The saying goes, “don’t take on too many big life changes at once.” Whoever said that clearly doesn’t live in our day and time. In 2013, my soon-to-be-husband and I designed and kicked off the construction of our house, got married, and had a baby boy named Finn just before the New Year. No, we didn’t have time for more than a two-day honeymoon down to Woodstock (during which time our concrete floors were poured on the first floor); or leisurely weekends without our newborn to paint our walls before moving in. Although we did manage to stain all the pine shiplap siding ourselves, and spread wildflower seed in our meadow. Two years later, we have hundreds of lupine blooming, with thousands of black-eyed Susan, Sweet William, and many others soon to follow. And, we are finally manicuring the dirt pit in our backyard, transforming it into a grassy space with circular stone raised beds for medicinal herbs and butterfly gardens, with a big sand box and mud kitchen for Finn.
What’s miraculous about the whole process is that we didn’t just put up any old house. We built an incredibly insulated, green home, taking into account the natural surroundings (conservation land) and our own environmental toxicity concerns (plastics & formaldehyde). We investigated all of the “negotiable” materials that our builder would use, sometimes at the very last hour. We made daily decisions, researching green home building blogs and talking to vendors about products and skimming through product Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). What we discovered lurking in so many commonplace products used in building – yes, chances are, in your home or school – are not only plastic but formaldehyde, micas, and a variety of VOCs.
The good news is – you can find great products to work with – it just takes time, a little extra investment, and a little coaxing of your tradesmen. Let’s take mud for example. Most drywall muds include formaldehyde and can possibly contain asbestos. Murco All-Purpose Hypoallergenic Mud doesn’t - yet it’s only available at certain sellers (we bought it from Tennessee). But, the cement can’t be applied under 55 degrees, so our timing had to be exact, as it was a cold winter.
We blew the charts with our blower-door test (used to measure house efficiency/tightness) at a mid 200 level on two occasions. That number is about 10 times tighter than an old, drafty Vermont farmhouse. We used blow-in cellulose insulation, which proved to make for an incredibly tight house, so we could recover the cost over time. One thing we would certainly do over again is to look harder for (or maybe invent!) a product to use in place of plastic webbing. We didn’t use plastic webbing, and tried to use a new paper/plastic hybrid product recommended by Efficiency Vermont to our builder, that seemed to be the answer to our problems. However, it didn’t hold when builder blew in the insulation, as we had a double wall construction and our framing wasn’t close enough together for the paper to work well. It was a costly mistake, and ultimately, we went with blowing cellulose directly behind our installed sheet rock, which took a lot of hours to drill holes and patch them later, and meant we were “heating the outdoors” far longer than we had hoped to!
We worked with Mike at Vermont Eco Floors to create an outdoorsy palette for our concrete floors – colors that help us connect to our Vermont and tropical frames of mind. A slightly pinky/gold mud color in our mudroom to match the winter mountains and our forest dirt, an oozy moss green in our daughter’s bedroom, the pantry and the kids’ bath to match the ferns outside, and a bold combo of sandy gold and deep turquoise for our kitchen – we think of it as our beach in Vermont. Now, you have to understand that NO ONE in their right mind uses greens on concrete floors. It’s just so unpredictable. Mike and his team weren’t afraid of the challenge – they use an alcohol solvent, a water-based sealer, and no acid wash. Some floors had multiple staining, until Mike was satisfied. It’s definitely a look you have to love – and it easily stains and “patinas” – so this is not for the perfectionist, but rather the art opportunist.
While we love our radiant floor, we certainly need a bit of fine-tuning on the heating system. After a dark winter living in a western-facing home without many windows, we went wild with glass, especially facing south, so our house has a hard time stabilizing the heat (when it’s below zero), and as a result our daughter’s room is quite warm most of the winter. Where we don’t have radiant heat, we installed locally grown and milled red maple flooring, installed by a family friend at Green Mountain Eco Floors, finished with a low-VOC poly-whey finish from Natural Coatings. As for this product, it’s as the saying goes, “you’ve come a long way, Baby!” It takes a licking and keeps on ticking (unless you leave standing water on it for a few days…).
We used “no VOC” paints from AFM Safecoat, and applied a lime wash from a shop run by two brothers in L.A, Portola Paints, in our living/dining area and mudroom. We saved money on our doors and went with Thermatru simple metal doors and painted them inside and out, some with a copper paint from Portola Paints. Our kitchen is hardwood with a simple oil sealer on it, so we got rid of lots of polyurethane, particle board and plywood that shows up in kitchens constructed to everyday standards. Our vanities were built from a fallen cherry tree when we cleared our home site (which was minimal), and countertop scraps made of PaperStone, which we geocached from Craigslist in Portland, ME and Charlotte, VT.
Perhaps the only place we could have “done better by the earth” was the bathroom tile – we got new tile for our master shower, but for our daughter’s we bought tile left over from someone else’s project in a warehouse outlet area. Our grout was even low VOC, although pricey, but worth it in my mind. We splurged for a glass door in our master shower, which keeps our baby (in his little plastic bath tub L) warm in the winter.
Poly-whey finish - Vermont Natural Coatings: http://www.vermontnaturalcoatings.com
Green Mountain Eco Floors (wood): http://keepvermontgreener.com
Vermont Eco Floors (concrete polishing and dyes): http://vermontecofloors.com
Dry Wall Mud:
Safe Coat: http://www.afmsafecoat.com
Lime Wash and Coppersmith paint: http://www.portolapaints.com
Our builder: Sisler Builders, Stowe (actually, the owner is our next door neighbor!)
(Laura Fried is an instructional design & technical industry consultant)