31 July 2008

Trends to avoid

I got a copy of the new Pottery Barn catalog in the mail today. It's the fall preview issue they've dubbed "Best Customer Edition," which is either a marketing ploy to flatter people like me who've never bought anything there or it's an attempt to win my favor. In either case, and I hope it's the latter, it ain't gonna work. That catalog should have been called the "How NOT to Buy Furniture and Accessories Edition." This $900 nightmare is on their cover.

As my old friend Patsy would say, "It looks like a trail of cat sick." And so it does Patsy, so it does. Nobody appreciates a blast of color and loud pattern as much as I do, BUT if you're going to draw undue attention to yourself, make sure you have your act together first. This thing isn't even made well, just look how the fabric pattern doesn't come close to lining up on the different sections of upholstery. There's no attempt to get the skirt to line up with the seat. The bad alignment alone should dissuade anyone from thinking about this chair. In their defense, big patterns like this are hard to pull off on a small chair. That's why they shouldn't have tried.

They get a little closer from a fabric perspective on this one:

This is their Madison chair in a pattern they call Green Ogee. It's an interesting pattern, but it suffers from the same alignment problems the rest of their offerings do. And this thing has a retail price of $1200. $1200 dollars should get a much better-made piece of furniture than this mid-market stuff. Ikea does a better job on their patterned upholstery and the average price of an armchair is $300. For $600 dollars, you can find better stuff at Crate and Barrel. But your best bet without a doubt is Room and Board. Room and Board sells well-made, middle-market furniture that's priced where it should be, in the middle of the market.

For whatever reason, Pottery Barn is insanely popular and is often mistaken for a purveyor of "good" furniture. I'll tell you right now that it isn't. Pottery Barn is a purveyor of popular "looks" and their brand exists to make you hate your life and aspire to the images conjured by their marketing materials. Lies! Cursed lies! You don't need a mass merchandiser to show you what your life should look like. That's what people like me are for.

There is a place for decent furniture and it's not found in chain stores at the mall. Decent furniture is expensive, but it's made well. Well enough to last a lifetime. One of the ways you can spot good furniture on sight is when an upholstery fabric does this:
Hey! Look how the stripes line up!

So if you want good stuff, go to a locally-owned furniture store. You'll get better service from people who make a living wage and who know what they're talking about. If you're looking for moderately-priced reproduction furniture, get thee to Room and Board.

30 July 2008

What do I do with my old stuff?

I have an appointment this afternoon with a new client. We're getting together to put the final touches on a plan that will take her condominium at the beach from its existing state of mid-'90s builder chic to something more contemporary and a lot more her. However, she has an entire kitchen full of perfectly usable cabinets and appliances. She has furniture, window treatments, plumbing fixtures, etc.: all of which will being removed and never heard from again. The stuff's usable and clean, just old and outdated. My client's not alone in this. I mean, what do you do with your old stuff when it's major renovation time?

Throwing it away isn't the answer I'm looking for. Why not give that stuff to someone who can use it. The range still cooks, the fridge still refrigerates and that laminate cabinetry could last another 20 years in the right setting.

There are two ways of getting rid of old stuff that I recommend to people. The first is Habitat for Humanity's ReStore on 118th Avenue in Saint Pete. Habitat for Humanity operates a retail store as a way of raising money to build houses for people who need them. If you have appliances that are less than 10-years-old, furniture in good condition, building supplies, etc. They will take your donated stuff, sell it and then put that money to good use. What a great idea. Your old stuff ends up in the hands of someone who will continue to use it and the money raised will go to an important cause.

The ReStore on 118th is essentially a house-related thrift store, for lack of a better term. If you're considering undertaking a renovation project of your own some time soon and if you love a bargain, head over there. The directions are on their website. Also on that website is a call for volunteers to help run that store. If you have some hours you'd like to give to a good cause, consider them. Time spent outside of your life can be greatly rewarding. But in the meantime, give them your old stuff.

My second pick is something called Freecycle. Freecycle is a worldwide network of local chapters whose goal is to bring together people who have stuff with people who want stuff. Freecycle's local group is in Saint Pete and you can go to their website here. There are in excess of 6,000 members of the Freecycle network in Saint Pete alone, and someone among them wants your old range and cabinetry, trust me. Freecycle isn't intended to be a one-way street. It's members give and take in equal measure. So in getting connected with someone who wants your range, you may get connected with someone else who has coconut palms they want to get rid of. Who knows what you'll fins, the important thing is you'll find something. Even if it's nothing more than a new home for your old stuff.

Between Habitat for Humanity's ReStore and Freecycle, you are bound to find a place to put your old stuff that's not the landfill along 275 and that my friends is a great thing.

29 July 2008

Radiation schmadiation

Predictably, the reactionaries over at Treehugger went to town over this granite counter radiation thing. So much so that I dropped them from my blogroll. It's a pity too. Treehugger started as a forum for rational discussion about sustainability got hijacked by the eco-madmen on the fringes. Anyhow, the guy from Treehugger who picked up the supposed story and ran with it to all kinds of illogical and irrational ends got taken to task in the reader comments that followed his posting. It very nearly renewed my faith in humanity. So humanity's off the hook but alas, Treehugger's going to have to work a little harder to win back my favor. I know, that has them shaking in their boots I'm sure.

Anyhow, here's what my new hero Anthony posted on the granite story on Treehugger:
Most elements have naturally occurring radioactive isotopes. Most objects you encounter are mildly radioactive. For example, living next door to a nuclear power plant generally provides a radiation dose equivalent to eating one banana a day, or sleeping with someone else instead of by yourself.

This article speaks of picocuries but gives no information about what kind of dose people living in a home with such a counter top could be expected to actually receive. How many millirem/year would be much more relevant, since rem is the most widely accepted unit of biologically equivalent dose.

Natural background radiation in most parts of the human-inhabited world ranges from 300-600 millirem/year or so. In some it is as low as 200, in others as high as 10,000. And every study done comparing individuals experiencing different levels of background radiation thus far has shown no indication that low-level doses affect the rate of cancer in any statistically observable way.

