Yes we can afford this!

I admit it. I’m a designer for Trilogy Partners, well known for highest quality design and build, and I just spent the entire day at a nationwide home improvement discount center sourcing product for a remodel project. No, this is not a plug for Home Depot, or any of the big box home improvement centers. But in these days of belt tightening, the major home suppliers are a great place to start if you want to know the answer to the question “how much can I really get done with the money I have?” Here’s an example. I found a beige 18×18 Travertine tile for $1.99 a square foot. With the client’s rather tight budget, it seemed that we’d be restricted to the cheapest (and often nastiest looking) of the ceramic tiles for our two bathroom upgrades. Now I can tell my client, if you want stone tile, we can do that on the cheap and here are some tile patterns and designs you should consider. What else did I check out? Affordable light fixtures that look just like the ones at the specialty lighting store for hundreds less. Energy Star rated appliances that mimic those super high end stainless models. And solid bamboo wood flooring for a fraction of the cost of other solid wood products. Will I be purchasing design materials from the big box guys? Well, I may be mighty loyal to the specialty suppliers that I’ve been doing business with for years. But ultimately, the answer to that question depends on the client. Because I do know this: if you have a constrained budget and your interior designer isn’t looking at all the value options including the Lowes of the world, then no matter how creative they are, they aren’t acting in your best interest.

More than a decade ago a spec home we’d built went under contract. As a part of the sales contract the purchasers requested a radon test. When the test came back higher than that recommended by the EPA, the buyers requested mitigation. So we installed a foundation fan that completely cured the problem and the house sold. The installation was done by a company that specializes in radon mitigation. The cost was approximately $2500. Now, during construction we always install piping below basement slabs for radon mitigation to insure all our homes are radon free. Radon is a scary word, but the cure is usually simple and not overly expensive.

Quick Facts…

  • Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that can enter the home.
  • Most of Colorado contains high concentrations of radon, considered the second highest cause of lung cancer.
  • All Colorado homes should be tested for radon.
  • Radon reduction methods can be planned for and installed during new home construction.
  • Home buyers and renters should ask if the home has been tested for radon and for the results.

What is Radon?

Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas emitted from uranium, a naturally occurring mineral in rocks and soil. Normally, radon rises up through the soil and dissipates in the air outside. Radon becomes a concern, however, when it seeps through openings such as cracks, loose fitting pipes, sump pits, dirt floors, slab joints or block walls and accumulates in the home. See Figure 1.

Air pressure inside the home is usually lower than pressure in the soil around the house’s foundation. Because of this difference, the house acts like a vacuum, drawing radon in through foundation cracks and other openings.

Figure 1. Radon entry locations.

Radon has been identified as a risk factor in developing lung cancer because it decays into radioactive particles that can get trapped in the lungs. These particles release bursts of energy that damages lung tissue. It is estimated that radon may be associated with about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States, second only to smoking.

The chances of getting lung cancer from radon depend on how much radon is in the home, the amount of time spent in the home and whether a person smokes. See Table 1. Smoking, combined with radon, adds to the health risk.

Radon in Colorado

Surveys show that homes in most Colorado counties have the potential for radon levels above EPA’s recommended action level. EPA has developed three radon designations, ranging from Zone 1 with the highest recommended action level to Zone 3 with the lowest recommended action level. The EPA map of radon zones for Colorado (Figure 2) shows the majority of counties are designated as Zone 1, with no counties in Zone 3.

Figure 2: EPA map of radon zones for Colorado. Zone 1 (dark gray), high risk (greater than 4pCi/L). Zone 2 (light gray), moderate risk (2-4 pCi/L).

Because radon levels are influenced by a variety of factors—soil type and moisture, how “tight” the home is, type of heating and ventilation system, movement of air and groundwater, air pressure, and lifestyle behavior of the occupants—the only way to know if a home has elevated levels of radon is to test it.

Table 1: Radon risk if you have never smoked (Developed by the EPA).

If 1,000 people who never smoked were exposed to this level over a lifetime
The risk of cancer from radon exposure compares to WHAT TO DO
20 pCi/L* about 36 people could get lung cancer 35 times the risk of drowning Fix your home.
10 pCi/L* about 18 people could get lung cancer 20 times the risk of dying in a home fire Fix your home.
8 pCi/L* about 15 people could get lung cancer 4 times the risk of dying ina fall Fix your home.
4 pCi/L* about 7 people could get lung cancer The risk of dying in a car crash. Fix your home.
2 pCi/L* about 4 people could get lung cancer The risk of dying of poison. Consider fixing between 2 and 4 pCi/L
1.3 pCi/L* about 2 people could get lung cancer Average indoor radon level. (Reducing radon levels below
2 pCi/L is difficult.)
0.4 pCi/L* Average outdoor radon level. (Reducing radon levels below
2 pCi/L is difficult.)
*pCi/L: picocuries of radon per liter of air
NOTE: If you are a former smoker, your risk may be higher.

Radon Testing

All homes in Colorado should be tested for radon. Only individual testing can determine which houses may have a radon problem. You cannot base your radon level on a neighbor’s test result. Every house is different. Measuring radon levels in the home is simple and inexpensive. Test kits include complete instructions and return postage for mailing samples back to the lab for analysis.

Short-term detectors (such as charcoal canisters) are used for two to seven days. They provide quick screening measurements indicating potential radon problems. Short-term detectors should be placed in the lowest livable level of the house, preferably during winter. Long-term detectors (such as alpha track detectors) are left in place for three months to one year. They provide the advantage of averaging seasonal variations associated with radon levels. Long-term detectors are generally placed in main living areas.

Radon test kits cost from $10 to $25 for a short-term kit and $25 to $40 for a long-term kit. Test kits are available from hardware and home improvement stores, or through mail order companies. Many communities provide free test kits at county offices, senior citizen centers or other locations. If test kits are not available in your area, call the Colorado Radon Hotline at (800) 846-3986 or the National Radon Hotline at (800) 767-7236. Research indicates some homeowners buy kits and then never send the samples in for the results. When you buy a kit make a commitment to obtain the results.

