Salvaged Moments

From the beginning, I knew I really really wanted to incorporate some element of locally sourced, vintage or salvaged materials in my new build.  Saving something (anything!) from a landfill would make the house just a little more earth-friendly.  Hopefully it would add a bit of charm and character to the new house as well so it didn’t look so, well, new.  The contractor nixed my idea of using salvaged doors (too much work to retrofit an irregular old door into the perfectly squared new door frames).  I also didn’t want to go too crazy ’cause that’s too taste-specific and I want to sell this puppy someday.  So, perhaps creative tile design in the spare bath?  A lighting fixture?  A random fabulous find?  That sounded perfect.  Here are a few salvaged moments in the new house:

1)  Spare Bath:  Tile Surround 

There is a building salvage and surplus material store in Pittsburgh called Construction Junction ( ).  For months I’d been eyeing this giant box of yellow tile that apparently no one else wanted.




I was in love with this gorgeous shade of yellow, but had no use for it until my new build — I needed tile for the second bath and this was gonna be it.  It’s actually funny – the boxes were all in Italian, but I’m pretty sure “ceramica” means “ceramic” and they were all irregular – definitely not an even 6×6.  My design idea was to marry this simple classic yellow tile with a hipper, younger version:  the small square glass tile.  This old/new juxtaposition works well as a general design principle, I think.  So I bought new gray glass tiles as an accent, used gray grout, and here is how it turned out:



Add crisp white shower curtain and fresh yellow flowers to make a clean, happy place for guests to get ready in every morning!






2)  Kitchen:  Vintage Light Fixture

Anyone who has flipped through a builder’s options for light fixtures realizes that this is where they skimp.  Perfect excuse to forego the builder option and go huntin’ for a unique, personalized find.  I wanted a fabulous light fixture for the kitchen island, especially ’cause it’s one of the first things you see in the open floor plan.  I found mine at a local lighting store called Typhoon  ( ).  They have a great selection of refurbished vintage fixtures as well as new ones.

My find is a vintage fixture from the 1970s – I love that it’s not frilly, it’s perfectly gender-neutral, and I’ve never seen anything like it.  I also love how the round globes break up the square angles of the space in general.



3)  Kitchen Island:  Door Slab

I totally lucked out on this one and found a flat door slab made of walnut veneer – the color and beautiful walnut grain were perfect!  (Rather, I could foresee its perfection under layers of dust while it was sitting at Construction Junction).  A light sanding and couple of coats of polyurethane later and it was ready for some legs, which I got at IKEA.


I later found vintage door hardware to install over that hole in its side, too bad I didn’t snap a pic of it!

And this is how the old and the new came together:



4)  Master Bath Storage:  Vintage Bar Cart

This is one my favorite finds.  Not from an aesthetic standpoint, but from a functional standpoint.  I needed storage in the master bath, and it needed to be open or glass front storage (anything that wasn’t would be too bulky for the small space).  Browsing around one afternoon at a vintage store right down the street (Who New Retro Mod Decor, I found this bar cart:


This bar cart has a fabulous feature:  the entire top is an appetizer warmer that heats up!!  So, guess what I use it as?  A towel warmer!!  Not only does it store linens, but it gets towels nice and warm very quickly.  Just turn it on, hop in the shower, and end with a warm toasty towel 🙂

Is My House a Pretty Good House (PGH)?

Green-BuildingThe Pretty Good House (PGH) concept is an idea developed by the green building adviser gurus in Maine.  It really addresses the question, how green is green enough?  Those familiar with energy-efficient and eco-friendly construction understand the whole wide spectrum, which ranges from homes built to current code all the way to net-positive houses that actually generate more energy than they use.  An entire house could be constructed and furnished with recycled, salvaged, and  vintage materials if one puts their mind to it.  But as living “off the grid”, “Passivhaus” standards and “LEED” certifications are generating all the buzz in green building, the average person asks oneself — geez, is all this really necessary in order to be good for the environment?  If you agree with the PGH concept, the answer is NO.