And the comparison with smoking is not only unlikely, but misleading as well. Yes, smoking allows more radiation to get to the lungs- several thousand millirem per year, by some estimates I've seen. But that isn't why smoking causes cancer. Lung cancer caused by smoking comes from the chemical toxins in the cigarettes, not radiation. Radiation is actually a remarkably weak carcinogen. For example, the >100,000 atomic bomb survivors who have been studied extensively since 1945 have shown only a 6% higher rate of cancer than the general population.

Please, put the risks in perspective. Even taking for granted the hypothesis that low-dose radiation works just like high-dose radiation (the linear non-threshold hypothesis, that risk of cancer varies linearly with dose all the way down to 0 dose), very few deaths are caused by radiation. We knowingly live with many, many toxins and carcinogens in our home far more dangerous than granite counter tops. We willingly get into our cars and ride our bikes with nary a thought. This is as bad as the fear-mongering over the mercury in CFL's.

Anthony, I have no idea who you are but you deserve an award.

28 July 2008

And away we go

My beloved New York Times ran an article in their Home and Garden section last week that has me bracing for a fallout. The piece was titled What's Lurking in Your Countertops and it talks about the radioactivity of granite counters.

OK, disclosure time. I have always known that granite counters were radioactive, but I have never mentioned it to a client. I've never mentioned it specifically to avoid the paranoid ramblings embodied by that Times article.

Here's what I know to be true. All igneous rocks (many sedimentary and metamorphic ones too) are radioactive. Granite is an igneous rock. Therefore, granite is radioactive. There, I said it. But so too is brick, drywall, concrete, bananas and the potassium in multi-vitamins. So for that matter are other people. People who sleep with someone are exposed to more radiation than people who sleep alone! Go ahead, make a headline out of that.

I have never heard another kitchen designer or granite supplier mention it. I can't imagine very many of them are aware that it is. Until last Thursday, I thought it was my cross to bear alone. But wait, it's not a cross at all. Granite is radioactive. So what? Radiation isn't any more inherently bad than rain is. People flip out when they hear that word. Radiation. There I said it again. Radiation isn't the boogey man under the bed. It's a natural process that you and I are surrounded by at all times. Natural, background radiation is to a nuclear bomb what a raindrop is to a flood. You can no sooner control or eliminate background radiation than you can the rain.

If you read the article closely enough, there are some calm and rational voices that are all but drowned out by the hypochondriacal author. To Wit:

Indeed, health physicists and radiation experts agree that most granite countertops emit radiation and radon at extremely low levels. They say these emissions are insignificant compared with so-called background radiation that is constantly raining down from outer space or seeping up from the earth’s crust,not to mention emanating from man made sources like X-rays, luminous watches and smoke detectors.

And this:

David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University in New York, said the cancer risk from granite countertops, even those emitting radiation above background levels, is “on the order of one in a million.” Being struck by lightning is more likely.

But most telling of all was this little tidbit:

Allegations that granite countertops may emit dangerous levels of radon and radiation have been raised periodically over the past decade, mostly by makers and distributors of competing countertop materials. The Marble Institute of America has said such claims are “ludicrous” because although granite is known to contain uranium and other radioactive materials like thorium and potassium,the amounts in countertops are not enough to pose a health threat.

I can see all of the quartz manufacturers getting their press releases together already. But newsflash; quartz is another radioactive, igneous rock. And since quartz countertop materials like Silestone and Zodiaq are made from quartz and other stone aggregates they're going to be radioactive too.

None of this is any kind of breaking news nor is it in any way a health threat. The final point from that article I needed to see in order to judge the whole flap ludicrous was this:

Personal injury lawyers are already advertising on the Web for clients who think they may have been injured by countertops.

Sadly, when it comes to science versus the cult of personal injury in the courtroom, science seems to lose every time. Don't believe the hype!

27 July 2008

Ahhhh life!

In a couple of hours the birds will sing, the crickets will chirp and the sun will shine. My long between-seasons winter will thaw and a combination of vague discontent, absolute moral bankruptcy and excruciatingly perfect period detail will once again rule Sunday nights. Mad Men is back!

This, from the Times:
“Mad Men” beguiles like a Christmas catalog of all the forbidden vices, especially smoking, drinking and social inequity. Yet the series is more than a period piece. It’s a sleek, hard-boiled drama with a soft, satirical core.

My last post about rainwater for a while, I promise

There is an online community dedicated to spreading information and awareness about sustainable water practices. They are called, fittingly enough, HarvestH2O.com and their website is worth spending some time on if any of this has struck a chord. From their website:

HarvestH2O.com is dedicated to the advancement of sustainable water management practices for individuals, families, communities, and businesses. We share knowledge and experiences in the following ways:

  • advancing specific, common-sense recommendations for water conservation

  • developing a best-practices repository in rainwater harvesting

  • sharing stories, practical tips, cautions and notes of interest

  • building on the experiences of community members who have already implemented water conservation solutions

  • developing tools, templates and guidelines for building rainwater harvesting solutions educating individuals and organizations to shorten the learning process

  • creating business justifications supporting water conservation as an economic investment providing a comprehensive list of vendors and products for residential and small-scale commerical water conservation projects
HarvestH2O is a great site for general research on the topic and they have an extensive, local directory of vendors who sell rainwater harvesting equipment, systems and training. Good job fellas, keep it up.

26 July 2008

Dwell + Google = a match made in heaven

OK, now it's time for a shameless plug of my favorite corporate entities. A couple of months ago I wrote a gushing entry about Google's architectural rendering software, SketchUp. That was all the way back in March and I still stand by what I wrote then. I love SketchUp with a passion that borders on the unnatural. It seems I'm not the only one. My heroes and idols at Dwell Magazine have teamed up with Google SketchUp and they are holding a house design contest. You can get more information and an entry form here. From Dwell's website:
What does it mean to feel at home in the modern world? Dwell & Google SketchUp challenge you to explore what this means to you in the "Design Your
Dwelling" design competition featuring Google SketchUp software.