When buying a test kit, select one approved or listed by the EPA (see Figure 3) and follow the instructions carefully. If you do a short-term test, close windows and outside doors and keep them closed as much as possible during the testing period. Instructions are specific as to placement and the importance of not disturbing the test kit while it is monitoring the radon level of a home.

Figure 3: Examples of test kits approved by the EPA.

Homes that have a basement or combination slab-on-grade and crawlspace should be tested in each area due to potential differences in radon levels. Generally, radon levels are highest in the lower levels of the home. For this reason, some homeowners prefer to test in the basement and first floor, especially if they are used for living and sleeping spaces.

Once the test is finished, reseal or close the container and send it to the lab specified on the package right away. The lab fee for interpreting the results is usually included in the original cost of the kit. You may choose to have radon measurements performed by a professional. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Radiation Control Division, can provide a list of companies qualified to perform radon tests for homeowners in the state.

Understanding Test Results

Radon measurements show how much radon was present in the home during the test period. This level varies depending on detector location and the time of year it was used. As mentioned earlier, radon levels are generally highest when the house is closed and in the basement or near possible radon entry routes. Readings averaged over an entire year are usually lower than those taken in a basement during winter.
Radon gas is measured in units of picocuries per liter (pCi/L), a standard measure of radioactivity. The EPA set 4 pCi/L as a recommended action level. If a short-term measurement is over 4 pCi/L, the recommended action is to perform a follow-up test to better characterize the radon levels. If a long-term test measures over 4 pCi/L, action should be taken to reduce radon exposure.

Radon levels are categorized as low, slightly high, high, and very high. These levels are interpreted as follows:

Low—less than 4 pCi/L. It is unnecessary to take further action unless you desire.

Slightly High—4 to 20 pCi/L. Short-term results should be followed up with long-term measurements lasting approximately twelve months. Occupants of homes with long-term results in this range should take action to reduce exposure within the next few years.

High—20 to 100 pCi/L. Follow-up testing of no longer than three months is recommended. Occupants of homes with long-term results in this range should take action to reduce exposure within the next few months.

Very High—over 100 pCi/L. Confirmatory short-term follow-up measurements should be performed as soon as possible and action taken.
The average indoor radon level is estimated to be about 1 to 3 pCi/L in the U.S., but it is over 4 pCi/L in most Colorado counties. The average outside radon level is about 0.4 to 0.8 pCi/L. The level of radon in a home may vary considerably from neighbor to neighbor.

Radon Mitigation

The cost of repairs to reduce radon depends on how the home was built and the extent of the radon problem. Most homes can be fixed for $800 to $2,500. A variety of methods may be used to lower radon levels in a home. These include sub-slab, drain tile, sump hole, and block wall suction. Sealing cracks and other openings in the foundation and covering sump pump holes are basic approaches to radon reduction; however, sealing alone is not proven to significantly or consistently lower radon levels.

The most commonly used radon mitigation technique, and generally the most effective method, is called sub-slab depressurization. This system uses pipes that extend from a permeable layer below the basement floor (such as gravel or drain tiles) upward through the structure, venting out the roof (Figure 4). This system collects radon gas before it enters the house and funnels it directly up through pipes and out of the home. If natural ventilation through the pipe system is not adequate to lower radon levels, a fan can be added in the attic to help draw gases through the system to the outdoors. Similar systems also can be installed in homes with crawlspaces.

Other methods used, although they have some disadvantages and may not be appropriate for a more permanent solution, include house pressurization and ventilation such as using a heat recovery ventilator (air-to-air heat exchanger). Whatever method you use, be sure to test for radon before and after the system is in place to be sure it is reducing levels to below 4 pCi/L.

Because the right system depends on the design of the home and other factors, most homeowners should not try to fix radon problems on their own. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Radiation Control Division, can provide a list of contractors qualified to perform radon mitigation in the state. Call (303) 692-3030 or visit for more information.

When choosing the mitigation method, consider the radon levels, system operation, structural changes, cost, house size and foundation types. For houses with several foundation designs and levels, a combination of techniques may be needed.

Figure 4: Typical radon mitigation system (EPA).

Simple ways to reduce radon levels:

  • Keep windows open on both sides of the lower floor of your house when possible.
  • Ventilate crawlspaces under your house.
  • Open basement windows early in the spring and keep them open when possible until late fall.
  • Seal cracks in basement floors with polyurethane caulking compound.
  • Pour water in floor drains once a month to make certain that traps do not dry out.
  • Keep stairwell doors, fireplace dampers, and laundry chute doors closed when not in use; keeping them open can suck air from the basement into the living area of the house.

Radon Resistant New Construction

Radon reduction methods can be planned for and installed during new home construction. Installation costs are generally much lower during construction and careful planning allows a variety of strategies to be integrated to ensure the most effective radon reduction system possible. The average cost to install a radon mitigation system in an existing home is about $1,200 to $2,500. Installing radon-resistant features during construction of a new home will cost $350 to $500. New homes constructed in areas of the state known to have high levels of radon should include at least:

  • A passive sub-slab or crawlspace depressurization system.
  • Foundation barrier techniques such as a layer of gas permeable material under the foundation (usually four inches of gravel), plastic sheeting over that material, and sealing and caulking of all openings in the concrete foundation floor or the floor above.
  • Dedicated intake and/or combustion air for exhaust and combustion appliances.
  • Installation of a gas-tight three- or four-inch pipe that runs from under the foundation (under the sheeting covering the soil in crawlspaces) through the house to the roof.
  • A roughed-in electrical junction box for future installation of a fan, if needed.

