This green house

My life had never prepared me for home renovation. Heck, before I moved to Orlando I'd never lived in a house before -- I moved from one city apartment to another, so while I knew about calling the landlord when the kitchen light stopped working, the concept of contractors, masonry workers and Sheetrock installers was a foreign one. When my partner and I decided the College Park cottage we call home was getting a bit too tight around the shoulders, it was time for an addition and an education.

Heaven help us. We were lucky; we found a wonderful contractor. But our ideas were a bit off-center and our ecological demands quickly overtaxed the Orlando supply lines, sending us scurrying to the information gold mine of the Internet.

Try telling an insulation installer, even a sympathetic one, that fiberglass is not to be used, and he'll answer that there isn't anything else available. Ask your painter to use environmentally friendly paints, and there's a good chance a debate will ensue. Put "salvaged building material" on your acquisition list, and you'd better be talking about antiques.

All the naysayers are correct: Construction in Orlando is more important than construction with a conscience. So if protecting your family from potentially hazardous products and conserving the environment are your goals, better start doing some legwork, because it's all up to you. For every hazardous material that goes into assembly-line new construction, there are less harmful, low-impact -- dare I say "green" -- alternatives. Unfortunately, it's not an easy job and finding those alternatives becomes analogous to dealing with a grave medical situation; you have to become your own doctor, or in this case, your own builder.

The first shovel of dirt was dug on April 1, proving once again that you ignore omens at your own risk. Nothing extravagant was on our plans, just a couple of rooms tacked on to the back of the small house. But we had certain things in mind, and a major consideration was the ecological impact of the materials being used. Of course, even the simplest house renovation brings with it delays and no small amount of stress (said with my palm over my still-twitching eye). Being particular about quality or appearance makes the experience even harder. When you try to have a conscience, to make what you think are ethical choices, it can be quite a battle.

Potentially, there were 800 square feet of wood floor to lay, which could have meant cutting down a small hardwood forest. Yes, I know the wood is already cut and waiting in warehouses, and someone is going to use it. But it wouldn't be us. The world is running out of wood. Take the tiny country of Haiti as an example. Enormous harvests of ironwood and mahogany have reduced the island's forests from over half of the land in the 1950s to 1 percent today. One percent. Out of 6,800 acres, there are 52 acres of forest left. And that's one country. I can't even think about the rain forests. Haiti has had to turn to moneymaking crops -- mangoes, avocado and building-grade bamboo -- for economic survival and to halt the soil erosion caused by deforestation. (Thirty-six million tons of soil washes into the sea each year, which in turn poisons the ocean and smothers the coral reefs.)

We had been captivated by the allure of bamboo early on during a landscaping project. That's when we found solid wood floors made from bamboo. The pale-blond or caramel-colored planks are stunning, the slightly darker grain of the bamboo "knees" giving it a unique character. The wood is harder than oak and more stable than maple, meaning there are fewer rejected pieces upon installation and the floor doesn't cup a week later and have to be rehammered. Bamboo is an amazingly fast-growing grass; plantation groves replenish themselves in three years, since only the stalks are cut, not the roots. An oak tree isn't mature for harvesting until at least 20 and as much as 50 years, and once cut, it's dead. You do the math.

>We also looked at salvaged wood as a substitute. Even with the tremendous amount of deconstruction of old houses going on, there aren't many architectural salvage stores locally, which isn't unusual. At least 40 percent of the waste in landfills is from the housing industry.

Some salvage choices are Florida Victorian ( in DeLand, a high-end source of old doors, windows and flooring, and Historic Building Products Inc. in Ybor City (, with a facility loaded with salvaged beams and timbers from demolished Tampa warehouses. The look and feel of old floors is hard to match with new materials, but trying to get enough was too daunting.

Another option was linoleum, I mean the old recipe for floors: linseed oil, pine-tree resin and ground stone, made by companies like Armstrong and Forbo in an amazing array of colors. And cork is becoming popular again, a durable and soft material that's completely natural. Too bad the big home-improvement stores have neither.

