Tag Archives: sustainability

Eco-Friendly Kitchen Renovation Tips

Greentea KitchenImage via Greentea Design

Planning your dream kitchen but worried about your environmental footprint?  It’s easy to introduce some eco-friendly elements.  Some will even save you money and won’t sacrifice style.  Indeed they elevate it.

Another Person’s Trash…

It starts before your demolition.  After all one person’s trash is another’s treasure, so ask around – friends, family, neighbours, charitable organizations, salvage and secondhand shops – to see if anyone might be interested in what your getting rid of.  From appliances to countertops, flooring planks and parts, sinks, cabinets, and tiles, divert as much as you can from the landfill, perhaps turning your refuse into an incredible gift.  In some jurisdictions, Habitat for Humanity and like-minded charitable orgs can issue charitable tax receipts for these donations.  If this seems like a lot of work and research on your end, then consider hiring a local green contractor (here’s a reputable one in Toronto) who will ensure your materials and components are reused, donated, and processed properly.  These experts are a wonderful resource to guide you through eco-friendly choices that fit your function and style needs.

Beware of VOCs

paint cansChoose natural or zero-VOC or low-VOC paints.  Image via Please Conserve

VOC stands for volatile organic compounds and these are the chemical substances that vaporize easily into air.  It’s one reason the EPA has stated that indoor air generally is 2-5 times more polluted than outdoors. Paint, sealants, adhesives, the processing of particle and MDF boards, even expensive granite – gas off chemicals from formaldehyde to radon that have been linked to everything from asthma to cancer.

The good news is that there are lots of natural and low to zero VOC paints, primers and sealers now on the market.  Do some research and talk to retailers about your options, especially if someone in your home suffers from asthma.  Likewise talk to the retailers of your furniture and ask where the wood comes from and about their company’s sustainability guidelines.

Green Materials

If eco-friendliness is a priority for your renovations, choose sustainably harvested materials such as cork and bamboo where the trees and grasses respectively aren’t killed in harvesting (regrowth happens relatively quickly too, another plus).   Recycled materials like glass, concrete, marmoleum and reclaimed wood are also good options but do ask about the processing as some treatments are more green than others.  The design of these materials has come a long way in recent years and the market is full of stunning options.

beautiful Bamboo FlooringBamboo flooring, via Build Direct

Patterned cork floorCork flooring via Cork Flooring Pros

Recycled glass for countertops via Vetrazzo

Butcher block counter top made out of bambooButcher block countertop made of bamboo via My Home Ideas

Energy Efficiency

energy efficient appliances

Choosing energy efficient appliances will save you a bundle on your electricity bills over their lifetime.

And better yet get a thermal energy map of your home done to locate particularly drafty places.  In older homes, because of their placement in the house, kitchens are big culprits.  Investing in eco-friendly insulation is well worth it.  Your choices run from natural batts made from old denim, fire resistant recycled newsprint, and soy-based spray in foam insulation.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Whether you repurpose old furniture, shop vintage, or seek out recycled and reclaimed products, using old furniture and materials is a wonderful way to add character, integrity, and beauty to your space.  Think of the stories these pieces tell; and their age also attests to their strength to still be in use today.

Reclaimed wood to create floating shelvesReclaimed Wood to create Floating Shelves via Apartment Therapy

Salvaged wood, recycled glass and GFRC concrete are just a few recycled products that can elevate a space with their beauty and character, harmonizing with many design schemes.

Beautiful GFRC CountertopGFRC Countertop via Concrete Countertops

Greentea Design uses only reclaimed wood to build their kitchen cabinetry.  Even their handles, hinges, and pulls are hand-forged from recycled iron.

Best of luck with your kitchen renovations!

Cargo-tecture – Shipping Containers Reimagined

Photo by Flickr user SlapBcn

A couple of weeks ago I hit a wall working on the site proposal for my graduate thesis. My problem was that I couldn’t find a suitable site for what I was proposing. I needed a site that had an area for an exhibit space and multi-purpose space that had interacted with each other seamlessly, and that would fit my program content. I need an enclosed space, and I also want my exhibition to travel as globalization is one of the themes in my program content.  A couple of days before my big presentation I had an epiphany. If I couldn’t find the right site and needed to travel my exhibition, why not use a prefabricated structure and configure it to my needs? The solution became obvious as my intent became more clear – and I found it in shipping container architecture.

Container architecture has been around for a while and was started as a way to deal with the surplus of the metal boxes taking up space in shipyards around the globe. Although there have been arguments that in reality this supposedly sustainable method of construction uses more resources than it actually saves, to non-architects like me trying to find structural solutions, containers are the wonders of the prefab architecture world.