I talked about this concept in a previous post ( ).  To recap, A PGH has the following:

-Use of local labor and locally produced/available materials

– minimal and reasonable annual energy cost of $500-700 per year

– prescribed insulation levels of R 10-20-40-60 (R-10 under the foundation slab, R-20 on foundation walls, R-40 in exterior walls, and R-60 in the roof)

– reasonably sized home (1000 sqft for an individual, 1500 sqft for two, 1750 sqft for 3 and 1875 sqft for 4 and greater)

– pre-construction energy modeling to ensure all mechanical systems are sized efficiently

– air leakage rate of no greater than 2 ACH50

– mechanical ventilation since the house is so air tight

– good design (preferably universal design)

– comfort (no drafts)

– and an owner’s manual.

I added my own list to the PGH concept:

– Non-toxic materials (e.g. low VOC paint)

– some element of recycled or salvaged materials

– at least one renewable resource (e.g. solar power)

– and efficient space planning.

HERSNow that my house is complete, the energy ratings are in!  So here’s how it did:  Insulation levels are R-12-30-27.5-80 (R-12 under slab, R-30 foundation walls, R-27.5 above grade walls, and R-80 for the ceilings).  The estimated annual energy cost is $960/yr (avg $80/month), air leakage rate of 108 CFM 25 ( I never did look up how to interpret this ;), about 1600 sq ft for 4 people, and it has mechanical ventilation.  It received a HERS score of 36, which means it is 64% more energy-efficient than a house build to current code.  I did use all local labor and materials, low VOC paint, sustainable flooring, water conserving fixtures, solar power, large built-in storage, and vintage/re-purposed elements.

Is my house a Pretty Good House?


Solar Panels and New Construction: 3 Considerations

This post was going to highlight all the benefits of solar panels before I decided to get off my green high horse 😉 because yes, the initial cost of the panels and the installation is not cheap.  But I need to write about something related to solar panels — they were installed last week!  Alas, I will have to wait a while to watch the meter run backwards since Pittsburgh’s dreary winter weather has already begun to set in…

Snowy day in Pittsburgh

Snowy day in Pittsburgh

So, I will talk about my solar calculator.  Here it is: 

My solar calculator

My solar calculator

And do you know how long I’ve owned it?  23 years and counting.  It was a required purchase in 9th grade to complete math assignments and I’ve had it ever since — never changed a battery, never malfunctioned, and never needed to be replaced.  What has this little calculator proven to me?  That solar power works, is free, and will provide free energy for a lifetime.  That is why I chose to install solar panels on my new build.

So, here are 3 things to consider if toying with the idea of solar panels for your new construction project:

1.  Cost

This refers to the cost of the panels and installation because the electricity it generates from that point on is, guess what?  Free.  Free electricity for a lifetime.  In fact, any surplus energy your panels produce go back into the grid and the utility service pays you for the electricity you’re providing them.

Initial cost depends upon the number of panels required to generate enough electricity for a home of its specific size.  Average cost = $1500 – $2000 per panel including installation.  My house of about 1600 sq ft required 7 panels, to give you an idea.  This will vary depending upon climate and location.

2.  Financing

Cost is not as prohibitive, particularly for new construction, as one would think.  Here are some options:

Energy-efficient mortgages:  buyers qualify for higher loan amounts if the new home is energy-efficient.  The cost of solar panels can be rolled into the mortgage, which translates into a slight increase in your monthly mortgage payment.  For instance, if the house costs $200K without solar panels and $215K with the panels, the increase in monthly payments for a 215K mortgage versus a 200K mortgage is less than $40 per month (ballpark average).  This increase in monthly payments will likely be less than your monthly electric bill without solar panels, so you’re still saving money each month.

– Solar energy lease options:  yes – you can lease solar panels, just like you lease a car.  Your electric bill is made of a fixed monthly payment for the panels themselves (about $100/month) plus your electric bill (which is substantially reduced due to solar panels).  Most people say that this combined cost adds up to less than their electric bills without solar panels.

– Tax incentives:  there are several state and federal tax credits this year for installation that add up to about 30% reduction in the initial cost.

3.  Environmental Impact

Priceless!  Think about how we currently produce our electricity.  Over 40% of electricity production in the US is from coal.  Coal combustion contributes to about a third of this country’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Not only that, it pollutes the air with sulfur dioxide and mercury. Natural gas produces over 25% our electricity and it too releases greenhouse gases such as methane into our environment.


