Making it Easier to be Green
Green design includes energy conservation, but that's not what it's all about. It's about having good air quality both indoors and outdoors, making the environments in which we work, live, study and play healthier and more comfortable and conserving all of our natural resources.
This site will provide a balanced, holistic view that includes advice about saving energy, water and other natural resources, improving indoor air quality, using environmentally responsible design and construction techniques and minimizing waste.

I will be focusing on interiors for three reasons:

  • We spend about 90% of our time indoors.
  • Buildings in the United States annually consume about 30% of our total energy and 75% of our electricity.
  • As a New York State Certified Interior Designer and a LEED Accredited Professional, I want to share my knowledge and expertise with you.
Sustainable design and construction can be done in many different styles and using a wide variety of materials. There are examples of healthy, sustainable, comfortable and inviting interiors for commercial, not-for-profit and residential clients on the web site for Interior Design Solutions.
You can use the labels on the sidebar to locate entries that you want to read. For instance, most people might want to look at the entries for "Green Homes," but "Green Finance" would be of more interest to professionals involved in the design, construction, management, financing and marketing of buildings.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

VOCs? Fuggedaboutit!!! Let's Focus on the Biggest Threats

It's actually no laughing matter. It's a good idea to know exactly what's in something before we take it home, even if the item does have some legitimately green characteristics.
For instance, most people think of bamboo products as sustainable, because using them can save trees. But many items made with bamboo contain urea-formaldehyde, which has been associated with an increased risk of cancer. The most common sources of urea-formaldehyde in construction are composite wood products, such as the plywood and fiberboard from which many cabinets are made.
Another material that is commonly used in construction, but would be better avoided, is vinyl. Manufacturing and disposing of vinyl creates dioxin, a persistent bioaccumulative toxin that has been linked to cancer, birth defects and impaired childhood development. Vinyl contains phthalates, which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and autism. Unlike VOCs, which are mainly problematic during and shortly after construction, phthalates are released throughout the life of the product.
The Healthy Building Network and Health Care Without Harm have a lot more information on this subject.
Health Care Without Harm
Healthy Building Network

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I'm from the Government, and I'm Here to Help You - DSIRE

It can be quite challenging to wend one's way through the complex maze of incentives available for energy efficiency. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) offers a comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility and federal incentives and policies that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. The DSIRE site features a map similar to the one above, and clicking on a state leads you to a wealth of information about both incentives and regulations for energy efficiency.

Taming the 800 Pound Gorilla - Addressing Financial Barriers to Sustainable Design

I just returned from NeoCon, where I delivered a presentation aimed at overcoming financial and psychological barriers to sustainable design.

Perhaps the most important concept that I introduced was that it can be difficult to convince business executives of the benefits of sustainable design and construction using studies conducted by those who have something to gain by furthering the adoption of green practices.

Fortunately, there is independent corroboration of the benefits of green building. For instance, a 2008 GSA study of twelve green buildings had strikingly similar results in terms of saving energy, water and other natural resources as well as occupant satisfaction to those of USGBC studies. And the CoStar Group, the leading source of data on commercial real estate in the world, has published studies showing that green buildings have higher occupancy rates and command higher rents than comparable non-green properties.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Green Washing and Green Roofs

The photograph is of a corner of one of the most well-known green roofs in the country, on Chicago's City Hall. It cost $2.5 million in 2001 and generates energy savings of approximately $5,000 per year. If the purpose of installing this green roof had been to save money on air conditioning the building (which it was not) the ROI would be pretty pitiful

It would be great if most buildings in large cities had green or white roofs, because it would make the outdoor air cooler in the summer. Green roofs can help reduce the amount of raw sewage that is dumped into our rivers when it rains. And greenery in any form improves air quality

I hate to sound like the eco-police, but I'm feeling cranky because I just sat through yet another presentation in which the benefits of green roofs have been grossly exaggerated. The owner of a company that specializes in green roofs said "I can save you 60% on your air conditioning bill." Such a claim is misleading, especially when made to an audience in midtown Manhattan, because most of the buildings are tall and have roofs that are relatively small in relation to the total floor space beneath them.

