“It’s not easy being green,” Kermit the Frog lamented in song. But just as being an adored Muppet probably belies the lyrics, so would he find that it’s increasingly untrue about building and decorating a log home.
If the national news media haven’t already frightened prospective homeowners with unrelenting doom-and-gloom tales of an overwrought and over-worked planet, it’s because intelligent people are fighting back and making a difference. Many people are finding the prospect of a renewable resource—logs—for the main building material attractive and then looking beyond.
It’s not just the shell that’s jogged our collective conscience. We are increasingly aware that the interior is just as important to our planetary stewardship. If we are less than perfect, at least we have many more green alternatives. Here are just a half-dozen ways planning can better focus on living well while also being kinder to the world (and, not so incidentally, to ourselves).
1. Consider the type of wood.
Many quality furniture manufacturers, as well as millwrights and woodworkers, choose sustainable materials, using wood from tree farms or plantations, although wood harvested from a controlled forest can be hard on the ecology, too. Some farms are so controlled that they become devoid of biological diversity. Spraying with pesticides and herbicides may protect the integrity of the wood from the outside into the core, but it can actually do nearly as much damage to the land as clear-cutting.
It never hurts to ask about how the wood was grown and harvested. Often that kind of information about the resources is found on the company’s website. Special care should be taken if a manufacturer doesn’t freely respond, because it may not be paying attention to what’s happening with natural resources.
Forests, especially in tropical areas, continue to disappear at alarming rates. Trees are clear-cut and often disposed of in wasteful ways. Because the Earth has lost nearly half of the primeval forests, including a total in the past 30 years that nearly matches the square mileage of Alaska and Texas combined, it’s past time to demand renewability—before we can no longer draw a breath through our own carbon dioxide.
Look for FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) labels on furniture and items purchased for the home. Participants are committed to providing comfort and care to consumers with minimal damage to the environment.
Bottom line: Ask questions.
2. Avoid pressure-treated lumber.
Log homes nearly always includes a deck (or multiple decks), porches, landscape timbers and sometimes a playground for children as well. For many years, the material of choice has been pressure-treated lumber, which is more durable than untreated or painted lumber.
But one of the ingredients in the most common form of treatment (CCA, for chromium copper arsenate) contains a known carcinogen. In existing structures or recycled lumber, the arsenic can be relatively neutralized by sealing with a polyurethane coating every couple of years, although that may not keep some of the chemical from leaching into the ground. Still, removal is a problem, as disposing of the wood by burning it can release toxics into the atmosphere.
In new construction, it is possible to purchase lumber that has been treated with ACQ (ammoniacal copper quaternary) or CA (copper azole). These are less harmful to humans and to nature. Better yet is plastic lumber, which is made from recycled materials, including ground plastic materials (a far better use than winding up in the landfill). The best material, especially in a log home, is naturally durable woods, such as redwood or cedar, that require only routine maintenance to keep beautiful and useful for many years.
3. Buy low-toxicity furnishings.
Love that so-called new-car smell? Learn to un-love it, because it results from the release of toxic, off-gassing chemicals. For many years, it was included in furniture, as well as cars, and the purpose was laudable in that it reduced fire danger and could be an element in extending the life of cover materials. But the due-bill isn’t worth the gain.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a family of chemicals that continue to off-gas breathable toxins into the air for years after application to the furniture. In homes that are well insulated (as log homes almost always are), that means the VOCs are recycled within the interior air repeatedly, even if you routinely open windows to help with circulation. In a closed-up home during the winter months, the air quality indoors can be as much 100 times worse than outdoors, due to VOCs and particulates, according to green experts.
There are quality furniture construction companies that carry the Greenguard label on their products. This ensures that the furnishings are low-release. (Everything, including fresh-off-the-tree-farm material, will release something into the air; the objective is keeping it natural and low.) Significantly reduce the amount of toxic chemicals released in the vicinity of you, your children and your pets.
4. Rethink using popular materials.
Watch any of the home shows on the wonderful HGTV network and you’ll hear prospective homeowners squeal with delight at the sight of a granite countertop. Or marble tile. Granite and tile are non-renewable and non-sustainable. Take a slab out of the ground, and it’s never going to regenerate.
Increasingly, bright developers are coming up with beautiful alternatives that feature recycled materials. Countertops are now made from cardboard that belies the immediate concern about strength and durability. Care has to be taken regarding the VOCs required to bond the cardboard (or pressboard or any other composite material, for that matter), but it’s possible to design with surprising—and renewable—materials these day—and without breaking the bank.
5. Consider bamboo, cotton and wool.
It’s not necessary to avoid every trend. Bamboo, a form of grass, has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in recent times. The one knock against it is that it often is imported, and transportation is the most visible expense of energy. On the other hand, it has rarely ever been treated with herbicides, so it is likelier to be worry-free in the handling of it. An added bonus is how quickly it renews, maturing in less than a decade, while many wood species require several decades.
In furniture, flooring, cabinetry and accessories, bamboo is remarkably flexible, allowing the creation of interesting shapes and attractive finishes. Usually, bamboo has plenty of character, too, although it is possible to find it in smoothly colored grains as well.
In addition to sisal rugs (also constructed from grass fibers), carpeting and rugs made from cotton or wool are increasingly popular for both warmth and style. Unlike nylon, which is synthetically engineered, or tile floors (some from non-renewable resources) or even hardwood floors (from materials that take extended periods to regenerate), cotton and wool floor coverings, depending on how they are constructed, can be among the greenest ways of covering a floor. They also give your toes something to luxuriate in.
6. Recycle, recycle, recycle.
After living in a log home for a while, most homeowners are going to update their interior. Styles change, furnishings wear out, and a fresh look can revitalize a beloved home. The answer isn’t to cart discards to the curb for the trash collector to haul away to overflowing landfills. Or to take things to the far corner of the acreage and burn. There is consequence to any form of removal.
Instead of tossing your old things, find a way to give them new life. For example, instead of tossing a worn-out sofa, having it reupholstered can create a like-new prize. Wood that has been scarred can nearly always be sanded and refinished. But if something simply must go, find a new home for it. Remember the cliché: One person’s trash is another’s treasure. Recycling is just a way of ensuring that the next owner’s treasure is available.
The time for being selfish has passed. Nearly all log-home owners want to pass along a beautiful dream home to their children and grandchildren, but in the process of creating a genuine homestead, it is incumbent upon all of us to build and then fill the home with carefully planned and crafted styling and furnishings that reflect a concern for the future as well as for the present.
This article ran in the September 2007 issue of Log Homes Illustrated.