Eco-Friendly Building Materials for Your Home

This is a guest post from the staff of, a site for home ideas and inspiration.  The Earthling’s Handbook is not affiliated with any of the businesses whose products are linked here, and the editors of The Earthling’s Handbook have not used any of these products in our own home–but we strongly encourage recycling and thinking green when you improve your home! By Jane Blanchard

new home construction

Image via Flickr

When you’re passionate about improving the environment, everything you do should be sustainable. If you’re in the market to build a new home or make improvements on an existing one, there are lots of different materials that you can use that are eco-friendly. Whether you plan on adding a new recycled rubber roof to an existing home or using recycled steel within your new construction, these materials are great places to begin when looking for eco-friendly building material options.

Recycled Steel

Using recycled steel in the construction of your home is one of the simplest ways to be eco-friendly. Steel is one of the most recycled materials in the world, and in 2008, 97% of it was recycled, according to Wikipedia. Chances are, the steel you plan on using for your home already contains some recycled material. Read more of this post

My 9-Year-Old Architect

I love drawing floor plans–even though I failed to become an architect–so I looked forward to illustrating my article about how we rearranged our home to make space for our new baby Lydia.  I thought this also would be a great opportunity to learn to use TouchDraw, a drafting app I’d bought for my iPad months ago but had barely gotten to play with.

Unfortunately, a mere 15 minutes of attempting to make those drawings taught me that TouchDraw sucks.  As best I can find, it can’t draw an arc–so how could I draw a door?  Its lines seem to be looking for every opportunity to jump just slightly away from being perpendicular when you lift your finger after drawing.  Its help files are laughably incomplete, set up by someone with good intentions of writing the help files someday.

Rather than spend time seeking a better drafting app, I decided to do the drawings by hand and then photograph them and post the photos.  Of course, I already have a hand-drawn scale drawing of every room in our house (doesn’t everyone?) that I made as soon as we bought the house so that we could use the scale model paper cutouts of all our furniture to decide how to arrange the rooms.  (We used it again to figure out this current arrangement.)  I would simply tape that drawing to the table, roll out some of the proper architect’s trace-paper that I still have, trace the room, draw in the furniture, and make handwritten notes around the perimeter as necessary to explain details.  I looked forward to doing this some night when Lydia went to sleep before I was totally exhausted and after I’d finished all my crucial chores.

Well, that didn’t happen any night last week!  When I got up on Saturday morning, I explained the situation to my nine-year-old son Nicholas and noted that I would need to spend a couple of hours during the day working on my drawings.

“But Mama,” he said, “What about Room Planner?” Read more…

Why I’m Sleeping in the Dining Room

Welcome to the September 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Home Tour

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have opened up their doors and given us a photo-rich glimpse into how they arrange their living spaces.


When Daniel and I bought our house 12 years ago, we made sure to choose one that had space for a child.  We planned to have one child; we thought we might consider having two, but in choosing the house we were allotting space for one.  Here’s the whole story that led to our daughter Lydia being born in May, nine years younger than her brother Nicholas.  “Everybody knows” that siblings with such a large age gap don’t share a bedroom and/or that siblings of opposite sexes don’t share a bedroom…but I’ve never quite understood how a newborn baby can share a bedroom even with her three-year-old sister: Doesn’t the baby’s crying to be fed every few hours disturb the older child’s sleep?

Besides, our experience with getting Nicholas to sleep put me firmly in favor of co-sleeping with my baby at least until she’s weaned.  It’s just so convenient to respond to those 2am whimpers by opening my nightgown and cuddling the baby closer, instead of dragging myself out of my warm bed and into a chair in another room where I’d have to stay awake the whole time she’s nursing!  Daniel fully supports my sleeping with our babies, but he isn’t all that keen on sleeping with anyone and is sometimes disturbed even by my presence; a few weeks of sleeping with the newborn Nicholas (and me) convinced Daniel that co-sleeping was something he could handle only on an occasional basis.  Therefore, we couldn’t use our master bedroom for co-sleeping with baby Lydia–and for many reasons, we’d concluded that having the family bed in the kid’s room works best for our family.

