Design for Life: Quality is Green

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Beth Meredith and Eric Storm’s condo emphasizes quality over size.

Money was tight when I started my architectural practice 20 years ago, so I bought a $20 desk chair. After a few years, the upholstery showed wear and the seat wasn’t level–and it sometimes dropped a few inches without warning. Even after things improved financially, I didn’t want to send the chair to the landfill–and it didn’t look good enough to give away. So I put up with it.

Then one day at San Francisco’s Green Festival, I approached the Green Fusion Design Center booth and beheld the strangest-looking office chair I’d ever seen. Its tag said it was ergonomically designed and its upholstery fabric was environmentally sound. I sat down and went to heaven.

That chair–a H…G Capisco–cost 50 times the price of my original desk chair and has been worth every penny. As soon as I sat in it, I knew I should have bought a good chair long ago. I realized that by holding my body in an unhealthy posture, my old office chair gave me constant subliminal messages that life is difficult and money is scarce. Sitting in my new seat, I felt more alert, more capable–more wealthy! This made me stop and think about the importance of quality. And it helped me see that good quality is green.

If I’d invested in a good chair in the first place, I wouldn’t have a disposal challenge now. Secondly, my new chair is likely to remain attractive and functional much longer than a cheap one. Finally, I could have been feeling more alert and flexible all these years. The “green” upholstery fabric is icing.

Small size, high standards

The phrase “good quality” brings to mind durable materials and excellent craftwork. I believe that carefully selecting objects of strength and beauty brings satisfaction. This came to light when I visited Beth Meredith and Eric Storm’s Portland, Oregon, condo–a model of sustainable living.

Their home is in a lovely old building in a walkable neighborhood. They remodeled small, dark rooms into flowing, naturally lit spaces; the finishing details echo the building’s timeless beauty. Though their budget wasn’t huge, they used high-quality materials.

Beth and Eric’s small home lives large because of good design: With 769 square feet, the couple could budget for high-quality materials because they didn’t need much. For example, they could afford high-efficiency windows because there were only nine moderately sized windows to replace.

“I’ll never forget the moment when the connection between small space and quality dawned on me,” Beth says. “I was walking down a Japanese street when I noticed there was a tiny, exquisite garden in front of every house. I’d been struggling with my own mess of a garden in California, and when I looked at these I thought, ‘If I only had 10 square feet of garden, it would be beautiful all the time because it would be totally manageable.’ Now that I’m living in a cozy place, I understand that you can instill quality in every surface when the size is manageable.”

Beth recommends deciding what’s really important, investing in high- quality things that matter most and letting go of the rest. “With fewer, better things, we’re likely to feel more satisfaction,” she says. “And that’s green.”

The economics of value

Quality doesn’t have to be expensive. When remodeling their kitchen, Beth and Eric found small, colorful tiles they loved, but tiling the whole counter with them would have broken the budget. So they used them as accent tiles in a field of less-expensive environmentally friendly tiles.

Beth and Eric also benefited from a tradition in their multi-unit building: When residents remodel, they put reusable items in the basement for neighbors to take. The couple scored all their historic molding there, lending affordable timelessness to their remodeling.

Beth and Eric’s travels also inform their sense of sustainable beauty. In Italy, they observed the rich patina on old, sturdy, well-used materials–it demonstrated the ability to show wear without breaking down. Looking at their 100-year-old brass doorknobs, Eric says, “I’m sure nobody’s bothered to strip down and polish the brass, but the knob has a golden sheen from being touched by hands all the time, while the plate is much darker. Yet it doesn’t look dirty or grimy; it looks substantial.”

“I’m amazed at how unbored I am living and working here–how totally satisfied,” Beth says. “And much of that is because the quality of the materials makes our space so nurturing.”

Through their business, Living Spaces, Beth and Eric offer green building and remodeling consulting for homeowners. 

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect and the co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). She co-directs the EcoDwelling program at New College of California. Share your experiences with her