Studies have shown an average reduction in thermal load on a large building that installs a green roof of 10% - 15%, about the same as the savings realized from installing a (much less expensive) white roof. And studies also have shown that green roofs reduce the air conditioning load only for the top floor of a building and the floor immediately below it. Which means that a green roof is most effective in reducing air conditioning bills for a low building with a relatively large footprint.

I believe that exaggerating the potential pay-back that can be achieved through energy savings is a form of green-washing and could undermine the credibility not only of the individual making such claims but of the industry as a whole.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why You Can't Afford to Not Go Green

I was very surprised last evening when a group of highly successful developers were asked about their plans for going green, and each of them mentioned cost as a barrier for doing so. I realize that sometimes environmentally preferable choices have higher initial costs, and that access to capital is tight. But these were developers who usually operated their properties, rather than selling them, which meant that their own bottom lines could benefit from energy and water efficiency. And more importantly, there are considerable risks associated with not going green. It's not just that operating costs can affect a building's value, it's also that when you "economize" by eliminating more sustainable choices you might run afoul of the law.

Local, state and federal officials are taking steps to require energy and water efficiency, and regulations are becoming increasingly strict. And no one seems focused on the fact that while incentives are often available for efficiency levels that exceed legal requirements, you cannot get a payment or a tax break reward for simply obeying the law.

U.S. Green Building Council recently released Top 10 lists of green building legislation in the House and Senate. That's nineteen bills in addition to The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was signed into law about a year ago. Twenty Federal bills, and who knows how many state and local bills, seem a very strong indication that "going green" is not really optional. Many of the bills do involve incentives, but often those who cannot be persuaded by a carrot do wind up on the wrong end of a stick. The USGBC "Top Ten" include:

House Legislation

Senate Legislation

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sustainable Interior Design --- Making Healthier Choices

The mantra of green design is "People, Planet, Profit." Personally, I don't think that there is any contest as to which of these is most important. While we do need to preserve the planet for future generations, we cannot risk their health and well being in the process. And our extreme focus on certain areas of green design and determination to prove them cost-effective could lead to serious health problems for current and future generations. Because energy efficient buildings are by definition relatively air-tight any toxins, dust or mold that are brought into such buildings tend to stay there.

Sustainable interior design, architecture and construction done properly are holistic practices that protect the health of building occupants. But unfortunately one of the most important aspects of what responsible design professionals do can be value engineered out of a project by someone who is focused on short-term financial paybacks and unfamiliar with the potential serious risks, both to the physical health of building occupants and the long-term fiscal health of any organization that does not take the necessary steps to ensure healthy indoor environmental quality.

When I tell people that I specialize in sustainable interior design, I often get the impression that they think "bamboo," when in reality I'm much less focused on saving trees than protecting people. Preserving North American forests may be more closely monitored than preserving healthy indoor air quality. And many sources for bamboo introduce more toxins into the interiors in which we spend 90% of our time than hardwood products would.

Improved indoor air quality can help reduce asthma, flu, sick building syndrome, headaches and respiratory problems that can lead to missed time from work or school, chronic illness, and potential lawsuits. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has quite a bit of information on preserving indoor air quality and the potential risks of not doing so in this section of its site:

Indoor Air Quality - EPA

Every interior design project, whether it involves space planning and construction or just new carpet, furniture and/or a fresh coat of paint, can affect the health of building occupants. And poor choices on the part of individual tenants can disrupt the air quality in even a LEED Platinum building. So all things being equal, I recommend always working with a design professional with demonstrable expertise in improving indoor environmental quality.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The ABCs of LEED

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is the gold standard for green design and construction. It is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). USGBC certifies buildings as well as individual projects within existing buildings and accredits professionals like me. To achieve certification, a project must comply with all prerequisites and accrue a certain number of points. Depending upon the number of points accrued, a project may be rated as Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

There are a number of LEED rating systems, but the basic principles are the same. The versions of LEED that most people are likely to encounter are LEED for New Construction (LEED NC), LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED CI), and LEED for Homes. The system that I believe has the widest application is LEED CI, because that is the standard used for design and construction for spaces within existing buildings.