Home Buyers and Renters

Home buyers and renters should ask about environmental issues concerning property such as whether the home has been tested for radon and what the test results showed. Testing your home does not mean lowered sales value or less chance of selling. It means you can accurately inform potential buyers or renters of the existing condition of the property. Taking precautions now to mitigate for radon means your family’s health is protected against adverse radon effects.

Resources Available From EPA:

  • A citizen’s guide to radon: The guide to protecting yourself and your family from radon
  • Building a new home: Have you considered radon?
  • Home buyer’s and seller’s guide to radon
  • Radon: The health threat with a simple solution

Phone Numbers:

  • American Lung Association: (800) 586-4872
  • Colorado Radon Hotline: (800) 846-3986
  • National Radon Information Line: (800) 767-7236
  • Radon Fix-It Program, Consumer Federation of America: ( 800) 644-6999

Web Sites:

1 Colorado State University Extension housing specialist and professor, design and merchandising. 4/04. Revised 12/07.

Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Colorado counties cooperating. CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.


Are you thinking about remodeling your home in the near future? If so, now is a great time to begin making your plans since the National Association of Home Builders designates the month of May as Remodeling Month! There couldn’t be a more perfect time to start the plans that will help make your home a more comfortable and functional place to live.

Remodeling can be both exciting and intimidating, but the good news is that the entire process doesn’t have to be stressful if you have planned carefully. The National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry have lots of resources on their websites that are helpful for every step of the remodeling process, covering topics like hiring a contractor, green remodeling, budgeting, and more!

Trilogy Partners can help you with your remodeling plans, too. Contact us to learn how we can assist you with your remodeling needs. Also, check out our posts on remodeling topics for great information and inspiration, and be sure to subscribe to our blog for the latest updates!

Images Courtesy of and

Steve Feldman, president of Green Demolitions, has a Riverdale showroom filled with kitchens and baths salvaged from high-end homes and ready for resale.

Steve Feldman, president of Green Demolitions, has a Riverdale showroom filled with kitchens and baths salvaged from high-end homes and ready for resale.

BY KATHLEEN LYNN | Renovating? You could just rip up the old room and sweep everything into the trash bin. But a growing number of homeowners, architects and builders are trying to reuse or recycle construction materials whenever possible — for reasons both environmental and aesthetic.

Architect Anthony Garrett of the Bilow Garrett Group in Ridgefield Park went this route with the gut renovation of a Hoboken building. Its wooden floor joists, more than a century old, were reclaimed and trucked to Montville Township, to be reused as flooring and exposed beams in a planned mixed-use development.

“It’s dismantling, as opposed to demolition,” Garrett said. “I can’t think of anything more sustainable than that; there’s an embedded energy in that material that we salvage, and we don’t have to cut any more trees down.”

With construction waste making up as much as 25 percent to 50 percent of the junk in landfills, the push to salvage building materials is “gaining a huge amount of momentum,” said Anne Nicklin, executive director of the Building Materials Reuse Association, an Oregon-based trade group.

Reusing and recycling

Building materials can be either re-used or recycled. Reused materials are used again in their original form — for example, kitchen cabinets or wood flooring that are installed in a new home. Other materials, such as wallboard, roof shingles or concrete, can be recycled by being crushed and reconstituted in new products.

The Green Demolitions showroom has kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures and bedroom items taken from high-end homes being recycled.

The Green Demolitions showroom has kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures and bedroom items taken from high-end homes being recycled.

Reused materials are not just better for the environment; they also can be higher quality, she said.

“You can’t buy old-growth timber at Home Depot, but you can find it in a building that’s coming down,” Nicklin said.

Municipalities, worried about scarce landfill space, are offering cheaper or faster permits for deconstruction, rather than demolition, Nicklin said. And federal agencies offer training to workers on how to salvage building materials. She estimates that 75 percent or more of most buildings can be reused or recycled.

A number of non-profit retail outlets offer a marketplace for old building materials. They include Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore in Mine Hill, Build It Green NYC’s store in Queens, and Connecticut-based Green Demolitions, which has a store in Riverdale occupying space donated by Bograd’s Fine Furniture.

Green Demolitions targets affluent homeowners who decide that their kitchens aren’t quite right, but who feel guilty about dumping cabinets and appliances that are sometimes only a few years old.

It might be hard to believe that homeowners would replace kitchens that are in good shape, but “they want the kitchen they want,” said Green Demolitions founder Steve Feldman. His pitch: By donating the old kitchen to his company, homeowners can save the disposal costs, plus get a tax deduction because Green Demolitions’ profits go to support addiction treatment programs.

“Why throw out something that’s perfectly good and totally usable?” said Alan Asarnow, sales manager at Ulrich Inc. in Ridgewood, a home renovation company that encourages clients to recycle their old kitchens. Many of the kitchens his clients donate are only about 10 years old, he said.

Green Demolitions sold 600 kitchens last year in its three stores; most were donated by homeowners, but about 100 were store displays donated by kitchen remodeling contractors.

“When you think about something being thrown out, sometimes that’s where the opportunity is,” Feldman said. He estimates his company keeps 2 million pounds of debris out of landfills each year.

Those who buy the old kitchens and other materials at Green Demolitions or the ReStores find discounts of 50 to 80 percent.

Stephanie and Vincent Gurnari of Oakland visited the Green Demolitions store recently, looking to add a few cabinets to their existing kitchen, but spotted a full kitchen — including appliances — for just under $6,000.

“We just kind of jumped on the opportunity,” Stephanie Gurnari said. “It was too good of a deal to pass up. … We’ve got champagne tastes, and we wouldn’t have been able to get some of the features we got with the budget we had.”

Of course, this kitchen was built for someone else’s home, so the Gurnaris are going to have to be a bit creative about fitting it into their space. But Vincent Gurnari, a teacher, used to work in a cabinet shop, and they have some handy relatives, so they’re pretty confident about making it work.

“Kitchens are modular. They’re boxes,” Feldman said. Green Demolitions usually recommends buying a kitchen that’s a little bigger than your space to provide flexibility.

