Archive for Building Green

Retailing Green in 2010

This is a recent column in Green Building Product Dealer by my friend and colleague, Andy Pace.  Andyhas been a pioneer in the green building industry since 1993, when he opened the first green building supply company in the Midwest, Safe Building Solutions. He is also the founder of Degree of Green® and Green Design Center™.  In addition, Andy is an advisor to Green Building Product Dealer magazine.

He was one of my earliest supporters when I was working to open Green Home Experts, even helping me set up shop selling paint from the room in my house that I now call my bedroom!  I still call on Andy regularly to talk biz, to brainstorm, and for a good morale boost.  He never disappoints.  Enjoy.

Retailing Green in 2010

For several years, I have offered my analysis about the green building industry for the coming year.  Here’s a recap of the last two years:

2008 was the year of green credibility.  As the construction market was shrinking rapidly, manufacturers scrambled to re-brand their existing products to make them appear to have green attributes, even if they didn’t.  Although the industry was still unregulated for the most part, consumers began to demand more in-depth information to prove that these green claims were accurate.  Prior to 2008, many consumers were buying anything that had “green” or “eco-friendly” written on the packaging.  But in 2008, the majority of green-minded consumers started to question what green really means.  And when this happened, manufacturers had to back up their claims or loose credibility.

2009 was the year of RGI, Return on your Green Investment. No longer did the ‘greenies’ and ‘light-greenies’ have disposable income to put into green things to make themselves feel good.  No longer did they spend 10% more for a household item that may or may not affect the earth’s climate.  If consumers were going to spend 10% more for an eco-friendly household product, there needed be a clear sign that the extra 10% will be paid back via an energy savings, or an improvement in their quality of life.

I think consumers finally understand energy efficiency. Friendly to the outdoor environment, that’s great.  Friendly to our pocketbook, even better.  But when builders market their homes as green, energy efficiency just wont cut it anymore.  Green needs to go beyond that.  Lets face it, how many consumers when building a new home or remodeling an existing, actually ask their contractor for the least efficient building techniques?  How many consumers go into their local big box store and ask for the least efficient furnace or appliance?  Due to a combination of the economy (RGI-2009) and consumer knowledge (green cred-2008), energy efficiency is now the new normal.

So, what does 2010 have in store for us?  I’ve been saying for years that once everything is green, then nothing is green.  In 2010, we’ll be at that point.  My prediction is that 2010 will be the year of The Healthy Home.  Consumers will be looking beyond green and will focus on the health and welfare of themselves and their families.

A Healthy Home takes green to the next logical level.  Building a healthy home means that it is healthier, safer, and is free from sources of indoor air pollution.  There are various strategies to use in building a healthy home, but using only one strategy won’t make a healthy home.  A systems approach is needed that integrates the different aspects that comprise a healthy home. Using HVAC equipment that controls moisture to minimize mold, mildew, and provide continuous fresh ventilation is very important. The increase of natural light in as many areas of the house as possible creates a sense of well being for its occupants. Another important strategy is the use of less synthetic carpeting and more hard surfaces to reduce dust and allergen collection areas.

The most critical area to consider when building a healthy home is to avoid using toxic chemicals and materials.  I’m not talking VOC’s. The industry buzz right now is to reduce the amount of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) found in most building materials and finishes. But, just because a product states it has zero VOC does not mean it is free of ingredients that are toxic (e.g., formaldehyde precursors, ammonia, acetone or odor masking agents, etc.) or that it is free from outgassing.  For example, many companies promote “no odor” or Zero VOC paints to potential homeowners or those remodeling their homes. These paints were not formulated with a view toward human health issues and the elimination of toxicity. These “environmental” paints can contain toxic ingredients exempt from government regulations.  The same holds true for thousands of common building materials.

With health insurance and healthcare reform headlining just about every newscast these days, consumers are getting weary of their own healthcare futures.  Americans are used to taking matters into their own hands, when push comes to shove.  Therefore, more folks will be looking into alternative forms of healthcare and ways to reduce illnesses.  Making the home a safer, healthier space is a logical step.

Retailers need to recognize this trend quickly and adapt their marketing and merchandising to meet the growing demand from the consumer.  If you step outside of the energy-efficient box, you just might find some new green shoots of potential sales.