As I scoured the Internet for images of interesting structures, I came across a few that I particularly found inspiring.

Photos courtesy of Danny Bright

Puma City was an award-winning temporary retail space and entertainment module designed by Lot-EK architects. Made from 24 containers, it was a multi-storey traveling structure that housed a retail area, restaurant and bar area, and two outdoor decks. Puma City traveled to four cities in three countries in 2008. Each time it traveled the structure was disassembled and reassembled within a few weeks.

Photos courtesy of Platoon

Platoon is a Cutlural Development organization/firm based in Berlin with branches in South Korea. The Kunsthalle in Seoul was constructed as one of their programming space in Asia. In comparison to Puma City the Kunsthalle is permanent, and has a generous floor area with multiple halls for programming that has the goal of showcasing the underground, emerging subcultures of Asia.

Photo courtesy of Maziar Behrooz Architecture

The simplicity and high functionality of this structure captured me. It was designed as an artist’s studio on a very tight budget. Two containers are placed on top of a 9’ foundation cellar, with more than half of the top floor open to the painting studio below. The single staircase from the entry to the studio completes the loft-like setup.

Courtesy Yasutaka Yoshimura Architects

The ease and resilience of container architecture also makes it an ideal shelter for disaster relief. Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this year, Yasutaka Yoshimura Architects collaborated with Nowhere Resort to create relief housing for victims of the tragedy. The initially temporary structures can further be converted into permanent dwellings. The project is still ongoing and is accepting donations from anyone and everyone who wants to help.

There is also a very cool book called Container Atlas that features award-winning container architecture from recent years, including Puma City and Platoon Kunsthalle. Knowing that there are so many possibilities is definitely making me excited to think about how this could work out for my project.

I’m definitely eager to see new innovative methods like this can have more of a social impact in the years to come!

Posted in Design | Tagged ,

Solar Power! Part 2

Last September 29th to October 2nd, the US Department of Energy held its biennial sustainable design competition, the Solar Decathlon, in Washington, DC. The competition challenges collegiate teams from around the United States and the world to design and build homes that are affordable, energy efficient, and attractive.

While usually held on the National Mall in the center of Washington, DC, the Solar Decathlon this year took place in West Potomac Park, a short shuttle ride away from the Smithsonian. A number of people complained about the location this year as it was not as accessible as previous years.

All of the houses were rather interesting and had unique interpretations on a low-cost solution for well-designed energy efficient homes. There were 19 houses total, from five countries, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, and China.

Team Canada

Team China

Each of the houses had a limit of 1,000 square feet and was constructed on-site prior to the actual event. I didn’t get to see all the houses because of the number of visitors to the event, but I did see a few of the interesting entries.

Team California’s “outsulated” house

Possibly the quirkiest of the lot was team California’s entry, which consisted of a pod wrapped in an insulating skin the team called “outsulation.” It supposedly is a better way of reducing heat transfer to the outside of the structure.

Interior of Team California

Team Belgium

Team Belgium’s entry was from Ghent University, and was the only two-story structure in the competition. The main innovation was in its construction – you could supposedly put the house together like something from Ikea, and customize the inside space configuration according to your needs. The walls were made of an insulating material that was also structurally sound. The crates the structural panels came in were also converted into the water tank!

Interior of Team Belgium

Team Belgium’s second floor

Team University of Maryland won the competition overall. Their design was called Watershed, and was inspired by the Chesapeake bay ecosystem that Maryland is a part of. It took a very environmental approach as well, incorporating lanscaping around the house that replicated the wetlands of the Chesapeake.

Team Maryland exterior

Team Maryland interior

Although the house doesn’t look that large from the outside, the interior space was actually quite sprawling and very liveable. From the inside you could also see through to the constructed wetlands, which made it seem like the connection with nature was something that really took precedence for them in terms of how they thought about sustainability.

Team Maryland’s exhibit display on house systems

My favorite house was the house by Parson’s and Stevens Institute of technology, called Empowerhouse. The house was built and designed not only with the competition in mind, but also with its future residents involved throughout the process. Following the competition, the house was going to go to a family in Washington through Habitat for Humanity.


Empowerhouse porch

My favorite feature of the house was actually in its exterior design – the porch was definitely a hot spot for visitors and staff alike. The interior of the house too was also spacious and liveable, I could very well imagine people living in the space.

Empowerhouse interior

Apart from the houses themselves, there was also a lot of other types of programming during the event, like exhibits about energy and sustainablity in tents and displays alongside the actual houses.

An exhibit about hybrid vehicles and how they work

An exhibit about energy efficiency in the home, giving visitors the chance to see ready, feasible solutions for conserving energy

Despite the unusual location and the fact that it rained for most of the event, the Solar Decathlon this year was a success. People from all over the country came to see it and to learn more about affordable sustainable energy methods, implemented in well-designed strucures. This event really showcases how creativity and resourcefulness can lead to improved standards of living for us and the environment.

