Monday, February 4, 2013

Commona-be green: A guest post by my friend, Amy O'Meara of Corporate EcoForum

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All week here on Commona-my House I will be sharing "Green" ideas for your home....inspired by my family because that is what my home revolves around. It is going to be a fun week, full of amazing ideas and projects, not to mention GIVE AWAYS!!! So keep coming back each day this week!

I have had the pleasure of having several friends that I've known for pretty much my whole life. There are a handful of friends that I played with practically from birth, in the small town that I grew up in. Several of these amazing friends have grown up to become accomplished professionals, and in Amy O's case, a global expert. My dear, sweet, brilliant and very accomplished friend Amy O'Meara, Director of Corporate EcoForum has recently moved to Maplewood, NJ from New York City. She is a life long environmental and human rights activist, having worked at the Clinton Global Initiative and Amnesty International, believing that every effort can change the direction that our world and civilization is headed in.
There are small things that we can do every day to be more pro-active and Amy has given Commona-my House a fabulous starting point on several topics that directly impact the quality of life of your family and your community.
Amy O'Meara


Commona Be Green, Guest Post by Amy O'Meara
When Amy asked me to guest blog at first I didn't think I would be a good fit for Commona My House - as far as the "style" side of design goes, I'm not any sort of expert. I can't even honestly call home decorating a hobby! Her questions to me were about how my expertise in environmental sustainability has shaped my home, and related to that, what I love and what I plan to change about our space. Good questions, since we are really new home owners - having moved from a rental in Manhattan to a 150 year old farm house in Maplewood, NJ just a few months ago. She reassured me that she was just as interested in things like energy efficiency and minimizing toxins as she was about decorating with a green focus. The fact is, Amy has already snuck a ton of green decorating ideas into Commona My House, like restoring antiques, upcycling and repurposing old pieces so rather than compete with her on that front, I've tried to compile some advice that I've gathered over the years into 4 guiding principles, which I hope will provide a little something for everyone.
Green principle #1: Home is where the environmental footprint is.
For most people, the bulk of the environmental damage we are doing to the planet begins at home, and understanding the ways that we are contributing to these problems is a good first step toward mitigating that harm. By (often inefficiently) using fossil fuels for heating, cooling and electricity, our homes contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Where we choose to live affects the kind of transportation we rely on, and how far we need to travel - additional sources of emissions and pollution. Our water use, the food we eat and throw away, the trash we send to the landfill, the chemicals we use to clean our houses, clothes and selves, and the chemicals present in the objects that we fill our rooms with - all of these things are often intrinsically connected to each other, and to the places we call home. So in thinking about what to include in this post, I asked myself Amy's question another way: how does my home enable me to minimize or neutralize the environmental damage that my family is causing?
For us it started with location. When we decided to move out of the city, I was concerned about how it would increase our negative impact on the environment. I knew that city living, in particular in Manhattan, has a much smaller footprint in virtually every way compared to the 'burbs. So, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we could gain the things we wanted out of suburban living without taking on all the negative environmental impacts commonly associated with sprawl. For instance, though we have a car (in the city we kept it at a garage and used it 1-2 times a month), we didn't want to be reliant on it, or become a 2-car family. So we chose a town that would minimize our need to drive anywhere - a so-called "walkable suburb." We wanted a yard big enough to accommodate our dogs and kids, and with room for habitat gardening and maybe some chickens someday, but we didn't want to waste water or use herbicides on a massive green mat of manicured grass. Perhaps most important, we did not want a large house. And that leads me to my second green principle...
Green Principle #2: Small is beautiful!
Size is relative. We had an unusually palatial apartment in Manhattan by NYC standards (a benefit of living in the far north of the city) - about 1,200 square feet, including an enviable extra half bath. But I have learned that for non-New Yorkers, this is considered small. We had our two boys sharing a bedroom, which doubled as a guest room, and used the office space for my husband's guitar repair shop.  It always felt just right to us, spacious even!  Our main reason for leaving NYC was the desire for more outdoor space, not a bigger indoor space. But when we started looking in Maplewood, we were confronted with the opposite - giant houses with tiny yards.  I'll admit, there were times when we would walk into a 2,200 square foot home and think, WOW, this is awesome! ("Bigger is better" is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.) But as we wandered around each cavernous house, we'd think about furnishing it, cleaning it, and of course, heating and cooling all that (unneeded, in our case) space. Echoing in my head was everything I've ever learned about the problems with most buildings: they hog energy, waste water, and trap all kinds of toxins in closed spaces. And the oft-repeated mantra: “If you have extra space, you will fill it up.” So, I have come to love a well-designed small space: multi-use without feeling cramped; rooms that bring the outdoors in; homes where every room gets used; and a physical reminder to think carefully before I add more stuff. I think we've found that. It's about 1,600 square feet, still gigantic by Manhattan standards, but considered "quaint" here in Maplewood, LOL.
