Isn't it ironic: Natural materials
— clay, earth, rock — used for generations before the plastics revolution of
the last century are now making a comeback as "green.'' Lucky for us they
are, as I found out when I decided to redo my home in an eco-friendly fashion.
Improving your living space and going green at the same time can be as easy as
painting a room with nontoxic clay paint or upgrading with any number of
natural and recycled materials now available. The feel-good factor is unmatched
and you won't (necessarily) break the bank.
When I decided to spruce up my living room with color, I was thrilled to find out that many big-name paint companies — including Dunn-Edwards, Benjamin Moore, and Sherwin-Williams – now offer green lines of flat and semi-gloss interior paints with low or zero levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), those smelly, gaseous pollutants in solvents, paints, pesticides, cleaners, glues, and adhesives.
But I quickly learned that the most eco-friendly paints from the big manufacturers are only available in whites and pastels. "If you want color, you'll have to settle for paints with low [but not zero] VOCs," says environmental designer Gigi Brown. "Eventually, they'll figure out how to get the color in."
I didn't want to wait. At Originate, a Tucson green building materials showroom, I found gorgeous colors with zero VOCs made by Green Planet Paints. This small company based in Patagonia, Arizona, uses only soy-based resin, clay, and mineral pigments to create a vivid, earthy matte palette for its interior wall paints (warning: the website does not do these colors justice). After experimenting (highly recommended) with clay paints in $4 sample jars, I settled on "Membrillo," a lovely terracotta, which instantly warmed up the room and brought out my white sectional like never before. One lovely and unexpected side-effect: The walls vary in color from a cinnamon-infused Mexican chocolate in the morning to a rosy pink in the evening, probably because the heavy matte finish absorbs rather than reflects color. The look and feel of the room is rich, breathable, and organic.
Two gallons covered the entire 15-
by 17-foot room (not including an unpainted wood ceiling) and a small
vestibule. At about $38 a gallon, the price was only slightly more than regular
Ralph Lauren, at $28. Washing up was easy. I even spot-cleaned a drippy glob on
my skirt with just water. And I never had to leave the house because of nasty
Want to keep the bathroom mirror from fogging? Clay paint does the trick by absorbing moisture during a shower. No, it won't mold. I'm waiting for a free weekend to finish applying Green Planet's "Noche," a vivid blue-violet periwinkle.
For a larger color selection, Santa Fe-based BioShield recently added a sophisticated lineup of nontoxic clay paints in smoky browns, steely blues, and eggplant purples to its origami-like "brights." The company offers 130 colors ranging from $40 to $68 per gallon.
Clay or earth plaster is another popular method to naturally beautify interior walls. When Jeanette Olsson, 26, a sixth-grade science teacher, and her husband Aaryn, 31, a doctoral student in arid land resources, bought their 1948 Tucson home, they started looking into natural materials to refurbish its crumbling plaster, brick, and wood interior.
What they found was a non-chemical earth-based plaster in a range of lush pigments (no painting required!) by Albuquerque-based American Clay.
Using an electric drill with a paddle in a five-gallon bucket in the front yard, the couple mixed the dry plaster with water and a pale gold pigment reminiscent of a Provençal sunset. They applied it to the bedroom walls with a trowel.
"We became fascinated by the clay," says Aaryn. "It's easy to apply. We knew it was non-toxic and we really liked the look of the natural pigment." They ended up doing almost the entire house. The couple used "Loma," which has a medium texture. For a wall texture as smooth as a teacup you can finish it with the company's finest grade plaster, "Porcelina."