Most people define their home as a place where they feel comfortable and secure. But what does that actually look like? What would make it personal to you? Is it scale, materials, sustainability, environment? Only you know for sure. Entry period is July 3-August 31, 2008.

My enthusiasm for SketchUp has had the unique effect of empowering my math whiz friend from Tampa to the point where he's taught himself how to use the program to re-design his own house. Check out some of his work. I am impressed mightily. Now remember, this is the work of someone with no architectural or design training whatsoever. Granted, he has a love of technological solutions and innovations that makes me look like a Luddite, but an architect he ain't. You'd never know that from his work though. He send me his versions for my good-natured and loving critiques, one of which I've attached here.

Anyhow, go check out SketchUp and download it. It's a blast to play around with and learn. Then, check out Dwell's design-your-landmark-house contest, Design Your Dwelling. The whole thing's really slick. All of the entries have to fit on the same lot that you can find on Google Earth when you enter the contest. Think about entering. There's time.

25 July 2008

Kiss the rain

Back to my rainwater reclamation kick from Tuesday, I was rooting around on the website for Tampa Bay Water this morning. Tampa Bay Water supplies water to 2.5 million people in Pinellas County, Saint Petersburg, Tampa, Hillsborough County, Pasco County and New Port Richie. That's an odd-looking list, but apparently there are municipalities within the counties listed who don't fall under the jurisdiction of Tampa Bay Water.

Anyhow, I was looking on their site to see if anybody at that hallowed body has ever given any thought to rainwater harvesting. It turns out they have, click here, but it doesn't appear that they've thought about it on any kind of large scale. The same goes for Swiftmud, their website lists this link to a discussion about rain barrels. Thanks to Mike Molligan, their Communications Director, for pointing that out to me.

As I talk to clients and friends about rainwater harvesting, the question always comes up about how many household uses harvested rainwater has. I'm fast to point out that it's perfect for toilet flushing, irrigation and clothes washing. I'd always assumed that it was illegal to use it as a drinking water supply. I figured that it wasn't possible to opt out of a municipal water supply. Well, it turns out that I was wrong on all counts. To quote Tampa Bay Water:

Currently, there is no existing regulation or policy in the State of Florida regarding the use of cisterns for potable or non-potable use. This research was undertaken to find policies and permitting criteria that is used by other governments that could provide some rationale for understanding how and why
permitting and design specifications may be required in the Tampa Bay region.

So a rainwater harvesting system paired with a reverse-osmosis filter could allow anybody to supply his own drinking water. For now anyhow. Interesting. I am not suggesting that any one actually do this mind you, but it's an interesting thought.

On a related note, I came across this story about a High School a week ago on the great blog Metaefficient. The Langston Brown Community Center and High School in Arlington, Virginia captures and uses 280,000 gallons of rainwater every year. The facility uses that water for non-potable purposes exclusively. This is in an area of the country with 39 inches of rainfall a year, so it's not as if this building is sited in a part of the country that's particularly wet. Metaefficient also linked me to a case study on the USGBC's (the US Green Building Council) website that about knocked my socks off.

The 32,000 square foot headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis MD, is said to be the most energy efficient building ever built. It saves the foundation housed in it $33,000 in energy and utility costs when compared to a conventional office building of the same size. Saving $33,000 a year isn't just for granola-eaters kids. Sustainability makes sound, solid, economic sense and continuing to build things conventionally because "that's the way we've always done it" is madness.

24 July 2008

Finally, a lawn I can live with

Check this out!

This is a lawn made by a company called SynLawn --a waterless, maintenance-free alternative to the Great Satan, St. Augustine Grass. Imagine having the great American lush, green lawn that you never have to water, fertilize or cut.

So long as you don't live in a deed-restricted community that bans their product, please take a look at what this company is offering. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in a deed-restricted community; what were you thinking? No really, if you live in a place that's short-sighted enough to require that you have a natural lawn, take some of this information to your next homeowner's association meeting.

SynLawn is made and headquartered in Dalton, GA and they don't seem to be a presence in Florida. Yet anyhow. This stuff looks great, really. Their website is loaded with information, instructions and prices. Check it out!

Even Dachshunds love SynLawn.

23 July 2008

The best PSA I've seen in a while

There is a honey bee problem in the US if you're not aware of it. The video below is Haagen Dasz's, the ice cream people, hilarious PSA on a real biological mystery. This video shows something called the Bee Boys' homage to the dances honeybees perform to communicate to their hive mates. That I have no idea what a Bee Boy is tells me that this is a one-time skit and not some kind of a trend among the youth of today

Honey bees' pollination is responsible for something like a third of the foods we eat and their numbers are collapsing and no one can figure out why. Honey bee colonies across the US are experiencing something called Colony Collapse Disorder. For reasons so-far unknown to science, honey bees flee a colony spontaneously and then die.

The honey bees that pollinate American food crops are European bees that have been introduced and are trucked around the country in a state of near domestication. Without bees, we don't get apples, almonds, oranges, etc. Not to mention no honey and no Burt's Bees lip balm.

I took this photo in May. It's an actual European honeybee in Europe. Seriously though, Bee Boys aside, this honeybee thing is pretty pressing. Check out Hagen Dasz's site and read up on it.

22 July 2008

Raindrops keep falling on my head, chapitre deux

Tampa, Florida gets an average of 46 inches of rain a year. Nearly all of that rainwater floods the streets and washes garbage and silt into the Bay. I have been wondering if there can be some good use for those 46 inches. So I set out to do some math to see what that means in gallons. A friend of mine is a fiercely proud Tampan and a math wiz. He lives in a typical Tampa ranch house and here's what he figured out for me.