The trouble was, we didn’t have a spare room that could become Lydia’s bedroom.  Our house has three private, upstairs rooms, but the back one seems to have been built as a sleeping porch and later enclosed–it partially overhangs the back yard, and that half of the room is encased in siding rather than brick–and although we got extra insulation added when we had the siding replaced, that room gets much colder than the rest of the house in the winter.  That’s why we use it as Daniel’s home office rather than a bedroom.  It would not be a healthy sleeping place for a baby.  Also, Daniel works from home and is an introvert; he needs his own room.

We thought back to what we’d learned from the apartment where we couldn’t sleep in the bedrooms and the home-buying process that inspired: Instead of making a list of rooms we needed, we made a list of spaces we wanted to have.  When we toured a house that we thought might be the one, we tried to work out where each of the spaces would fit.  One of the things that attracted us to this house we bought was the large and versatile dining room.

Read more…

How We Survive Without Air Conditioning

Today’s Works-for-Me Wednesday lead article is about staying cool in the summertime.  The author lives in Texas, where it is a lot hotter right now than it is here in Pennsylvania–but we do get hot weather here, we’ve had several 90-degree days already this year, and we know a lot of people here who think air conditioning is absolutely essential to their survival of summer.  I grew up in Oklahoma, where every summer is oven-hot for weeks at a stretch, yet my parents never used their central AC more than a few days a year.  Air conditioning uses a lot of energy and therefore costs a lot of money, and in my opinion it’s just not that great–it feels and smells weird, and it’s often too cold!

I think there are three main techniques to living comfortably without air conditioning: Make long-term choices that set you up for success, make hot-day choices that improve comfort, and have the right attitude.  Here are some details in each category: Read more…

Our Favorite Publisher of Affordable Books

I recently had a birthday and was very pleased to be given three books from Dover Publications.  Daniel knows that I can never get enough floor-plan books, and Dover prints gobs of great ones!  They also have a wide selection of nonfiction, classic fiction, children’s books,  coloring books, how-to-draw books, clip-art collections, puzzle books, nature guides, textbooks, and lots more.  Most of their books cost less than $20.  They have a great environmental policy, yet their recycled-content paper looks and feels better than the pages of many other publishers’ books.

This is not a sponsored post.  I am writing this just because we think Dover is a great company and want more people to know about them!  Dover books are available from most bookstores, as well as from their own catalog.

In addition to floor-plans, I particularly like Dover’s illustrated history books.  Read more…

How a silly Website brought me a great book

I have been a fan of for some time now.  It’s one of those sites that perfectly utilizes the Internet’s awesome power to collect silly things seen around the world.  It almost always can make me laugh in that wonderfully sudden way that really dispels stress.

Last summer, I saw a note posted there (unfortunately, I can’t find it again now to link to it!) taped in the window of a Border’s bookstore that had closed.  Like the rest of the chain, and many other bookstores in the past decade, it had languished because so many customers went into the store to browse and read but purchased nothing, preferring to do their book-buying online.  The sign said something like this:

Try using the bathrooms

I thought it was clever and funny, but I also was zinged with guilt–just as I had been when reading about the demise of bookstores–for the times when I browsed without buying or used the restrooms or drinking fountain at the Barnes & Noble that used to be in my neighborhood.  Read more…

7 Quick Takes on visiting New York City again after 21 years

I grew up in Oklahoma, visiting my grandparents in New York City every summer from age 6 to 14.  Then my grandma died, and my grandpa began spending most of his time in Arizona.  I had two more brief visits in New York before he sold the house when I was 17.  I had thought I would move to New York when I grew up, but I fell in love with Pittsburgh.  I kept wanting to visit New York, but it kept not working out, until this summer.  These are just a few of the things I noticed: Read more…

Our Neighborhood Public School Works for Us!

Today is my son’s last day of kindergarten!  This has been his first year in public school, and we are very pleased with our neighborhood public school, Pittsburgh Colfax.  It’s a great example of how an urban school can thrive when faculty encourage parent involvement.  On “Take Your Special Person to School Day” last month, I spent a whole day immersed in the experience of being one of the 700+ Colfax kids and never once felt like just another brick in the wall.  Sure, there are some systems in place to keep everybody organized, but none of it is harsh or disrespectful.

