Behind the greener door

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2007, 12:00am

Energy-efficient homes aren't just a fad. Almost a decade ago, researchers from US firm ICF International first identified, with 'remarkable consistency', that every US$1 reduction in annual energy costs increases a home's value by US$20 - not to mention the money saved by the occupant through lower utility bills.

Ariane Steinbeck, senior vice-president of global design firm Gettys, says the green movement that started in the commercial sector is spreading to residential design.

'The more educated people become [about the environment], the more conscious they are about their homes, how they live, and the food they put in their mouths,' says the Chicago-based designer. 'The movement really comes from consumers, who are increasingly concerned about the negative impact certain materials can have on their bodies.'

Steinbeck, who will speak on the topic of 'greening the hotel of tomorrow' at Hospitality Design Asia next week, says a green culture began to take root once the correlation between a property's energy costs and its value was recognised. In the commercial sector, older buildings with power-guzzling air conditioning and lighting systems are considered an economic blight compared with more eco-friendly modern structures, and it is only a matter of time before residential designers caught on to this trend, she says.

So, how can you make your home more energy efficient? Steinbeck starts with paint, which should be free of volatile organic compound (VOC) emitting substances. Some paints and finishes can pollute the air inside homes with the release of low-level toxic emissions for years after application.

Until recently, VOCs were thought to be an essential component of paint, but thanks to advancements most manufacturers now produce one or more non-VOC paint varieties. These paints are durable, cost-effective and less harmful to humans and the environment. And forget that familiar fresh paint smell, which is actually bad for you - non-VOC paint should be odourless.

Conventional (or incandescent) light bulbs use a lot of energy, which has driven lighting designers to reinvent the hitherto unattractive fluorescent tube. No longer the domain of factories and commercial buildings, energy-saving fluorescents have become compact and gone upmarket. Today's fluorescents add a warm and cosy ambience to interiors, and are far more attractive than earlier models. They can be used almost anywhere, as reading lights and wall sconces and in vanities. Some can be dimmed; others work in three-way lamps.

Another option is light-emitting diode (LED) lighting. The bulbs cost more than incandescent lights, but are 10 times more efficient, last up to 100 times longer and produce lower CO2 emissions through lower power consumption.

When choosing flooring, Steinbeck advises consumers to look for rapidly renewable resources such as bamboo, cork or composite materials. 'Given the deforestation that has taken place in much of Asia, most people would want to make a more responsible choice that can be equally as beautiful, just different,' she says.

Bamboo is cultivated, harvested and easy to grow again. As a flooring, it's hard, stable, easy to maintain, and has a particularly subtle, interesting grain. It's sold in shades from blond to medium brown. And because most bamboo is grown in southern China, it doesn't have to travel far to reach your home - which is another plus.

Wherever possible, Steinbeck encourages her clients to renovate and reuse their existing fittings and furnishings, rather than replace them. Although this may seem a lot to ask in a throwaway society like Hong Kong's, the end result is worthwhile. You can give a kitchen a new look simply by replacing the doors, handles and counter tops, and retaining the existing cupboard frame (which won't be seen). If you can't avoid redoing your kitchen, try to source cabinet frames made from wheatboard, a product made of recycled wheat chaff that's typically put into landfills.

But can you really make a difference just by choosing a more efficient light bulb?

Absolutely, says Stephen Perkins, co-principal of US hospitality design firm ForrestPerkins, citing the immediate personal payoff for the occupants of a 'healthier' home. And it's possible to go green without sacrificing aesthetics, he says.

'People who want [green] living spaces are concerned with durability, health and reduced energy cost,' he says. 'There are thousands of products out there that take into account their origins, transport costs to market, the degree to which they are durable, reusable, and energy-efficient. If a consumer is really committed to creating a green space, it is entirely possible to do so with form and style.'

He agrees it's not a passing fad, with green high-rise construction 'going through the roof' in the US and Europe.

'When it comes to construction, smart use of natural light can cut down immensely on electricity consumption,' Perkins says. 'By simply lighting a space better and using devices that bring light through reflection in the rooms more deeply, you can reduce lighting requirements, which are essentially half the battle.'

Another trend from the US that could work in Hong Kong is the planting of rooftop gardens. These so-called 'green roofs' help insulate, reduce interior heat and can actually contribute oxygen to the urban environment. ForrestPerkins is working on a hospitality project called the Renaissance Potomac Yards in the US state of Virginia, featuring a green roof planted with native species and irrigated by storm water. 'For apartment dwellers who can drive the use of green roofing systems, this is definitely a great alternative,' he says.

As for cost, Perkins says it's generally 5 per cent to 10 per cent more expensive to build green design features into his projects, but these tend to pay for themselves in five to seven years.

With residential projects, he says savings could be made by paying attention to major systems such

as air conditioning, or by aiming for an 'immediate payback' through simple things such as applying a film to glass windows to cut heat dramatically.

Ariane Steinbeck will speak on the first day of Hospitality Design Asia at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Oct 8 and 9,