LEED guidelines for sustainable design and construction are divided into the following categories:

• Sustainable Sites

• Water Efficiency

• Energy & Atmosphere

• Materials & Resources

• Indoor Environmental Quality

• Innovation & Design Process

USGBC also recognizes the importance of how buildings are run. LEED for Existing Buildings - Operations and Maintenance (LEED EBOM) is the standard covering ongoing operations. Things like green cleaning, non-toxic pest control, and proper training of maintenance staff may not sound as sexy as sophisticated energy management systems, but they are equally important.

The best resource for more information about LEED is USGBC. The URL below has a basic overview.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The ABCs of LEED - Materials and Resources

One precept from the great minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe that applies beautifully to sustainable design is “Less is more.”  When those of us who specialize in green design use this phrase, we’re not referring to style, but to the use of materials and resources.  There are four basic precepts to conserving materials and resources, all of which begin with an R – recycle, reuse, regional, and renewable.

Storage and Collection of Recyclables

Recycling materials that can be reused is so important that the U.S. Green Building Council has made storage and collection of recyclables, including paper, corrugated cardboard, glass, plastic and metals a prerequisite in order for a building or an interior project to achieve LEED Certification.
Tenant Space, Long Term Commitment and Building Reuse  
In many cases, the greenest thing that you can do is to avoid or limit construction.  LEED recognizes this by encouraging people to find space that will serve their needs for a long time (and to commit to a long-term lease) and that needs relatively little reconfiguration (to limit the need for demolition and new construction).

Construction Waste Management, Resource Reuse, and
Resource Reuse – Furnishing, and Recycled Content

LEED encourages limiting the materials that wind up in landfill by salvaging or recycling construction, demolition and packaging debris. The standard encourages the reuse of building materials from the original building (for example, refurbishing and reusing existing hardware) or other buildings (for example, using paneling or beams from a resource specializing in architectural salvage).

LEED also awards points for reusing furniture that you already own and / or purchasing used furniture.

Recycling only works if the materials saved are then used.  It has become relatively easy to find high-quality attractive construction materials and furnishings with high recycled content. LEED awards more points for recycling post-consumer materials than industrial materials.

Regional Materials and
Regional Materials, Extracted and Manufactured Regionally

The further things travel, the more energy is used for transportation, so a project can earn LEED credit by using materials and furnishings that are manufactured locally, or better still, manufactured locally from materials extracted locally.

Rapidly Renewable Materials and Certified Wood

LEED encourages the use of rapidly renewable materials instead of those that take time to mature. Trees take a long time to grow, whereas bamboo can grow a foot a day and cork (which is the bark of cork trees) can be harvested every year without damaging the trees.  Wheat not only matures quickly, the material used in buildings can be a by-product of producing food.

While the United States and most of Europe have high standards for forest management, many other countries allow trees to be clear-cut.  Clear-cutting rapidly depletes a valuable natural resource and causes problems with erosion, floods, climate change and air quality.   A project can earn LEED credit if at least half of the new wood used is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Making 800 Pound Gorillas Less Intimidating

Some of the 800 pound gorillas that I've spoke on as standing in the way of sustainable practices now look much smaller and less intimidating. PACE bonds are a relatively new, exciting way to help cut the herd of gorillas standing between building owners and sustainable initiatives down to a manageable size. PACE, which stands for Property Assessed Clean Energy, is a mechanism whereby property owners can finance energy-efficient retrofits with low-cost, off-the-balance-sheet debt. Municipalities can set up funds to provide loans for energy efficiency improvements financed by issuing bonds.

