Creative Remodeling Solutions

You don't have to resort to straw insulation and solar panels to be eco-conscious

02-01-2002 // Heidi Ridgley

DUCT TAPE HELD DOWN the misbehaving kitchen tiles. Flowery curtains fanned and twisted into a garish muddle in the living room. Peeling maroon bathroom walls looked ghastly next to rows of smoky-blue tiles. And Danny Seo decided he'd had enough. So, two summers ago he convinced his parents to let him gut their house. But Seo--who at age 12 founded Earth 2000, a national youth-driven environmental organization--wanted to create this new look for the house using affordable yet stylish materials that were also easy on the planet.

"There's a big stereotype that if you're an environmentalist, you have to spend a lot of money and sacrifice style," says Seo, who will mark his 25th birthday this Earth Day. "But you don't have to resort to straw insulation and solar panels to be eco-conscious." And with the help of the Internet, finding environmentally friendly materials and figuring out how to recycle the old was easy--even from his small hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania.

His three-month project began in the kitchen by replacing his parents' drab and dingy cupboards with modern beech-colored cabinets, made from sustainably harvested wood veneer and held together with nontoxic glue. Adhesives often contain formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound (VOC) that can emit unhealthy vapors inside the house. He also replaced the old wood-laminate countertop and recommends surfaces made from sustainably harvested wood or--for those with a more artistic flair--concrete embedded with your own broken glass or pottery. Some common countertop surfaces, such as marble, must be strip-mined.

"But if you like to bake and must have marble for rolling dough, get a large piece of scrap from the kitchen supply store, chip the corners to make it look natural and set it on your built-in countertop," recommends Seo. For his mother's own baking needs he added a stainless steel island, bought from a used restaurant supply store. "The durable metal not only looks nice," says Seo, "but if it ever needs to be replaced, it can easily be recycled."

In the bathroom, that smoky-blue ceramic floor gave way to tiles made from recycled soda bottles and spa-ghetti jars. The translucent improvements--available in multiple colors--are actually more durable than the ceramic versions, which are made from baked clay and coated with glass for strength. "They were more expensive, but the room was small so I splurged," says Seo.

To cover those maroon walls, he used a nontoxic white paint that he also brushed in other colors throughout the house. "Designers say that one of the easiest ways to redecorate a room is to change the color of the walls," says Seo. "But using traditional latex paint means you have to open windows for ventilation, wear protective gloves and a mask, and then worry about how to dispose of the leftovers," he says. Biodegradable paints are made from simple and safe ingredients that are easy to pronounce: Citrus peel oils, tree resin and earth pigments. Recycled latex paint, offered by a variety of companies, is another option that often costs less with no difference in quality. Seo recommends using industrial paint for high-traffic areas such as the backyard deck. "It's not particularly friendly to the environment, but paint it once and it will last a lifetime," he says.

Renovators can also give vintage-looking wallpaper a facelift by spreading the wall with brown glaze and wiping away the excess with a soft cloth. Known as tea-staining, the resulting rich, warm patina adds charm, says Seo, who got the idea from one of his favorite New York City restaurants.

For the windows and floors, Seo went for a simple, natural look, replacing fanciful curtains with bamboo and canvas blinds and swapping the old wall-to-wall nylon carpet with wall-to-wall sisal. Unlike most carpeting, which can contain the VOC polyvinyl chlorine among other chemicals, sisal is made from a large leafy plant native to Central America and grown sustainably throughout the world. Coarse, strong and durable, it was the perfect choice for the family room. Other environmentally sound rug materials include hemp, which is grown without pesticides, and coir, collected from the outer shell of the coconut.

In the bedroom, Seo barred carpeting altogether. He put in a floor made from bamboo, a fast-growing grass, rather than hardwood, which often comes from clear-cut forests. (If hardwood floors and new wood furniture are luxuries you can't do without, look for plantation-grown sources or wood endorsed by the Forest Stewardship Council--such as those stamped with the SmartWood seal--to be sure it was harvested with the planet in mind. Even better, try to find sources that use reclaimed timber rescued from old farmhouses and abandoned warehouses.)

After removing the carpeting, Seo realized he should take on his parents' choices for beds and bedding as well. Most mattresses are filled with artificial foams, formaldehyde and synthetic fibers that produce unhealthy fumes--not the best option for a body that's supposed to be rejuvenating while asleep.

Seo chose a bed for his parents made with 100 percent natural cotton padding. It's also formaldehyde-free, with a natural foam made from the rubber tree. He covered it with organic, color-grown cotton sheets made without harmful dyes and looked for pillows stuffed with pesticide-free buckwheat hulls and chlorine-free cotton. Then he had the mattress recycled into scrap metal, cloth rags and mulch, much like the rest of the cast-off materials in the house. "Any metal--right down to the electrical sockets--can be salvaged," says Seo. "But don't throw any metal into your recycling bin that you're not sure about. Take it to a scrap dealer and exchange it for cash instead, or you'll contaminate the whole bin and it'll all get landfilled."

Sometimes contractors will happily take items such as old cabinets, light fixtures and doors off your hands to be refurbished and used again in someone else's house. That's where Seo's parents' cabinets ended up. The carpeting landed in Georgia at a recycling center that Seo found by searching the Internet. "I would've had to pay to have it hauled away anyway, so why not pay to have it recycled instead," he says. "If you do a cost comparison on most things, often it is affordable to take the environmentally friendly route."

Wanting this new look to stick, he insisted his parents vow to live a clutter-free future. Unwanted household items were donated or exchanged for cash at resale stores. "There are plenty of places that will pay cash on the spot for lightly used possessions such as athletic gear, electronics and baby accessories," says Seo. And don't be afraid to get creative: Give Aunt Ida's old fur coat to an animal-friendly organization. Some wildlife rehabilitators will gladly use it to line a recuperating animal's cage.

In the end, Seo said he discovered much of his eco-friendly choices actually were cost-effective, allowing him money for special touches--like those bathroom tiles. And more than two years later, his parents are still delighted with the makeover. "At first we were a bit worried about Danny's ideas," says Seo's mom, MinHee. "I didn't think the house would end up looking very stylish if he used recycled materials. But it actually looks beautiful. We love what he's done."

But the best benefits: a healthier living space and a better-off environment. "People think that to care about the environment takes a lot of money and time," says Seo. "My idea is to show people how they can make choices in their everyday life that will help them and the environment at the same time. It might not change the world, but if even a thousand people do it, it can have a profound impact." And you also don't have to be known as the person with the drabbest decor on the block.

Associate Editor Heidi Ridgley gathered ideas from Danny Seo's latest book, Conscious Style Home: Eco-Friendly Living for the 21st Century (St. Martin's Press, 2001), to fix up her recently purchased early 20th-century row house.

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