Sustainable home design begins with the first choices you make, from choosing plumbing fixtures to avoiding harmful chemicals and toxic materials. Inhabitat had the chance to talk to the team at PJC Architecture, based in Manhattan, about creating sustainable home design at every level of that design.
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What materials or finishes do you avoid using?
Philip J. Consalvo, PJCA Founder: When selecting materials, finishes or furnitures, we try to specify products with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to reduce the exposure to off-gassing from toxic chemicals over time. We encourage the use of low-emission paint, varnishes and cleaning products that do not contain harsh chemicals. It is also recommended to air out new products, such as carpet, prior to their installation and use adhesives that are formaldehyde-free or made from sustainable and eco-friendly materials.
Related: How to make your home energy more efficient for a tax rebate
For bigger-scale projects, we consider environmentally-friendly materials and non-toxic siding that minimize the release of toxins at high weather temperatures. We avoid PVC, (commonly used in building materials such as pipes, flooring and vinyl siding) given that it can release toxic chemicals when exposed to heat. Instead, we try to use alternatives such as charred wood siding, a method that not only helps to preserve the cladding by maintaining its waterproofing and making it insect and fire-resistant without the need to apply protective coatings, but also provides a unique and appealing aesthetic.
How can people integrate more sustainable design choices into their home décor?
Juliana Sorzano, Associate: A sustainable interior space is largely impacted by its air quality, which directly affects the health and well-being of its occupants. There are several practices that help improve air quality, such as:
- – Bringing fresh air into an interior space, either naturally or with mechanical assistance, is essential to flush interior pollutants. This can be achieved by making sure windows are operable and avoiding the blocking pathways between opposite windows/doors to allow cross-ventilation. Cross-ventilation is one of the easiest and most common natural ventilation methods.
- – Designating a “staging area” by the main entry as a transition space from the exterior to the interior. This helps prevent pollutants from coming indoors, contributing to a healthy indoor air quality. This is a good practice that can be incorporated [in] any home and may be achieved by having a mudroom or, if lacking the space for it, assigning a “transition” space near the entryway where shoes, coats and umbrellas are stored… a grate, grille or floor mat can catch as much dirt as possible before it’s tracked inside.
- – Incorporating vegetation into a space not only helps purify the air, but it offers psychological benefits to occupants by lowering stress and anxiety, reducing sickness and helping with concentration levels.
- – Replacing incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient lighting. LED lights use less energy and last longer than traditional bulbs, which can help reduce energy bills. Also, aim for bright lights during daytime to help with focus and concentration in rooms where needed (home offices and kitchens) but choose warm lights for rooms where a sense of coziness is desired (living room, dining room, bedrooms). Cool lights have a higher concentration of blue light, which suppresses the production of melatonin, negatively affecting sleeping patterns. Having artificial lighting on dimmers offers a range of ambiances, enhancing the comfort and well-being of the user.
- – Look for materials that are eco-friendly and renewable, such as bamboo, cork and reclaimed wood. Also look for recycled materials that are treated properly for performance excellence, such as countertops made from recycled glass, quartz and other minerals. If installing small portions of countertops, consider sourcing stone remnants instead of new full slabs.
- – Substitute stone for metal finishes where possible. Consider steel kitchen backsplashes. Or, where an accent stone wall is desired, substitute for aluminum panels with printed stone veining. Aluminum is eco-friendly since it can be recycled several times.
- – Source local products and materials that don’t need to travel long distances.
- – Invest in high-quality furniture, built to last. Or buy used or upcycled furniture and décor items, in a way to help reduce waste when possible.
- – Check product labels and third-party certifications, and source from reputable companies that are transparent enough to show all components of their products and that prioritize sustainable and non-toxic materials.
PJCA uses Dekton, a revolutionary counter material known as a “technical ultracompact stone.” It is made from raw materials blended together and processed using heat and pressure. This technique creates a dense, durable material that is nearly non-porous.
Tell us more about Dekton. How did you learn about this material and how does it compare to other types of counters?
Philip J. Consalvo, PJCA Founder: We found out about Dekton when it was first introduced to the market through a client, who visited a showroom and came back amazed about how scratch, stain and heat-resistant this material was. When we started reading more about this material, we were surprised about the sustainable characteristics it has.
Dekton’s finish is highly customizable and it comes in a wide variety of colors and textures, including stone and concrete finishes, making it a great substitute to marble applications. Overall, Dekton surfaces are known for being resistant to abrasion, scratch, water and stain. Their durability, strength and versatility are making them a popular choice for countertops, flooring, wall cladding and facade applications.
Dekton’s cost is lower than marble and very similar to quartz, but higher than granite. Its durability makes it cost-efficient considering its low maintenance. However, due to its hardness, it requires specialized equipment for its proper installation, which may bring costs up.
How can homeowners avoid dangerous chemicals when it comes to furnishing and decorating their homes?
Juliana Sorzano, Associate: Read product labels to check their chemical composition for flame retardants, formaldehyde and phthalates. Choose products with non-toxic or low VOC materials in items such as furniture, carpets, rugs and paint.
Look for products that have third-party certifications to demonstrate compliance with chemical emission standards and the company’s commitment to healthier indoor environments. Look for furniture and décor made from natural materials, such as bamboo, cork and teak, or natural fibers like cotton, wool or linen. Avoid synthetic materials.
Avoid products with fragrances, such as scented candles and air fresheners, as they can contain harmful chemicals.
You advocate low-flow plumbing fixtures to save water. What else do you recommend homeowners do so they can save on water usage?
Philip J. Consalvo, PJCA Founder: Besides low-flow fixtures that use less water without sacrificing performance, consider water-efficient appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers. Sensor faucets and flow restrictors can also contribute to lower water usage.
Update old plumbing to prevent leaks and add flood stop sensors, which are leak detection devices that automatically shut off the water supply.
Water plants by using a drip irrigation system to minimize water waste. Or collect and recycle gray water and rainwater for garden irrigation purposes.
What else can you recommend for integrating more sustainable choices into home design?
Juliana Sorzano, Associate: The substitution of gas stoves for electrical or induction appliances is a recently recommended strategy that helps reduce the health risks that come with this source of indoor pollution.
Temperature control helps keep a space healthy and comfortable. Heat and air conditioning systems can be hooked to thermostats that automatically turn on or off the equipment, keeping a constant temperature at home. Additionally, there are window treatments to help block the heat from direct sunlight and avoid overheating a space.
Reuse existing structures rather than opting for new construction to minimize the carbon footprint and negative impact that construction has on the environment.
When sourcing a product, find out if the company offers a take back program or buy back and resell service, a sustainable initiative that allows consumers to return a product at the end of its useful life which will then be recycled or disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.
Consider passive sustainable approaches when possible.
Make sure that for every decision you make, aim to REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE.
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