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10 Reasons Stearns Design Build Recommends Cork

1. Sustainability: Cork flooring is made from the Bark that is harvested from the Cork Tree (Quercus Suber), which regenerates after the harvest. The bark can be re-harvested every 9-10 years without damaging the tree. Regulated forests, mainly in Spain &Portugal, are the producers for the cork industry. Unlike bamboo, cork is a true green building choice.

2. Rot Resistant: Whether you use cork as your subfloor or main floor covering, if properly sealed/finished, the flooring will not rot, mold or mildew. Water-based seal/finishing such as urethane are recommended. Cork is great for bathrooms, kitchens and wine bottles. It is a great choice for both new custom homes and remodeling projects.

3. Insulator: Cork is a wonderful insulator. It is warm in the winter and cool in the hot summers that we have in Bryan and College Station.

4. Comfort: Cork has ‘give’. It comfortable and easy on the back and knees. It is much more forgiving of things dropped than tile.

5. Dent Resistant: Similarly, cork has ‘memory,’ and will return to its previous form if a heavy object asserts pressure.

6. Durability: Cork is extremely durable. Durability is usually the first concern that people raise when considering cork because it feels soft, like it would wear easily. But because of its natural properties it is very durable. In fact cork was used for years in high-traffic commercial settings before becoming popular in homes. It is even fire resistant.

7. Acoustics: Cork has more sound deadening ability than most woods allowing for clean soft sound.

8. Healthy: Cork does not have toxic off-gassing VOCs. It has natural insect repellent and anti-microbial properties.

9. Maintenance: The easy maintenance is another benefit of cork flooring. A damp mop is all that it takes.

10. Beauty: Cork is a unique and beautiful wood that comes in a wide variety of patterns and colors. It has the characteristic warm feel of other woods. It can also be inlaid to create interesting patterns.

Greenwashing

In yesterday’s post Facebook we asked if you could identify the decorating idea that was greenwashing. Greenwashing is claiming something to be green that is not. It is the scourge of green building. The icon of greenwashing from yesterdays post is Bamboo. For all of the reasons listed in the article, bamboo is potentially a green product. But, for three other reasons, bamboo is not at all green. As yesterday’s article mentioned, every bit of bamboo is shipped across the Pacific Ocean. Not only does this require a large amount of fuel, transoceanic transportation also contributes to destruction of marine habitat.

Bamboo is harvested in very unsustainable methods causing loss of soil and habitat. Though it is seldom associated with bamboo, the sad plight of Pandas has been greatly impacted by this product. But Pandas are only the most cute and cuddly species facing extinction from this greenwashing. Who wants to walk on a new floor in a freshly remodeled kitchen knowing the high environmental cost.

Almost all Bamboo is harvested and manufactured by exploited and underpaid labor. Sustainability means taking a holistic approach. Everything has to be in balance. This includes human rights and labor issues. This is true with all products used in new home construction.

Bamboo is by no means the only example of greenwashing but it is a good example, both because of its widespread association as a green product and because of the example that it provides of the power of a reductionist and limited view in marketing. Once people hear the whole story of bamboo they easily understand why it is not really green. Nonetheless, bamboo continues to be sold as a green alternative because companies who stand to profit handsomely by telling an incomplete story continue to do so.

Another common aspect of greenwashing is what green Architect Peter Pfiffer calls eco-bling. That is things like solar panels that have high status but may not be the highest impact option. This is not to say that solar panels are not a very green option, they are. But often a smaller investment can have a higher impact. It is not uncommon for people to be encouraged to put solar panels on a low efficiency building when, for less money, they could more dramatically reduce utility costs and carbon use by improving the energy efficiency of the building.

Beware of Greenwashing, there is a lot of it out there.

Why I Eat Meat And How that Relates to Design and Green Building

There are many people who, for various reasons, do not eat meat. Being a vegetarian in our culture is a very deliberate and often thoughtful act. I applaud those who do this and encourage all to be as deliberate and thoughtful in life-decisions. And certainly, what we eat is a life-decision, not just for ourselves but for the whole planet. I hope that I have been as equally deliberate in the decision to eat meat. This has to do with looking to nature with a sense of how we fit in.  This is a holistic approach; not just a systems, but a bio-systems, approach.  All too often green building gets caught in the reductionist approach of building science.  This is not to disparage building science which provides many powerful and important insights.  The goal here is to provide an example of stepping back and looking at how we fit into natural processes without returning to the cave. How and what we eat has, at times, been revolutionary. It was not just tea that was cast overboard by our marry pranking revolutionary founders. They sought food independence as a path to freedom. They knew that their subsistence could not be dependent on markets controlled by the British; so they sought a local diet. Jefferson said, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

Today the revolution through diet is stronger than ever, as common people are responding to the toxic practices, not of the British, but of agribusiness. Eating organic and locally is revolutionary. Rather than buying food drenched in hormones, drugs, pesticides and herbicides, many are choosing to shop at their local farmers market and with local merchants.

How, you may be wondering, in the face of huge polluting, water wasting factory farms, can you support eating meat? I do not, in any way, support eating that meat. I support eating locally raised, organic, grass fed and finished herbivores. though I am not opposed to a bit of pork or chicken, which are omnivores. But it is the herbivores that are key.