His typical house has 2100 square feet of roof. Since rainfall is measured officially using the metric system, his roof measures 195 square meters As of last week, Tampa had received approximately 26 inches, or 660 mm of rain in 2008. 660 mm times 195 m² equals 128.8 m³. Since, as everybody knows, a cubic meter of water equals 264 gallons; this means that more than 34,000 gallons of rain water has fallen on my wise friend's roof since January 1, 2008.

Now, since we know the typical Tampa household uses 104 gallons of water a day for a total of 37,960 gallons a year, and we know that approximately 34,000 gallons of water have fallen on my atypical friend's typical roof so far in 2008; I think we can safely say that there's a way out of Florida's water mess. If it's not already obvious, that way out can't be found in the aquifer, in the Hillsborough River or in the new, gazillion-dollar desal plant in Apollo Beach.

Where is the serious discussion of rainwater harvesting? Don't ask because you won't hear it from the Southwest Florida Water Management District or from Tampa Bay Water. Capturing rainwater is too easy I suppose. Here's a diagram of a fully-integrated rainwater harvesting system. Mentioning one of these to a builder in these parts will get you a whole lot strange looks and that's as ridiculous as it is inexcusable. I blame the water authorities for their chronic shortsightedness and inability to plan for a livable future, never mind a sustainable one.

But you needn't wait for Swiftmud or the authority to find this obvious solution, you can get started on your own. Start with a small scale collector. Set a barrel under a downspout and cover it to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Attach a hose to the bottom of the barrel and wash your car with it. Or water your garden. Or give the dog a bath. Or God forbid, water the lawn.

Rainwater harvesting is a smart, efficient use of resources. Get in on it early kids because before too long your water bills will start to look like your electric bills.

Raindrops keep falling on my head

According to the City of Tampa, the average household in Tampa consumes 104 gallons of water a day. That "average household" includes single family and multi-family residences, and multi-family dwelling skew that average down. The city doesn't keep separate statistics, but from I have been able to piece together from a host of sources, a typical Tampa single family home goes through 140 gallons of water a day. But for the sake of brevity and accuracy, I'm going to use Tampa's official number of 104 gallons. So at 104 gallons of water per day, the average house in Tampa goes through 37,960 gallons of water a year. The City of Tampa admits that 40% of Tampa's residential water use goes to landscape irrigation. That's a mind-bending 15,184 gallons of potable water that gets sprinkled onto lawns.

Tampa and the rest of Florida are running headlong into a water crisis. That crisis is being fueled by moronic development non-regulations and St. Augustine grass. You heard it here first folks.

So, what's a lawn-loving Tampan to do? Tune in later for some ideas.

21 July 2008

All hail The New Yorker

I have been laughing haughtily at New Yorker cartoons since I was a wee thing. What? That's what you're supposed to do with cartoons from The New Yorker --chuckle and be smug. My life would be empty without that magazine I swear.

Cool new things in unlikely places

I deal with sinks all day. Ask me anything about sink construction, sink mounting, sink materials or sink trends. Sinks steal all the spotlight when it comes to kitchen plumbing and no one's ever asked me a whole lot about the drains that go into those sinks. That is until now.

Rose and Radish is selling these babies and they're calling them "Ornamented Metal Lace Drains." It's an interesting idea and it wouldn't surprise me if it caught on. Anybody looking for a million dollar idea? Check out how much these things cost!

20 July 2008

This is why I have a TV

Completely unrelated to interior design, kitchen design and sustainability I know. Well maybe not completely unrelated, the set designs on this program are beyond belief and beyond words. What am I talking about? Why, AMC's Mad Men of course. Mad Men is quite simply the best program ever aired on American television. I know that I have a penchant for exaggeration, but this is no exaggeration.

Mad Men returns to AMC for its second season on Sunday night, 27 July at 10pm eastern time. Season one is already out on video so if you don't know what I'm talking about, there's still time to catch up. DO NOT MISS THIS SHOW.

19 July 2008

Up from the angry streets

I love living in an urban neighborhood. The framed art shown here is one of my most prized possessions and it is a home made wanted sign I ripped off a telephone booth down the street ten years ago. "Found Art" everyone called it then; but whatever you want to call it, it makes me laugh. Its cryptic and provocative warning makes me wonder who on earth this subject is and what did he do to the person who made the sign? This framed piece of paper has spawned more conversations than I can count. I have people over and invariably, "St. Pete Beware" finds its way into the discussion. So thank you anonymous sign maker.

Earlier this week, the kids over at WebUrbanist featured a story about a graffiti artist who goes by the name of Banksy and who works the streets and alleys in London. Graffiti artist sounds like a contradiction in terms, but what this guy does what art is supposed to do. Namely, his work shows an audience a different way to see their everyday lives and it provokes a response. I'm sure the City Beautiful people in London would love to see him flogged but I'd love to have him move to Saint Pete.

18 July 2008

My new favorite thing on the Internet

Check out Wordle. I love this thing. I think I was playing around on it for an hour this morning without being aware that time was passing. That's always a good sign.

Wordle is a web app that takes text and creates randomized "word clouds" using the words you provide by pasting them onto their site or you can direct Wordle to a URL and it will go retrieve your text for you. Once you have your text in place, you can control the font, the colors, the orientation of the words, the general shape of the cloud. You can then upload them to their gallery or you can print them out. I love this thing.

I'm obsessed at this point. In the form of a word cloud, even the most mundane of things looks cool cool cool. I may even frame some of this stuff.

This is my resume.
This is an e-mail from a friend regarding vacation plans.

This is an excerpt from an Italian newspaper.

This is an e-mail from my niece Maggie.

This is my blog entry from Wednesday.

17 July 2008

I'd like to propose a compost

I have a dear, dear friend whose yard is his pride and joy. The photo above is not his yard, though I wish it were. Hah! Anyhow, despite my incessant demands that he replace his resource-intensive and inefficient lawn, he persists. Like a lot of people, he spreads fertilizers on said lawn and then basks in the glory of an all-American patch 'o green surrounding his home when they kick in. Then, just like a lot of people, he cuts and trims that now lush and full lawn then throws away the clippings. So the nitrogen and potash and phosphate he spends all that money and effort on in their powdered form go into the trash in their grass clipping form. That makes no sense to me. Why not just buy a bag of fertilizer and then set it out in the trash immediately and save the effort extended on the intermediate steps?

