Green Building,” will be available shortly. It discusses why green building has become the norm, what the challenges are in green building, how various rating and certification systems work, and what the future for green building is globally.

The chapter on Green Depot interviews founder Sarah Beatty on her goals for the company’s flagship store.  “Retrofits are a smarter way to use what’s already there,” Beatty is quoted as saying in reference to the historic landmark building at 222 Bowery in Manhattan.  “In an urban space, it’s about history and the fabric of a culture. We wanted to honor what was there, protect its uniqueness, and become the next chapter in the building’s history in an inspiring way.”

Green Depot at 222 Bowery, Manhattan

Project architect Caleb Mulvena of Mapos, LLC is also interviewed.  “[Green Depot] was really the perfect client for a green project because they provide green building products. It made our job a little bit easier, and it also made for a unique project. Because they were providing all of the building products for the project, the team dynamics and the bidding process were a little different.” Mulvena is also quoted explaining that building green used to cost about 25% more than a conventional building, but is now only 5-10% above the mainstream average cost, depending on the products and systems chosen.

The green products chosen for the Bowery store are primarily products that the store sells to commercial and residential customers. Many can be found in the Building Materials section of Green Depot’s e-commerce site.

The general contractor for the project, Chris Yeates of New York Connecticut Development Corporation (NYCT) describes how his own company was changed by the challenge of working with Green Depot.

“[The] project was our first LEED project,” he says. Prior to working on 222 Bowery, they junked everything they tore down in a building.  “For debris removal, we threw everything in one big container, and we searched for the best possible price for getting rid of construction debris.  …Now [we] separate it and find avenues to get rid of debris. We do that on our own but we’ve also seen more of a request from owners. We separate, we recycle, we get things to more responsible landfills, and we reuse as much as we possibly can.”

You can purchase “5 Must-Know A/E Lessons in Green Building “ here.