A Natural Presidential Home: Greening the White House

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The White House already has some eco-features in place: energy-efficient lighting, low-flow toilets and new insulation.
Photo by JF Holloway/Courtesy flickr; http://flickr.com/photos/jfholloway/

Do you have suggestions for how Barack and Michelle Obama should green the White House? Let us know your suggestions on our forums.

1. The first step toward making any building more efficient–and thereby more eco-friendly–is to analyze the structure’s energy use and find simple ways to save via sealing, enhanced insulation, better energy equipment, etc. I think it would serve as a great example if the White House were fully or partially powered by an alternative energy source. Plus, with two young children in the White House, it is important for the Obama decorators to choose nontoxic interior materials and finishes. Finally, reusing is the best way to avoid the use of new resources. I am sure the Obamas plan to donate gently used items to charities or auctions, but they should also remember to collect and recycle deconstruction and renovation waste, and make sure to donate used building materials to Habitat for Humanity or another similar organization. -Jessica Kellner, Managing Editor, Natural Home magazine

2. If the White House is as green as  this report says, then I think the next step to greening the president’s new home is to make green grow from the inside-out and the outside-up. The White House chefs can prepare local, organic, seasonal food and support area farmers. The White House lawn can be home to a fruit, vegetable and native flower garden that the Obama girls can help tend to. The White House roof can become visibly green–a living roof for plants and food–so that the beautiful aerial shots of the home set an example for all to see. -Kim Wallace, Assistant Editor, Natural Home magazine

3. With wildly fluctuating gas prices, and seemingly conflicting scientific studies, many Americans are unable to fully relate to the pervasive movement to “go green.” As such, they may not yet see the benefits to changing their lifestyles. But “green” has one highly personal facet–that of human health. By focusing on the benefits of environmental health, particularly concerning that of infants and children, the Obamas can inspire American families to become more environmentally aware. Creating a healthy home environment has much more meaning and more obvious benefits to the average American family than the benefits of buying a hybrid car or turning down the thermostat. As widely reported, the Obama’s older daughter, Malia, has asthma. This brings the “green” discussion out of the rhetorical and into the realm of the highly personal–for both the Obamas and many American families. Urban dwelling children, and minorities in particular, suffer disproportionately from asthma and other serious illnesses related to chronic environmental exposures. By focusing on ways to minimize or eliminate toxins in the White House living quarters and on the White House grounds (from contaminants in pesticides and cleaning products to those found in interior furnishings and building materials), the Obamas can have an enormous impact on both human and planetary health. By taking steps to help their own family, the Obamas will also be helping Americans to see the direct link between small environmental changes and improved health, and hopefully motivate them to make similar changes in their own homes. -Mary Cordaro, Certified Bau-Biologist and Environmental Consultant

4. The biggest way to create a green impact at the White House is to find “teachable moments” throughout the house, for residents, guests, staff and tour visitors. I suggest that there is a focus on demonstrations of recycling, using recycled materials, using energy-efficient lighting, using daylighting, using regional materials and using renewable energy–all of which are emphasized by tour guides for the throngs of visitors who tour the White House daily. Monitoring the savings (through recycling, of potable water, of energy, and of carbon) and installing visible displays of those ongoing savings, will create interest and learning for visitors, staff, the Obama girls, Michelle and Barack. -Brian Dunbar, LEED Faculty, Executive Director, Institute for the Built Environment

5. The most important first step to use for greening the White House is to do a thorough energy analysis of the building.  It is quite old and has been renovated a number of times, probably all using different building techniques and technologies. There is no point putting in various green elements if you don’t know what condition the building is in and how it is performing. -Nathan Kipnis, AIA, LEED AP

6. The first family should launch an initiative to reduce the waste stream coming out of the White House as a signal to the nation–and world–that we’re serious about reining in excessive levels of consumption. (Each American disposes an average of 4.5 pounds daily.) Impose an immediate ban on disposables, such as coffee cups, paper plates, napkins, etc. If the Obama girls will carry their lunches to school, they should use zero-waste lunch boxes with plastic components that are washed nightly. This concept should extend into the White House kitchen, where organic waste, such as banana peels, lettuce, and coffee grounds will be composted on-site for use in New Victory vegetable garden. Finally, the Obamas should take a page out of the Carter White House, which displayed exemplary frugality and energy savings measures. -Wanda Urbanska, Host and Producer of Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska

7. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the new White House promoted bicycle lanes in every major road and renewable power for all? Tossed our throw-away culture and replaced it with resourceful reuse? Added taxes on pre-packaged food, but gave grants for organic agriculture? And required that every person devote one day of work each year to helping a neighbor? -Misty McNally, Freelance Writer and Kiva.org volunteer