What he could be doing is composting that yard waste. By composting his yard waste, he'd preserving some of his investment in fertilizers. All of that nitrogen and potash and phosphate he used to throw away would end up in his compost. When he spread his compost around his yard later, he could forgo the additional fertilizers. Once he started composting his palm fronds, oak leaves and kitchen scraps, he could forgo buying the tons of cypress mulch he buys every year too. Generating your own slow-release, non-toxic fertilizer and mulch. Imagine!

Well, he doesn't have to imagine and neither does anyone else. Enter the ComposTumbler, a device that's been around for 40 years. The ComposTumbler is made in Lititz, PA --a stone's throw from another picturesque little town in PA that begat me. The ComposTumbler comes in four sizes and each size has a specific indication and application. My beloved friend from the beginning of this post is a prime candidate for the Compact ComposTumbler. A model made for the home gardener. Slick urbanite that I am; if I had a yard I'd be the first in line for a Back Porch ComposTumbler. That's a model made specifically for the urban gardener. The original ComposTumbler is for the serious gardener and the ComposTumbler 2 is for continuous composting. Check out their website and consider a ComposTumbler of your very own.

Re-using your yard waste after composting it makes perfect sense from an economic standpoint. And you needn't be a member of the Sierra Club to realize that spreading fertilizers on a lawn that's near a body of water is a recipe for fertilizer run-off. That's something that you needn't be a Sierra Club member to admit is an undesirable thing. If you insist on keeping a lawn, use your head about it. Composting is a good start. Making use of rainwater and graywater recapturing is another great start. But let's start with the basics --buy a composter.

16 July 2008

I just can't get enough of ETSY

I have been digging around on the great website ETSY since I found it last week. ETSY is a marketplace for artists and artisans the world over. In fact, it's a lot more than a marketplace. It strikes me as a virtual artists' community. The members network with one another in ways unavailable to them if they had their wares listed on Ebay for example.

ETSY's home page has a pretty advanced search function and through it, you can contact people who are local to you wherever you are. It was through this local search that I found a woman in Saint Pete who calls herself "craftyhag" and from seeing her name alone, I knew I was going to love her work. I'm using the images of her art here with full permission, so buy something. Craftyhag's work is impressive. It comes across to me as both knowing and carefree. Her wit and intelligence shine through some of her more primitive works and I love all of it. Craftyhag works in stained glass, linocuts and monoprints, ACEOs and paintings on wood. She even makes Shrinky Dinks. Shrinky Dinks?! Who doesn't love a ShrinkyDink? Of all of her stuff though, I have to say that I'm a sucker for her stained glass work. She uses shells and rocks and even sand dollars in some of her free-form stained glass work and to me all of it screams FLORIDA without resorting to cliches.

Check out this talented, talented woman's website, MySpace page and Etsy shop. Great local art needs local support and I think it's fantastic that a Brooklyn-based website like ETSY can help to provide it.

15 July 2008

I hate it when my aerator's congested

I was trying to do the dishes last night and I noticed that my water pressure had been in a decline over the last couple of weeks. The I remembered that I hadn't disassembled and cleaned my aerator in a couple of months. Well, once I had the thing taken apart, it was pretty clear that my congested aerator was the root of my water pressure problem. I live in a house that's nearly 100 years old and the plumbing and most of the plumbing fixtures are original to the house. This is a mixed blessing at the best of times, but when it comes to maintenance I'm rarely grateful that I live in what is by Florida standards, an ancient building.

Metal pipes shed corrosion and mineral deposits and it doesn't matter how old they are. Although as my experience shows; the older the pipes, the more voluminous the material shed. Those deposits can't hurt you and I'd rather have the extra iron in my diet than the alternative to a metal pipe, PVC.

Most faucets, and kitchen faucets in particular, have an aerator on the end of them. This aerator performs two primary and one secondary function. It's primary job is to add air to a stream of water and this does two things. Aerated water won't splash as much when the stream hits something and aerated water has a greater volume. That greater volume means that even though you're using less water to wash dishes in the sink, it's not noticeable.

All aerators have a screen in them, and that screen is what gets clogged with the shed material from your pipes. All aerators need to be flushed out from time to time and if you have never performed this little bit of maintenance, you'll be amazed at the improvement in your faucet's performance.

First, wrap some tape around the end of your kitchen faucet to protect the finish. Then get a pair of channel lock pliers and unscrew the aerator. Remember: righty tighty, lefty loosey. Once it's unscrewed, turn on your tap and hold the aerator upside down in the stream of water. What you're doing is back flushing the screen in the aerator and all of the captured mineral deposits ought to become dislodged and rinsed away after a minute or so.

Then reassemble your aerator and reattach it to the end of your faucet. Tighten everything back up, remove the tape and you're done. Easy as pie.

14 July 2008

Some things I think I think

About a hundred years ago, I wrote opinions columns for a newspaper. When I had a lot of unrelated things I wanted to write about and none of them could fill a whole column, I would write what the newspaper biz calls a Bullet column and what editors call a Bullshit column. Now that I don't have any editors to contend with I am free to do bullet columns with impunity. And now too that I have the awesome power of the Internet at my fingertips, I can write a magic bullet column that jumps all over the ether. I love technology. Sometimes.

12 July 2008

Best use of a garbage bag in a starring role...

This has to be the most creative use of not only a couple of garbage bags but also of a New York subway grate I've ever seen. Check this out:

This "Air Bear" is the work of Joshua Allen Harris, a New York-based video artist turned garbage bag and subway exhaust artist. Here is an interview conducted by New York Magazine with Harris and it shows some more of his work. He's a tough one to track down, that Joshua Allen Harris, because I can't find out a word about him from my usual sources...

Turn out that light!

