“Doesn’t sustainable cost more?” a potential client asked me recently. Normally at such times, a succinct answer to such a complicated question eludes me, but with a rare burst of presence I replied, “If something’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable.”
But all this hides the more fundamental issue: is this thing in question—which may or may not be sustainable—is this thing essential?
Let’s talk about it in terms of some ceramic tile—a line by a west coast company called “Debris.”
First, some context. Janet and I are in the midst of a new, hopefully green remodeling project—another condo in the same building we are living in now. Not that we need to move—we are comfortable in our present condo—but it’s a larger unit, with space for a functional office. Plus it has the ability to comfortably host out of town family—or even accommodate an elderly parent, should the need arise.
Arguably, this “new” apartment was already habitable. There were indeed real, live people occupying it when we bought it. But the defects were significant. On the uppermost floor of an 18 story building, and subject to storm-driven rain, the 50 year old balcony doors and floor to ceiling windows leaked wind and water. The fan-coil units were choked with mold and dust, and their condensate pans had rusted through—causing more water leakage. Under the new carpet—clearly installed to conceal the damage—the oak floors in those areas were rotten and moldy.
So a big part of the remodeling project is devoted to new exterior doors and windows, and new heating and air conditioning equipment—items which are clearly green. The new windows and doors will cut the heat load by 25-30%, and the new fan coil units will go a long way to improve indoor air quality.
Aside from the infrastructure, we wanted to remodel the kitchen and master bathroom. Which brings us back to the tile.
Tile is pretty sustainable, as materials go. Some clay and silica (sand), and a pinch of pigment—materials that abound on this planet. If installed with care, it will last indefinitely. The primary environmental impact of ceramic tile is the heat energy required for its manufacture.
But the Fireclay Tile Company has developed a beautiful line of handmade tiles made from unusable dust created in asphalt plants. Their glaze is made from bottles collected in curbside recycling programs. Hence the name: Debris. By using these already processed materials (while taking them out of the waste stream) the heat energy required for their manufacture is cut in half. Without question, this product could be considered green.
But does that make it sustainable? For one thing, to use them in our home requires trucking them across the continent, burning fuel—and, ironically—chewing up the very asphalt from which these tiles arise!
More significant, however, is their cost. The Debris line clocks in at over $30 per square foot—at least seven times the cost of a basic selection from your local big-box home improvement store. That basic tile is machine made—much easier—and cheaper—to install, and will function just as well as the more costly material. In terms of conventional budgets for remodeling projects in typical middle class homes—Debris is either irrationally out of line—or completely out of reach.
To me, this is unsustainable. In a rock-bottom analysis, Debris in its present form is a cottage industry product, a bragging point for the affluent consumer.
Still, it represents a great potential, and tells an important story: about making something useful—and beautiful—from household waste and manufacturing by-product. The ponderous cost of Debris is because it is hand-made, in a tiny factory. If Fireclay’s process were automated, and the scale of production were increased, the cost of the finish product would probably be competitive with something off the shelf from The Big Orange Box. In that sense, sustainability depends upon scale. But that’s a whole nuther post.
And, yes, I did order the Debris.
to be continued…