The US Open of Renovation

For the gazillionth time, we’re renovating. It’s like a sport for us…one that’s yet to be fully mastered.

This time the kitchen is ripped apart. The windows over the sink rotted. Mosquitoes have begun to congregate around gaping peepholes eyeing their prey -- us. I'm sure I know what they're buzzing about -- my dated cabinets and countertops.

The living room has been in a constant state of redo. Currently, it is striped with paint samples just waiting for Ben Moore to prance in on his off-white horse with his eco-supreme Aura. He’ll just point his magic fan-thingy at the not-too-white wall colors and pick one that won’t send us into a toxic stupor.

Why can't I decide which color? I'm too busy swooning over the luscious names on the cute sample cans of color goodness - Baby Fawn, White Dove, Sea Pearl, Lambskin, French Canvas, Nirvana...Sigh.

This is not the first time I’ve pondered the power of paint, but this is the first time I'm stymied by all the choices. I may decide which paint color solely because I'm feeling the name. Hands down, it will be Nirvana.

We’ve renovated this house so many times its already won trophies for skinless facelifts. But, the wins have been few and far between since all renovations were put on hold when the kids went to college. How could we pay tuitions and feed a revamping addiction? When the kids packed their bags - lock stock and skateboard, I seriously considered moving. Maybe I secretly wanted to adopt a clean slate to take the place of the kids?

I got another dog instead.

Anyway, that's old news, and moving was not an option. We are invested in our not too big house in the woods. Not just in the money-pit kind of way, but in a way that says we’re going to get this house whipped into shape if it’s the last thing we do.

With the kids out of college, renovation bets are off. We’ve kicked into high gear again - our sights fixed on the prize. Only this time we have no choice – the kitchen windows are falling off the house.

3 discoveries about the latest renovation…

1. I used to love combing the books and shelter mags discovering the perfect mix of style and sustainability.

2. He used to love strapping on his toolbelt to slay home improvement projects that most of my friends thought only super contractors could do.

3. We’re tired.

He tells me these projects are killing his back. I can tell, he still loves the challenge, but he’s thinking maybe some young stud could come in and bang away at the mess. It might even save on prolotherapy bills (look it up, it seems to work for him). I don’t feel like spending the time it takes to find exactly what it is I want. Yet, I won’t be happy with anything less.

I’m pining for that decorator who told me my house had "good bones" (yes, that's me and interior designer, Jayne Christie - thank you, Danny).

Since we’re still paying many of those college loans off, the decorator idea is a pipe dream. So, I’ve unearthed the ‘ol tried and true renovation books in hopes that one will tell me that it is ok to just expand and replace the kitchen windows and close my eyes to all the other sagging and dated details crying out for attention.

Did I mention the cabinets are in pretty bad shape and the countertops are ugly?

We could replace the 30-yr old kitchen cabinets with slick glass doors, or totally ditch the cabinets - a look I absolutely love, but where’s the stuff stashed? Oh, one book says the cabinets can be painted. Hmm, then I could spend the savings on the countertops.

Tell me…has anyone ever painted solid wood cabinets and made them actually look good?

When we bought this house 26 years ago, we loved the kitchen. But, I seem to remember we solemnly pledged on our infant daughter to dump the counters as soon as we had enough dough. We soon found the kitchen was functional, and…really, at the time, the most important items in the kitchen were child-safety locks that didn’t pinch fingers.

A lifetime later, the kitchen hosts a professional stove, a slick bottom freezer/fridge, a slew of restaurant quality pots and pans (he would go for nothing less), and enough wine and wine glasses to inebriate a village.

The countertops?

Life got in the way. The counters got put on the back burner. And now that the windows are in disintegration-mode, the counters are rearing their ugly heads.

Last month, at the US Open of Renovation, I swear I read a ruling stating:

“New cabinets and counters can be grandfathered in with new windows – especially if you have important company coming over soon.”

No, Serena, he says. You can not make up rules. The rulebook clearly says:

“Do not spend beyond our means.”

Oh, pleeeze. This is not a spectator sport.

I’m changing that rule.

Credits: dog - Jen Kiaba, cartoon - Danny Shanahan

Clean Air Design: 5 Cool Picks

Can clean air design change the world? Like most artists, designers create objects for our families that reflect social and environmental issues and trends. To solve a health and environmental problem such as air pollution, designers are doing their part in creating homes, clothing, cars and communities that address the crisis.

The Moms Clean Air Force has been chronicling the hazardous connection between where people live and the environmental factors that expose children to pollutants that cause significant health risks, such as lung disease, asthma, lead poisoning, cancer, reproductive impacts, birth defects, and even heart attacks. Air and water are the primary conveyances of pollutants and toxins, but exposure can also occur through contaminated soil during the fracking process.

“Good air quality is key to promoting respiratory health...The main sources of air pollution are area sources (dry cleaners, lawn mowers, etc.), mobile sources (cars, trucks, off-road equipment), and stationary sources (factories, power plants, etc.). These different sources produce different types of pollutants that can cause problems for respiratory health, cardiovascular health, and cancer treatment. Locating sensitive land uses in close proximity to polluting facilities or major roadways can raise health concerns for sensitive populations. Some pollutants tend to have a greater effect over an entire metropolitan area and others drop off fairly quickly away from the source.” ~ Design For Health

5 Clean Air Designs

1. Car Removes 95% of Ozone Toyota has developed a material that can remove 95% of unreacted ozone or ground-level air pollutants from the air when used in an ozone filter. What does this mean? The future car you drive could clean the air instead of polluting it. Read more about this at Inhabitat.

