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by Sophie Castro & Karen Totino

Green building and green interiors are terms that have become very common and sometimes confusing. What do they mean and why would you want to choose ‘green’? In the last few years many architects and interior designers have been implementing an environmentally responsible approach to building, designing and decorating. This approach is two folds.

1- Resource and energy conservation. For instance stone, granite, slate, etc. are finite, which when depleted, cannot be restored. Forests are another example of a deplete resource - even though trees grow back, they take many years. These are incentives to rethink what materials should be used and what they should be made of. Then there are energy efficiency practices: by placing windows strategically to get more natural light, and by using sources of renewable energy (such as solar, wind power, etc.) we can make a real difference in atmosphere alteration and energy conservation.

Another aspect of preserving the environment is minimizing pollution. There is a concern about the disposal of construction and demolition materials, and its polluting effect. Building smaller and smarter reduces the amount that ends up in the landfills – and whatever is discarded should be recyclable or biodegradable.

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2- Health, safety and welfare. There has been an increase in ‘sick building syndrome’, affecting adults, children and pets, and a growing interest to build homes and design interiors that do not out-gas harmfully. This includes the use of safe materials for pipes, insulation, flooring, furniture, and the use of natural textures and fibers that have not been sprayed, treated and glued with harsh chemicals (such as in upholstery, window treatments, carpets, mattresses, etc.)

Our planet preservation and our own health are certainly worth considering. Whenever we embark on building or renovating a home, it is important to research and ask questions about materials and finishes, and what impact they may have. You cannot assume that all building professionals are up to date with what is ‘green’ and safe to use. You should know however that in 2012 all members of the American Institute of Architects will be required to increase their yearly continuing education training on health, safety and welfare, and that energy efficiency and the study of environmental issues are included in those mandatory courses.

As in anything, the higher the demand, the better the selection, quality and pricing. A lot of us are under the impression that building and decorating with environmentally-friendly materials cost much more than using standard products. It is not always the case, and keeping the bigger picture of your health in mind is essential. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posts on its website: “Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, etc.” That statement alone should compel us to read the labels. Visit this link to learn more about what toxins should be avoided: http://transparency.perkinswill.com/Main

If you are on a limited budget and need to prioritize, be clear about how the spaces you are renovating will be used. Remember that children are more vulnerable to chemicals. Perhaps their bedrooms are a priority - what goes on their walls, what they sleep on and play on. If there is a room where you spend many hours regularly, such as a home office, you may want to ensure that there is no toxic offgasing from the new furniture and the carpet. The kitchen, where you prepare food and where the whole family gathers, is an important space to keep toxin free also – what are the counter tops made of? Is there a formaldehyde-smell coming off the new cabinets?

Store wallWe find that often, when building a new home, people have overlooked the finishes, and there is no money left for a non-toxic paint or a healthier floor. Think about it at the beginning. When choosing a contractor, past experience with a green project is a bonus but not a must. They should have an open mind and a willingness to research safer products and techniques. Make sure your expectation are reflected in the quote provided (the quote should include material cost and specific brands.) Homes and interior spaces should be comfortable, beautiful and healthy to live in. The indoor air you breathe in should not make you or your children sick. They are safe products on the market that makes a real difference. Sometimes they are even produced locally or not too far from home. Inquire. Ask around. Promote greener building practices by being informed and by caring about your own wellbeing.

Karen Totino & Sophie Castro own Green Conscience Home & Garden, 33 Church Street in Saratoga Springs (tel: 306-5196). Green Conscience  is a retail showroom that offers a variety of nontoxic and eco-friendly home improvement products. Sophie Castro is an interior designer who specializes in green and environmentally friendly solutions. For more info, email: Karen@greenconscience.com or dayaadesign@yahoo.com.

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