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Green, as in go for it

It could have been John Lake's cancer diagnosis. It could have been his wife, Lori, and her woodworking grandfather from Vermont. Or, it could have been Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Some combination of these factors accounts for the Lakes embracing of green building techniques and fuels their desire to educate the public about the materials and procedures of eco-friendly building, and remodeling, through their Web site at

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A good place to start their tale is with the destruction of their home on the C&D (Chesapeake & Delaware) Canal in Chesapeake City, Md., by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. The Category 5 storm, and subsequent flooding, left their home badly damaged, but the disaster presented the Lakes with the opportunity to rebuild and remodel, using green building techniques. They were already running a Green Research Center, using their home, other buildings on the property, and a pond near the house. When he isn't talking about eco-friendly building, John Lake loves to talk about aquaculture and the trout and crabs he is raising in their three-acre pond.

"Don't make the mistake," he says, "of equating green living with sacrifice. Many of the products and systems we use are equivalent to the amenities found in high-end luxury homes, without the astronomical costs."

The new aesthetic and design of their remodeled home bears out his claim. "Before" photos depict a slightly drab, vacation-home utility. The "after" photos show a sleek, modern dwelling with plenty of light and warm tones, more like a luxury city apartment. The Lakes, however, had equally strong concerns about demonstrating energy savings and improving interior air quality.

"Most people spend 90 percent of their time inside," says John Lake. "The air quality in our home will help to improve our health, even longevity."

Green savings
Lake also claims it no longer costs more to build green, especially when long-term energy savings are factored into the cost/benefit ratio. He estimates he and his wife will save $3,000 a year in heating and cooling costs, and $1,500 in electricity bills. In addition, he puts the savings in material costs at $25,000. This is a result of a combination of recycling lumber from his home, buying locally, supplying their own labor and helping contractors with the green learning curve. For example, many of the HVAC contractors that Lake requested quotes from "were not knowledgeable about advances in radiant heat technologies, so they raised their price to compensate for the learning curve."

The Lakes aren't alone. According to a recent National Association of Home Builders' Research Center survey, nearly half of home buyers would incorporate green products into their dwellings. Interestingly, of the buyers who said they didn't necessarily want to go green, 56 percent said it was because of "a lack of awareness of green product options and benefits." The same survey found green retrofitting, or remodeling, represented a huge marketing opportunity for builders. The opportunity extends to woodworkers, furniture makers, and cabinetmakers as well, since consumers are increasingly demanding that these products be green as well.

It's easy being green
This is where Lori's grandfather and the Lakes' new kitchen cabinets come in. "My grandfather made cabinets and furniture, actually almost everything his family needed," remembers Lori Lake. "I worked with him when I was young. He was a great influence."

Before remodeling the kitchen, Lori apprenticed with a green cabinetmaker to brush up on her skills. Below the cabinets are countertops, but the distinctive design element is a long, gently curved counter with a stone top that contains the sink and principal food preparation areas. It's not what you might expect of an eco-friendly kitchen, but Lori says they followed all of the green building techniques developed over the years.

Some of these techniques are based on standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which has devised the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. This mouthful rates performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environment quality. There is a LEED rating system specifically for homes.

"We used the LEED rating system as a guide only," says John Lake, who claims he and his wife actually exceeded LEED standards. John is, in fact, one of 10,000 active members of the Association of Energy Engineers.

Lori, on the other hand, seems to have green in her blood. Her standards are the same as her grandfather's. He lived in Vermont "where they used, and still use, mostly natural techniques that we now call green," she says.

All of these techniques were applied to the Lakes' kitchen and the rest of their home. The one thing different, notes Lori, is that "most green materials can now be purchased rather than making them on your own."

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John, being the engineer type, stresses planning for the least waste possible and keeping designs simple. The most important green building technique is to go with natural and local products as much as possible. Local is important to green building not only to save the destruction of exotic species, but to reduce fuel usage in the transport of materials.

