kitchen remodel in progress


“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.


floors ruined by leakage

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.

fancoil reduced

rusted out fan coil unit

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.


“Debris” series tile, with high recycled content

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…

Getting back to the core question:  “Is sustainable affordable?”

The answer first requires a definition of sustainability—and offers an opportunity to distinguish sustainability from “Green.”  A sustainable method or material—or more importantly—a sustainable project, is one that can be produced in a way that does not significantly compromise other’s ability to produce the same thing in the future.  It looks forward to our offspring, not yet born.  “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”[1]


A green method or material—or project—meets a set of standards.  It is flooring that comes from rapidly renewable sources, or wood from well managed forests, or a toilet that uses less water per flush.  It may be a Passive House project, which uses only so many Btu’s per square foot of floor area.  Each of these green attributes contributes to sustainability—but in itself, does not guarantee it.

So sustainability—as a working force—depends on a state of mind, as much as a checklist, or point system, or a certification.  Sustainable decisions and actions begin with objective considerations, but since our crystal balls are smudged and cloudy, our judgments must ultimately rely on intuition and faith.

From this point, sustainability must consider two things:  the resources that we take from the earth to create our built environment, and to maintain it—and the impact on the natural environment from these creations and activities.

[1] Attributed to the Great Law of the Iroquois



Enel Green Power’s wind farm in Agighiol, Romania–competing head on with fossil fuel based power

The question, is sustainable affordable not only applies to such relatively trivial decisions as ceramic tile for a backsplash–but also occurs at a macro scale.  This morning, Stanley Reed for the New York Times reports on how investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy systems–in this case, wind farms in Sweden–can be a viable and profitable way to compete with fossil fuel based power generation.

The goal is to produce power as close as possible to conventionally produced power, without reliance on subsidies.  “The closer you are to the wholesale price of power, the less you are at risk,” says Tom Murley, an equity fund manager who controls more than a billion dollars in green power investments.

Francesco Sarace, CEO of Enel Green Power concurs:  competing on a level playing field has great benefit.  “You don’t run the risk of a regulator or a state coming back at you and saying, ‘Guys, the good days are over, now we have to talk about reducing this and that.”’  This is exactly what has occurred in Spain, a leader in massive investment in photovoltaic systems which were reliant on national subsidies.

As a result, Enel took a beating in the European markets.  So it is now moving to develop renewable energy systems in emerging markets, like Brazil, Chile, and Mexico.

All this tends to reinforce this blog’s original focus, that sustainable must be affordable, if it is to have any positive impact on our environment.

From some comments on what underlies sustainable design by William Leddy, FAIA. Although he does not mention them by name, Leddy puts into perspective our arguably exaggerated emphasis on green certification programs such as LEED and Passive House:

“‘Green’ design is ‘good’ design…Sustainable design isn’t just about engineering and building codes. It isn’t just about a menu of strategies and building performance metrics. It’s definitely much more than simply ‘checking the boxes.’ It’s fundamentally about design innovation.”

read the full article in the AIA online journal here

Cliven Bundy wants to continue raising cattle like his homesteading ancestors, back in the 1870's. He disagrees with the BLM's policy to protect the rangeland he  is using--against their regulations--and refuses to pay their established fees.

Cliven Bundy wants to continue raising cattle like his homesteading ancestors, back in the 1870’s. He disagrees with the BLM’s policy to protect the rangeland he is using–against their regulations–and refuses to pay their established fees.

Dunno where you are on the controversies surrounding Cliven Bundy’s stand against the Federal Government; there are arguments on each side that echo the same issues that Hamilton and Jefferson wrangled with, back in the day. But this controversy obscures an arguably more important issue: how sustainable is the production of meat?

Amid the swirling accusations of free range freeloading, federal overreach, and Harry Reid’s private interests, here was one thing that Bundy said to the press that caught my attention: 

“My cattle are the kind of cattle people look for at Whole Foods”

Now we’re more inclined to buy a tenderloin at Costco and carve it up at home for $10.99 a pound rather than to buy petit filets at Whole Paycheck for twice as much, but you get the point–whether or not we agree with Cliven, or even whether you’re a vegan or a carnivore, the meat he produces makes our mouth water.

First Creek

First Creek, which runs through the Red Rock Canyon National Preservation Area, 80 miles west of Bundy’s homestead. This is the type of ecosystem that the BLM is striving to protect from cattle. [photo by Alan Abrams]

And although I am a thoroughly urbanized city rat, I came of age adjacent to BLM country in Rio Arriba County, NM. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking in Cliven’s back yard, so to speak, in Red Rock Canyon, on the yonder side of Las Vegas from Cliven’s range. So I know a little about the environment that is at the root of the issue (see the second photo)

So I’m not going to pick sides with the Gummint vs The Cowboy. As Rheinhold Niebuhr says, “democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” I  do disagree, however, that self styled militias are the best way of achieving proximate solutions.

Rather I’ll say that our predilection for beef has serious impact on the environment. For the time being, I’m going to vote with my knife and fork–that is, I’m going to forswear beef unless I know it came from an environment that can sustainably support its production.