Below is a list of some "gorillas" blocking sustainable initiatives and how PACE can help.

Gorilla # 1 - Focus on Short Term ROI
  • Many people are unwilling or unable to make capital investments in energy saving measures with a less than very short term return on investment, especially in challenging economic times such as these.
  • PACE loans provide an opportunity to finance capital improvements for energy efficiency directly through energy savings, over time.
Gorilla # 2 - Risk Aversion
  • Recessions make investors more risk-averse, so unsecured loans are increasingly hard to come by and mortgage holders are unwilling to approve anything that would increase the debt on buildings.
  • PACE bonds have minimal risk, since the underlying loans are repaid through property tax assessments. And because PACE loans show up on balance sheets as tax obligations, rather than debt, mortgage holders may not have to approve such loans.
Gorilla # 3 - What Happens When the Building is Sold?
  • Buyers may not be willing to pay substantial premiums to offset the cost of energy efficient improvements when buildings are sold.
  • PACE obligations remain with buildings when they are sold. Buyers do not need to pay a lump sum premium for the energy efficient measures. Although tax assessments may be higher than for comparable properties, they should be more than offset by lower energy costs.
Gorilla # 4 - Timing of Incentives
  • Tax breaks and incentives are often only available after the energy efficiency improvements are installed and operating. Short-term bridge loans for capital improvements can be hard to come by.
  • PACE loans can make funding available before capital improvements are undertaken.

The ABCs of LEED - Indoor Environmental Quality

Americans spend an average of 80% to 90% of their time indoors, where the level of pollutants can be from two to five times higher than it is outdoors.  By improving indoor air quality we can prevent building related illnesses, reduce absenteeism, improve employee productivity and students’ test scores and shorten hospital stays.

Minimum Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Performance

High performance buildings are relatively air-tight.  Since there is little or no outside air entering such buildings except by conscious design, it is extremely important to make sure that the ventilation system is working properly.  If there is not enough fresh air from outside passing through a building, the occupants can develop sick building syndrome or building related illness.  So a building that does not meet minimum requirements as defined by ASHRAE 62.1 will not be able to achieve LEED certification.

Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control

For a building to achieve LEED certification, smoking must either be prohibited throughout the building or the spaces in which smoking is permitted must be isolated so that smoke cannot migrate to other areas either naturally or through the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

Increased Ventilation and Outdoor Air-Delivery Monitoring

A plentiful supply of fresh air can improve occupant comfort and health.   Installing sensors and measuring devices helps ensure adequate ventilation while maintaining energy efficiency.

Construction IAQ Management Plan – During Construction

Construction management procedures can have a major impact on indoor air quality.  All HVAC equipment should be protected from dust and odors and all ducts should be sealed during construction.  Work areas should be isolated from the rest of the building and job sites should be kept clean.  Porous building materials should be protected from moisture and stored in a clean area.  New, highly efficient filters should be installed in HVAC equipment immediately prior to occupancy.

Construction IAQ Management – Before Occupancy

Even with the best construction management procedures, a certain amount of dust and toxins are often introduced into a newly-built or renovated space.  Air quality can be improved by performing a “flush out” procedure in which the building's ventilation system is used to eliminate contaminants and then air filters are changed again before occupancy.  If the air in a newly-constructed or renovated space can pass certain tests for indoor air quality, a “flush out” may not be necessary.