Reusing or recycling materials can help builders get the environmental stamp of approval known as LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental design. The LEED certification is awarded by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council, which gives builders credit for keeping materials out of landfills.

A decade ago, “the marketplace was unsophisticated in its ability to effectively divert a large amount of materials from the landfill,” said Daniel Topping, an architect with NK Architects in Morristown. But it’s a lot easier these days to find a new home for old materials.

“It’s just a little more legwork,” Topping said.

Because reusing materials requires careful deconstruction of a room or building, it is usually more time-consuming and can be more expensive than simple demolition. But it also doesn’t create the clouds of dust — potentially laden with asbestos or lead paint — created by demolition, Nicklin pointed out.

“There’s a steep learning curve for a lot of contractors,” said Petia Morozov of the architecture firm MADLAB in Montclair, who takes a “surgical” approach to deconstructing a house.

Morozov and her partner, Juan Alcala, worked recently on Alcala’s brother’s home, a ranch house in Township of Boonton that was taken down to the foundation and rebuilt. They reused a lot of the wood and brick, for esthetic as well as environmental reasons. Cypress wood paneling and some flooring from the home’s interior weren’t needed in the new design, but were salvaged and resold, helping to offset the costs of the project.

Homeowner Carlos Alcala said he and his wife, Vicki, were motivated partly by a desire to be green, but also by their feeling that the re-used brick is more attractive, and preserves some of the house’s history. Saving money was also part of the equation.

“When it makes sense, especially from an economic perspective, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t reuse materials,” he said.

From E-mail:

Toxins. Volatile Organic Compounds. Off-gassing. Ten years ago, these terms made their way into our mainstream vocabulary. And for good reason.

People were beginning to realize many materials used to build our homes were toxic and caused adverse health effects. Volatile Organic Compounds — or VOCs — in carpets and furniture, evaporate and release harmful toxins into the environment, a process that can happen over a period of years after products are initially installed. Because we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde can trigger headaches, allergies, respiratory problems, and damage to nerves, the kidney and liver — to name only a few symptoms.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the biggest VOC offenders are in adhesives and sealants, paints and coatings, carpet systems, composite wood and laminate adhesives, furniture and seating.

Needless to say, more and more people are demanding safer materials for their homes and, although it has taken a while, the building industry is signing on to the “green” trend.

“In the past three years, there’s been a drastic change and green has become more popular,” said Kate Dayton, consultant and owner of Green Courage, a New Paltz-based company that sells environmentally responsible materials and supplies. “People want it — even if they are not chemically sensitive. The whole purpose is to offer customers more healthy options.”

Consumers educating themselves about environmentally safe materials for their homes are on a parallel path with builders, contractors and architects. They’re even slightly ahead. The path means weaning oneself from toxic, oil-based paints because they contain harmful petrochemicals that can be absorbed through the skin and scalp, affecting human organs and tissues.

Water-based latex paint is somewhat safer, although some use as many as 15 percent chemicals that emit solvents after being applied. Mildew-resistant paints can emit toxins because they use fungicides such as arsenic, disulphide, ammonium compounds or formaldehyde.

A green option for both is to use low VOC or “zero VOC emissions” paint, which is odorless and costs about the same as known brands. But the paint industry is also starting to produce less-toxic paints that are sold at most home building stores. It’s a good idea to ask for solvent-free or odor-free paints and to check out the labels.

Naomi Sachs, a landscape architect who lives in Beacon, renovated her house with recycled items. (Karl Rabe/Living)

If you’re considering wallpaper instead of paint, you might want to re-think it. Wallpaper is coated with PVC, commonly known as vinyl, and is composed of poisonous chemicals that emit gases, causing major health risks, including cancer and birth defects. Because of the toxic adhesive backing, wallpaper also emits VOCs. But, as with the low VOC paints, there are wallpapers that use low VOC and non-toxic glues.

However, another problem with wallpaper is that because vinyl isn’t porous, it traps moisture underneath the surface — a ripe environment for dangerous mold in humid climates.

And what about floors? The favorite low terrain of babies, kids and pets can also send out a batch of harmful chemicals. Carpeting uses many materials from petroleum-based sources that emit VOCs used in the padding, backing and in the carpet itself. Carpet also harbors all sorts of dirt, dust, pollen and other allergens that are hard to remove and contribute to poor air quality.

There are some greener carpets made from recycled materials such as jute backing, instead of PVC, or recycled Polyethylene terephthalate bottles.

In fact, many carpet manufacturers have “take-back” programs in which they recycle your old carpet with different types of non-chemically treated fibers., a nonprofit group that reports on toxic chemicals and government regulations, found many residential floors contain heavy metals, chemicals and other additives such as lead, cadmium, flame retardants, tin compounds and phthalates. The harmful chemicals are linked to asthma, reproductive problems, developmental and learning disabilities, hormone problems and cancer. Floor products that don’t contain dangerous substances are cork, bamboo, hardwood and linoleum.

“Some people think linoleum is vinyl, and that’s not true,” said Gina Porcelli, an interior designer based in Rosendale. Porcelli teaches college-level courses focusing on green materials and energy usages.

“Linoleum was the original flooring in the 1940s and was installed in New York City subway cars. Today it is a completely green product, and it’s making a comeback.”

For homeowners wanting to install wood floors, Porcelli suggests they check out flooring certified by the Forest Stewardship Council for wood that comes from a forest maintained for sustainability. The council is one of many certification programs that have surfaced to provide environmental information on products sought by home owners.

Architect Rick Alfandre says wood for flooring or for cabinetry should not only be council-certified but be environmentally harvested.

“There is a certification for healthy indoor air products, particularly for wood products,” said Alfandre, owner of Alfandre Architecture, P.C. in New Paltz. “You want to know where the material comes from and you can ask cabinet suppliers what their process is regarding healthy indoor cabinets.”

