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From carbon-neutral dwellings to certified-sustainable furniture, technology is catching up to the intense passion people have for protecting the environment. But the most modern innovations go beyond environmental consciousness; they also enhance the health and happiness of your family. Here we share 10 inspiring initiatives that are transforming green living.

eco-home

Photography by David Cohen

Zero-Carbon Communities

Picture a town where every home has a roof lined with solar panels that generate enough power to provide all the energy the town needs—no extra electricity required. Toxic chemicals are banned from the neighborhood, and every home is created with sustainable materials. Buildings are surrounded by community gardens that naturally detoxify the air.

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Photography courtesy of Dylan Sievertson

This is the aspirational concept behind self-sustaining villages, which have officially become a modern reality. With a focus on environmental, social, and economic sustainability, developers across the United States have started to invite families into what they’re calling zero-carbon communities. By reducing water and energy use, creating a culture that’s closer to nature, and minimizing exposure to toxic off-gassing, they’ve focused on building for wellness.

“Starting at the very beginning of construction, everything is chosen with care,” says Marja Preston, one of the developers behind GROW, a zero-carbon community in Bainbridge, Washington (pictured above right). Every decision—from insulation to appliances to window framing—takes both wellness and sustainability into account. As these eco-friendly towns pop up around the world—from North West Bicester in the United Kingdom to Serenbe, located just outside Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, to Eco Modern Flats in Fayetteville, Arkansas—the hope is that living there will help residents thrive physically and mentally.

Sustainable Building Materials

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Photography courtesy of Vetrazzo

“There are tons of innovative eco-friendly materials available for homes today,” says Cathy Hobbs, a certified LEED expert and green interior designer. Whether you’re building a new house or remodeling one room, there’s a plethora of beautiful options. Some of her favorites: Vetrazzo offers kitchen countertops that are filled with recycled glass, creating an elegant micro-mosaic (vetrazzo.com, shown to the right). Architectural Systems creates backsplashes out of recycled quarry stone and coconut shells (archsystems.com). Carnegie Fabric has a line of Xorel Wall Coverings made from plant-based fibers (carnegiefabrics.com). And Bonded Logic created UltraTouch Denim Insulation, which uses recycled denim to create insulation that’s free of volatile organic compounds (bondedlogic.com).

Material Transparency

Just as transparency is a buzz-word right now in the food world, with people demanding to know more about what’s in the products on supermarket shelves, there’s a similar movement occurring in the home industry. “The lack of regulation has allowed companies to hide toxins in their products without consumer knowledge,” says Sarah Hill, program manager at EarthCraft, a green building certification program. That’s why her organization and others, like LEED, Cradle to Cradle, Declare, and UL, are advocating for material transparency in everything from furniture to roofing so consumers can make informed choices. The groups are also pushing for manufacturers to avoid toxins included on a “red list” of chemicals (think formaldehyde, lead, and cadmium) that they want removed from products. To see the full list and learn more about the transparency certification program, visit declareproducts.com.

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Image from Recycled Home by Rebecca Proctor, courtesy of Lawrence King Publishing

The New Minimalism

Minimalist design used to be associated with a stark, modern aesthetic. But now the movement’s mantra—do more with less—is being viewed through a new lens. Designers are using it as a platform to focus on preventing waste by encouraging families to recycle and reuse what’s already in their homes (like adding wheels to old crates, as shown above and featured in the book Recycled Home by Rebecca Proctor). And it works, says interior designer and green living expert Christa O’Leary: Those simple changes can add interest and charm while also minimizing waste and cost.

eco-homeToxin-Free Furniture

You already watch out for VOCs in paint, but that’s not the only place these toxins can lurk. Harmful off-gassing chemicals are present throughout many homes—in wallpaper, in carpeting, even in mattresses. “Residential furniture can contain a lot of toxicants—including VOCs and SVOCs like phthalates and flame retardants,” says Sara Cederberg, technical director for LEED. But thanks to the work of environmental advocacy groups, the issue is getting more attention—and change is happening. For example, after California passed a law allowing manufacturers to create furniture without the use of flame retardants, which had previously been required in all upholstered pieces, several major companies—including Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Restoration Hardware, La-Z-Boy, Ethan Allen, and Crate & Barrel (whose Patrice Chair is shown to the right)— committed to offering furniture without those chemicals. Many of these options are currently available, and more are on the way.