Low Emitting Materials

Most people are aware that the paint that we have been using for many years contains Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are potentially irritating or harmful to our health.  LEED criteria include limiting emissions of both VOCs and formaldehyde from a wide variety of sources.  A project can earn points by meeting standards for:
  • Low Emitting Materials – Adhesives and Sealants
  • Low Emitting Materials – Paints and Coatings
  • Low Emitting Materials – Carpet Systems
  • Low Emitting Materials – Composite Wood and Laminate Adhesives
  • Low Emitting Materials – Systems Furniture and Seating
Indoor Chemical and Pollutant Source Control

LEED encourages isolating sources of potentially hazardous materials, including those from copying, printing, housekeeping and laundry rooms.  LEED guidelines include construction techniques for isolating areas that house these materials   Using only green cleaning products can eliminate the need to isolate housekeeping areas.

Controllability of Systems – Lighting

Most people feel more comfortable if they can control the amount and position of light in their workspaces, so LEED encourages providing individuals with the ability to adjust lighting for their task needs and preferences.  Giving individuals control of their lighting can also save energy and money, since most people are comfortable using less overhead light (which often produces glare on computer screens) and using task lighting only for reading paper.

Controllability of Systems – Temperature and Ventilation

In the typical office building, the operations and maintenance staff regularly deal with complaints from some people who are too hot and others who are too cold.  LEED encourages giving control of the temperature and ventilation of individual spaces to the person(s) who occupy them.

Thermal Comfort – Compliance

Relatively few projects (and very few renovations in existing buildings) will include the installation of systems to allow individual control of temperature and ventilation, because such systems often have relatively long pay-back periods.  But every project can and should result in indoor temperatures that are comfortable for most people.

Thermal Comfort – Monitoring

Designing and building a system to provide comfortable indoor temperatures and adequate ventilation year-round while optimizing energy efficiency is difficult.  Such systems often need to be monitored and adjusted both shortly after installation and on an ongoing basis.  Monitoring can involve either the use of systems that automatically measure temperature and humidity and/or surveys of occupants.

Daylight and Views

People feel more comfortable and cheerful when they have a sense of connection to the outdoors.  So LEED strongly encourages designs that provide as many people as possible with access to daylight and views. LEED points are awarded based upon the percentage of occupants who have access to daylight and views.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The ABCs of LEED - Innovation and Design Process

New strategies for sustainable design and construction and innovative technology supporting sustainable building are rapidly developing.  And it seems as though improvements to existing construction methods and products are being announced every day.  The Innovation and Design Process category of LEED encourages innovation by giving credit for exceptional performance above the requirements for existing LEED categories and/or for innovations in sustainable performance not specifically addressed by LEED. (Innovation in Design)  In order to support sustainable design integration and to streamline the project certification process, LEED encourages having at least one principal participant who has passed the LEED Professional Accreditation Exam.  (LEED Accredited Professional)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Green Interior Design --- It's Nothing New

As one of relatively few interior designers who is also a LEED Accredited Professional, I regularly receive calls and emails from vendors claiming that their furniture is "green." Unfortunately, these claims are often only partially true, especially when it comes to home furnishings. For instance, a chest of drawers that is made of bamboo can contain added urea formaldehyde and glues and finishes that are relatively high in VOCs. While I am able to evaluate these claims, most people buying furniture (and, for that matter, most interior decorators) are not.

One of the best ways to "go green" with interior design is often overlooked. Design that stands the test of time eliminates the need to replace things, and even if the original owner's circumstances or desires change, classic furniture can always find another good home.

Antiques are particularly "green." since everything in them is being reused and they are very unlikely to off-gas harmful chemicals (glues, finishes, etc. only give off VOCs for a certain period of time, and even when antiques are refinished, the materials used are normally less toxic than the finishes in much new furniture). In the room above the bed and washstand are almost 200 years old, an old candlestick has been made into a lamp, and an antique silver creamer serves as a vase.

Although "organic" and "green" are not necessarily synonymous, natural materials often do have fewer harmful additives than artificial ones. The Wilton carpet in the room above is 100% wool, and while it might not be appropriate for someone with chemical sensitivities (since the fiber is dyed and probably moth-proofed), it is healthier for indoor air quality than synthetic carpet. The hand-embroidered sheets and pillow cases are made from very fine cotton, and with proper care could last for generations.

