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Cover story: Going green in small ways

- - Thursday, May 24, 2012

If you care about the environment and want to revamp your home's interior, you can find a variety of ways to be eco-friendly and also fulfill your design dreams.

Big projects, such as replacing windows and installing geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems or solar panels will have a bigger impact on your utility bills, but choosing sustainable materials and recycling furniture can have an equally important - and reduced - impact on the environment.

A "green attribute" that not every homeowner considers is the use of locally sourced products, said Chryssa Wolfe, president of Hanlon Design Build in the District. Anything sourced from within 500 miles of your location is considered local because of the shorter transportation requirements.

The most local place of all to find your materials is right in your own home.

"Repurposing, reusing and recycling furniture or accessories can work well for people because of the sentimental value and emotional attachment we all have to our collections," said Marika Meyer, owner of Marika Meyer Interiors in the District. "You can improve the aesthetic value by painting or reupholstering a piece but still have the emotional value. For instance, I reupholstered my grandfather's desk chair to use in my home."

Ms. Meyer said finding local vintage pieces can be helpful for homes that are older and may have rooms that are smaller in scale than newer homes.

"I'm working with a client with a home near Logan Circle, and we've decided that from an environmental point of view, we want everything to be repurposed," Ms. Meyer said. "We found a sofa in a store on U Street and had a local vendor reupholster it. We've repainted some used furniture and purchased unfinished furniture from a local vendor and had it painted with low-VOC paint."

In her home, Ms. Meyer took a vintage hutch she found at a Baltimore auction and repurposed it as a baby-changing table. She said she will repurpose the hutch again for storage when she no longer needs a changing table.

"In another project, we took a vintage dark sideboard and painted it a lighter color and then added accents with a faux finish," Ms. Meyer said. "We ended up lightening this piece all over, which is what a lot of people prefer today."

In addition to using paint and fabric to update furniture, Ms. Meyer said a woodworker can shorten or lengthen table legs to switch a tea table into a coffee table. In the 2012 DC Design House, Ms. Meyer painted and reupholstered chairs and repurposed a table with a faux marble finish.

"Repurposing furniture not only is environmentally responsible, but it also results in a one-of-a-kind, custom piece," she said. "Once you find a piece with lines that you like, you can do anything you want to end up with a custom-designed piece of furniture."

Ms. Meyer suggested having a mirror cut to fit in an old picture frame for a custom mirror, or to use an old chest of drawers as a new bathroom vanity.

"You won't necessarily always save money by repurposing furniture, but often the cost will be similar to a retail purchase with the added benefit of a custom design," Ms. Meyer said. "One of my clients wanted a Duncan Phyfe sofa, but we found they were too expensive. We found a gorgeous carved sofa on Craigslist for $175 and had it reupholstered, with the total cost under $1,000."

If you are remodeling your kitchen or bathroom or perhaps adding new flooring, you also can make decisions that will beautify your home while protecting the environment.

Richard A. Subaran, project manager and counter specialist for Aidan Design in Bethesda, said many of his clients choose reclaimed wood for an accent counter surface on a small kitchen island or for one tier of a multitiered island.

"Reclaimed wood is considered green if it comes from local sources," Mr. Subaran said. "We recently used a reclaimed chestnut piece from a local barn, then had a local millworker sand and clear-coat the wood. Our clients like the look of something aged, with the knots more defined and even some old nail holes."

Mr. Subaran said that depending on the type of wood and how it was treated in the past, some wood counters can be self-healing, with fibers that come back together if it is scratched.

Products such as IceStone and Terrazzo, made of recycled glass, have the highest content of recycled materials for counters, but Mr. Subaran said they are costly. The contemporary style of those counter materials is less popular in the Washington area than quartz products, which also include recycled content.

"Caesarstone, Silestone and Cambria counters have recycled granite, quartz and resins, but some brands have more recycled content than others," Mr. Subaran said. "They are all big sellers and are comparable to granite in terms of maintenance. Cambria is made in the U.S. and ... recently added a line of new colors that look more natural."

All three products have various green designations from different organizations. Mr. Subaran said finding granite from a local source, such as Virginia Mist granite, can be sustainable because of its proximity to this area. Vermont marble, which is 2½ times denser than Italian marble, is also becoming more popular for local kitchens.

Ms. Wolfe said remnants of granite or marble from local kitchen or bath remodeling projects can be refinished and used for other projects, such as a bathroom vanity.

"It won't always cost less to use a stone remnant because the product still has to be refinished, but it is better for the environment to use the stone," Ms. Wolfe said.

In addition to choosing sustainable materials for the kitchen, Ms. Wolfe said homeowners can choose responsibly forested hardwood flooring, typically red oak or white oak, which is harvested by foresters with a plan for regrowth.

"Bamboo is a green product for flooring simply because it grows so quickly, but some of the other exotic woods are not as green because they must be shipped around the world," Ms. Wolfe said. "We also use recycled wood for kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities and for trim around doors and windows. When we use tiles, we try to use tiles made from recycled materials as much as possible."

Another interesting product Ms. Wolfe uses is recycled rubber flooring for the basement.

"It looks just like wood but it is 100 percent recycled and extremely durable," Ms. Wolfe said. "The kids can Rollerblade on it without ruining the floor."

Ms. Wolfe said she prefers the term "thoughtful building" to "green building" because even when something is labeled "green," it may have been shipped from far away or it may not be made of recycled materials.

"It's just like in the grocery store. You need to take the time to read the labels and find the complete information before you can choose the right product," Ms. Wolfe said.