A year ago when I started a consulting business, I was happy to work out of the corner of our home’s attic bedroom. Armed with a borrowed fax machine, a free desk chair I found on a neighborhood cleanup day, and an ad-hoc desk made from a hollow-core door atop two sawhorses, I had all I needed to start on my new career path. A year later, with a few successful projects under my belt and a growing list of clients to manage and serve, I decided to give my home office a little refresher in hopes of making the space more functional, comfortable, and frankly, better-looking.
Since my firm promotes the use of environmentally, economically, and socially friendly businesses practices, I felt that my office needed to reflect this “green or sustainable” ethic. When applied to remodeling, the concept of “green” means recycling and reusing as much as possible, selecting the least toxic materials, and making purchases that balance longevity with price. A few keywords led me into a wealth of information concerning “healthy or environmentally friendly remodeling, green building, and nontoxic.” After several hours of research, I set out with my limited budget ($500 maximum) to turn my dedicated corner of the room into a healthy, environmentally friendly, and green office. Summarized below is some of the information I found through reading articles, surfing the Web, and talking to Joe, Amy, and Zach at various hardware and home improvement stores.
There are many options for covering your floor with products that minimize the use of harmful chemicals and that outlast their more toxic counterparts.
Carpeting: Some wall-to-wall carpets and area rugs contain toxic chemicals that stay in the air well after they have been installed. Look for carpets made with organic, untreated wool. Wool is long lasting, easy to clean, and shouldn’t contain any of the harmful chemicals of their synthetic counterparts.
Wood floors: Choose one of the many products made from rapidly renewable sources such as bamboo and cork available at Environmental Building Supplies. To find affordable, reclaimed flooring that still has plenty of life, call McGee Salvage or visit the ReBuilding Center (www.rebuildingcenter.org), a local nonprofit outlet for used building materials.
Other products: Consider natural linoleum, a product made from linseed oil mixed with other natural ingredients or long-lasting, easy-to-clean tiles made from old windshields and recycled bottles.
What I chose: I kept the somewhat worn and painted wood floor as is, but I did purchase a nice wool, hand-knotted area rug. The rug is certified by a third-party that ensures that the product has been crafted without the use of child labor. A local retailer of fair trade products, Ten Thousand Villages, is a great outlet for finding furnishings and housewares that are made by artisans who receive equitable compensation for their work. Cost: $400
When selecting paint, look for the words “low VOC” (volatile organic compounds). VOCs are chemicals that evaporate into the air and can cause a range of health problems from dizziness to more serious organ damage. There are now several manufacturers, including local supplier Rodda Paint, which produce low- or no-VOC paint in entire color palettes. Environmental Building Supplies also offers other manufacturers of low- or no-VOC paint. Always follow the label’s directions for application, cleanup, and disposal to maximize the benefits of using this less harmful product.
What I chose: Rodda Paint Company’s “Horizon” brand. Cost: $26 a gallon.
Daylight is the most economically and environmentally efficient way to light your space. Even on a cloudy day there is more than enough illumination to benefit from natural sunlight. Several studies also show that exposure to sunlight increases productivity. So if your office is in the basement or in the attic, do what you can to bring in light to your workplace. A few products may help you: add skylights to your roof to illuminate top floor spaces or try solar tubes that can bring light into spaces without windows. Your local window dealer will most likely carry both products and can recommend someone qualified to install them.
What I chose: Since I am rarely in my office at night when I would be on display to my neighbors, I decided to forgo any window treatment to let the sun provide me with most of the light I need. For cloudy days and the occasional nighttime office stint, I retrofitted the room’s overhead light with a full-spectrum bulb purchased at Sunlan Lighting, the ultimate Portland-based resource for lightbulbs. The light from full-spectrum lightbulbs mimics the natural light provided by the sun, is easy on the eyes, and makes the room feel like a sunny day in spring. Cost: $10
Think reusable when purchasing office supplies. Avoid single-use items, products with a lot of packaging, and items that cannot be recycled when they wear out. Also, “close the loop” by buying products that contain post-consumer content — or the stuff that you recycled at the curb that is turned into new products. For example, you can purchase printer/copy paper with 30% post-consumer content at retailers such as Office Depot and Staples. Better yet, look for 100% post-consumer paper.
For incredible deals, and reuse in its truest sense, check out thrift/creative reuse stores, the “free” section in the classified section of your paper, or one of the growing Web-based bulletin boards like freecycle or craigslist.
What I chose: For this project I purchased a four-drawer filing cabinet for $8.50 at an estate sale. It is exactly the same (brand, color, etc.) as the one that I see listed retail for over $160. I also purchased a stack of file folders and hangers, several three-ring binders, and a like-new notebook for a buck at the School and Community Reuse Action Project (SCRAP), a nonprofit that keeps reusable office and art supplies out of the waste stream. Cost: $9.50
Computers and other electronic equipment contain many hazardous and toxic materials that need to be disposed of properly. Contact your local city government or environmental organization to find outlets for donating working equipment or disposing of your non-repairable computers. Recently, computer manufacturers such as Dell have begun take-back programs around the country. Look for ads for recycling programs in local papers or contact the manufacturer directly. Purchase EnergyStar products, a government-backed labeling program that means you save money, use less energy, and conserve natural resources. Finally, turn it off at the end of the day! Shutting down your computer, monitor, and other office equipment saves energy and reduces the risk of losing data due to power surges or outages.
What I chose: Since I seem to mostly favor using my laptop, I decided it was time to find a new home for my somewhat outdated desktop computer. I donated my old PC to Free Geek, a local nonprofit organization that recycles parts of used computers to construct new and working ones for schools and people in need. Cost: $Zero. (I even got a tax-deductible receipt.)
So after all that spending ($442.50), I still had a few dollars left to furnish out my space. I decided to keep the ad-hoc desk and I gave it a fresh coat of paint left over from another home remodeling project. I spent a few more dollars on art (a hand-lettered “open for inspection” sign from an old store and a few postcards) to liven up the walls without hurting my budget. I also relocated two plants from other parts of my house to add a touch of real green to the space. Finally, I decided to donate the remainder of my budget (about $25) to a tsunami disaster relief agency since giving back to the community is also an important part of any green or environmentally friendly office.
Tips to remember:
• Check local codes and use licensed contractors when necessary.
• Reuse and recycle. Always.
• Do your research, ask questions, and set a “green” goal for the project. For example, my goal was to reuse as much as I could to save money and to purchase items that were healthier for the planet and me.
• Look for certification labels when purchasing electronics such as EnergyStar. Also look for words like solvent-free or low VOC on paints and adhesives.
• Shop for durable, long-lasting products.
• Donate unwanted and reusable items to nonprofit organizations for a tax-deductible receipt.
Alisa Kane is owner of Green Ways Planning a consulting firm that offers sustainable development options.Call 503-473-1879, or visit www.greenwaysplanning.com for more information.