The thieves at Progress Energy are building a new nuclear power plant in Levy County, Florida. Hurray and it's about time the US started building nuclear plants again.

Before you start huffing and puffing about radioactivity, I'd recommend that you read up on exactly what radiation is. "Radioactive" has been turned into an irrationally, emotionally laden term with nearly the same attendant hysteria as has the word "chemical." It kills me. A lot of people hear the word radioactive and see a mushroom cloud yet ignore the sun blasting away overhead and think nothing of getting into an airplane. Similarly, chemicals in consumer products are somehow always a bad thing; but newsflash, water is a chemical.

OK, now that I have that off my chest, back to the thieves at Progress Energy and their much-needed nuclear plant. Progress Energy estimated that the new plant in Levy County will cost 17 billion dollars to build. Yes, that's billion with a "B." Staggering cost, yes but where it gets interesting is that due to a two-year-old Florida law, utilities are allowed to pre-bill their customers for infrastructure improvements. When these costs started to trickle out to the public last winter, Progress Energy estimated that it would start charging a $9 a month surcharge in January '09 (on top of their recent rate increases) to pay for the new plant years before anyone starts shoveling dirt. Now, citing "confidentiality agreements" in their quest to find a builder, Progress Energy has declined to put a number on that surcharge as they seek permission to charge it from the Public Service Commission. They are asking for a blank check and they just might get it. Argh!

My beloved St. Pete Times has been on this like a hawk and bravo for the St. Pete Times! Call the Public Service Commission and your state legislators. This is a bad idea brought about by typically bad legislation. One party rule is a terrible, terrible thing.

Before I start hollering any more about this blatant thievery and getting my blood pressure up even higher, there is a way you can offset whatever January's construction surcharge ends up being. Swapping out incandescent light bulbs for less-energy-hogging compact fluorescent bulbs is an easy one. You can also lower the temperature on your water heater, set your thermostat a degree or two higher and on and on. But what about the things I do that I'd always been told used less electricity? I leave my AC on 24 hours a day and just raise the thermostat to 80 degrees when I leave in the morning. I've always been told that doing that is more energy efficient than turning it off when I leave. Well, it turns out that that little pearl of conventional wisdom is wrong.
The kids at Treehugger ran a piece yesterday on energy savings and it tackled such efficiency conundra as the turn-off-the-AC or not question and others that vex people like me. Treehugger's entry included a link to a website called Mr. Electricity.
Mr. Electricity is the brainchild of an efficiency fanatic named Michael Bluejay and readers of this blog would do well to spend some time poking around on his site. The man anticipates and answers almost any question you might have and presents everything in an entertaining and engaging style. He explains everything from how to read a manufacturer's labels to how to read your own electric meter. Once everything's explained, he'll show you how to apply it to how your bottom line. Seriously, check this out and save some money.

11 July 2008

The New York Times always makes me laugh

Judith Warner has a really amusing piece on the Times' website today describing the angst of an SUV owner in a time of four-dollars-and-change for a gallon gasoline. Warner writes a blog called Domestic Disturbances. It's always a good read.
The tale could be called: I Can No Longer Afford to Drive My Car.

The vehicle in question is a Land Rover. (2004 Land Rover. Vinyl interior. 33,000 miles. No sun roof. If you’re interested.)

It is a big black behemoth that stands more than six feet tall, weighs 6,724 pounds and gets, according to E.P.A. calculations, 11 miles to the gallon in the city, assuming you don’t go uphill, stop at stop signs or run the air conditioning. If you do any of these things, the gas mileage, according to my calculations, falls by about half.

Great rooms deserve great art

I have been reading a lot of blogs lately, and I keep gravitating to sites that deal with the more artistic side of design. I have always envied other peoples' artistic sensibilities; because despite my artistic aspirations, my pragmatism always seems to run my life. I suppose that's why I'm a designer instead of a sculptor. Anyhow, two blogs (Designboner out of Chicago and Whorange from LA) have proved to be real finds. Through them, I get a glimpse of what's cool and what's beautiful. And those elements are presented with a sense of humor and joy I find inspiring. Many thanks to the kids behind Designboner and Whorange. Through Whorange, I came to see the work of a Portland-based artist and designer named Matte Stephens, whose work you can see below.

I have a Paul Klee hanging in my office. Paul Klee is tied for my favorite artist of the 20th century with Mark Rothko. Matte Stephens appeals to me because in his work I can see a continuation of the life and work of Paul Klee but at the same time I can see reminders of the great animations of Hanna Barberra and later, John Kricfalusi. These works are gorgeous and cool on the surface, but they have an accessible deeper layer that I find irresistible.

Matte sells his work through a website I just learned about recently too. Etsy is a website dedicated to the sale of handmade items and art and it's a huge site. Through Etsy, anybody can buy great new art; and great new artists like Matte Stephens can sell to anybody. What a great idea and what a brilliant use of the Internet. Spend some time poking around on that website and buy something from Matte Stephens.

10 July 2008

Not your kids' stickers

Wa-a-a-a-a-y back in March, I wrote an entry about wall stickers. The first ones that caught my eye then were monochromatic and nearly architectural. Well, the kids over at Apartment Therapy featured some wall drawings this morning from a French firm called Domestic that take the idea behind a monochromatic, architectural focal point in a whole new direction. Who knew that something so humble as a vinyl sticker could be so doggone cool?! Some of it functions as art, some of it's just funny for the sake of being funny and all of it's executed well. Bravo!

09 July 2008

Smith and Noble's having a sale

I love what I do for a living, I really do. It's incredibly satisfying and gratifying to imagine something; be it a room, a couple of rooms or a whole house. I imagine something and then draw it. Then somebody pays me for what I imagined and drew. Then a couple of months later, I walk into a room, a couple of rooms or a whole house that once lived inside of my head but is now a real place where people live. I will never get over the thrill of that.

