Green House Girl 2: No Such Thing As Greenest

http://www.motherearthliving.com/Wiser-Living/No-Such-Thing-As-Greenest.aspx

This time: I sit in on a sustainability class at Parsons and learn that vinyl can be good for the environment. Who knew?

When my college friend Robyn asked me if I wanted to blog about Natural Home’s Show House in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, I said sure—little suspecting that the assignment would suck me into the vortex known as “green building.” As I slowly get up to speed on the movement and what it entails, I feel like I’m falling further and further into an Alice-like rabbit hole. (“Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?”)

 Photo By Elizabeth Kuster
















Fourth floor interior
One of the things that’s been hardest to get my head around is the fact that there’s no such thing as “greenest.” Greener, yes. But not greenest. No one can say, “Always use such-and-such type of windows/paint/concrete/insulation/whatever,” because there are so many variables involved: climate, supplier location, site location, purpose, size, appearance...the list goes on. When constructing a green building, you have to evaluate each component separately. (Note to self: Ask Robyn if organic Cheetos are “green.”)

First example: After doing exhaustive research, Natural Home Show House architect Tony Daniels and developers Rolf Grimsted and Emily Fisher ultimately decided to use KML by Andersen windows. But guess what? They came this close to using vinyl. Yes, vinyl—the very word of which conjures visions of my mom’s toxic-looking olive, brown, and mustard-colored ’70s kitchen. Shocking but true: Vinyl can have a so-called “green footprint” if it has a high recycled content.

Second example: Say you have to choose between two products that outgas (meaning that they release smells and poisons into the atmosphere). Depending upon the space, how it’s ventilated, and how much time you’ll be spending there, you may want to choose the product that puts out a high amount of outgas but fades quickly over the one that outgasses at lower levels for a longer period of time. So there.

The whole green/greener/greenest thing really came into play when I sat in on a sustainability class at Parson’s School of Design. The students in Aki Ishida’s Interior Design Studio 3 course were giving their midterm presentations; their assignment was to propose a multi-functional, built-in environment for one of the three bedrooms in the Show House. I got to watch as, one by one, the students carried these adorable little models up to the front of the room and then discussed their design choices. And every time they did, I thought, “Ooh! I wish I’d had that for my Barbies!”

One model in particular would’ve made a fantastic Barbie house. Designed by Scandinavian student Rannveig Hoffmann, it featured moving Plexwood panels, bamboo flooring and wallpaper made of straw. Everything in the room was multi-functional: Boxes became seats and tables; chairs morphed into a cradle...it was really cool. I took Rannveig aside later and said, “You should sell your design to Mattel! It would be a fantastic Barbie house! I’m serious!” She looked at me kind of blankly, so I guess they don’t have Barbie where she comes from. 

 
Photo By Elizabeth Kuster
"Still life with epoxy-coated wire mesh."

The most inspiring thing about the class, though, was that it existed at all. I’m just so psyched that the next generation of builders and designers are going to be down with sustainability. (Maybe someone should tell Al Gore?) I have the feeling that, in the not-too-distant future, all building will have to be sustainable. So it’s good to know that there are so many great-looking green options out there—and energetic, creative people who want to use them.

Emily and Green Depot founder Sarah Beatty attended the class as well, and we chatted outside for a few moments after class. Finally I blurted the question that had been at the tip of my tongue all afternoon: “Wouldn’t it be best for the environment not to use paint at all, and just to have bare concrete?”

Sarah turned to me and gave me a look that implied, “Duh.” “No, she said. “Paint extends the life of concrete so you can go longer without replacing it, and it doesn’t end up in a landfill.” At that point, my head exploded. Where’s the Cheshire Cat when you need him?          

Next time: I drop in on a factory that uses elf labor to turn recycled glass and concrete into that lovely stuff known as IceStone. (Just kidding about the elf part.)