Furnishing our homes as prior generations did, with lovely things that can last more than one lifetime, can actually be more sustainable behavior than buying anything that claims to be "the latest and greatest in green design."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Who Dat Dat Saving My Green Intentions?

Going green definitely has its challenges, and it can be easy to get discouraged when others are less helpful than we'd hoped. But waiting for a hero to come along on a white charger to save the day is not a viable alternative.

It seems that a lot of people thought that President Obama could be that sort of hero, and are angry because he is not more like Dudley Doright. President Obama, in turn, seems confused that so many people are acting like Nell, who would just lie on the railroad tracks waiting for someone to save her.

Climate change and the threat that dependence on foreign oil represents to our economy and our national security are such large problems that they can make us all feel helpless, but if we each address areas of energy use that are within our control at least we'll be contributing to the solution instead of the problem.
  • Tenants can turn off lights and equipment when they are not needed. It goes without saying that lights and equipment should not be left on overnight or in unoccupied rooms. But we often turn on artificial lighting out of habit, rather than necessity, during the day for work spaces close enough to windows or skylights to perform most tasks with only natural light. The number of work areas that can benefit from daylight can be greatly increased with space planning and furniture placement.
  • Tenants can elect to purchase energy efficient lighting and equipment whenever a replacement is needed. New York City now requires that efficient lighting and controls be installed when lighting is replaced as part of a renovation project that is filed with the Department of Buildings, but tenants can take this a step further and make incremental improvements to lighting efficiency whenever the opportunity presents itself.
  • Building owners can install efficient equipment, lighting and lighting controls in common spaces and ensure that building systems are working as they should. The payback period for professional retrocommissioning and implementing many of the resulting recommendations can be less than a year.
  • While owners might wish to defer larger capital investments, they can ensure that when they do invest in major systems their choices are informed by the need for energy efficiency.
  • Building owners and tenants can work together for their common benefit. Green leases can provide for equitable distribution of costs based on energy usage and reimbursement for capital improvements that result in energy savings.
  • State, local and federal entities can facilitate funding for sustainable initiatives, especially for those who do not have access to attorneys and financial advisers. But funding should be viewed as a benefit of, not a prerequisite for, sustainable initiatives.
  • Banks can make energy efficiency an important component of the valuation of buildings, and be willing to loan money for building improvements that will increase asset value.
It appears that to find out "Who Dat dat saving my green intentions?" we should all be looking in the mirror. There are steps that we can each take to make things better, whether or not we get the cooperation and support that we would like from others. And if we're looking for a hero to help us to address these issues, Rocky the Squirrel might be better than Dudley Doright. Rocky, after all, is a creative problem solver who is always willing to tackle big challenges.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Who Dat Dat Foiling My Green Intentions?

Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough when it comes to going green. Sometimes it seems as though there are outside forces conspiring to prevent us from doing what we know is the right thing. It's particularly easy to find a villain when it comes to energy saving measures.
  • Tenants can blame their landlords, who won't make building improvements that could result in energy savings.
  • Building owners can blame their tenants, who use inefficient lighting and equipment in their individual spaces and then leave them turned on night.
  • Anyone undertaking a construction project can blame various state, local and federal entities for not making funding for sustainable initiatives easier.
  • Anyone who needs a loan can blame the banks, not only because loans for green initiatives are difficult to get, but because borrowing money for building improvements can trigger mortgage defaults.
  • The banks can blame the government, because allowing mortgagees to assume additional debt for a properties that are already worth less than when the mortgages were written could violate banking regulations.
  • The government can blame the financial institutions, who were largely responsible for the insane inflation and subsequent meltdown of the real estate market.
It appears that to find out "Who Dat dat foiling my green intentions?" we should all be looking in the mirror. There are steps that we can each take to make things better, whether or not we get the cooperation and support that we would like from others.