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The ABC’s of VOCs Part Two

Assessment criteria

Many criteria can be used to assess the relative level of toxicity in the coatings that are sold, purchased, and applied. Government regulations have increasingly restricted the presence of chemicals in paints and coatings that might have a negative impact on the atmosphere (regarding smog creation), but strict regulations for chemicals that might have an impact on human health have yet to be implemented. We would like to stress the fact that coatings which carry a “low” or “zero VOC” label aren’t necessarily free from Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) or toxins. This a critical point that is often misunderstood. “Zero VOC” does not mean non-toxic.

What follows in this article is a thumbnail sketch of a few HAPs that are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as potential sources of both acute and chronic irritants or carcinogens. They may be present in low-VOC latex paints and represent a risk to painters and susceptible consumers.

Because human immune system responses can differ by orders of magnitude (factors that increase in 10-fold steps), it is impossible to state with consistency what effect a given chemical, combination of chemicals, or coating will have on any individual. But perhaps better safe than sorry. In his editorial “Life as a used paint can”, veteran painter and Professional Painter magazine editor Bruce MacKinnon laments about a list of personal woes including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and raises the fuzzy issue of responsibility as it relates to HAP exposure.

It may be difficult to ascertain what ingredients are in a finish if a manufacturer chooses to not disclose the information willingly. Material data safety sheets (MSDS) need only list information relevant to the physical, chemical, and toxicological makeup of a substance where the ingredients constitute more than 1% of the total volume and are not considered part of a “proprietary blend”.

We list below a group of common chemicals that may be included in paints and coatings, and which have been implicated to have potentially toxic effects for human health.

The Glycols Paints may contain several forms of VOC-forming glycols that are commonly added as wetting agents. Although there is a general movement away from ethylene glycol (EG) as an additive in paints, it is still a commonly used toxin. Alternatively, propylene glycol (PG) is a replacement for EG, and while it is still a VOC, it is also an FDA approved food-grade additive.

Ethanol Classified by the EPA as a major VOC, ethanol (BEE) is a form of alcohol that can deter the body’s processing of other toxic chemicals.

Ammonia The EPA has exempted this chemical from classification as a VOC when used as a paint additive, and its presence need not be disclosed on MSDS sheets.

Acetone A solvent whose vapors are a respiratory tract irritant and which may cause coughing, dizziness, dullness, headache, central nervous system depression, narcosis, and at high concentrations, unconsciousness.

Biocides Added to inhibit the growth of microorganisms in the can and on the coated surface, biocides may contribute significantly to the formation of formaldehyde. Products with biocides intended for exterior use can become sources of HAPs if used indoors.

Formaldehyde One of a group of HAPs in the Aldehyde family. Although it hasn’t been used as a paint additive for many years, it is commonly created by two or more mutually reactive chemicals (formaldehyde precursors) during the application and curing process. It is considered a probable human carcinogen.

Other Aldehydes: Acetaldehyde, Benzaldehyde, and Propanol These chemicals can be respiratory irritants and bind to cells such as liver and lung cells to create autoimmune responses.

Crystalline Silica Otherwise known as quartz, it is considered one of the most dangerous occupational dusts and a carcinogen, and is commonly found in paints and coatings, especially exterior latex paints. While it can become airborne during paint application, the primary risk is from dust exposure through abrasion or the sanding of dry films.

Pigments These may be glycol and VOC-free, or they may contain glycol, VOCs, and formaldehyde-forming biocides.

Odor Masking Agents These are chemical additives that conceal the odors of offensive chemicals. They may function as irritants in and of themselves.


The suggestion by the EPA that consumers need emission information and performance evaluation results to make informed purchasing decisions is an idea that involves a different way of thinking. For those of us who place indoor air quality high on our list of building objectives, responsibility must begin and end with ourselves. For those inclined to move in this direction, we would like to cite a thought-provoking book that is becoming a classic for reorganizing our thinking: Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Andrew J. Pace, CSI, is the owner of Safe Building Solutions in Waukesha, WI. Safe Building Solutions is a residential and commercial supplier of safer and more natural building materials. Mr. Pace is also past president of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute. He can be reached by calling 800-697-5371 or email to

Michael Fallarino is a professional journalist and writer, building contractor, and holistic health consultant. You can download a sample of his eclectic book, Contemporary Relationships between Wood & Finish, at his website: He can be reached in the Capital Region of New York at 518-828-5670.