American Clay promises that one
50-pound bag (with pigment) will cover 120 square feet of primed drywall for a
total thickness of 1/16th of an inch. But more texture or thickness requires
more clay. And at $50 a bag plus $12 for pigment, it's not cheap. "Every
time we got paid we'd buy a few more bags and do a couple more walls,"
Aaryn says. "It took a lot more bags than we expected, but for us it was
Building materials from two centuries ago are making a comeback. "Natural linoleum was used for 100 years before vinyl came in," says Natasha Winnik, owner of Originate, a natural building materials showroom in Tucson. She carries Marmoleum by Forbo (www.forbo-flooring.com), a Canadian brand made of biodegradable limestone, linseed oil, rosin, and wood flour with jute backing (instead of polyester) since the late 1800s. Starting at $3.50 a square foot, it's a durable and inexpensive floor covering that comes in a variety of colors, both plain and patterned. For my kitchen floor, I'm considering natural linoleum in gold with a broad red border. I figure it will beautifully cover 10-by-13-feet of paint-spattered concrete for under $500.
Renewable cork flooring, a slightly pricier option from Natural Cork, Expanko, or Bioshield, offers a cushiony surface made from the bark of the cork oak tree – without hurting the tree — for about $5 to $7 per square foot. Finished with acrylic or even unfinished, it's beautiful, hard, and durable, yet dropped dishes won't break.
EcoTimber offers hardwoods from forests certified as responsibly managed by the Forest Stewardship Council, as well as reclaimed or salvaged hardwoods, all for about $4.50 to $7.50 a square foot. The company also uses non-formaldehyde flooring adhesives, as recommended by the American Society of Interior Designers in its "Turning Green" guide.
Bamboo is both a fast-growing wood
and a sustainable perennial grass that renews itself every few years. It's
available in natural, honey, and amber shades for about $4.50 to $5.55 per
square foot in various thicknesses through Smith & Fong, Timber Grass,
Bamboo Hardwoods, and EcoTimber. Bamboo flooring has become so popular that
even mainstream do-it-yourself stores like Lowes and Home Depot now carry it
for about the same price as specialty manufacturers, or even a little less.
"It's a hard wood that's easy to work with and it's real pretty," says Albuquerque green builder Steve Hale.
Hard surface flooring is much healthier in a home than carpeting, Hale says. If you must have carpet, use PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) polyester carpeting from recycled soda bottles (brands include Resistron and Permalon), which, according to the federal government, has fewer emissions than nylon carpeting.
Better yet, stick with natural jute, cotton, or wool carpeting. The interior design society's green guide recommends domestic wool carpet over imported wool, which may be treated with pesticides. Earth Weave, based in Dalton, Georgia, makes pure wool carpeting in soft cream, brown, and taupe with a nontoxic backing for $14 to $16 per square foot, as well as a thick, felt-like, wool-based carpet padding for about $2.40 per square foot.
Last year, when Kristine Bentz decided to redo the kitchen of her home in Milagro, a co-housing community in Tucson, she decided to use only green materials. After gutting the existing kitchen, she chose honey-colored bamboo accents with a fiber-based cabinet/counter material in a rich shade of nutmeg brown from Richlite for $31 to $52 per square foot. For the sink and stove backsplash, she installed 85 percent recycled bottle-glass tiles (Oceanside/$30 to $52 per square foot of 1-inch-by-1-inch tile). Formed concrete with a waxed surface made surprisingly smooth and beautiful countertops, including a kitchen island with a base of 40 percent recycled translucent plastic lit from within for cozy evening gatherings ($8 to $80 a square foot depending on thickness, from www.3-form.com).
Durable terrazzo-like countertops
of recycled glass/concrete conglomerates are fun, but also pricey, IceStone, 75- percent
recycled glass, costs $25 to $58 per square foot for a 1-1/4-inch slab; or
Paperstone, a similar product of 100 percent recycled glass, costs $30 to $36
per square foot. If you're on a budget, consider 1-inch thick slabs of
gorgeous, sturdy natural slate in blue, gray, blue-gray, ochre, brown, and
green for only $15 per square foot.
I wonder how blue-gray slate looks with periwinkle?
A NYC transplant to Arizona, Aubin Tyler has written for Psychology Today, the Los Angeles Times, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and lately, Tucson Green Magazine.