The only way to improve the air we breathe and slow down global climate change is by thinking in terms of long-term good.  If solar energy is free, lasts a lifetime, and has no harmful impact on the environment,  then why not?  Especially if you’re building a house from scratch, strongly consider putting today’s technology in today’s home.  This will have a positive, long-term impact on the earth and future generations as well. ..

My solar panels

My solar panels

7 Blank Wall Design Inspirations

I have a common design dilemma — what do you do with a long windowless wall?   Especially when it’s the first one you see when you enter the house?

Relative to the open floor plan..

Relative to rest of room

Fireplace not mounted yet, it will be a bit further to right..

The 13 ft. run of blank white wall.  Fireplace not mounted yet, it will be a bit further to right.  (Ignore table)

So I went searching for a little inspiration – any excuse to surf the net ‘n drool over hot designs!  Here are some found options:

1)  Textured 3D wall panel


Instant texture and visual interest!

2)  Wallpaper mural


Very cool and definitely makes an impact.


3)  Faux stone


Cozies up the room…

4)  Wood


The rustic would be a nice contrast against the white and metal contemporary look I have going on right now…

5) Gallery Wall

gallery-wall (1)

Elegant and lovely. Unique as well since it’s your collection that can be added to over time. Plus, minimal work in the immediate – just paint single light color, and start adding framed art and photographs!

6) Removable wallpaper

removable wallpaper

Who knew? Peel and stick wallpaper!!

7) Last, but not least, the affordable designs with paint:  stencils, stripes, chevrons, and the abstract


Stencils are a fantastic alternative to wallpaper – easy, inexpensive, and you can choose any color combo you want.


These stripes are gorgeous.

Home interior with fireplace and sofas 3D rendering

Such a classic pattern..

abstract wall


Low VOC Paint

This is a little blurb on VOCs – what are VOCs and why do they matter?

English: Preindustrial and contemporary VOC em...

English: Preindustrial and contemporary VOC emissions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are molecules containing carbon that easily evaporate under typical indoor/outdoor conditions.  The list of chemicals that fall under this definition is vast.   In fact, many VOCs occur naturally in the environment because they are made by plants – they’re supposed to be there!  However, it’s the man-made VOCs that have become synonymous with the bad-VOCs.

How toxic each one is depends on which one it is and its dose, frequency, and duration of exposure.  When it comes to negative impact on the earth and human health, they generally fall into 3 categories:  Outdoor VOCs that harm the ozone layer, Indoor VOCs that harm humans directly, and Neutral VOCs that do no harm that we know of.  The federal government (Environmental Protection Agency) regulates outdoor VOCs to an extent (you may remember the buzz about chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs many years ago!).  However, indoor VOCs are not regulated federally, in part due to insufficient data to really know how bad indoor VOCs are for a person’s health at typical indoor concentrations.  There are many sates, however, that do regulate certain indoor VOC concentrations (California in particular).

Ball-and-stick model of the propane molecule, ...

Examples of harmful VOCs include propane, butane, acetone, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol (this is rubbing alcohol!), pesticides, fire retardants.  Other VOCs are known carcinogens, such as benzene, formaldehyde, perchloroethylene, and methylene chloride.  They are in many common household products including paint, paint strippers, aerosol sprays, cleaners, disinfectants, air fresheners, fuels, automotive products, hobby supplies, and dry-cleaned clothing.  They may cause mucosal irritation, asthma exacerbations, headache, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness particularly with acute exposure, like stripping paint in an unventilated room.  By the way, whenever a product states “work in well-ventilated area” it’s because that product contains harmful VOCs.

English: A green warning construction sign.

While renovating or building new construction, most people consider the effects of VOCs on indoor air quality.  Examples of typical building materials that contain VOCs are new carpeting, floor tile, primer/paint, caulk, adhesives, wood stain/sealers.   That “new house smell” is primarily due to VOCs!!  Once these materials are used, they continue to release VOCs into the air over time, hence the term “off-gassing.”  In fact, the highest concentrations of indoor VOCs are typically found in new construction homes.

