There’s No Place Like (a Green) Home

A Q&A with Lynne Templeton of Renewal Design Showroom

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By Emily Kovach

You love your home, but there are always improvements to be made, right? Perhaps an outdated bathroom needs a facelift; a backyard deck isn’t looking so hang-friendly anymore; or—the big one—it’s time to rip out and redo the kitchen. But even smaller scale-projects, such as replacing an appliance or painting a room, may leave you overwhelmed with choices.

In addition to style and price, green and healthy options should be high on your list of priorities.

Every single material that goes into home renovation and design is at risk of bringing chemicals and potentially harmful toxins into your home and the environment. So how does a homeowner make well-informed decisions about architecture and interior design?

Lynne Templeton of the Renewal Design Showroom in Wayne, Pa., has been in the design business for over 35 years. In the early 2000s, when “green” was picking up steam as a buzzword, she did a ton of work in corporate workspaces, helping to make offices more eco-friendly and efficient. “I became inspired by that work,” she says, “and I wanted to create a studio to help create green spaces at home, too.”

To that end, Templeton helped to found Greenable, a Philly-based design showroom in 2006. The company folded after the recession, but she went on to found Renewal in 2013 to help residential clients with space planning, interior design and access to eco-friendly materials. The Renewal Showroom boasts a huge selection of material samples, including flooring tiles, carpet, cabinetry, countertops, furnishings, drapery, plumbing, lighting and more.

“Everything here is either reclaimed, recycled or recyclable and has low or no VOCs,” says Templeton, referring to the volatile organic compounds that make paint smell bad and hurt your respiratory system. She makes the comparison that shopping at Renewal versus a big-box hardware store is like “going to the health food store instead of a supermarket.”

Who better, then, to field our burning home improvement questions?

Let’s start with the obvious question: Will choosing “green” products be way more expensive than traditional materials?
LT: Well, no. In any design application, I take the whole job in general and take the budget and prioritize. Pricing has come down overall, and you can usually achieve what you want and get an eco-friendly product in your price range. But, you have to keep in mind that you get what you pay for. There’s a durability factor, so when you buy cheap stuff it will still end up in the landfill.

It’s pretty apparent how “greenwashing” has made certain terms meaningless.  What are the legit certifications we should be looking out for?
LT: There are lots of certifications out there, and some better than others in terms of being strict. Greenguard is good for people who are worried about air quality, and it applies to a lot of materials. Cradle to Cradle certification is given to products that can be recycled. FSC Certification [Forest Stewardship Council] for wood guarantees that the lumber has come from a managed forest, and not a clear-cut forest. Another really important thing to look for is a NAUF label [No Added Urea Formaldehyde], which is often seen on plywood and flooring.

In the last few years, have you seen certain home improvement products trending green?
LT: When I started working with residential clients, there were only like five things available that were more natural, and the choices were uninspiring. Now, we get new products all the time; the tile options are amazing, there’s more and more carpet available, and countertops are coming out in all kinds of recycled materials, like concrete, plastic and paper. It’s so much better than it used to be. There’s pretty much an alternative to everything that’s eco-friendly or holistic.

Say we’re not ready to tackle a whole bathroom or kitchen renovation. How can we make a big impact with small changes?
LT: Water efficiency is a great place to start. Switch an old toilet out for a more water efficient one. The old ones use up so much water. Old appliances can be real energy hogs, so if you can, upgrade to Energy Star certified ones. Then, there’s always the paint and cleaning products. Especially if you moved into a new apartment that was freshly painted with toxic paint, that’s horrifying right? You can encapsulate that paint to take care of the off-gassing… many non-VOC paints can encapsulate toxic house paint. Cleaning products, too, are easy to make nontoxic choices. The best part of all of our products [is that] you can use all-natural products with them, gentle cleansers or just plain old soap and water.   

The Split

Breaking up with your old furnace and window air conditioner units

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By Brion Shreffler

If your air conditioner or heater won’t make it another season, it may be time to think about a highly-efficient (and space saving) mini-split system. It’s easy to zone your home, so that you aren’t heating and cooling each room all the time. The small units can be installed through through a relatively small, three-inch hole in the wall to connect the inside and outside air handlers.

“These systems are usually about 18-20 inches high and about 30 inches long and they come away from the wall about 5 or 6 inches. So they really don’t take up much room,” says Michael Yaede, the service manager at Global Services in Bensalem.