All paints, stains, insulation, and adhesives used in the project were non-toxic and emit no fumes of formaldehyde or VOCs. This considerably improves the quality of the indoor environment of their home. John says the Lakes also installed outside circulation in the house, office, and research center. They use a natural evaporative cooling system which releases heat to their pond.

Walking the walk
The Lakes run their Green Research Center as a business, testing new green products and energy sources as well as practicing self-sustainability.

"What has been missing," says John, "is practical guidance for busy, eco-minded people who want simple, modern, and earth-friendly solutions."

Part of the research center is, their resource and education Web site for environmentally sound building projects. There are links to resources as well as self-made videos that describe projects they have undertaken at their home. The site and all of its resources are free, as are e-mail and phone consultations about green projects.

On-site consulting fees are $100/hr, but the Lakes say all fees and income they earn go back into the research done by GreenTV. Lake and his wife initially invested the proceeds from the sale of a large commercial building that had been in his family. Over the years, they say, they have put $1 million of their own money into the project. John says he was fortunate with business investments he has made over time, and now has the means to help and educate people about going green.

Birth of GreenTV
A turning point in his life, he says, prompted him to help others.

Twelve years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. He says he beat the disease through natural healing techniques.

"The cancer has been gone for 12 years," says Lake. He believes now that "most disease is simply an imbalance in body systems."

A year after his encounter with the disease, he registered the domain name of

"In the back of my mind, I knew at some point that the computer and TV would be one," he says.

Today, he and his wife have 56 projects under way — from installing thermostats to low-flush toilets. New content about how to go green is posted regularly on the Web site. GreenTV is the vehicle John and Lori have chosen for getting knowledge about materials and component availability and sources to people who want to save money, and even the planet.

Principles of building
The Lakes cite five basic principles to green building, whether it's a home, kitchen cabinet or piece of furniture. The first two are straightforward: Plan your project as clearly as possible; research green alternatives. The next step is a little different, but makes lots of green sense. "Talk to retired people who have already gone through one or two energy crunches," says Lake. Not only should that increase your motivation, but you might uncover some "old-fashioned" ways of building that are more energy-efficient and environmentally sound.

Fourth on their list is to "be involved as much as possible to control cost and quality." And last, says John, "Never give up."

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It seems to be the nature of green building, however, that practitioners rarely stop with just the wood, adhesive and varnishes. John says water from the kitchen and other sinks and bathtubs in the house is stored in a natural stone basin in the ground and used as "gray" water for landscaping, plants and trees. Efficiency also was gained, he says, by using tankless, at-point-of-use heaters for hot water.

Financial opportunities
Even the Harvard Business Review is seeing the financial advantages and possibilities of spreading the word about green building. "Building green is no longer a pricey experiment," wrote the author of a recent article in the journal. Materials such as bamboo, locally grown wood and nontoxic paints and stains are increasingly available. Other materials coming into the mainstream are building panels made of recycled materials, cork for flooring (the cork is, of course, the bark of the tree which is peeled off without killing the tree) and wheat board which is made from wheat straw. Countertops, made from either recycled paper and wood or recycled glass, come in a variety of patterns and colors.

The increased presence of green materials is being driven by consumer demand which is primarily driven by increased energy costs. The National Association of Home Builders survey claims a 20-percent increase in the number of homebuilders going green in 2005. a figure that was expected to increase. Not surprisingly, the survey, and publications as diverse as Mortgage News Daily, are advising builders and woodworkers to at least familiarize themselves with green building techniques. Woodworkers should, according to these industry publications, "establish the credibility of their products as green and market them accordingly."

Lori Lake is more direct.

"Green is now mainstream," she asserts. "Not only does going green create more demand for your services, but you are also helping your clients' health and their loved ones."

In addition, she says, building green adds longevity.

"Particleboard or cheap stuff will go bad in five, 10 or 15 years," she says. "My cabinets should last for centuries if properly maintained. That is a big selling point, along with the health factors."

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