Patricia Gaylor has designed and specified the interiors of many high-profile show homes, from Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big Showhouse to this year’s Cool Energy House at the International Builders’ Show, a deep-energy remodeling demonstration house produced by the Building America Retrofit Alliance (BARA). Her focus on sustainable and healthy interiors has been featured in respected shelter magazines, including Traditional Home Magazine, where she’s on a small panel of “green” experts, and Better Homes & Gardens; she’s a regular on HGTV and has even made an appearance on Good Morning America. In 2007, she selected the interior finishes for my PATH Concept House, which won the Single Family Concept Home of the Year award at the NAHB National Green Building Conference 2008.
But what I really wanted to know was how Gaylor selects green and healthy interior finishes when she is not working on a show home with sponsoring manufacturers and financial interests influencing her choices. “I start by asking a lot of questions,” she says, “which can lead to confusion because there’s a lot of information to sort through. We all know there are harmful chemicals in just about every line of residential products, including millwork, fabrics, and flooring. There are the obvious concerns, such as adhesives, paints, and varnishes, especially now that homes are built better sealed and insulated. But then beyond the construction phase, you have to consider how you furnish the house. You have to ask questions, such as, ‘Where was the sofa manufactured? What type of wood did they use in the frame? Does it contain plywood, and if so, does the plywood have labels indicating it contains no added urea formaldehyde?’ The same set of questions goes for every product you bring into the house. It entails a lot of time and research, besides an eye for esthetics and good taste.”
Gaylor says she starts by considering the overall goals of a project, its scope, and the specific concerns of the client regarding budget and design preferences, and then she goes a level deeper, enquiring about environmental concerns—does the client care about sustainability, and do they have any health issues, such as chemical sensitivities or allergies? She also considers what she holds as fundamental principles that remain nonnegotiable, such as testing for asbestos or lead when working on older structures, using green products from local sources, and avoiding any finishes or furnishings that adversely affect indoor air quality.
“There are several aspects that make up a green-designed home, and they include energy efficiency, water conservation, and indoor air quality. They all work together as a system. To these basics, I add the layer of sustainability. I look for products that are either made from recycled parts, or can be recycled after their initial use, and as often as possible, I specify products from local sources to reduce carbon output from long-distance shipping.”
Gaylor also relies on trusted, third-party verification to cut through all the “greenwashing.”
“I trust third-party sources that have no vested corporate interest in the products. It’s a simple way to get to the heart of what you can believe in when researching a product. For example, the EPA has guidelines for ‘acceptable’ levels of VOCs in certain products, which you can view at http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html. The site is a little confusing to navigate, but it gives you good insight into what to look for as a ‘baseline,’ and then find those products that at least meet but preferably exceed minimum government standards.”
Besides the EPA, Gaylor provides a short list of three websites she consults regularly:
• GreenGuard: www.greenguard.org
• The California Air Resources Board: www.arb.ca.gov “Anything California does with indoor air quality or water is usually ahead of everyone else,” she says.
• Sustainable Furnishings Council: www.sustainablefurnishings.org
“I try to look for the websites that are more concerned with residential indoor environmental quality, because that’s my area of design, but there are many more that are directed toward structural building components.” As an example, Gaylor points to flooring, “You can check the brand of carpet you’d like to use on the GreenGuard website for its VOC content. There’s also a rating on the carpet from the Carpet and Rug Institute, which labels each brand with its logo if it has met the criteria for ‘acceptable’ levels. As an example of a product that has good indoor air quality ratings and comes from a sustainable source, I love using PET carpet made from plastic bottles. It’s not only certified for low VOCs but also is made from a recycled product. Also, nylon-based carpet can be returned to the manufacturer to be recycled again through a program called CARE, or the Carpet America Recovery Effort, which has a take-back program. This is where the future of sustainable design lives—in a circular, ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach.”
“Is it perfected yet?” Gaylor asks rhetorically, “No. But little by little, step by step, it’s improving every day. We are the watchdogs, and those of us in the business of building and design are the only ones who can change the current situation and create standards for better living.”