Alfandre, who has been in the construction industry for 30 years, says if you are in the market for “green” cabinets, stick to solid wood and plywood rather than particle board, which uses harmful chemicals in the glue.

Wood with urea formaldehyde is particularly dangerous because it is an unstable chemical that emits gasses for a long time. Cheap to manufacturer and colorless, urea formaldehyde is used in many building materials, such as the popular wood particleboard otherwise known as MDF, or medium-density fiberboard. Emissions can cause headaches and respiratory ailments.

In 1998, the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit trade organization, was formed specifically to promote sustainably designed buildings. The council is known for developing the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a green building rating system that fosters a holistic approach, from how building materials are made to how they are disposed of.

“It’s called the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ theory,” said Richard Miller, a New Paltz-based architect. “It’s what happens to the product all the way through its life, especially how we dispose of them and put them back into the environment. Many of the dangerous chemicals in building materials go right into the groundwater, water you are drinking.”

Miller is big on re-using materials that might otherwise be dumped into the landfill.

“We have made counters out of former bowling alleys and sometimes use old barn siding. We also buy wood from local mills or use trees that are on the homeowner’s property.”

Naomi Sachs, a landscape architect who lives in Beacon, renovated her house with recycled items, including a used stove and bathtub from Hudson Valley Materials Exchange.

We tried recycled lumber from a building that was being demolished and for the inside we used low or no VOC paint,” she said.

Sachs decided to spring for a long, 14-foot stainless steel countertop because “it’s durable, not like a vinyl counter and it will last forever. If we ever decide to change it, it is recyclable.”

Sachs describes her renovation as an “adoptive reuse,” and praises the building industry for becoming environmentally conscious.

“It’s healthier not only for us to use products with little or no off-gassing, but think about the people who have to work with this stuff to begin with,” Sachs said.

Using less toxic materials in our homes requires a certain vigilance. Porcelli said there is a lot of “green washing” from manufacturers wanting to sell a product that might not be truly safe, but who are misrepresenting the product’s true nature. She suggests people read labels and not be afraid to ask if the product is recycled or how and where it was made.

“If it’s made in a place as far away as China, you may want to think twice about the amount of fossil fuels that were used to get the product to you,” she said.

Identifying a safe product can be tricky not only for consumers but for architects and contractors in the field, Alfandre said. “You (the manufacturer) can slap a green picture of a leaf, call it green, and it won’t mean anything.”

The real problem is that, to date, there are no national standards or legislation that forces companies to use safe materials. President Barack Obama signed the Federal Buildings Personnel Training Act requiring federal building managers and contractors to participate in green building training so they can better manage sustainable government building

In 2010, two bills were introduced in Congress aimed at improving the safety of toxic chemicals and reforming the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act. Under the current act, the EPA can only test for chemicals that have been shown to have health risks.

The Toxic Chemicals Safety Act in the House and the Safe Chemicals Act in the Senate would give the EPA the teeth it needs to require safety testing of all industrial chemicals and force businesses to prove chemicals are safe before using them. The bills are scheduled to be re-introduced this year.

“We want the onus to be put on the government to ban more chemicals used by manufacturers,” Dayton said. “That will take some strong policies. Now, there is no system in place to require testing for safety. These bills will change the industry. Builders don’t have to worry about the safe, conventional materials they are choosing and can be confident about the materials’ quality and integrity.”

Abby Luby is a freelance writer in the Hudson Valley. She can be contacted


photo of heavily treed building site

Vacant Land For Sale

This has actually happened. A client contacts us. They want to build a new home. They’re about to close on a lot in a neighborhood development. At our introductory design meeting they  describe to us the kind of house they wish to build. A certain number of bedrooms, bathrooms. Energy effeciency. Passive solar design. Sustainable building. A two car garage. A relatively simple design without complex rooflines. And then we go to the site for the first time.

The site the clients had chosen was steep and in the trees. The building envelope was rather small, and because of height restrictions, the home would have to be built so that it stepped up and down the slope, complicating construction dramatically. Solar gain would be limited by shade and trees that by development covenant could not be removed. The steep lot also made it imperative that we locate the garage up-slope and to the front of the home so as to meet requirements that stipulated the maximum slope of the driveway at 7%. Expensive retaining walls would also be necessary. As much as we at Trilogy enjoy a challenge, we had to tell the clients that the lot they had chosen was not conducive to building the rather simple, super energy efficient home they were seeking. The clients did not take this news well for they loved that this lot was adjacent to community open space. They purchased the lot and hired another architect. About a year later the lot was back on the market, I suspect, because the clients had finally discovered for themselves how difficult a lot they had purchased.

Building in the mountain regions often means dealing with slope and trees. But even when the lot is relatively level, the site can still have an enormous impact on budget and design. Today, modern design and technology allows us to create passively energized, super insulated homes with dramatically decreased energy consumption.  But if the lot orientation is north or if the lot is shaded then energy costs will necessarily increase. Views are always a concern and in some developments, homes are built without taking into account that the vacant lot next door won’t always be vacant and views may be impeded when the neighbors build. Other subdivision and local government codes can also severely limit design opportunities. Some neighborhoods put limits on the amount of glass, or the use of solar panels, limiting the use of sustainable energy resources.

Which is why, if at all possible, the Trilogy Design Team likes to assist our clients in the selection of the site for their new home. If the lot is indeed going to constrain design, it’s a great idea to have the design and build team assess exactly what those limitations are going to be.

What would be the ideal site for the home of your dreams?

By Dina ElBoghdady Washington Post Staff Writer  Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 10:59 PM – Sales of previously owned homes increased nationwide in January, driven by all-cash purchases that suggest investors are chasing after foreclosures and other bargains in an ailing housing market, an industry group reported Wednesday.

Sales rose 2.7 percent from December, to a seasonally adjusted 5.36 million, the National Association of Realtors reported. The purchases – which include single-family homes, condominiums and townhouses – were up 5.3 percent from a year ago.