2. Breathing Walls Plants have the ability to do more than just bring a hint of nature into your home. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen during the photosynthetic process. Researchers found many common houseplants absorb benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, and other pollutants. Plants can improve indoor air quality. DIRTT Environmental Solutions created the Breathe Living Wall system for health and energy-savings. The wall lessens the load of ventilation systems, and introduces more healthful plants into living spaces. Read more about this at Top 10 Green Building Products.

3. Clean Air Communities Smart Growth designers and planners are designing communities that include plans for driving less. “With over nine million children in the U.S. suffering from asthma and millions more Americans who die each year due to high levels of air pollution, designing communities in ways that reduce traffic and encourage healthy options like walking and bicycling are crucial.” Read more about this at Smart Growth: Healthy Communities, Healthy People.

4. Buildings Eat Smog Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of America's energy use. Much of this energy comes from coal-fired plants and other dirty sources. Alcoa created EcoClean building panels with a titanium dioxide coating that interacts with sunlight and breaks down nitrogen oxide - the smog-causing compound. The process happens naturally when rain washes off a building. Alcoa claims that 10,000 square feet of coated aluminum would have the air-cleaning effects of 80 trees. Read more about this at Good.

5. Catalytic Clothes Purify Polluted Air OK, this one is my favorite. Catalytic Clothing has created a dress that can purify polluted air through a chemical reaction on the surface of the fabric. They claim the dress can reverse the environmental impact of air pollution!

“Exposure to airborne pollutants presents a risk to human health and also has a detrimental effect on ecosystems and vegetation…The widespread introduction of Catalytic Clothing would dramatically reduce the level of airborne pollutants, thereby improving the quality of life for all members of society.”

Check out this video featuring a model wearing an air purifying dress - background track by Radiohead. Read more about this at The Ecologist.

Can “design thinking” imbue a wide spectrum of solutions to help in the air pollution crusade? You bet. Good clean air design can change the world! Want to join designers as they connect the dots between design, the environment and our health? The Moms Clean Air Force is an innovative community of parents devoted to finding creative solutions to keep our children breathing the clean air they deserve. Please help us design a future for our children free of pollution. Thank you!

Credit: Ben Scott

Building A Sustainable Future: The Greenest Living Building and Biomimicry

As an environmental writer, I have the unique opportunity to explore a multitude of eco-related subjects. With environmental news rightfully focused on catastrophic events such as the Gulf Oil Spill, and stories about greenwashing running rampant, it may seem like there’s a fog descending upon the green world. But, I source exciting fresh information daily, I'm impressed with the level of new eco-friendly products and sustainable materials available.

As a blogger I feel that it is my duty and honor to dish out environmental news and commentary about things that have the capacity to enrich the environment and hopefully, create a more sustainable future for our kids.

I was invited last month to the Omega Institute of Holistic Studies to tour one of the most sustainable buildings in the world and listen to architects, designers and eco-visionaries discuss the inspirational process of creating the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL). The OCLS is a state-of-the-art water reclamation facility and environmental education center that brings together wastewater recycling, clean energy, green architecture and other sustainability elements that can be replicated locally and globally.

Omega spent the last four years working to achieve one of the most prestigious honors in the green world – The Living Building Challenge. To make this happen, Omega had to reach the most advanced level of sustainability in a built environment. Here we (writers and photographers) are hearing Omega's, Skip Backus talk about building the OCSL:

Three awe-inspiring things I learned at the OCSL:

1. As a high-performance designed building, the OCSL is powered by passive solar heating, a geothermal system, a photovoltaic power and includes a greenhouse and green roof, constructed wetlands and a green classroom that integrate seamlessly with the natural environment. 2. The OCSL is a teaching facility that teaches Omega participants as well as local schoolchildren how to adopt sustainable living practices in their own lives and homes. 3. From waste come life – At the core of the center is a greenhouse with a living water filtration system that uses plants, bacteria, algae, snails and fungi to recycle Omega’s wastewater (approximately 5 million gallons per year) into clean water used to restore the aquifer. To watch a video about the OCSL and learn more CLICK HERE.

While I was visiting Omega, a conference called, Design By Nature: Creative Solutions With Biomimicry, Permaculture & Sustainable Design was in full swing. This event brought together some of the nation’s foremost leaders in the fields of biomimicry, permaculture, and sustainable architecture. The main objective was to explore the creative potential of these promising green technologies for the sustainability of the planet.

Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a fascinating emerging science that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.

Biomimicry can answer questions such as:

How would nature get water to the desert? How would nature heat and cool a home? How would nature create color without harmful chemicals or dyes? How would nature create non-toxic waterproof adhesive?

To find the answers to these questions and read more about how biomimicry can change our lives CLICK HERE.

As we hope to forge towards a more sustainable future, we can learn so much from "living buildings" like the OCSL at Omega, and scientific ideas such as biomimicry. They truly fill me with the promise of a bright green future.

Photo Credits: Omega Institute and Care2