eco-homeUltra-Efficient Appliances

Since its 1992 inception, Energy Star has set the standard for environmentally conscious products that protect the planet while also saving homeowners money. But appliance manufacturers are now looking beyond that baseline, raising the bar even higher when it comes to both energy and water use. One leader in this effort is Bosch, which makes many products that surpass Energy Star standards—including its dishwashers, which offer green features like a half-load option that cuts down on water waste. Another company pushing the boundaries is Orbital Systems, a Swedish manufacturer that developed the world’s first closed-loop shower system, which saves 80 percent more energy and 90 percent more water than conventional models by recycling both resources. LG is also focused on innovation: It launched the first energy-efficient gas clothing dryer, called the Ecohybrid Heat Pump Dryer (shown at right), which is 50 percent more efficient than conventional electric dryers and earned recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Passive Building Design

Creating a home that maximizes its energy gains and minimizes its energy losses is the main principle behind passive home design, which has become increasingly popular in the U.S. over the past decade. Passive homes use 60 to 80 percent less energy than standard buildings, according to the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)—a feat made possible through the use of airtight building practices, superinsulation, high-performance windows and doors, special ventilation systems (as pictured in the diagram above), and more. For a new home, the upgrades necessary to achieve the passive house certification are estimated to cost about 10 percent more than typical materials, but the expense is quickly recouped in energy savings. (Homes can also be retrofitted to include some of these features.) Even better news for homeowners: PHIUS recently introduced a new set of criteria that will make meeting the passive home standard more cost-effective because the recommendations are adjusted based on the geographic location of the home. Visit phius.org for more information.

eco-homeSmart Homes

Half of your home energy bill is devoted to heating and cooling—and much of the energy it requires is wasted. Enter WiFi-based thermostats, which have quickly risen in popularity due to their efficiency, ease of use, and ability to save energy and money. By tracking things like outside temperature, humidity, and time of day, the thermostats can adjust your home’s climate to keep your family comfortable with the least amount of waste. Each one minimizes energy consumption when you’re away but makes the most of it when everyone’s home. Our favorite? The Nest Learning Thermostat (nest.com, shown to the right), which also tracks the rotation of your home’s air filter and alerts you when it’s time for a replacement.

eco-homeGreener Electronics

It’s no mystery that the electronics in our homes, from computers to TV screens, are packed with chemicals and huge energy guzzlers. But many brands are taking steps to green their screens. According to Greenpeace International, HP is one of the most eco-friendly electronics companies in the world, due to its energy-efficient products and focus on sustainable manufacturing. Vizio recently released a TV with LED backlights (shown at right) that use about half the energy of a typical set, and Energy Star has recognized a variety of manufacturers, including Philips and Samsung, for their highly efficient TVs. In addition, brands like Dell, Sony, and Apple have reduced waste by using recycled plastic in their products. And Apple in particular has been recognized for its efforts to avoid using chemicals—it was the first company to remove PVC and brominated flame retardants from its computers.

Indoor Greenery

Thanks to off-gassing chemicals and lack of proper ventilation, the air inside your home can be up to five times more toxic than the air outside it, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So it’s no wonder that plants, which detoxify the air through photosynthesis, are becoming increasingly integrated with home design. “They are beautiful, biological air filters,” says O’Leary. To take advantage of these natural superpowers and filter out everything from formaldehyde to carbon monoxide, homeowners and designers are incorporating greenery in a variety of creative ways, from bathrooms with live growing trees (like the one below, as featured in the book Rethink by Amanda Talbot) to living green walls. Specific plants can even be used to filter out certain chemicals. To discover plants that can help purify your home, visit kiwimagonline.com/pureairplants.

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From Rethink by Amanda Talbot, Photograph by Mikkel Vang (Chronicle Books)

4 Eco Seals and What They Mean

Before awarding its strict certification, Cradle to Cradle looks at several attributes, from chemical ingredients to recyclable mate- rials to whether the product is manufactured in a sustainable way. eco-home
To recognize manufacturers who manage their forests sustainably, the Forest Stewardship Council offers this certification. eco-home
Products that bear the Green Guard seal meet a strict chemical emission limit, which reduces exposure to off-gassing and as a result creates a healthier home environment. eco-home
The nonprofit organization Green Seal awards its certification to products that make a positive environmental and health impact throughout their life cycle. eco-home
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