8. With each new administration comes new decoration for the White House. While it is necessary to maintain this historic home, there are ways to keep the White House updated and eco-friendly. Nontoxic paints, organic linens and FSC-certified wood furniture would be a great start. The Obamas could also look at refurbishing antiques, or if they want new furniture, choose American-made pieces, to cut down travel-related emissions and promote our economy. In addition, the Obamas should use natural, organic cosmetics. Every bathroom, including those for tourists and the media, should have natural soap. -Olivia Blanco Mullins, Editorial Intern, Natural Home magazine

9. For the health of all living and working in the White House, especially Malia who has defined allergies, all painting should be done with low- or no-VOC paints. Volatile organic compounds found in paints contribute to smog and ozone depletion, and are factors in poor indoor air quality. Luckily, all major paint manufacturers now offer low- and no-VOC paints, many of them specifically applicable for high-traffic areas. Replace old light fixtures–including those with incandescent, fluorescent and metal halide bulbs–with LED light fixtures. LED lighting is now available for all types of lighting that we are familiar with, including recessed fixtures, office ceiling lighting and outdoor fixtures. The Obama administration should sidestep the replacement of incandescent light bulbs with flourescent bulbs and instead use and promote the use of LEDs because the mercury and lead composition of flourescent bulbs pose environmental and health risks as flourescent bulbs are commonly disposed in our normal waste stream when they should only be recycled. -Susan Cozzi, Susan Cozzi Design Studio

10. Our American manufacturers offer dual flush toilets that use .08 or 1.6 gallons of water for the type of flush needed, along with waterless urinals. Changing bathroom fixtures will save thousands of gallons of water each year and help bolster our American companies. Plus, toilets and urinals can be recycled and ground up for use as road base materials and even in recycled countertops. Buy furnishings made in the U.S.A. You’ll save carbon emissions on transportation and support the U.S. economy. Change the White House lawn to a groundcover that does not need watering and fertilizing. Select window treatments with sensors to control light and heat during different times of the day. These window treatments will close automatically if the room gets too hot during the summer and open during sunny winter days to allow natural heating. Install rainwater collection barrels and use the water to provide the Obama family with non-treated water to naturally water the garden. With two small children and so many rooms, how can one keep track of who left the light on? Install motion-sensitive light switches that automatically turn the lights on when someone enters and off when a room is unoccupied. Choose water-saving technology for plumbing fixtures: low-flow aerators for faucets and showerheads, toilets with dual flush options and waterless urinals. -Hilary Sopata, ASID, LEED AP

11. Any liquids–paints, adhesives, cleaning products–should contain as few volatile organic componds (VOCs) as possible. All men are created equal, but not all materials are. How a product is produced is very important. For instance, most cotton is grown using toxic pesticides, so the Obamas would be better off using cotton that has been grown organically. -Susan Aiello, ASID, LEED AP

12. Put all lights on dimmers to conserve energy. Ban plastic water bottles from the White House. Instruct staff to make sure that all food deliveries arrive in recyclable packaging. Replace outdated toilets with dual-flush models. Instruct staff to use cloth instead of paper towels. Polish the silver with toothpaste instead of chemicals. As sheets, towels, pillows, sheets and shower curtains need to be replaced, purchase natural organic fiber products. Use biodegradable trash bags instead of plastic. Compact and compost whenever possible. Install window film to reduce winter heating costs and summer air conditioning costs. When redecorating the family’s living quarters, use no-VOC paint. Milk paint is a good substitute. Decorate with lots of live plants to purify the air. Buy organic, locally grown and fair trade food. Limit the amount of imported food. -Sharon McCormick, ASID, Sharon McCormick Design

13. I concur with all these great ideas, and I’m confident the Obamas will implement energy-efficiency measures (dare we hope for a return of the solar panels?) and healthy, green building materials and furnishings. And when it’s all over, I’d love to see Michelle Obama pull a Jackie Kennedy and walk all Americans through the newly greened White House, taking the opportunity to explain to everyone how and why these choices work. But unlike Jackie Kennedy, she won’t need the cooperation of network TV–she can do it on YouTube! -Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor-in-chief, Natural Home magazine

More about greening the White House

• The White House is going organic. Read about how First Lady Michelle Obama is supporting locally grown produce with an organic vegetable garden at the White House.

• Did you know that the White House has had solar panels since 1977? Find out more about the history of alternative energy at the White House.

• President Obama has appointed green jobs advocator Van Jones as “Special Advisor for Green Jobs.” Read more about it, and be sure to check out Natural Home‘s interview with Van Jones!