That said; there are some parts of the imagination and realization process that I love more than others and there are some that I really hate. Of the parts I dislike most, selecting window treatments has to take top honors in my list of most-loathed tasks. They bore me to tears. There. I said it. Invariably, I specify the most minimal things I can find and I'm never surprised to hear that what I specified originally didn't make it into the final plan. "Do what you want," I tell people; "just don't junk up all this clean space."

Then I hand them a catalog from Smith and Noble. Smith and Noble is a catalog and a website that sells custom shades, blinds and interior shutters for incredibly reasonable prices and they sell directly to homeowners, not just to the trade. Check them out. Really. And right now they're having a sale. A decent one too. I've bought wooden blinds from these people --custom ones-- that were only half as expensive as I thought they'd be. They were made to the size I needed exactly and they arrived a week-and-a-half after I ordered them. Who does that sort of thing? Well, these guys do. Take a spin through their website.

08 July 2008

An outdoor shower

I was talking to my brother yesterday who'd spent the better part of the day outside doing yard work. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I was going back to The Bahamas in a couple of weeks to stay in a thatched roof shack on the beach. I've been to this same place about four times already and I was telling my brother that one of my favorite things about the place is that the showers are outside. He started dreaming of building himself an outdoor shower for yard work days and I started whining because I want an outdoor shower to use every day. Ahhh, to be naked in the sunshine is indeed a wonderful thing and the very idea of an outdoor shower exerts a very strong pull on me for some reason. I'm fortunate to live in a climate where something like an outdoor shower would be usable virtually year-round. Not so my temperate-climate-inclined brother. But the whole conversation reminded me of an article I'd read in the New York Times at some point in the last two weeks. According to my pals at the Times, outdoor showering is a thing whose time has come.

Setting up a shower outdoors isn't such a big deal and by setting it up without a traditional drain line can irrigate the area immediately surrounding your outdoor shower. Furthermore, an outdoor shower could be a handy excuse to start thinking about greywater reclamation.

So to plan an outdoor shower of your own, you'll need access to a water line, access to hot water for the faint of heart and some form of privacy screen for the modest. If the shower's not going to be plumbed with a drain line, it should be positioned over a dry well. A dry well is essentially a pit filled with gravel. For additional elevation and to keep you from standing in water while it drains into the ground, building a small teak deck to use as a shower platform is a great idea. Finally, plant some bamboo or other fast-growing, screen-type shrub around the perimeter of the shower and voila! An activity one relegated to the inside comes out into the clear light of day.

If you're planning to build or have built any type of outdoor plumbing, be sure to use copper pipes and for God's sake put cut off valves on the supply lines. PVC pipes aren't stable in direct sunlight and who wants to breathe aerosolized PVC anyway?

07 July 2008

Let's save some money!

I have been on a real electricity conservation kick lately so I'm going to write some more about it today. In May, I finished swapping out the last of my light bulbs with CFLs, I increased the temperature setting on my fridge and I started turning off all of my power vampires when I leave the house in the morning. It worked. I just got my electric bill and I have halved my electrical use and more importantly to me, I have halved the amount of my bill. Hot dog! I really don't feel like I'm depriving myself of anything --I still run my air conditioning and I don't sit in the dark. But it's incredible to me that making some small changes like the ones I've made has netted me some real results.

My beloved St. Pete Times ran the following this morning and I'm repeating it in toto here.

  • Put off the flat-screen television purchase, or unplug the one you have when it is not in use. Many flat-screen televisions can use as much power as an energy-efficient refrigerator.

  • Change to compact fluorescent light bulbs. The energy-saving light bulbs use about a third of the energy of incandescents.

  • Set your thermostat between 78 and 80 degrees, or higher if you're comfortable. When you leave the house, turn it up by 5 to 7 degrees instead of turning it off.

  • Use ceiling and portable fans to keep air moving. Ceiling fans can make a room feel 2 degrees cooler.

  • Close drapes, blinds and shades in the hottest part of the day.

  • Get a clothesline. It's hot out. Let the heat dry your clothes. A dryer uses lots of electricity, and adds heat to your house that your air conditioner has to work against. Florida law says homeowners associations can't ban clotheslines.

  • Consider "zoned" air conditioning systems that allow you to cool only the rooms you are in, or a small window unit to cool only the rooms in use.

  • Check with your utility about home energy audits that can see where you are wasting electricity. Some utilities also offer rebates on energy-saving devices like thermal wraps for water heaters or solar thermal hot water installation. Tampa Electric and Progress Energy offer audits and other programs.

  • Turn your computer and monitor off. Screen saver modes save no power. Sleep modes continue to draw electricity. With most computers, powering it on and off does not wear it out. There is more wear and tear on electronics from the heat stress of constantly running.

  • Unplug "vampires." These are cable boxes, televisions, phone chargers, iPod charging stations. All of them draw power even then they are not charging a device, and even when they are in sleep mode. These devices can add as much as 10 percent to your power bill. You can also put the devices on power strips, and turn the strip off when the appliances are not in use.

06 July 2008

Solar water heaters' time has come

I noticed that my new friends over at Metaefficient ran a story the other day about solar water heaters in Israel. According to their website, 90% of all Israeli homes have solar water heaters. And then last week, Treehugger ran a story about Hawaii's new requirement that all new homes use solar water heaters. And then finally, my beloved St. Pete Times reported on 2 July that the thieves at Progress Energy were granted another rate increase so that as of January, Floridians will be paying $135 per kilowatt hour; that's a $27 increase over what we're paying today. Hmmmm. Wouldn't it make sense for the Sunshine State to start to tap into what's arguably our most plentiful natural resource? Saint Petersburg, my adopted hometown, is widely claimed to have 360 sunny days a year. Yet when I look over the rooftops of this paradise-by-the-sea what I don't see anywhere are solar panels. Might it have something to do with our one-party legislature making conservation and alternative energy synonymous with communism? Now I ask you, how is saving money and using resources wisely a partisan issue? Well, in a country where the Vice President goes on record with the quip "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," nothing is a surprise.

