Going green / Alternative materials
For sustainable style
Kevin Connors of Eco_Logic Studio focuses on sustainability.
Photos by Luke Copping
When it comes to choosing eco-friendly materials for your home, few products are perfect, and, because we all define “sustainable” differently, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Some items may require less energy to produce, for example, but are difficult to recycle at the end of their lives. Many green materials are readily available at local shops but may have traveled long distances to get there.
No matter what sustainability means to you, the good news is there are more eco-friendly alternatives available than ever before to help you reduce your home’s impact on the planet (and save money long-term through improved energy efficiency). Here are some to consider when planning your next project.
The easiest way to improve your home’s energy efficiency is by eliminating leaks where outside air comes in and prompts increased heating or cooling, depending on the season. “In the wintertime, if you have a nice down jacket, it really helps if you zip it up when it’s zero degrees out,” says Kevin Connors, founder and principal of Eco_Logic Studio, a local architecture and engineering firm with a focus on sustainability. “If you don’t, it’s equivalent to what a lot of houses built in the last thirty years are susceptible to: little gaps. In a whole house, those cracks add up.”
To get started, you need to locate those gaps, as well as any other opportunities to improve energy efficiency. NYSERDA, the state’s energy research and development authority, offers free and reduced-price home energy audits, which assess how much energy your home uses, uncovers inefficiencies and health/safety concerns, and recommends solutions; visit nyserda.ny.gov to learn more.
Even if you don’t wish to do a full energy assessment, Connors says it’s simple to identify some issues on your own. “Walk around your house—you don’t need sophisticated tools—and feel where the air is blowing in,” he says, then recommends weather-stripping or window film during colder months.
If you need more insulation, Connors suggests cellulose over traditional foam, if possible. “Cellulose is the most common [alternative] material for above-ground insulation. It’s basically recycled newspaper,” he says. Also pay close attention to the insulation’s R-value, or its resistance to heat flow—the higher the number, the more efficient the insulation will be.
Another common source of leaks is old or inefficient windows. Connors recommends avoiding vinyl, which is included on the Red List of the most harmful materials for building by the International Living Institute, right alongside other pollutants like asbestos, lead, mercury, phthalates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). You can’t always avoid vinyl—for example, PVC piping is ubiquitous for drainage—but, for windows, Connors steers clients toward wood frames.
“You can get a vinyl window for twenty-five percent less than the cost of a wood window, but they’re worth about twenty-five percent—or less—in value because they don’t hold up,” he says. “Vinyl has plasticizers in it that are off-gassing and [the window] ends up more brittle five years from now.”
Connors advises searching out natural materials and sustainably managed wood products.
By now, most consumers know that Energy Star-certified appliances are backed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their energy efficiency. But Connors recommends going one step further to reduce or eliminate reliance on fossil fuels: swap gas-powered ranges and dryers for electric units and consider transitioning your home to renewable energy by adding solar power or converting your conventional furnace or boiler to an air-source heat pump or another renewable heat source.
“For me, that’s the last thing you do,” Connors says. “There’s no sense having a rack of [solar] panels on your roof if your house leaks like a sieve, or if the efficiency on your furnace is eighty-two percent. Tackle the envelope first, then tackle the appliances, and then put something on your roof to save the little bit that’s left in heating and cooling.”
If you’re freshening up a room, choose paint with low or no VOCs to prevent harmful toxins from invading your space. Blue Sky Design Supply, an eco-friendly home design store at 978 Elmwood Avenue, offers two options: chalk paint and clay paint. Low-VOC chalk paint is best for upcycling furniture, as wood pieces shouldn’t require sanding or priming. Meanwhile, clay paint is not only free from VOCs and odors, but it also absorbs other toxins in the air.
Also at Blue Sky, you’ll find low-VOC wood stains and finishes by Vermont Natural Coatings, which uses whey protein to replace toxic solvents commonly found in other coatings. In addition, the store carries Daddy Van’s all-natural furniture wax, made from beeswax, carnauba wax, and natural pigment.
“Here’s a good rule,” Connors says. “If you already have it, it makes sense to refurbish or renovate if you can.” In other words, rather than buying new, reupholster your tired dining room chairs or give your old kitchen cabinets a facelift. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box: Connors has worked on projects where contractors turned discarded church pews into windowsills and organ pipes into balusters.
If you must replace worn items, shop first at secondhand and antique stores, or contact a local carpenter or furniture maker. By shopping local, you’ll eliminate the emissions created by transporting a product from some warehouse thousands of miles away. Plus, antique or handmade items are usually higher quality than mass-produced pieces, which extends their lifetime and reduces waste.
Flooring and finishing
Choose natural materials, like wood, cork, or stone. With hardwood, look for products with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which identifies it as coming from responsibly managed forests (this also applies to any paper or wood product from copy paper to cereal boxes to furniture).
Connors suggests linoleum—“and by linoleum I don’t mean [peel-and-stick] sheets—that’s vinyl,” he says. “Natural linoleum is made from linseed oil from trees, and it’s a wonderful product that wears really well. It has a different feel to it.”
Like furniture, you may also find finishings secondhand at places like ReUse Action (980 Northampton Street, Buffalo) and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore (501 Amherst Street and 1675 South Park Avenue, Buffalo). Meanwhile, Blue Sky Design Supply carries knobs from Aurora Glass, which makes them from discarded windows and donates profits to charity.