This is not to say a small house makes sense for everyone - the key here is to avoid excess and overconsumption. And if you choose a large house, to look for other ways to minimize your impact, for instance through renewable energy and responsible consumer choices.
As planned, our modest house was offset by a large yard. A half-acre, which in Maplewood is usually enough space for 4 houses!  On the upside, we have loads of mature trees that provide valuable shade and help hold moisture, reducing runoff on our property. Because of them, we are not candidates for solar panels, but the energy we save by naturally cooling our house with shade probably equals what we would save if we had to air condition with solar power.  The downside: a big green weedless lawn (what we currently have) isn't exactly what nature intended.  It's a drain on water and can lead down a slippery slope of pesticide and herbicide use, to the detriment of local wildlife, family health, and water and soil purity. So, we have dreams of introducing mosses instead of traditional grass, of converting the landscaping to chemical-free native wildflower habitat and raised-bed vegetable gardens. And in the meantime, instead of chasing the crab grass with Round-Up, which is extraordinarily toxic to people and wildlife, I will  look at my lawn through my "green-colored glasses."
Green Principle #3: Put on your green-colored glasses.
In other words, challenge your assumptions about what makes a room (or a yard) beautiful – and what makes it ugly.
I see beauty in things that other people might find ugly (solar panels), unpolished (worn wood floors), ordinary (hand me down furniture), old (a car with 150K miles), unkempt (an overgrown, or perhaps brown lawn) or even dirty (or at least not antiseptic!) - because I see what is good from a sustainability standpoint. To me, anything that is designed to be more in tune with the natural environment, and the limitations of our natural resources, is a thing of beauty.  The opposite is also true for me - sometimes when I am in a place that others consider gorgeous, I am uncomfortably conscious of how unnecessarily large it is, and how it is wasting energy or has displaced a natural habitat. I am hyper-conscious (annoyingly so, even to myself) of the way new carpets and furniture are off-gassing; or  a fresh paint job or newly poly'd wood floors are emitting noxious fumes; or the signature scents of  common cleaning products like Windex, Tide, or bleach, which I've learned contain toxins that trigger my migraines. While a lot of people are getting on the natural cleaning products bandwagon, and avoiding things like BPA, many don't realize how toxic other common products can be, especially brand new furniture, rugs and flooring - problems often compounded by hermetically sealing up rooms and recirculating air. Upholstered furniture, mattresses, compressed wood, leather, vinyl - all off-gas, sometimes for years (yes, years). Yet most people bring them home, close the doors and windows and breathe deep, thinking they have something clean and new, even relishing in that  "new car scent." Gives me a headache just thinking about it! When it comes to stuff, second-hand is almost always best for the environment, your health, and your budget, with a few exceptions (like some appliances, see below).
Carpeting is an area where a lot of people may not realize the environmental consequences. Our house came with some wall-to-wall berber in the family room, stairs and office. Berber can be pretty sustainable depending on what kind you buy, and it has a nice natural look. Unfortunately our menagerie has already stomped, puked, peed and pooped on ours. But even beyond the constant stain cleaning, carpets make me uneasy. New carpets can bring with them toxicity and indoor air issues. But very old carpets, especially wall-to-wall, also have a host of problems, such as mold, mildew, and the dust from decomposing fibers and disintegrating padding. Despite the unsightly stains, which we have covered with area rugs, ours is in good shape so we're going to leave it as is for now, but someday I hope to rip it out and replace with something easier to clean that is also more sustainable.
A home’s scent can be as important as its d├ęcor. Just remember that sometimes air pollution smells good: those plug-in air fresheners, Febreze, unnaturally scented candles, air sprays, fabric softeners, perfume. When you add chemicals to the air that are known (though unregulated) neurotoxins or endocrine disruptors, it doesn't matter how good they smell, it's still air pollution! So it's not just about retraining your eyes to see things differently, it's about training your nose to smell things differently. Instead of "clean" train your brain to think "toxic" when you smell things like ammonia, bleach, and other unnatural products. Believe me, I thought I would never be able to overcome my love of the smell of fabric softener, but now I completely prefer linens with no smell at all (and have been known to wrap hotel pillowcases in my own clothes so I don't have a faceful of artificial fragrance).
I first learned about these sorts of toxic risks, including pesticides and indoor air, from Nicholas Ashford, who I took a class with at MIT when I was working on my Masters dissertation 15 years ago. Take a look at his bio and you'll see this guy knows his stuff. What I learned from him changed the way I see/smell just about everything in the world, especially when it comes to long-term exposure to low-level toxins, and the degree to which most ubiquitous chemicals in our society are virtually unregulated. After I graduated and started working in corporate responsibility, I learned the inspiring story of Ray Anderson, former CEO of one of the most globally successful carpet companies, Interface, who is famous for calling himself out as a "plunderer of the earth" and more importantly, a "recovering plunderer." Believe me, if he was able to fess up to his company’s environmental damage, and completely rethink the way carpet is made and sold in order to neutralize his business' footprint, we can all take steps individually to do the same. And that leads me to the last of my green principles...
