Monday, June 30, 2008

The Green Bandwagon

Everybody wants to be on it, now that it's all the rage; now that there's a buck to be made, everybody seems to want to go "green" and save the planet. Everywhere I look these days, somebody's flogging the "green lifestyle"--as if sustainability had become The Next Big Thing and that's why we should all get with it. Even cable television has discovered a lucrative trend and has lobbed a volley into the court of home improvement/DIY TV with something called "Planet Green." (Sorry; I've probably been watching way too much Wimbledon.) There seem to be many laudable features about this channel, but my introduction to its programming wasn't promising.

While I was hand-stripping the corners of the former sunroom/new study floors yesterday, I turned on a show called "Greenovate." The first episode--of three they were showing in a row--was actually the least offensive of the day's offerings. A "professional flipper" fell in love with the bungalow she was fixing up to sell, using "green" materials and methods, and decided to live there rather than sell it for a potentially hefty profit. The house is in Echo Park, an historic neighborhood in Los Angeles, and it may have been saved by preservation guidelines.

Some of the renovations were thoughtful, like stripping wood floors and painted woodwork with a citrus-based solvent (a bitch to use, but better than many of the alternatives) and using low- or no-VOC finishes. But the owner betrayed absolutely no interest in the sensibility that built the house (described as a "Victorian" on the program guide, but really a bungalow) and converted a potentially lovely built-in sideboard into a white-painted desk-area (although she was in the process of stripping woodwork elsewhere), eschewing the rich Craftsman color palette in favor of the ubiquitous white-painted interior that you can see on any spec-built house around here. It's pretty clear that even though she plans to live in it for a bit, the "flipper" will undoubtedly be turning this one over as soon as her kid is a little older and the housing market's not so depressed.

The second show raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels. A pretty little Craftsman bungalow on a Venice, California canal was gutted because the owners thought it was "the ugliest house on the canal." They destroyed the classic front porch and turned it into a god-awful open deck with no personality and no benefit that I can see, except that it opened up the "dark little house" to let in the sun. The same sun that is now baking southern California with temperatures hotter than they are here in north Texas.

Of course, they installed new sustainably-harvested floors (after having ripped out the originals, which didn't look all that bad to me, as I was hunched down on my knees scrubbing old varnish and rug crud off my pine floor boards), and "green materials" and spent way over their budget, in part because they didn't realize that permits were required for just about everything they did. Would that Venice had an historical preservation mandate that would have kept these people from turning a perfectly good house into a ranchburger. The cost of the house and its renovations ran in the neighborhood of a million and a half, and the show touted its new value as being around two million.

Two million damned dollars for a house! Any house!

The third episode was about a couple of greenies who wanted to "walk the talk" in their mod condo (in Santa Monica, California). The place already looked pretty good, but for $10,000 and a couple of months' work they wanted the following: all new, energy-efficient appliances (dishwasher, refrigerator, range, washer, and dryer); a new HVAC system on top of the condo; new countertop and cabinet facings in the kitchen; water-saving faucets and showerheads, and low-flow toilets in the bathrooms. All that and all new eco-bedding: bed, mattress, organic linens. All for ten grand. Right.

In all fairness, the place looked great when they were done. But they also went way over budget because their new bathroom fixtures had to be installed from within the tub-surround walls, requiring (for reasons that I do not understand) that all of the tile be torn out and replaced with new, recycled glass tiles. Why the hell not recycle the tiles they pulled out and leave the rest intact? Dunno. Not good TV material, I guess. The bathroom floor then had to be replaced with--get this--pebbles retrieved from a beach in Indonesia. Not pebbles gathered off the Santa Monica pier, but ones picked up in Indonesia (probably by underpaid peasant folk who don't understand that someday they're going to run out of pebbles) and transported to California using fuel. You know: the stuff these people are trying to save by renovating their house.

They spent $20,000 total, and that must have been because they had--ahem--connections. My rough estimate on the cost of appliances, the bed, and HVAC (no labor, no cabinet renovations, no countertop) is $12,600--shopping at Best Buy, Home Depot, and online (at EcoBedroom).

I'm thinking that if this couple were really trying to be environmentally conscious, they'd have thought a little more carefully about the impact of some of their choices.

I have to give these folks credit, though. They had the cojones to install a worm farm in their fancy new kitchen with its recycled-glass countertops and spiffy new stainless steel appliances and sustainably harvested teak cabinet fronts. This they use to compost food scraps to provide fertilizer for their house plants.

