INTERVIEW: Home Improvement Legend Bob Vila Talks to Us About Green Building
Inhabitat: Maybe we can pivot a little bit on building materials and talk about the health of buildings and building products. What types of healthy building issues have people had a positive response to?
Bob Vila: Over the course of the years in the projects that we’ve been involved with at the residential level we’ve had the opportunity to touch on new products and old products and understand some of the negative health implications, many things, especially man made things. Products like wall-to-wall carpeting come to mind, products that are sometimes noxious to certain people who are sensitive to them.
One of the last shows we did for Home Again with Bob Vila I remember learning a lot about by focusing on a healthy environment for babies’ rooms. We essentially developed attic space into a nursery where we helped our viewers understand not just about low-VOC paint, but about the benefits of using natural materials: rubber mattresses, pure cotton throw rugs and drapes and coverings and simplicity in keeping the synthetics out of the equation. That’s something that I have always thought was a pretty good idea, and in terms of industries it has been rewarding to see the paint industry, for example, address health issues in the last 30 years. First with lead-content issues, but then volatile organic compounds and out-gassing and all the other issues.
Inhabitat: The green building movement often kind of talks about building in a new way, new materials, new energy systems, new thinking, but we’re also implicitly saying that what we’ve been building now is no good; that we’ve been doing it wrong for a long time.
Bob Vila: Well, it’s kind of a double-edged sword, because what we were doing in creating a lot of these synthetic alternatives was trying to make life easier and get better results, get quicker results, get more long-lasting results. We were not taking into consideration that some of these products that were the result of better living through chemistry have in fact demonstrated that living organisms like to be surrounded by other living organisms. In many cases people are hypersensitive to some of these chemically created products. I think people are just that much more aware of the importance of building with these kinds of products.
Inhabitat: Lets talk about home energy.
Bob Vila: In terms of sustainable and natural sources of energy, I think wind power is something that is fascinating to see on the individual level. Where I am in the summer in Massachusetts, I’m surrounded by a number of small farms and you’re starting to see wind generators go up. Even though it’s a big initial investment, it’s a great example of people just individually looking at alternative energy sources. In my winter home down in Florida I spend a fair amount of time involved with the town’s architectural commission, which reviews all remodels and all new construction, and I’ve been seeing a great deal of not just interest but of follow-through with solar. What you’re looking at are houses with flat roofs. I’m thinking one in particular historic house, but it was built kind of to look like a Roman villa and it has flat roofs, and it’s on the shore down in Palm Beach, Florida. They are making extensive use of photovoltaics, which will make a difference in the operation of that house, and so a lot of people are considering these sustainable technologies in kind of a different light. It’s not like 10 years ago, where everything was gonna be an ugly photovoltaic array and, no thanks, we’re not gonna do that. Now there are more options, it seems.
Inhabitat: Do you see a lot of solar-thermal installations for hot water in Florida?
Bob Vila: No. The swimming pool is the best example that comes to mind. The fact is that the business of heating a swimming pool in South Florida applies mostly to the snowbirds, the winter population that leaves in the spring, but the people who are year-rounders very often don’t even consider going into a swimming pool during those cold months. So solar heating of the water for a swimming pool is something that has not caught on as much.
It’s interesting because I personally built a pool in Massachusetts when I was raising my family in an old Victorian in Boston. On that property I had a hillside, and I put in a big solar black-panel circulation system that heated the water so that when we opened the pool in June we were essentially bringing it up 5 to 10 degrees relatively quickly without having to spend any money. That was possible, I think, because we had the circumstances of the land. It was on a hillside, it was not visible, and I had the land. A lot of places people have absolutely no land to put this sorta thing on, and if you look at a passive black-panel circulating array on the roof of a little ranch house, it’s not pretty.
Inhabitat: It sounds like at least for solar-thermal aesthetics is still a major consideration for adoption, where solar electric you can get away with a lot of different options.
Bob Vila: I think without a doubt. I think with photovoltaics arrays you’ve got options now that are less visible and therefore less unattractive to people.
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