When it comes to evaluating products labelled as “zero VOC” or “low VOC”, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First, what compounds are they classifying as VOCs — this is where companies can fudge the data and here’s why:  the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of VOCs it regulates but only for the purpose of protecting the ozone layer.  If a VOC does not harm the ozone, it is “exempt” from this list, even though it may be harmful to humans.  So, a company will say zero or low VOC, using the government’s list of VOCs, but they neglect to mention that their product contains exempt VOCs that are known carcinogens like methylene chloride.  Secondly, what is the concentration of VOCs in the product.  Some may call 200g/L low but others have stricter standards and call < 50g/L low.

As I mentioned earlier, there are no federally regulated standards for indoor VOC concentrations.  However, Americans are pushing to create standards of their own.  Similar to the Energy-Star label or the Water-sense label, there are Eco-labels that independently verify a product’s claim that it is low VOC.  The Greenguard label is a big one for building materials.  Look for this label on low VOC products, and you can at least be confident that the product’s claims were evaluated independently to earn that seal.


As I was researching this topic for this blog, I learned something new about my own behavior that increases the amount of VOCs leached into my home:  my cleaners.  I actually do not buy “green” cleaners because, well, I love the way other products clean.  What I learned is that most cleaners have high VOC content and unless stored in air-tight containers, some amount of this gas will continually evaporate into the environment.  Similar situation for other stored products e.g. left-over paint…

The paint I used in The Project was Sherwin-Williams Harmony paint, which is a low-VOC, Greenguard labelled product.  There are many other low VOC paint brands out there (in fact consumer reports took a look at them and rated them.  What they found was large difference in the amount of VOC in each “low-VOC” product.


Take Home Points:

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) is a very broad category of carbon-containing molecules that easily evaporate under typical indoor/outdoor conditions.
  • Many VOCs are harmful (hence the hype), but recognize there are many VOCS that do no harm.
  • Certain VOCs destroy the ozone layer, are carcinogenic, or cause nausea, headache, vomiting, light-headedness, rash, asthma exacerbations.
  • Improving indoor air quality by using low-VOC building products is one way to have positive impact on overall health and the environment.
  • When evaluating a product labeled as “Zero-VOC” or “Low-VOC”, look for a GreenGuard or other independent party eco-label that verifies that claim.
  • There a variety of ways to measure VOCs in a product and variable definitions of zero/low-VOC so also realize there is no industry standard.


Paint Colors (and the Value of Sweat Equity)

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

It was a near perfect day weather-wise in Pittsburgh yesterday.. . I spent the day painting at the Project with the windows open, iPOD kickin’ my favorite tunes, occasionally singing along (which probably made all the neighbors shut their windows 😉 ).  As I was up on the ladder doin’ my thing, my thoughts turned to my neighbors at my current house… They’re students, and able to live in a nice townhome because a father bought the house for his son.  Now I have the son and 2 of his buddies living next door and I occasionally leave the house on a Sunday morning to find used paper cups with remnants of beer strewed upon the lawn after an evening of partying, no doubt.  They’re good kids, and that cup is always gone by the time I return (townhouse fairy, perhaps?), but I can’t help but wonder how much they value their gorgeous kitchen (that the previous owner renovated) or the rooftop deck (which is one of my favorite places in my own house) when they didn’t technically work for it.

Then my thoughts wandered to a conversation I had with my sister.  When I was stressing about all the things I have on my plate and mentioned I was taking on some of the labor (e.g. painting) on the project myself, she asked, “Why?  Why didn’t you just hire someone to do the painting?”  Sure, I could have.  Of course I could have.  But I was driven by a need to contribute.  I needed to put a bit of my own sweat into this place.  Why?  I’m not sure, I just wanted to.  Since my construction skills are limited, painting it was.

When I was finally done for the day, after working into the wee hours of the night, I folded up the tarp, threw that last used paint roller in the trash, and looked around.  What I saw was a bland shell taking on life, a stark room turned into a blue jewel, and the beginnings of a serene retreat.  Then I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment, happiness and satisfaction (and also relief that the paint colors I picked actually worked!).  So I had my answer — I did it for this feeling.  This feeling you get when something is earned, not given.   That is the true value of sweat equity.  And how do you put a price on a feeling?  You just can’t — it’s priceless.


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