Tom Molieri, owner of South Philadelphia based Air Master (he also owns Green Street Coffee with his brother, Chris Molieri), says that “If the duct work is already there, the efficiency angle isn’t that enticing [for heating]. It’s cheaper to stay with the heating system that’s already in place. If you’re talking AC, then it’s a good option. It’s probably the most efficient for air conditioning,” Molieri says, adding that the up front costs are comparable to other systems.

The savings will be in your energy bill. Yaede says you can save up to 5 percent on yearly energy use. Users can also count on rebates from PECO based on the system they purchase.  

“The minimum energy efficiency on these things is 21 SEER [Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio] which is a pretty high rating compared to a traditional system and you can control them room by room so you’re not heating or cooling the whole house. At night, you can shut them off in sections and you’ll save a ton of electricity that way.” He says more and more of his customers are choosing the systems. “Where people are rehabbing homes—close to 40%,” he says. “Mini-split systems have the advantage of being highly efficient while offering a level of control you don’t get with a furnace or boiler.”  

Especially for older homes going through a renovation, where tearing into the walls can give you all sorts of surprises, Molieri says it’s a good option. “I’ll get calls from people in the city who live in a row home or just outside the city in a hundred year old house that wasn’t designed for duct work. There’s plaster and lath and you’re not cutting through that without a question mark in years to come if the entire wall is going to crack where you cut into it.”

Bottom line: It’s not for every application, but it’s worth looking into when you’re planning for an upgrade, or for that fateful morning when your window unit or boiler has unexpectedly said goodbye.

Climate Change’s 900 Pound Gorilla

Energy efficiency remains a giant opportunity for building resilient cities

Illustration: James Heimer

Illustration: James Heimer

By Alex Dews

Over the past 15 years, the Philadelphia region has been deeply involved in a national movement to change everything about the building industry: how buildings are designed, built, operated, demolished, disposed of and rebuilt. “Green building” is now in the mainstream, and this greater emphasis on efficiency and healthier materials has resulted in tangible benefits ranging from cost savings to improved occupant health. 

But it is far more important to acknowledge that progress to create a more sustainable built environment has been incremental. 

In the next 15 years, progress needs to be exponential in order to meaningfully address local goals for affordability, health and climate resiliency. The recent, historic devastation caused by severe weather, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reminds us that buildings are our only refuge from the increasingly frequent destructive events that accompany a changing climate. They are also the primary source of carbon emissions that cause climate change. To adapt and survive, we need better buildings.

The Kenney administration has committed to work to reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, in keeping with the Paris Climate Accord and the commitments of many other global cities. The city’s sustainability and energy offices released some preliminary findings this summer on several potential pathways to reach this ambitious goal, and the results are eye-opening; a full Citywide Energy Vision will be released later in the year. 

For example, we could focus on putting solar panels on most of the rooftops in Philadelphia (effectively adding 40 megawatts, or 13 Lincoln Financial Field-sized solar projects, every year for the next 33 years). If that were possible, the result would be a meager 4 percent reduction in carbon emissions.

The same city analysis shows that maximizing energy efficiency would yield a 36 percent emissions reduction by 2050. This significant reduction potential in this category area is due in part to the fact that Philadelphia has issued more than 10,800 building permits since 2014, and most of these projects are using an outdated building code that is at least 30 percent less efficient than what all of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states use. That’s a huge missed opportunity with a simple solution, but it’s politically elusive: Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code requires all municipalities to adopt the state’s building codes, and that reality is compounded by the cumbersome process by which the unelected Review and Advisory Committee (RAC) adopts new code standard. As a result, Philadelphia, unfortunately, adheres to 2009 ICC codes. 

But on the bright side, solutions abound: Using existing technologies while strengthening building codes and incentives that encourage above-code certifications such as LEED, passive house and the Living Building Challenge can help to significantly reduce emissions. Passive house buildings—which use 80 percent less energy for heating than code-compliant buildings—are popping up all over the state, primarily in the affordable housing sector. Meanwhile, City Hall and its municipal “quad-plex” neighbors have gone from energy hogs to Energy Star buildings by investing a modest portion of the city’s annual energy spend on simple conservation measures and improved operations.

We can (and should!) have a robust debate about optimal strategies to achieve the deep carbon reductions that will equitably distribute economic impacts and enable a livable future. But while we’re doing that, we already know that energy efficiency will be a huge part of the eventual solution, and that it is always a sound investment. That’s why it should be the top priority for climate adaptation at the local scale.

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Alex Dews is the executive director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.