Anyhow, enter the solar water heater. For most people, 30% of their monthly electric bill goes to heating water. Wouldn't it be cool as well as a great way to stick it to the thieves at Progress Energy to generate 90 to 95% of your own hot water and thereby keep more of your own money? Now imagine a world where everybody had these things. Progress Energy wouldn't need to raise rates or build new gazillion dollar power plants. No new power plants would mean a less blighted landscape, cleaner air and better water quality. Wow, it sounds as if conservation could be the basis of a sound and comprehensive energy policy after all Mr. Cheney.

A solar water heater is a pretty cool thing. They consists of three or four panels on the roof that have water circulating through them. The water gets heated by the sun and stored in a regular water heater tank. On a cloudy day, the regular electric water heater kicks in to guarantee a supply of hot water. On sunny days, the system hums along and keeps you with all the hot water you could hope for and it doesn't cost anything to operate. Talk to these guys , ECS Solar Energy Systems, Inc of Gainesville, about getting a system of your very own.

04 July 2008

Starck strikes again

My new pals over at Inhabitat brought this beauty to my attention yesterday and this story dovetails perfectly into everything I've been talking about ans looking for these last couple of months. What I'm talking about is displayed below. It's Philippe Starck's "Democratic Ecology" personal wind turbine that goes into production in September '08. Starck unveiled it at a trade show in Milan, Greenergy Design, an expo dedicated to exploring sustainability and energy alternatives. Starck seems to have trumped everybody with his Democratic Ecology though. This wind turbine is a $600, roof-mounted supplemental generator that can supply 20 to 60% of a home's electricity needs. That it's made from a clear polycarbonate is genius --adding infrastructure without taking anything away from how things look. It certainly has me thinking. What if everybody in my neighborhood had one of these things? We'd save money for starters and that's my bottom line interest in sustainability if I'm going to be brutally honest. And what it would do too is eliminate the need for the thieves at Progress Energy to build a new plant and raise our electric rates by the 15 percent they're itching to do right now. Pretty cool. The people get cheaper electricity and in so doing have to burn less fuel through their electricity provider and therefore pollute less. It's a win all around. All hail Philippe Starck!

03 July 2008

I love Cuban tile

I saw something on Apartment Therapy today that reminded me of my big find at the tile industry show in Orlando last May. And that would be Cuban tile. One of my favorite things about living in an older neighborhood in Florida is the sheer volume of Cuban tile that was used in the construction of a lot of older homes here. Cuban tile is gorgeous and it's enjoying a bit of a resurgence and that's fantastic news. Sure, who doesn't love a porcelain tile that's imitating travertine? But enough already. Show me something else. Well, else, is precisely what Cuban tile is.

For starters it's a green product made from Portland cement, powdered marble and mineral pigments. It's not a fired ceramic tile at all. Rather its a cement tile made with very little water and then pressed under tremendous pressure. The result is a brightly colored, extremely strong material that will make anywhere look like a shaded veranda in Florida. Just gorgeous.

These slide shows feature examples of work from two separate companies selling new Cuban tile. First up is a company called Villa Lagoon, who has the tiles made in the Dominican Republic and then distributes them throughout the US from a distributor in Tampa. Pretty stuff, though it's a bit more of a modern-ish take on the traditional patterns.

The second company, Cuban Tropical Tile, is out of Miami and these guys stick to the traditional forms and colors.

Keep Cuban tile in mind if you're looking to do something different yet timeless to your floors.

02 July 2008

LG --Life's Good or Lies Gratuitously?

LG Industries, the Korean company that makes everything it seems, also makes a solid-surface counter top material called Hi-Macs. Solid-surface is the proper generic term for what most people call Corian even though Corian is a brand made by DuPont. Hi-Macs is an aggressively marketed brand in a product category that is headed for extinction and good riddance. Solid Surface materials make for inferior counters. They scratch like crazy, they melt at an absurdly low temperature and they discolor over time. The industry wants you to believe that they are made from acrylic, but that's only part of the story. They are made from petroleum-derived plastics mixed with powdered bauxite. It's difficult to get the industry to own up to the bauxite content in their products and having them define what bauxite is to begin with is impossible. Well I'll tell you what it is. Bauxite is aluminum ore. Aluminum is a toxic metal. So what we have is a toxic brew of petroleum-derived plastic and aluminum ore and you're supposed to prepare your meals on it. Yeah, sure.

Yet, with all of that playing in the background, Hi-Macs just rolled out a new product line they're calling Eden. It's being marketed with a whole lot of hippy imagery and somehow they're labeling it as being made out of recycled material and therefore "green." Whatever green means these days. Again, what they want you to believe is an exaggerated form of the truth. Eden is made using up to 12 per cent pre-consumer waste. What that means in English is that they chop up their scraps and re-use those scraps to make more counters. This is a standard practice in the manufacture of solid surface materials to begin with so there's nothing new there. What is new though, is the attempt to jump on the sustainability bandwagon with the hope that no one will read the fine print. Please. Just because an inferior product has a color name like Lemon Grass doesn't make it a good idea, let alone a sustainable product. Want to be sustainable LG? Come up with a non-toxic surface that looks great, doesn't cost a lot, holds up to everyday use really well and can biodegrade.

01 July 2008

Starck, raving madness

In the world of design, few people inspire and entertain me as much as Philippe Starck. Though he may not be a household name across the great expanse of the US, smart people on the coasts are well aware of him and at the end of the day that's all that matters, right? Hah!

Starck first appeared on my radar in 1990 when I came across his "Juicy Salif" citrus press for Alessi, the Italian "design factory" that has been systematically elevating the art value of everyday objects since the 1930s. That now-iconic piece of cast aluminum inspires me still.

Anyhow, I just read today that the BBC is casting for a reality show to be aired in the UK that's a design competition presided over by none other than Philippe Starck himself. I'm assuming that it will have a similar format to Bravo's Project Runway and the grand prize is a six month internship with Starck's offices in Paris. Man, the idea of that gives me a thrill and it's something I'd love to see when it finally airs. BBC America, are you listening?