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Wiser Living

Finding a natural solution

Green House Girl 1: The Complexity of Green Living

by Elizabeth Kuster

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This week: I enter the Show House for the first time and learn that hair clip + hard hat = beauty disaster.

When my college friend Robyn Griggs Lawrence asked me if I wanted to blog about Natural Home’s Show House in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn—right around the corner from my apartment in Park Slope—I said sure. “This’ll be easy money,” I thought to myself. “I know a lot about the environment. I recycle. I painted my apartment with water-based paint. Cha-ching!”

I soon learned that “green building” is more complex than I’d ever imagined. My first dose of reality came while I was reading through back issues of Natural Home to brief myself on the Show House. “Photovoltaic panels will provide electricity,” I read. Photovoltaic panels? I quickly consulted Wikipedia. “Photovoltaics is a solar-powered technology that uses solar cells to convert light into electricity,” said Wiki. Well, that seemed clear enough. I read on.

 “The house will be using materials such as low-VOC water-based....” VOC? I consulted Wiki again, and found that VOC stands for “volatile organic compounds.” 

“They’ve laid the groundwork for the HVAC systems....” I Wikied “HVAC,” only to learn that it’s the acronym for heat/ventilation/air conditioning, as everyone else on the planet apparently knows. (Hey, I’m a renter. My “V” is opening windows.)

The next day, armed with my new greenish wisdom, I headed over to the Show House to meet up with Robyn et al. I haven’t had a car for 20 years (I’m “green,” I tell you! Green!), so I turned on my iPod, cranked up “Car Wash,” and boogied over using my environmentally correct two feet. Fifteen minutes later, I spied a corner building encased in scaffolding. Robyn was standing outside talking to a cute guy in a hard hat, whom I later learned was construction supervisor Dave Moreno of Greenstreet. (I asked, and no, he isn’t related to Academy-Award-winning actress Rita Moreno. He had never even heard of Rita Moreno. I guess she isn’t “green.”)

The three of us entered the house, where I was introduced to Green Depot founder Sarah Beatty and developer/visionary Emily Fisher of R&E Brooklyn. That’s when Dave gave the order for all of us to put on hard hats. I was excited: My first time in a hard hat! Little did I know, this would also be a learning experience. Tip one (for you hard-hat virgins out there): Hard hats are one-size-fits-all, so there’s no need to tell the cute guy giving it to you, “I have a big head.” Tip two: Do NOT--I repeat, NOT--wear hairclips on hard-hat day. Learn from my mistake. I’d unwittingly piled my hair on top of my head, secured it with said clip so it looked vaguely Audrey-Hepburnesque (at least in my mind), then sprayed the holy hell out of it. Imagine my chagrin when I realized I’d have to take my hair out of the clip. Oh, the horror!

Of course, it only took me about 10 seconds to be glad I was wearing the hard hat, as bits of old mortar immediately began raining down on us from above. (“What are you doing?” I yelled up at the workers. “The floor!” one of them yelled back.) Dave disappeared (he said he had to “work”), leaving Sarah and Emily to tour Robyn and me around the space. Sarah began by telling us that they’d stopped construction for a week so they could have an open house; the previous weekend, 500 people (many of them students from Parsons School of Design) had walked through the site. She pointed to an open-house display that looked like the foam from a good pint of Guinness. “This is a soy-based insulation that senses cracks and then fills them,” she explained. I peered closer and saw that the insulation had done its job so well that it had cracked the plexiglas that was holding it. Hmm. An ever-expanding white blob that threatened to slowly take over the whole house? Reminded me of a guy I once dated. 

As we continued walking, Sarah threw down terms like “sound attenuation,” “radiant flooring,” “diversified energy sources,” and “matrix display.” (The only matrix I knew anything about was the one I saw at the Chelsea Cinemas eight years ago.) Then she showed us a pretty seal on the floor and said it marked the dividing line between the two townhomes (kind of like that sheet in It Happened One Night). Strange but true: People like imaginary lines. I don’t know why, but it’s really fun to jump back and forth over them and go, “I’m at 93 Nevins Street! Now I’m at 453 Pacific! Now I’m back at 93 Nevins!” Arctic explorers do the same thing at the North Pole (“I’m in Canada! Now I’m in Russia! Now I’m in Norway! Now I’m back in Canada!”)—or at least they will until the damn thing’s under water.

While I was having my imaginary-line fun, the noise level suddenly became ear-splitting, as if some kind of medieval battle (involving catapults) had begun. It was as if the construction crew had suddenly decided to finish the whole house in the next five minutes. Then I saw that a new cute guy had arrived, and he was wearing a wedding ring. He turned out to be Greenstreet president Robert Politzer—which of course explained the newly furious work pace. “They only started doing that when you got here,” I yelled. Robert laughed, kind of.

At that point we all headed up the stairs to the second floor, which is basically just a big empty space. Sarah tried to explain what and where all the rooms would be, but frankly I couldn’t picture it. Then Robert offered to take us up to the third floor, which could only be reached via ladder. I looked up at the ladder, looked down at my sexy black boots, looked back up at the ladder, and turned to Robyn. “Do I have to?” I asked. “No,” she said as she followed Emily and Sarah up. Sarah came back down first, and the two of us stood together, waiting for the others to return. “I parachuted from 13,000 feet for an interview one time,” I told her. "Oh," she said.

Somewhere along the line—I think it was when Sarah told us that the building itself would “act like lungs”—I started getting really, really jealous of the lucky people who were going to live there. Would they appreciate it? Would they live up to Sarah and Robyn’s dark-green standards? Would they deserve to live in such a fabulous place? “Are you going to have some kind of audition to choose who gets to live here?” I asked Emily. “I mean, they can’t be smokers!”

Silence, then laughter. “Well, we can’t tell people what to do once they’ve bought the place,” she said.

Hmm. We’ll see about that.

Next time: I learn there’s no such thing as “greenest.”