So bamboo it was. On the positive side, bamboo is great-looking, durable and exotic, made without cutting down trees. And it was available locally. The negatives of bamboo? I can't think of one.

Even though the outside walls are made of concrete block, there was an enormous amount of lumber in the project. Unfortunately, the binding agent used to make particleboard and plywood is mostly formaldehyde, which can be an eye and throat irritant at best, and potentially harmful to the increasing number of chemically sensitive among us. The pressure-treated lumber used at ground level is made with chromated copper arsenate (CCA). A typical 12-foot, 2-inch-by-6-inch post has a combination of heavy-metal chromium, which kills plant and marine life, and more than an ounce of arsenic, enough to kill 250 adults if they were unfortunate enough to eat it.

Fortunately, there are other, readily available options. The EPA banned arsenic-treated wood last February, replacing it with things like ACQ (alkaline copper quat) lumber, pressure treated with recycled copper and ammonia and considerably safer for the environment. (Check what you get carefully; there's still old stock out there.) Decks and patios can be built from recycled plastic "timber" like EcoBoard (, made from soda bottles and milk containers. TimberGrass ( in Washington State produces furniture-grade panels of bamboo for cabinets and walls. Agriboard ( and WheatBoard ( panels for subflooring are made out of compressed wheat chaff, and Isobord, manufactured in Manitoba, Canada, is straw and polyurethane.

Once the framing is done and the walls are up, Florida building codes and common sense mandate that the place be insulated. The state says you must be energy efficient and cozy in your new home; it doesn't say you have to be healthy. Because "The Code" says two grown adults, who have been showering fairly successfully for many years, might suddenly forget that water is hot and scald themselves, we had to buy one of those ugly single-spigot showers instead of a nice, two-handled faucet the way God intended a shower to be. But we're perfectly welcome to stick fiberglass all over the place, according to the same code.

"Fiberglass is safe," say most insulation installers as they cover their hands and arms and don masks. I remember my mother complaining for days about tiny slivers in her fingers when she hung fiberglass drapes in the living room. I sure didn't want to breathe it. So we told both architect and contractor that there was to be no fiberglass in our attic. But when the installer arrived, he said there wasn't enough room for blown-in cellulose (made from recycled paper and first used by Thomas Jefferson in his mountaintop home, Monticello).

Fiberglass was invented in 1897, and by the 1930s there were already claims that airborne material could permanently scar lung tissue. Jim Worden of the Health and Safety department of Owens Corning, producers of the Pink Panther-promoted product, claims that early animal testing on the health hazards of fiberglass was inaccurate. "They tested by inserting material directly into the animal's bodies," said Worden, "not through inhalation." But according to the University of Pittsburgh, fiberglass workers who did inhale the stuff had a slightly higher rate of respiratory cancer deaths than the average population, an increase they found to be "of little practical significance." Not a comfort to those workers, I'm sure. And while the International Agency for Research on Cancer originally listed fiberglass as a potential carcinogen, an October 2001 review said there is "inadequate evidence overall of any cancer risk" and downgraded their rating.

But cancer doesn't seem to be the issue. "Alternative" organizations such as the Fiberglass Information Network ( are quick to point to hundreds of thousands of health-injury lawsuits filed against fiberglass makers that have nothing to do with cancer, like catastrophic respiratory problems and skin infections. And if, as Owens Corning claims, the formaldehyde glue sprayed on to hold fiberglass together is baked off in the manufacturing process, why is competitor Johns Manville spending so much money on television ads pushing its formaldehyde-free ComfortTherm (

Studies not withstanding, since 1991 fiberglass insulation is required to carry a cancer-warning label in compliance with OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard. According to the Owens Corning website, the cancer-warning labels are "primarily for regulatory reasons that require warning labels on many commonly used products. A quick look around your home," the site says, "will find that many products have health warnings, including paint, cleaners, artificial sweeteners and gasoline." Not terribly reassuring -- I wouldn't want to inhale oven cleaner or saccharine either.