Although the figures reflect an improved economy, they also capture some of the underlying weaknesses in the housing market, namely the persistently large number of foreclosures that continued to drag down prices in January and attract investors.

Foreclosures and other distressed properties made up 37 percent of homes sold last month, the group reported. The cheap homes lured investors, who accounted for 23 percent of buyers, up from 20 percent the previous month and 17 percent a year ago.

As more investors entered the market, all-cash purchases surged to their highest level since the group started tracking the numbers in October 2008. The increase suggests that stringent lending rules are shutting out traditional buyers and empowering people with hefty sums of cash to close deals, said Lawrence Yun, the group’s chief economist.

But the January sales numbers may be deceptively high, said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities.

After reports of widespread paperwork errors surfaced in October, many major lenders temporarily halted foreclosures. Some have since lifted the freeze. “Sales that would have normally taken place in October, November and December got pushed into January,” Vitner said.

None of this bodes well for home prices, because foreclosures tend to drag down values. The median price nationwide fell 3.7 percent, to $158,000, in January, the Realtor group said.

Many economists said that if the economy takes a turn for the worse or oil prices rise significantly because of political turmoil in the Middle East, consumer confidence could wane and home sales could plunge.

Some economists also cast doubt on the Realtor group’s numbers, suggesting that they were inflated because of its methodology. Most recently, mortgage research firm CoreLogic said the sales results could have been overstated by 15 to 20 percent in 2010.

Yun said his group will review data from the past few years.

He acknowledged a possible “upward drift” in the numbers. The sales data are collected from local multiple listing services. A Realtor, for instance, may advertise a home in two neighboring cities. When the home sells, the transaction may be counted twice, he said.

A decline in homes sold by owner may also distort the numbers, Yun said. Multiple listing services include mainly properties advertised by Realtors. As more sellers have turned to Realtors in recent years, the increase may register as an increase in sales when it is only a rise in transactions by Realtors, he said.

Yun cautioned that no housing data is flawless. The CoreLogic data, for instance, came from court records. As the recent foreclosure paperwork debacle shows, not all court records are accurate.


Ooh-arr, straw appears to be the sustainable material of choice at this year’s Ecobuild. The natural material features in board form in the latest home design from eco-architect Bill Dunster, in prefabricated panels in a turnkey retail building from Modcell and there is even a series of straw bale workshops for those planning to build homes, schools and offices from the readily available agricultural by-product.


For the StramitZED house (right), Dunster has teamed up with straw board manufacturer Stramit to produce an eco-house in two-, three- or four-bedroom configurations, all of which meet the latest Lifetime Homes and London Housing Design Guide standards. Its design is based on Dunster’s code level 6, RuralZED development at Upton in Northampton. The homes are assembled from cassettes of strawboard combined with Welsh timber and recycled newspaper insulation.

Hot water and electricity are generated by solar photovoltaic and solar thermal panels, with surplus electricity sold to the grid. The homes costs upward of £135,000, a figure claimed to be £20,000 less than the normal cost of constructing a code level 6 house.

Straw bales are at the heart of Modcell’s retail solution too. This uses prefabricated panels (left) made near the costruction site, in a leased workspace or barn. The panels are assembled from untreated, locally sourced straw set into a panel frame assembled from sustainably sourced timber, which is then plastered with a protective lime render. The turnkey solution is claimed to save energy, money, carbon emissions and build times.

For those that want their straw raw and not pre-assembled, there will be plenty of opportunities to learn all about both load bearing and non-load bearing straw bale construction techniques at the straw bale workshops, which take place twice daily at Ecobuild – for further details and timing check out


Phase change materials

If straw is too rustic and high-tech is more your thing, then check out the various phase change materials (or PCMs in techie-speak) at this year’s show. A good starting point is the Cool Workspace, which is one of the interactive attractions on the exhibition floor. Sponsored by Capita Symonds, the attraction has been designed to showcase how cutting edge materials and technologies can be used to create a more sustainable workplace.

PCMs are just one of the technologies on show. The advantage of these materials is that they can be used to store both heating and cooling energy. In the Cool Workspace, PCMs are embedded in the walls and ceiling tiles where they will absorb heat to help keep the workspace cool and reduce the need for air conditioning.


If you want to know more about the technology visit both the BASF and DuPont stands.

BASF’s Micronal PCM has been incorporated into the Racus ceiling tile system for both new build and retrofit applications. Developed by Datum Phase Change, the tiles feature microcapsules of a special wax developed to store latent heat as it absorbs heat during the day, changing from a solid to liquid – . At night, when the temperature drops, the wax gives out heat and returns to being solid. The tile system has been used in the Victorian terrace refurbishment project at BRE in Watford.

DuPont’s phase change offering is called Energain. It is available in lightweight panels developed to enable thermal mass to be added to lightweight structures. The company claims that using the material can reduce indoor temperature peaks by up to 7ºC, optimising comfort and decreasing air conditioning costs.

Sustainable towers

With the world’s population becoming increasingly urbanised, the need for a fast, economic, high-rise, sustainable solution is becoming ever more urgent. One solution could be to build upwards using timber. As part of the fringe session, Advantage Austria is presenting a case study of a modular high-rise timber construction system designed for energy-generating buildings of up to 20 stories. Not sure about timber high-rise? Hear the discussion at South Gallery 10 at 12.30 on Wednesday 2 March.


The results of a student competition to design sustainable towers located in the Greenwich South district of Lower Manhattan, New York will also be announced at the show. The design must encompass Isover Multi-Comfort principles, which are based on Passivhaus ideas of high levels of energy efficiency and comfort for the occupants. Wolfgang Feist, founder of the Passivaus concept and the Passivhaus Institut in Germany, will judge the competition and will attend the award ceremony on Isover’s stand N260, where the winners will be announced at 3pm on 2 March. See below for the shortlisted designs.

