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APRIL 1, 2009   

Why is it so hard to be green?

Kitchen interior with garden window installedHere's how the kitchen looks today. Pretty nice, I think.

I'm happy with how things look, but today I realized that there's hardly a shred of green consciousness at work in the entire room.

The best I can say is that we're using energy-efficient windows, both the garden window you see here and the two new units that will replace the originals in the East wall. But energy-efficient windows are so common you'd almost have to actively decide against buying them these days.

How can this be?

Not only am I ignoring the wave of green consciousness that's all around us, but I'm ignoring my own history too. Way back in the early 1980s I co-founded a non-profit called the Housing Resource Center which focused on energy efficiency and green building back when only a few of us knew what the words meant. We put on national conferences, for cryin' out loud, and published a catalog of healthy, green building materials.

Given all this, why haven't I incorporated any of these ideas into this major remodeling project we're spending beaucoup bucks on?

There are a few factors that may let me squirm off the hook (a bit), but the overwhelming reason is this: I didn't plan ahead.

I've spent much of the past week running around the city (burning lots of gas) looking at floor coverings, sinks, exhaust hoods, and microwave ovens. Why? Because I didn't think these things through ahead of time, and now I have to buy materials off the shelf or the rehab grinds to a halt.

Too many choices

If you haven't thought things through ahead of time you find yourself quickly waist-deep in the swamp of too many choices. Take floor coverings, for example. We decided early on that we'd just use sheet vinyl—nothing fancy. No marble, no ceramic, no wood. But even when you start to look simply at vinyl you find several manufacturers, each with several product lines, and within each of these dozens of color and pattern choices. It's easy to become paralyzed with indecision.

Then when someone suggests you look at a recycled floor tile or good old-fashioned linoleum, you just want to throw your hands in the air and give up the whole thing. At least I did.

Where and how

Once you start to look at green materials you have to find out where to buy them, since they are pretty scarce at Home Depot and Lowe's. The internet is your friend, of course, and it usually isn't that hard to find sources for just about any product. This assumes, of course, that you've given yourself enough time to order the article and have it shipped at normal rates. I found a great deal on a stainless steel kitchen sink today at Overstock.com, but to get it by tomorrow when the installers need it I'd have to pay an additional $161 in shipping, wiping out the price difference.

But let's assume you're better than I at avoiding last-minute decisions, and you get the "green" flooring or paint or whatever. There's another issue, which is finding someone who knows how to use it properly. I wouldn't assume, for example, that just any flooring contractor could install old-style linoleum properly.

Finding a guide

So here's what we consumers need if we're to use green materials and processes: a guide—preferably in the form of a person—who can walk us through the choices available and help us decide what's best for our situation. It's not just materials—we also need a contractor/installer who's familiar with the material and knows how to use it best.

If I'd have allowed time to do plenty of research I could have figured a lot of this out myself, but even then I'd have preferred to talk with someone who's been there before. Seems that there's an unfilled niche market here for a contractor who's willing to do his/her homework. This is too important, and too complicated, to leave up to individual consumers. Or maybe I just need to learn to plan better.

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