All images original – by Renée Alfonso

Solar Power! (Part 1)

Every year, Washington, DC is home to a whole new village of homes – solar homes, that is. The United States Department of Energy holds a yearly competition for sustainable living. Universities from around the globe participate in this prestigious event, with students from renown architecture and engineering programs collaborating in designing what can be considered the house of the future.

While traditionally held on the National Mall amidst the Smithsonian Museums, the location this year moved to the East Potomac Park, slightly off from the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin where the world-famous cherry blossoms can be seen during the spring.

Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

The houses are usually highly innovative, utilizing the latest technology and sustainable materials. Needless to say that whoever is on the design teams for these houses should have no trouble studying for LEED accreditation!

Carol Anna/U.S. Department of Energy

On the other side of the spectrum, however, sustainable building practices and energy conservation can also be efficient and realizable through every day materials. Take the case of the plastic bottle.

In the Philippines, an initiative called Isang Litrong Liwanag (trans. One Liter of Light) produces low-cost, solar light bulbs for communities that have limited access to power. The bulb itself consists of a standard liter-sized soda bottle filled with a water and bleach solution. Once the bottle is filled with solution it is sealed and inserted into a piece of metal roofing. The bulb is then installed onto the roof by cutting a hole in the home’s roof, and placing the bulb into the hole.

Courtesy Isang Litrong Liwanag

The bulb diffuses the sunlight into the structure below it, generating light as bright as a standard 60-watt bulb. The initative and its parent foundation, the My Shelter Foundation, has plans to light one million homes in the Philippines by 2012.

Courtesy Isang Litrong Liwanag

Apart from the solar light bulb, the My Shelter Foundation has other sustainability projects, one of them again using the plastic bottle. In 2010 the first plastic-bottle school was built in San Pablo, Laguna, Philippines.

Courtesy My Shelter Foundation

The structure consists of a frame built with cement, with the plastic bottles reinforcing the concrete like bricks. The bottles are filled with adobe, a cement-like substance made from sand, clay, water and fibrous binder. The plastic holds the adobe in place and provides a rigid structure for reinforcement. Adobe is a common building material in the Philippines and other parts of Asia and Central America.

Courtesy My Shelter Foundation

A similar initiative to build plastic-bottle school is also happening in Guatemala, thanks to the Non-profit Hug It Forward. As you can see, however, their building method is slightly different from that seen in the Philippines, with the bottles held in between chicken wire and the reinforced with concrete to conceal the plastic from view.

Courtesy Hug it Forward

The two initiatives show the concept and spirit of the solar decathlon, but applied in the local communities of developing countries. No matter where we are or what we build with, sustainability concerns everyone and can have a tremendous impact for the future.

The solar decathlon runs until October 2 this year. Part two in this series on innovations in sustainable building practices will have more details on the Solar Decathlon 2011.

Learning From Small Houses

Ghost House by Jin Otagiri- via minimalissimo

Micro home, prefab, cargotechture: these are all names to describe homes that are small in size but big on design ideas. In cities with high population density and expensive land costs, like Japan, building small is a necessity, but there are other reasons people choose to live in small spaces including sustainability and the desire to get back to basics. Here are a few lessons we can learn from living small.

via desire to inspire

It’s All in the Details Whether you live in a monster home, or the tiniest of condos, the charm of every room lives in the details. The micro cabin above is an excellent example of how to curate furniture and accessories so that everything meshes with the overall look. This space is incredibly soft and warm, and doesn’t feel cramped despite the small size.

sunset idea home via re-nest

Pare Down

Could you live in a shipping container if it was as beautifully designed as this one? ‘Cargotechture’ means recycling shipping containers and transforming them into houses.  At only 192 square feet the Sunset Idea House sleeps four and has all the conveniences of a modern home.  In a space this compact there is only room for your most cherished and necessary items, a lesson many of us who live in cluttered houses could take to heart.

Dwelle Prefab Home via inhabitat

Maximize space

Living in a small space involves some smart thinking when it comes to furniture layout and storage. This compact prefab home utilizes vertical space for built-in storage and sleeping quarters. The sofa and staircase are also the right scale for the room and take up only as much floorspace as they need to.

via re-nest

Make Every Inch Yours

All the design mags and blogs in the world won’t tell you how to make a space that is truly you. Trust your instincts and fill your home with things you love. Take this airstream trailer makeover; every corner of this home represents the people who live there. Maybe I’ve got a bit of a gypsy soul, but I would move in here in a second.