Blame it on latent hippie-ness or call it a mark of my obvious insanity, but even in the face of the typical construction slowdowns everyone had warned me about (I liked to tell people, "We're in the sixth month of our three-month renovation,") we halted work for two weeks while looking for another material. And we found it, ironically, way down South in the land of cotton.

Quite an old concept, cotton insulation is made of recycled leftovers from blue-jean manufacturing (to be fair, 30 percent of fiberglass material is recycled glass). It has no formaldehyde or itchy fibers and is treated with borax to make it fire- and insect-proof.

Neither Bonded Logic nor Inno-Therm, the two American makers of cotton insulation, had distributors or dealers in Florida, although UltraTouch from Bonded Logic is now being carried by the Healthy Home store in Tampa ( The only way I could get the fluffy cotton batts was to either order it at a premium from an online retailer like, or get it myself.

And so I became a wholesaler. A call to Inno-Therm ( in North Carolina brought a truck to our door loaded with 27 giant blue rolls which looked very familiar. ("If only we'd saved our dryer lint!" we cried.)

The local installer had never seen the stuff before, and he was a bit wary, but he put it in our ceiling, by himself, in just a few hours, with his bare hands and a utility knife -- and no mask. It went under the floorboards, too, and will keep the house cozy and mold free. Our contractor even wants a few feet to use under his sleeping bags.

Now we were covered in soft-blue poison-free blankets. Then the central air-conditioning system arrived -- a glass smorgasbord. The flexible ducting is made from two layers of Mylar with fiberglass in between, and the air-handler boxes are lined with uncoated fiberglass. Pop off the air filter in your house and take a look at the huge space behind it; chances are it's yellow or pink fiberglass, too.

"That stuff won't shake loose," our AC guy said just as a big hunk of yellow blew out of the duct above him and floated serenely to the floor. Fortunately, there's a company called Foster Products ( that makes an antifungal sealant that can be painted on the uncoated surfaces, and filters can be placed in your air vents. There are few other choices.

After all that work to avoid the yellow/pink stuff, I looked at our brand-new efficient AC unit, only to read the government-mandated sticker: "This appliance contains fiberglass insulation. Respirable particles of fiberglass are known to the State of California to cause cancer."

Battle lost. Some are calling fiberglass this generation's asbestos, but until builders and consumers demand more choices, there's little we can do to completely avoid it.

With the nontoxic walls up, and the forest-friendly floors in place, we said, "Let's decorate!" But in keeping with our mission that meant, be wary of the paint and don't put down carpets.

In an article in Scientific America, former EPA manager Wayne Ott said, "If truckloads of dust with the same concentration of toxic chemicals as is found in most carpets were deposited outside, these locations would be considered hazardous-waste dumps." Synthetic carpets are glued together with formaldehyde and loaded with toxic volatile organic compounds, giving them that lovely "new carpet" smell. There is a new generation of floor covers made out of everything from organic hemp, jute and wool to PET (polyethylene terephthalate) carpets created from recycled soda and ketchup bottles, but they're practically impossible to find in Orlando.

We almost didn't make it through the painting part, and I blame myself for not researching enough. The gasses from paint and wood preservatives can cause headaches and depression, damage your liver or cause cancer. Now I know that Auro ( in California formulates paint from linseed oil, cellulose and plant alcohols, while BioShield ( in New Mexico manufactures clay-based paints, made without solvents. Competitor Safecoat ( leaves out formaldehyde, acetone, ethylene glycol and ammonia, so there's almost no odor while painting and no gas release after. Several companies are re-creating an ancient covering, milk paint, with ingredients that are practically edible.