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The ABC’s of VOCs Part One

Increasingly, consumers seeking building products with lower inherent toxicity are looking more closely at ingredients and asking tough questions. In the architectural coatings industry.  Some ABCs about VOCs
by Michael Fallarino with Andy Pace from

Increasingly, consumers seeking building products with lower inherent toxicity are looking more closely at ingredients and asking tough questions. In the architectural coatings industry, those ingredients that have the potential to be hazardous are commonly classified as volatile organic compounds, or known better by their acronym, VOCs.

Increasingly, consumers seeking building products with lower inherent toxicity are looking more closely at ingredients and asking tough questions. In the architectural coatings industry, those ingredients that have the potential to be hazardous are commonly classified as volatile organic compounds, or known better by their acronym, VOCs.

In the workaday world of bucolic upstate New York, the term VOC seems unfamiliar to most consumers and even most construction industry personnel. But just as ignorance of the law does not exempt one from it, ignorance of the effects of VOCs doesn’t exempt one from their effects. Additionally, products that are either touted as “Low-VOC” or even “Zero VOC”are not necessarily free from potentially harmful ingredients. Some contain what are classified as Hazardous Air Pollutants or HAPs, and these chemical compounds can differ from VOCs.

In this article, Andy Pace, of Safe Building Solutions in Waukesha, WI and I will take a brief, focused look at what VOCs and HAPs are, and how they are formed. Because the subject of VOCs and HAPs is so massive and the science of their effects is so young, our discussion will focus on just a few of the main elements that can contribute to lowered indoor air quality (IAQ).

Understanding the effects of HAPs and VOCs on human health is important because we spend about 90% of our time inside increasingly tight structures where accumulations of interactive chemicals can cause concentrations of pollutants that can be as much as 50 to 100 times greater than outdoor air.

The importance of this in the paint and coatings industry was brought sharply into focus for me as I was writing this month’s column. I was referred to a couple who were building a spacious new luxury home. They had made it a point to investigate, specify, and ensure that all the materials that were used throughout the process were as non-toxic and free of harmful chemicals and the potential for outgassing as possible. In this process, they repeatedly surpassed the knowledge base of their architect and design-build team. The possibility that during the completion phase of the project they could sabotage their vigilant work by installing paints and finishes that could degrade the quality of their indoor air was a thought that never crossed their minds. This is ironic, because architectural coatings can be a massive source of indoor pollution given the surface area that they occupy. We must also remember that they are routinely used for recoating.

When I began to educate them as to how the dynamics of toxicity work when many conventional products are applied to absorptive substrates such as gypsum board, they became eager to learn of alternatives and anxious to learn how to correct mistakes that they had already made.

What are VOCs, exactly, and why all the fuss?

The Indoor Environment Department (IED) Staff of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (a division of our EPA) defines VOCs broadly as “chemical compounds based on carbon chains or rings with vapor pressures greater than 0.1 millimeters of mercury at room temperature. These compounds typically contain hydrogen and may contain oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.”

Prior to this century, US government tests that examined chemicals and passed laws that restricted their inclusion in architectural coatings, focused primarily on the damage that these chemicals created in outside air.

During the second half of the 90s however, the EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory (NRMRL) began to investigate how architectural coatings could contribute to indoor air pollution and harm human health. They began compiling research from tests of conventional alkyd and latex products, as well as Low-VOC and Zero-VOC latex coatings. An important aspect of their research was simply to devise tests that would be meaningful. Interestingly, a solution to this question became apparent when they applied coatings to different substrates and then monitored their behavior.

What they learned was that the emission behaviors of chemicals were very different when coatings were applied to non-absorptive substrates such as glass, aluminum, and stainless steel, than they were when they were applied to the absorptive surfaces that they are typically used on such as wood and gypsum board. Naturally, they concluded that to be meaningful their tests needed to reflect the behavior of coatings on the surfaces that they are normally applied to.

Part of the reason why this research is important, is that architectural coatings are commonly deployed in commercial spaces such as schools, hospitals and medical facilities, day care centers, offices, hotels, and other public spaces in which continuous occupation is the rule. Especially in the case of medical facilities, patients with compromised immune systems may be subjected to hazardous air pollutants that can pose a threat.

A few key points summarized from recent government research are as follows:

• Alkyd coatings can contain as many as 100 different VOCs.

• The majority of emissions from latex paints occurs after the coating has dried.