Shortlisted designs

Manhattan Sky Podium: a design which aims to connect Greenwich South with its surroundings through a series of elevated pedestrian routes which meet to form a significant green podium in the sky.

Social Tower Experiment: a tower designed to foster vibrant communities and social interaction at height.

The Green Ramp: a design which aims to integrate Lower Manhattan’s green spaces into the city fabric with a building that forms a ramp from Battery Park to theGreenwich South site, culminating in a Passivhaus skyscraper.

Solar Slice: a tapered tower that evolved through consideration of New York’s sun paths, it respects the solar rights of the existing 88 Greenwich Street tower to the north of the site by carving a huge slice out of its mass.

Green Canyons: a prototype to counter the depleting quality of life in vertical urban sprawl.

Green Tower: a design which takes into consideration the forms of surrounding towers and icons such as the Statue of Liberty.

Windgate (below): a tower which aims to make maximum use of wind energy while also utilising the building design to form a new gateway into Manhattan.


Vertical Sunspace Tower: taking inspiration from the Denby Dale Passivhaus, this design features a series of stacked, south facing sunspaces to maximise passive solar gain, daylight penetration and to create social spaces at height in the city.

The three winning UK teams will receive cash prizes of up to £1,000 and will go on to compete in the seventh international final, which takes place from 18-21 May 2011 in Prague and features a top prize of €1,500 (£1,263).

Wolfgang Feist will also be participating in two fringe sessions taking place on 1 March from 4pm to 5pm (North Gallery Room 9) and 2 March from 4pm to 5pm (North Gallery 6 & 7). The sessions will provide an insight into the Passivhaus and Isover Multi-Comfort House concepts.

Bees and biodiversity


With wild bee populations facing a growing number of threats including pests and diseases such as the varroa mite as well as a growing lack of wild flowers to provide food and habitat, is it time for the urban beekeeper to come to the rescue? A small back garden or access to a rooftop is all that is needed to keep bees. What’s more, there is a rich variety of plants in urban gardens, parks, railway sidings and tree-lined roads, all of which can be turned into delicious honey by our pollen and nectar eating friends.

The idea is not as crazy as it first sounds – probably the most exclusive address for bees anywhere in the world is the roof of upmarket grocers Fortnum & Mason in London’s Piccadilly. Even the beehives have been given a distinct architectural style and some rather elegant gold details (

Honey bees rely on a diverse range of garden and urban flowers for their diet, which means it is important to create an environment in the city that not only safeguards existing wildlife but also encourages further diversity and food for bees. Helping designers and planners incorporate biodiversity and meet new regulations is just one of the topics in the Cityscape programme, along with a biodiversity surgery.

For further details and timings, check out the Cityscape area on the Ecobuild website Benjamin, co-founder of Urban Bees, will be offering top tips for potential urban beekeepers on Wednesday 2 March, in Cityscape theatre two, at 11am.

Sustainable materials

In addition to the hundreds of products already made from recycled materials that are on display at Ecobuild, Kingston University will be looking for the construction industry to use sustainable materials seen in other sectors but little used in design and construction.


Rematerialise, a library of 1,200 samples of sustainable materials from 15 countries, is being launched by Kingston University. The materials have been selected to provide an environmentally responsible alternative to more resource-hungry materials and include post-consumer and post-industrial waste streams, scrap and refuse otherwise destined for landfill. The library holds information on a material’s recycled content and its sustainable attributes along with technical data and examples of current applications for each material. The database was recently used to advise retailer Marks & Spencer on the use of appropriate sustainable materials for its new headquarters.


Part of the collection – including finished products manufactured from sustainable materials – will be showcased at Ecobuild to inspire further collaboration with industry and to bring to designers’ attention to sustainable materials not yet used in construction.


by Andy Pearson.
On January 18, 2011, in Observations, by Bob Borson – What is creativity? That was the question presented to a group of us who participate in a event where we are write on the same topic. It is an interesting exercise and one that I take part of quite frequently. So what is creativity? That is a leading question simply because creativity can manifest itself in many forms. Writing this blog 3 or 4 times a week takes an obscene amount of creativity if I do say so myself. In an effort to help define what creative can define, let’s consider some synonyms:

 cleverness   ingenuity   originality   imaginativeness

 Who doesn’t have these traits in some form or another? When I was younger, being “creative” simply meant you were artistic and that you used your creativity to produce items of visual merit. I don’t feel that way anymore – not since I met my wife Michelle – the resident Borson household genius with the masters degree in Mathematics. I am constantly amazed by how smart she is and how her brain processes information. I’m not going to say she is always right but it is hard for me to win an argument against her. My debating technique has more to do with misdirection and confusion but she can rationally and logically peel away what I am saying and befuddle me. Truth be told, that’s one of the reasons why I married her, because I love how she thinks.

I started thinking that creativity has more to do with how a person thinks, views, and processes information rather than their ability to draw or paint well. As a result I think some of the most creative people are scientists – people who don’t generally come to mind when the topic of creativity comes up. These are people who conceive of the unthinkable and envision the unknowable. People like Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, and Robert Oppenheimer, among many, many others. If you are unfamiliar of these men and what they did, take some time and look them up on Wikipedia. If all you know is their work on the Manhattan project, you are considering only a small part of their story. Besides developing concepts that made things like the atom and hydrogen bomb a reality, these people were visionary thinkers.

But you don’t have to be a genius level intellect to have demonstrate creativity. Sometimes it’s about being clever and noticing what’s around you and realizing that you can do something with what you see. Like Velcro.

Close Up Of Velcro

Most people have heard the story about how Velcro came to exist. The idea for Velcro is credited to a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral … in 1941. Apparently the idea came to him one day after taking his dog for a walk and saw all the burs that were sticking to his pet’s fur. He examined them under a microscope and noticed that the burs were made up of hundreds of hooks that were catching on anything that had a loop. Despite not being taken seriously, Mestral continued to develop the idea for Velcro. In the end, it took over 10 years before he was able to create a mechanized process that could recreate the hook and loop system he saw under his microscope years prior.

