Dumpster diving doesn't often top lists of contributions to sustainable development, but that's not to say it doesn't have a place in the mix.
At the Natural Resources Defense Council regional headquarters in Santa Monica, touted as the country's "greenest" building, trash-turned-treasure is prominently integrated into the building's interior.
Consider the reception area.
Its countertops are made of crushed abalone shells fished from restaurant dumpsters and that's just for starters. There are chairs made of recycled wood frames and old seatbelts, bathroom partitions made of recycled milk cartons and tables fashioned from salvaged wood.
While most people may associate green building with sophisticated techniques that may lower energy usage, such as the use of high-tech solar cells, it turns out that odd or re-used materials can also play a big role.
"The list of stuff is really fun and it's a bit of everything," said Daniel Hinerfeld, a spokesman for the NRDC. "It sounds funny, but it makes sense. We are supposed to be an innovator in the field of green design."
Indeed, green materials recycled, sustainable and environmentally responsible are key parts of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED standards, the benchmark for environmentally-friendly design.
And the U.S. Green Building Council, which promulgated the standards, bestowed a Platinum award its highest for sustainable design upon the building, which also features an extensive use of natural ventilation, reclaimed sink water and collected rainwater.
Among the best and easiest ways to incorporate green elements is to use basic construction materials as finished elements, like polished concrete floors or bare brick walls. But for those who want to go completely green, there's an abundance of odd stuff to weave into the design process, like countertops made of ultra-hardened recycled paper and recycled glass tiles for bathrooms, kitchens and showers.
New commercial buildings and offices are even incorporating materials like Agriboard, which is made from agricultural harvest leftovers, and can be used for tables, desks, cabinets, paneling, wall cover and the like.
"There's been a huge change in the market," Hinerfeld said. "Green building consultants are popping up all over the place. It's very much a growth field, and before too long what's now cutting edge will be standard."
And it's catching on with consumers.
Evan Biren, president of S & J Biren, a flooring and carpet retailer in Los Angeles, said that the trend toward green has been noticeable in his field. All-natural, untreated carpeting, along with bamboo and cork flooring, have become some of his biggest sellers in the past several years.
"There's no question, cork has made a big resurgence, come back in a big way since it was last popular in the 1950s," Biren said. "It also has some wonderful characteristics in performance: it's insulating, sound-deadening and comfortable. It has naturally built-in properties that make it appealing."
Bamboo is also popular. It's a fast-growing natural grass rather than a slow growing tree; it's also is durable, attractive and can be stained virtually any way a wood can, giving it obvious appeal as a flooring material. "People are starting to really get into those materials now," he said.
Another big factor driving the fast-growing green materials market is health, since materials and compounds often found in traditional construction like carpet backing, adhesive and paint can make workers sick as they break down over time.
According the Environmental Protection Agency, Sick Building Syndrome can be caused by chemical contaminants from indoor sources, including adhesives, carpeting and upholstery, and manufactured wood products. They emit volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, that research has shown can cause chronic and acute health effects at high concentrations. Some are known carcinogens.
Advocates of using green materials in building and d & #233;cor claim it can help reduce absenteeism from illness something always on the radar screen in the corporate world.
"Good natural lighting, fresh air studies and data show that these are the kinds of things that increase employee productivity," said real estate mogul Jim Thomas, whose Thomas Properties Group is behind the green Cal/Environmental Protection Agency high-rise headquarters in Sacramento. "Our particular interest is in employee productivity and things that affect that."
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