I did a survey at two of the top sources for building materials in Orlando, Lowes and Home Depot, and asked for green supplies. Both local store managers were eager to assure me the nonarsenic lumber was "on the way," but weren't able to offer me much else. Lowes carries cellulose insulation (will even loan you a blower for free) and the upscale EXPO Design Center arm of Home Depot sells bamboo floors. No linoleum, no cotton, no environmentally safe paint. No hemp.

One plan we held back on was solar power -- too expensive. If we lived in New Smyrna Beach, the local utilities commission would have rebated part of the cost of solar power panels and even installed the system for free. In Orlando, the Florida Solar Energy Center at UCF ( was offering rebates until March of this year, but those funds have run out. Also in town, Orlando Utilities Commission ( does have a buy-back program for excess power, but you have to come up with the cost of the system yourself.

The question eventually comes down to the price of environmental consciousness. I was asked, "Why bother with all these things if the readily available alternatives are suitable?" And my best response is: Why not? If using bamboo flooring or cotton insulation or particleboard without formaldehyde does the intended job, looks good and won't poison your family or the environment (i.e., other people's families), what's wrong with using it? These "conscious" materials may cost a little more, but face it, any construction budget is a fiction anyway, so you might as well spend the money ethically.

Then there's the "chic" factor. Judging by the slick ads in glossy Natural Home (, green is in. Real estate is the investment of choice and the classic home-restoration craze means antique flooring and chemical-free bed sheets are better buys than a Renoir. Time magazine heralded a new era of "green architecture," and "This Old House" has featured bamboo floors and cotton insulation in their projects. Media mogul Danny Seo has a best seller in his nonthreatening book on eco-friendly living, "Conscious Style Home" (St. Martin's Press; $29.95). Seo champions biodegradable and recycled paints, terra-cotta floors and hemp carpets, and does it so casually that it might catch on. Upscale homes are being built with clay and straw walls, nontoxic carpets and recycled glass tiles. Frankly, it's a pleasure to tell people about our choices and have them say, "I've never heard of that!"

Cotton insulation costs about 20 percent to 30 percent more than fiberglass, but with no concerns about handling or breathing the material, it can be installed faster. Cellulose insulation runs about 40 cents a square foot, about half the price of fiberglass if you do it yourself. Bamboo flooring is comparable or in some cases cheaper than oak and is much more durable, while cork and linoleum run about $4 a foot. ACQ lumber costs, at worst case, 5 percent more than regular lumber and will soon be your only choice in pressure-treated wood. Adding a solar water heater and cotton insulation can not only cut your energy bills, but qualify for an Energy Efficient Mortgage or refinance from Florida banks, and a rebate from the utilities company.

The great disparity is in the cost of low-chemical paint. A gallon of SafeCoat interior enamel can cost $30, about twice the average, but the fumes won't drive you out of the house before or after the job. If I had known, my painter wouldn't have ended every day with red eyes and labored breath -- he was allergic to latex!

At this writing, we're 99 percent done with our project. I did come close to killing the electrician once, and we may have to paint a few more times before we get the color right (with "the good stuff" this time), but we're moved in and getting acquainted with our new home.

Meanwhile, little measures count, and recycling has many meanings. We're bordering the fireplace with recycled-glass tiles by California company Oceanside ( We found an old couch for a giveaway price at an estate sale that turned out to be an Arts & Crafts Davenport made in 1915, which we refinished in shellac -- a nontoxic (it's actually a food-grade material) mixture of alcohol and resin produced by the lac beetle. Instead of dumping the toxic beast into a landfill, I've faux-marbled an ancient computer and monitor and turned it into an art gallery by loading in all my digital photos and setting up a slide show. We're green Martha Stewarts without the insider trading.

It makes sense to at least try saving something of this fragile place we live in. Along with answering "Why not?" to the reason for all these gymnastics, I'll echo Hypocrites, who said, "Help, or at least do no harm," by quoting my grandfather, who told me on many occasions: "It couldn't hurt."

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