Green Principle #4: All forms of waste and toxicity are design challenges to be solved.
My inspiration on this front has been Bill McDonough, a brilliant architect who developed the concept of "Cradle to Cradle" design. I'll never forget the first time that I heard Bill implore people to not just be "less bad" but to begin from a place of principles when making product, building or urban design choices. To think about what our design choices say about us as a culture. He was sitting on stage with a top dog from a leading consumer products company that was making money hand over foot on products made with known toxins, destined for the landfill, but who was getting billed as a sustainability leader because they had saved a bit of energy and water in their operations. His point really resonated with me – as did the courage he showed by challenging business as usual. That day I decided that if I expected companies to aspire to more than "less bad" then I would have to do the same.
Of course, "less bad" is a necessary place to start for many of us, especially when financial limitations come into play. For instance, my house is not zero-waste by any stretch of the imagination, so objects or processes that make it more efficient are top of my to do list. I try to think about waste - wasted energy, wasted time, wasted space, wasted water, and plain old trash - as ugly design flaws to be fixed. Maybe efficiency can't be seen and enjoyed like a new lamp or couch, but when I know it's there, it brings me a similar kind of joy. For instance, when we bought our house, we became the owners of a relatively new dishwasher and washing machine.  As I mentioned earlier, appliances are really the one place where buying new often makes sense, since the improvements in energy efficiency, even over the past 5 years, have been vast. The key, though, is using them correctly - always running the dishwasher full, and not rinsing dishes before you put them in (it is physically painful for me to watch people do this); and washing ALL clothes in cold water (even cloth diapers) - really!! These machines are made to work this way! And you will not only be more green, but save yourself money and hassle if you unlearn the bad habits of rinsing dishes and washing in hot. Trust me.
Seeking even more efficiency gains, we recently had an environmental audit of our house done, which used special tools to measure how well the house holds heat, as well as identify other opportunities to improve energy use and indoor air quality. We learned tons about the inner workings of our house, including the pipes, ducts and windows, and will soon be making several improvements, such as blowing cellulose insulation into the rafters and (currently uninsulated) walls , and wrapping the exposed pipes in our basement. We're going to save a lot of money in the short and long run, and our house will stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer - possibly even eliminating the need for air conditioning! But for all those benefits, I most relish the fact that we won't be wasting. It has upfront costs, but luckily there are lots of government incentives to implement energy efficiency efforts in your home, which can make them close to free.
Other ways that I try to be "less bad" include minimizing the amount of stuff I send to the landfill.  We re-use and recycle everything we can, and compost all our food scraps. When it comes to furniture, I keep things for their entire usable life if I can stand it, and when I need to replace or want something new, I buy used from neighbors, craigs list or antiques shops, and try to upcycle, recycle, or pass on the old piece rather than sending it to the heap. I clean almost exclusively with vinegar and water (plus peppermint or lavender oil) and when I buy personal care items and food, I purchase as sustainably as I can. Even though new green home decor options are great (and often beautiful even in the traditional sense), I always try to consider the energy footprint of disposing of the old and building the new - as it is almost always true that holding onto something, even when there is a more eco-friendly  alternative, is more environmentally responsible than disposal and replacement.
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Ultimately, our homes are not just the place where we hang our hat. They are our sanctuary, the place where we build our families, nurture our passions, love. They are also a reflection, to some degree, of who we are. We accept that when we choose the books we display on our shelves, the photos and artwork we showcase on our walls. We need to think about how our other home choices also reflect who we are and the kind of world we want to live in. Sure, sometimes, all those choices reflect is that we are human: susceptible, impressionable, overwhelmed. I'm also a big believer in being kind to myself and not feeling bad about every poor choice I make (and I make lots of them, really). But we also have to come to terms with the fact that the planet is in dire straits, and it's our obligation to address our individual parts. Our homes are one domain that we have lots of control over, and a perfect place to start.
Additional links:
www.practicallygreen.com

3 comments:

  1. Thank you so much Amy O'Meara. This was fascinating to read, a bit scary, and motivating. I've sent out a link to it to all my friends. I'm committing myself to do better...get greener.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Dianne! So glad that you liked reading Amy O'Meara's take on what we can all do, starting in our homes. Love you! XXXOOO!

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing this awesome post with your readers. Good job with the same.
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