How about a composer how couldn’t hear? Ludwig can Beethoven was born December 17, 1770 and started losing his hearing in 1796 when he was 26 years old. He lived and continued to compose music for until his death in 1827 having decided that despite his profound hearing loss, he would continue living for and through his art. At the premiere of one of his most recognizable and famous pieces, the Ninth Symphony, he actually had to turn around after conducting the performance to see if people were clapping or not. For someone as interested in music as I am, I can’t convey how unbelieveable that is to me.

Creativity surrounds all of us everyday and there are no uncreative people. How people interact with their world shapes their experience – positively and negatively – but it is unique to their own doing.

Source: LifeAsAnArchitect



While conjuring up comfort in the home seems like a basic principle, it’s a far more complex process for architect & remodeling guru Sarah Susanka, who believes that comfort can significantly influence the sustainability of your personal abode. With her mantra of “build better, not bigger,” Susanka promotes quality over quantity whenremodeling a home. Through transforming your living space into a more beautiful and comfortable environment, Susanka says that any home’s occupants will automatically take better care of their space in a more sustainable way. We sat down with Susanka to get the low-down on how to do more with less when revamping your space.

TIP 1 – Re-evaluate the Space You’re Working With

Remodeling is often associated with building an addition onto a home. However, Susanka is a strong advocate of re-evaluating the space that your home already contains and working within that original floor plan whenever possible. As she says, it’s important to ask yourself how you can make your existing house more tailored to the way you live. Instead of jumping ahead and planning a structural addition without any thorough thought, take a moment to consider whether or not you could work within the space you already have available. Ask yourself these questions: Do you really need more space? How much space do you need to be comfortable in your home? Can you borrow from the adjacent space to conjure the extra square footage you need? Then, as a last resort, consider a bump out or a small addition.

Unfortunately, most people start at the last resort instead of first weighing the other more economical and quality-generating options. Remodeling can be a difficult and often stressful project, so if you doubt anything along the way, look into hiring a professional to assist in the process. As Susanka says, “When we are having surgery, we normally don’t do it ourselves. Remodeling your home is one of the most expensive investments of a lifetime so we want it done well.” If you are in the market for a pro that understands Susanka’s philosophy on renovation, check out her Home Professional Directory for an expert in your area.

TIP 2 – Get an Energy Audit

When you start engaging in a remodeling project, one of the first things to check off the list is an energy audit. This helps you identify some of the most cost effective ways to make your home more sustainable, and those shifts can easily be incorporated into the changes throughout the rest of the renovation process.

Susanka tells Inhabitat that 20% of carbon emissions come from existing housing stock. By incorporating energy audits into the renovation process, not only will you end up with economical savings, but you will also contribute to the larger home emissions issue. This will help make your home easier to maintain as well as reduce your carbon footprint. It’s a win-win situation for both you and the environment!

TIP 3 – Invest in Quality Over Quantity

When you get home and enter a space that exudes quality and character, you automatically feel more at home. On the other hand, if you go overboard with quantity because it’s the knee-jerk response to generate change, you end up with a lot of uninspiring stuff. What Susanka reiterates throughout her books is the importance of utilizing the space you have to its highest potential. By creating a room that’s comfortable to be in, we are motivated to care for and sustain its beauty. Instead of tossing dollars around to quantify space, use your budget to induce quality elements that address your particular needs and aesthetics.

Ask yourself what will add more of your own personality into your space. What colors, shapes, or artwork do you enjoy looking at? Which rooms do you spend the majority of your time in? Do you have good heating and cooling systems that maintain a comfortable atmosphere in your home? These thought-generating questions will help you determine the best ways to approach the concept of quality over quantity.

TIP 4 – Use Lighting to Amplify Perspective

The way you introduce light into a space can have an enormous effect on an environment, hugely improving its quality and character. Susanka can’t say enough about how reflective surfaces can influence rooms throughout your abode. Reflective surfaces help bounce light around, augmenting the presence of natural light within a space.

One less obvious way to do this is by adding a built-in bookshelf near a window. The shelving edges act as reflective surfaces, bouncing extra light into the room.

Another option is to place a window adjacent to a perpendicular wall, instead of in its typical central location; that wall then becomes a reflective surface as well. Finally, placing soffits above windows can help transfer light into a room. All of these alternative lighting sources help with the ambiance and feel of a space.

TIP 5 – Enhance Your Space With Color

The way the light falls on different colors can completely transform a room. Determine the most important wall in each room — the place to which you want to draw peoples’ attention — and paint it to your heart’s desire.

This is the point in remodeling that can allow for personal freedom of expression in your home. Susanka points out that there’s no need to be shy in this process; be creative and experiment with a variety of colors to sense how they each make you feel in the space. Paint large pieces of paper in all the colors you could imagine and even all the colors that you’d never expect to use. You might just find that the brightest or most unexpected shade fits perfectly on your favorite wall.

Images from Sarah Susanka and Mark Vassallo’s book, Not So Big Remodeling, published by Taunton Press in 2009; by photographer Randy O’Rourke.

Green Remodeler – Sarah Susanka

Sarah Susanka, FAIA, is the leader of a movement that is redefining the American home and lifestyle. Through her “build better, not bigger” approach to residential design she has demonstrated that the sense of “home” we seek has to do with quality, not quantity.  A thought leader and acclaimed architect, Susanka is the best-selling author of nine books that collectively weave together home and life design, revealing that a “Not So Big” attitude serves not only architectural aims, but life goals as well.  Her books have sold well over one million copies.  Susanka’s most recent book, More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home, was released in February, 2010.  Join her online community at

Article taken from Inhabitat – Green Design Will Save the World –
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