Mother Earth Living

A New York City Apartment Goes Green

Learn how this New York City apartment goes green. A couple faces challenges renovating the apartment they bought sight unseen and make the decision to use green materials in the process..
By Cheryl Terrace
November/December 2003

A New York City apartment goes green. The kitchen required a total redo. The large metal casement windows allow decent air exchange and natural light.
Photo By Cheryl Terrace


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A New York City apartment goes green. This New York City couple faces challenges greening their apartment in an urban environment.

A New York City Apartment Goes Green

A beautiful and glittering city, New York is a diverse, dynamic place to live. But like any big city, it poses some challenges for those who are conscious of urban dirt and air pollution. Fortu­nately, New York also has a stimulating “green culture” that’s growing by leaps and bounds.

Denise and Doug Darien moved to the Upper West Side from California a few years ago to explore business opportunities. Doug works in adver­tising, and Denise is a yoga instructor. They love having access to different types of yoga classes, vegetarian restaurants, and a wealth of like-minded, socially conscious friends.

Returning from a yoga class one morning, Denise encountered five strangers in the lobby of the 1930s building where she and Doug were ­renting an apartment. The building superintendent told her an apartment was being auctioned that “was going to be a great deal for someone,” and before she knew it, she and Doug were proud owners of a one-bedroom apartment they had never seen. Things happen like that in New York.

After the closing — and when the emotional dust settled — Doug and Denise agreed they had indeed gotten a very good deal by New York standards. Still, it was difficult to see past the filth, crumbling plaster walls, and horrendous kitchen to realize the potential for a decent, nontoxic living space. At this point, this apartment seemed anything but.

That’s when they called me.

If These New York Apartment Walls Could Talk

Denise and Doug wanted to renovate and remodel their 560-square-foot apartment in a completely nontoxic, sustainable manner. The only thing that would remain was the original black-and-white porcelain tile in the bathroom.

First, the crumbling plaster walls needed attention. The original plaster was removed, mesh was applied, and new plaster was troweled on and sanded (again and again). This is a time-consuming, messy job that requires the use of a facemask, but I believe it was worth it because plaster is a natural material that allows the walls to breathe, and it can be covered with water-based paint. Walls that breathe are desirable because they regulate humidity and oxygen, and they absorb a great deal of sound, a necessity in a New York City apartment. They also provide warmth, texture, and light reflection.

Redoing the walls created an opportunity to run new electric, along with telephone and cable — all shielded and grounded to minimize electromagnetic fields (EMFs) — inside the walls. I also recommended that Denise and Doug install a shut-off switch in the bedroom so they can cut the flow of electricity when they’re sleeping. Humans have their own electricity (about one millivolt — probably more for New Yorkers!), and exposure to excess electricity can negatively affect health. People often sleep better when they reduce or eliminate EMFs in the bedroom. The couple already had a metal-free mattress (metal springs or frames can transmit EMFs), along with all-natural bedding materials, and they were thrilled with the additional protection of a shut-off switch.

New York Apartment Air Quality

Air quality is one of the greatest challenges for city dwellers. Because Denise and Doug’s building was constructed in the 1930s, termed “pre-war” in New York, the existing windows were large metal casements. Aesthetically pleasing and not airtight, they provide good air exchange. Although they offer a disappointing view of a brick wall (pretty common in the city), the advantage is that the windows don’t face the street. That means less soot and city noise from buses, sirens, and garbage trucks. Still, a freestanding HEPA filtration unit ensures optimal air quality that is constant and quiet. Denise also has a green thumb and has an assortment of beautiful plants — natural filtration units — in the living room, bedroom, and kitchen, where herbs also add scent.

Throughout the apartment, the original hardwood floors needed only a light sanding and a few coats of Last-n-Last, a nontoxic stain. We brought the painted steel door moldings back to their natural state by cleaning them with Orange-Sol and then finishing them with Back to Nature coating/sealer. All the hardwood doors were transformed with a creamy white Muralo Waterborne paint.

The bathroom was also an easy fix. The black-and-white basketweave floor pattern and the white square wall tile with a black border, common in the 1930s, remains a classic design. The original ceramic tiles were in good condition and required only a good cleaning and restoring. Although it’s not a nontoxic process, we had the porcelain tub professionally reglazed because I thought it a better solution than dumping it into the landfill. We also added a new Carrara marble vanity on chrome legs, and we mounted mirrors on the upper portion of the entire bathroom, except the shower area, to make the bathroom sparkle. The existing venting system was old but adequate. Also, by utilizing a “point of source” filter for the showerhead, Doug and Denise are able to enjoy showers without chlorine or other contaminants.

Challenges in the Apartment's Kitchen Remodel

The small kitchen — a total redo — was the biggest challenge. We installed a built-in reverse osmosis unit under the sink to ensure clean, high-quality water. Marmoleum natural linoleum in black covered the floor, and we chose creamy gray Kashmir granite with tiny flecks of color for the counters. To complement these, we selected Ann Sacks tiles designed to look like antique ceramic subway floors. We also selected formaldehyde-free, sustainable woodworking made by local artisan Andrea Inganni, finished with Schreuder low-VOC paint. A deep, old-fashioned white ceramic sink and plenty of counter space for juicing is really all that Denise and Doug require. This is New York after all, and with all the wonderful restaurants that deliver, who needs to cook?

A small, apartment-size Energy Star gas cooktop with a combination over-the-counter microconvection oven, a twenty-four-inch Northland refrigerator, a twenty-four-inch Jenn-Air cook­top, a space-saving GE Advantium oven, and an eighteen-inch Miele dishwasher give the kitchen more cabinet space, both literally and visually. The look is classic and timeless.

Restoring Vintage Apartment Charm

Restoring the apartment’s vintage charms while making allowances for twenty-first-century conveniences and creating a healthy home were all part of our mission. Once the major work and construction were finished, it was also important to remember what makes a house a home and consider some of the “soft stuff.” I like to work with various artisans to create a look that expresses personality and passion — what I call “high humble.”

Cork wallpaper with flecks of color and metal splashes in the small foyer create a warm welcome. Black iron Giacometti-style tables help ground the space. Soft, naturally dyed Tibetan wool rugs add warmth. Fabrics are ­natural: linen, flax, or­ganic cottons. Diverse lighting techniques provide depth and dimension. Beeswax candles cast a moody glow and give the apartment a sweet scent. Handblown glass and diaphanous fabrics mixed with sculptural wood elements add a ­textural quality.

Balance is so important in creating a unique and inviting environment. Combining different elements — metal, stone, wood, and glass—invokes the feeling of nature. All the senses are respected and addressed. Creating a true sanctuary, even in New York City, is to be in harmony with our world.


Cheryl Terrace is the owner of Vital Design, which specializes in creating beautiful, healthy interiors that are environmentally friendly, safe, and natural.


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