• It may take as long as 3.5 years for some VOCs to be released from gypsum board.

• Some paints marketed as “low-VOC” may still emit significant quantities of HAPs.

• In addition to VOC content data, consumers need emission information and performance evaluation results to make wise and completely informed purchasing decisions.

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Green Garage Changes Local Landscape

My friend and colleague, Tom Bassett-Dilley, recently rolled out his green garage plans.  Tom is an Oak Park resident (and member of the Historic Preservation Commission) and architect whom I adore.  You can thank him for the delightful transaction counter at GHE, since he and his associate built it themselves.

Tom is a LEED AP architect who actually knows what he’s talking about.  I feel like so many architects are rebranding themselves green these days, but truthfully, they’re just chasing the dollars.  Green building is by no means new to Tom, and I enjoy sending customers his way whenever possible–the results are alway stunning.  But I digress…

Check out Tom’s Green Garage site to see his plans.  Materials use, water conservation, native plantings, and a connection to nature seem to be the focus of his plans.  I love the green garage concept.  It’s not only a structure, but also an extension of the back garden.  Plus, it’s a great answer to those nasty, vinyl-wrapped hunormous garages.  Thank you Tom!

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5 Tips for Remodeling Green to Save Green

Yesterday we had the pleasure of participating in What’s Bloomin’ on Harrison, a street fair in the Arts District of Oak Park.  Green Home Experts was represented there, alongside our friend and architect Tom Bassett-Dilley.

Here are notes from our presentation “5 Tips for Remodeling Green to Save Green”

1) Material Reuse
Whenever possible, do not buy new.  This eliminates the production of new products and diverts more waste from going into landfills.

2) Energy Efficiency Upgrades
Consider an energy audit to identify the best way to maximize your dollars and lower energy costs.  Tighten your home’s envelope, weatherize, and purchase energy-efficient appliances.

3) Utilize Tax Incentives
As part of the stimulus package, the federal government is offering increased incentives for residential and commercial energy efficiency upgrades.  Check out our blog post about it here.

4) Remember Water Efficiency
Train your eyes to look for the EPA’s Water Sense logo in the same manner that we know to look for the Energy Star logo on appliances.  Cut water costs by purchasing water-efficient toilets, faucets, and showerheads.

5) Landscaping
Save money on fertilizer, water and gasoline with these tips:

  • Plant native.  Plants familiar with our climate need less watering and fertilizing.
  • Use shade trees for passive cooling of your home in the summer.
  • Use rain barrels to collect water and compost to make your own fertilizer.
  • Plant your own vegetable garden.
  • Use a push or electric mower–reduce your carbon footprint and save money on gasoline.

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Notes from Green This Old House

My thanks to all of the guests and panelists for participating in Green This Old House last night.  The store was packed with inquisitive minds, and our panel was incredibly informative.

As promised, here are some resources that were mentioned by the panel last night.  I encourage any and all to start a dialogue and/or add your own resources using the comments tool.

U.S. Green Building Council:

Info on the USGBC’s LEED Certification program:

Energy and Environmental Ratings Alliance:

Illinois Solar Association:

Waste Management:
ReBuilding Exchange:

Habitat for Humanity ReStore:

The ReUse People:


Tom Bassett-Dilley:
Marty Bhatia, Om Homes:
Jim Gill, Energy360 Solutions: (708) 969-0345

And finally, remember the words of Tom Bassett-Dilley: “Good design begins with a good understanding of your environment.”

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Green Roofs Growing

From Green Building Product Dealer, May 2008 Issue

“30 percent more green roofs were installed in North America in 2007 than in 2006, according to the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities’ 3rd Annual Green Roof Market Industry Survey.  That tops the previous year’s impressive growth rate of 25 percent.  The numbers are based on square footage of green roof projects installed by GRHC’s corporate members in 2007.

‘Significant green roof implentation can save tens of millions of dollars from reduced energy, and greatly improve regional stormwater management and air quality,’ said Steven W. Peck, founder and president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.

The City of Chicago remains the number one city for green roofs with over half a million new square feet of green roofs installed in 2007, evidence of the City’s stated commitment to becoming America’s greenest city through policies and incentives that support green roofs, walls, and other forms of living architecture.”

Check out our Insulate & Weatherize section soon for photos of our recent green roof installation in LaGrange, IL!

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