This has to do with carbon cycles and, some would say, biomimicry. Traditionally, before the European invasion and even before any human inhabitants, our country was inhabited by large herds of herbivores. These large animals, first mastodon and mammoth then elk and buffalo, consumed huge quantities of grass which they quickly delivered back to the soil and helped plow it into the ground with their large bodies. This kept the soil rich and the inhabitants well fed.

During this time the Post Oak Savannah was much more savanna than oak forest. Not only did the herbivores help keep things mowed, also huge periodic fires started by lightning would clear the land. Few trees could withstand these fires, leaving plenty of space for deep rooted grasses that could come back after the fires and withstand grazing from large bodied animals.

Native Americans also changed the bio-dynamics of where they lived but, for the most part, they lived within the rhythms of natural systems. Their populations fluctuated with the availability of food and water which connected them to natural cycles.

All of that changed dramatically with the European invasion. Gone were the large herds of herbivores that tilled carbon back into the soil. The fires that maintained the grasslands and forests began to be controlled. But the most dramatic change has come in the last 75 years. We have altered the slowly crafted symbiotic processes of nature with farming methods that do not put bio-matter back into the ground and instead pump intense quantities of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium into the ground, thus altering the structure of the soil that is now blowing and washing away.

We now fatten cattle on grains that are alien to them and cause them to become sick. To keep them alive we pump them full of antibiotics and other drugs. These drugs are ingested by humans causing increasingly virulent strains of harmful and disease causing bacteria. And the hormones that we are pumping into farm animals to increase their rate of gain are also causing deleterious health issues.

Most meat today is raise in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO.) In addition to creating cruel conditions for the animals, feeding them food that makes them sick and keeping them alive on massive quantities of antibiotics – 80% of all US antibiotics go to agriculture – They also collect waste in massive manure lagoons. This stockpiling of animal waste allows carbon, in the form of methane, which should go back into the earth, to escape into the air and contribute to atmospheric destruction. This practice is also fouling aquifers and waterways, carrying with it toxic amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, antibiotics as well as hormones, pesticides and herbicides.

Biomimicry is the study of natural processes as a means of perfecting human endeavors. I prefer bioassimilation, which is an effort to return, as much as possible, to the cycles of nature. In a very real sense this is a return to the garden. For me eating responsibly raised meat is a part of that.

Like our diet, the design of our dwellings and how we organize our communities provides ample opportunity to step back, look at our bio-system and make health choices. The key is being thoughtful and deliberate.  What ideas do you have for your home that will bring you into closer alignment with your natural surroundings?

Tankless Water Heaters No Longer our Recommendation

water heaters

water heaters

For years we confidently recommended tankless water heaters.  This recommendation was backed up by quite a bit of well documented research that was easily understood from a theoretic perspective.  Conventional water systems keep all of that water hot all of the time.  New research shows that the truth is somewhat counterintuitive.  This article does a nice job of explaining the problem with tankless water heaters.  

Image Credit

The Supersized House

Do you have a parent or grandparent that grew up during the Depression?  I love the resourcefulness and frugality of so many who grew up in those tough times. While later generations, including my own, loudly encourage us to reduce, reuse and recycle, the Greatest Generation quietly set the example of self reliance and intentionality.

Our homes provide a good example of this contrast. The average American home in 1950 was just less than 1,000 square feet.  By 2004, the average American home was 2,350 square feet… but was much more likely to include a recycling center.

There is wisdom in the conservative approach of smaller homes. Some advantages include the following:

  • Smaller homes cost less to maintain
  • They cost less to heat, cool and light
  • They usually have a lower tax assessment
  • They take less time to clean
  • They are generally easier homes to age-in-place in, allowing a higher degree of independence for a longer period of time (One of the primary reasons listed for moving to assisted living is the in ability to maintain the home.)

In 1998, Architect Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House Book helped popularize the idea of reducing the size of homes and paying more attention to detailed design, craftsmanship and materials. She wrote: “The inspiration for The Not So Big House came from a growing awareness that new houses were getting bigger and bigger but with little redeeming design merit. The problem is that comfort has almost nothing to do with how big a space is. It is attained, rather, by tailoring our houses to fit the way we really live, and to the scale and proportions of our human form.”

Three strategies for reducing the size of a house

  • Create dual use space – For example allow a study to double as the guest bedroom.
  • Eliminate formal rooms – In today’s world formal dining rooms and formal living rooms are seldom used.
  • Reduce the size of rooms – The great room was popular for awhile, but is usually out of scale and over-sized.  Bedrooms, too, are often larger than necessary.  As Susanka points out, large rooms often decrease the feeling of coziness and comfort in the space.
  • Take advantage of the outdoors as part of your living space. These are often the most inviting spaces for entertaining, morning coffee or a quiet retreat.

Instead of making decisions about our homes based on trends, we should focus on our lifestyles and needs. We tend to worry about resale values, but it is usually the unique home that has been designed to actual human needs that sells more quickly.

This month we have considered homes that provide Transition by fitting into the natural and community environments, homes that are designed with attention to our senses, and now homes that are designed to a human scale.  We hope that these posts have helped you think creatively about your home. Follow our next month’s posts, in which we’ll be taking a look at kitchens.