Last Friday, the Dallas Morning News, which has climbed aboard the bandwagon at full steam, ran a story about one of the founders of the local business organization, Sustainable Dallas. Once again, however, the message is this: if you have oodles of money you can transform the environment. You can live in (what looks like) an 8,000 square-foot house (with a conservatory under construction) on an acre and a quarter, and compost your neighbors' lawn clippings (their lawn-care service workers dump the stuff in the compost area for them), without asking (I'm guessing here) what kinds of pesticides and chemical fertilizers are being used on the the acres of lawns from which those clippings come. And you can feel really good about life, the universe, and everything because you're keeping bees, or baking cookies in your cute little solar oven.

I suppose I should just be happy that all of these folks aren't buying new McMansions being built on spec in old neighborhoods, like the one that replaced the tiny little bungalow in Lakewood Heights, were we lived before we bought this house. After buying Velvet Oil for our floors at Dallas's best outlet for environmentally friendly stuff, Green Living, we drove down the old street. We knew we were going to be depressed, but we did it anyway. Literally every other house on the block has been torn down and replaced by a huge Thomas Kinkaid mock-house: a silly evocation of a non-existent past not even remotely connected to north Texas.

Although I should be thankful that people are finally getting interested in sustainability, I just wish we could collectively get away from the idea that the only way to live "green" is to throw everything out. Wouldn't it be better if we rehabbed as simply as possible, without tearing away a house's historical being, and without going out and buying more new stuff that we don't bloody well need?

Sorry. It's been a long week, and the floors still aren't finished. But the paint's on the walls, the crown molding goes up today, and we should be able to "move office" before the weekend. Only about four days off schedule--and still under budget. Our total budget for this effort, by the way, is our "economic stimulus" check: $1200. And that includes the bookcases.

Photo credit: Once again, Wikimedia Commons came through with a lovely photo by Slivester Nuenenorl cor Bounifeuisc (that's how he spells it) of a sunset at Jimbaran Beach in Bali. He calls it "The Affinity of Stadérrouté," taken June 7, 2005. I think the pebbles would look better here than on somebody's bathroom floor.


carolr said...

Well, I am always skeptical about an idea once the media gets hold of it and runs full steam ahead. Going green? We had better, but I am with you; use what we have first;don't get me started on the McMansions. Who needs them? No one has more than 2 kids. Anyway, good lck with your projects.

GEM said...

You will end up most pleased once your floor renovation project is done. There is something very satisfying in taking what exists and breathing some new life into it by dint of hand labour.
We bought our 1950s house seven years ago. The bathroom is the original tile and tub. The original toilet broke and we replaced it with a small, low-flush one. My daughter-in-law complains that she could never contemplate living in a house such as this, 800 square feet, small bedrooms and bathroom. Especially she makes fun of the 50s bathroom. We see no virtue in refurbishing it and changing the nature of the house. It amazes me what the younger generation feels it needs for livability. This generation is one which feels it can spend its way to more'green' life, which to me means an aesthetic and philosophy determined by marketers. People tend to be such mindless sheep. Baaah, Humbug!!!
G and GEM

Anonymous said...

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when, on "Earth Day", I received several solicitations from stores like Crate and Barrel encouraging me to celebrate by buying one of their "green" wares.

On the personal front, we've decided we can manage in our little old house a while longer and have given up the hunt for a new (new to us, at least) house. At this point, what's one more body? Especially one that's (hopefully) less than 10 lbs? We did just gut and replace our 1950's "master" bath, but come on, I swear it was built for hobits!

Owlfarmer said...

There are, fortunately, enough of us around that are seeing the benefits of making use of (not always just "making do") what we have.

As we've been working on this house, it's been surprising and rewarding to discover how much of what we have can be adaptively reused--including and old "waxer" I used this morning with some Scotch-brite pads attached to de-gloss some shiny areas on the floor. It scuffed them just enough, and I didn't have to spend even more time on my hands and knees, and neither did I have to go out and buy a special new tool to do the job.

The cloths bits I've been accumulating when shirts and jammies wear out have come in really handy during this project as well. Not one paper towel used, and most of the rags can be washed and reused. Just like what my grandmother used to do.

And Carol's certainly right about our needing to green ourselves up; but it's nice to know that we don't really have to go out and buy more crap in order to do it!