Daniel and I always planned to send our child to public school.  We feel strongly that public schools are important.  Every child deserves to learn both academic and social skills.  That includes our child.  We believe that our public schools, supported by our tax dollars (and 1% of the money I spend on my Target Visa card), are good enough for our child.  Read more…

Tips for a Tiny Kitchen

I saw this article on how to make the most of a small kitchen–with over 200 helpful comments!–and realized I have learned some things about this in my years of making do with smallish kitchens.  The 3 places we’ve lived in the past 15 years all had kitchens under 100 square feet, but we were able to prepare full meals from scratch (and even the occasional elaborate baking project!) in all of them, and we’ve always figured out ways to store the food we stockpile when it’s on sale. Read more…

A family trip to Wheeling, West Virginia

Today is the backwards edition of Works-for-Me Wednesday, when writers get to ask for help, so I’ll start with a question: We are planning to visit New York City this summer.  Our son is six years old.  What are some things we should be sure to see, do, eat, etc.?  I visited my grandparents in New York every summer when I was a kid, so I know what was fun then and know that some of those places still exist, but I know some things have changed since I last visited New York in 1990!  [UPDATES: We did the whole trip by public transit, and indeed, some things have changed.]

Now, on to the topic of my headline, our spring-break visit to Wheeling.  We live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about an hour and 15 minutes’ drive from Wheeling, but we’d never visited there. Read more…

Reflections on a Bathroom Renovation

(I really, really want to say “Restroom Renovation” just for the alliteration, but I know this article will be more relevant to people searching for “bathroom renovation,” so I’m stuck with this title!)

We had our house’s main bathroom completely renovated last month.  We are thrilled with it and learned some things in the process that we want to share with anyone contemplating a major renovation.

We lived with a bathroom we didn’t really like until it was wearing out and falling apart so that we felt completely justified in starting from scratch!  We highly recommend that approach because it makes the new stuff even more exciting and luxurious by contrast!  It may actually be more environmentally friendly to renovate less often using conventional materials than to rip out stuff that’s still good to install a bunch of “green” materials. Read more…

Steel Kitchen Cabinets!

Our house was a bargain, priced about $40,000 less than similar houses in the immediate area.  Our realtor said, “Well, it’s a bargain to you because you like the kitchen.  Most people would expect to spend about $40,000 totally redoing the kitchen.”

Yes, we’re charmed by our kitchen decor, which dates from the 1950s: pink and gray, with chrome trim and boomerang-pattern Formica counters!  There are a few worn-through spots in the Formica, but otherwise it’s all in good condition, and all the appliances are newer except the dishwasher, which has such a cool space-age look that we don’t much care if it’s usable.  The kitchen layout is excellent, about as efficient as a kitchen its size (10’x10′) can be.  But after living in this house almost eight years, I think the best feature of the kitchen is the steel cabinets.

Now I can’t understand why anyone makes kitchen cabinets out of any other material!  Steel cabinets

  • provide gobs of surfaces on which to display things secured with magnets.  In addition to the puny refrigerator surface, we have magnetic areas covering most of two walls!  We can hang up all the shopping lists, artworks, nutritional references, cartoons, and inspiring quotes without overlapping.  (Note to gift-givers: We always can use more magnets!)
  • are coated with enamel paint that can be thoroughly scrubbed with plenty of water, without damaging it.  The constant grabbing of the door edges by damp hands takes a long time to wear off that paint–unlike the finish of many wood and laminate cabinets I’ve known.  When we get tired of the color (which we thought would happen much sooner–they’re a kind of battleship gray that we thought would be depressing, but somehow it isn’t), they’ll be easy to repaint.
  • are extremely solid and durable.  They don’t rattle, and the shelves don’t fall out when we pack them with heavy stuff.
  • operate reliably.  The latches sometimes stick just a little in humid weather, but that’s about it.  Even the doors that are missing their latch pegs stay closed until you touch them.  The hinges rarely creak, stick, or get loose.  The drawers slide smoothly.  After 50+ years!!
  • don’t have a lot of annoying grooves to gather dust that then suddenly falls into your mixing bowl as you reach for the cinnamon!  There’s just one ridged panel, in front of the sink (our cabinets are almost identical to the ones in this photo), and apparently I’m dusting it with my tummy every time I wash dishes, because it doesn’t accumulate much dust.  Everything else is a smooth, vertical or slightly curved surface except (unavoidably) the top edges of the doors.

Steel cabinets work for me!  If you’re shopping for a house or planning a renovation, I highly recommend them.  Like most good-quality home furnishings made of “real” materials, I bet new ones are hard-to-find and expensive these days, but steel cabinets turn up regularly at Construction Junction, salvage yards, and yard sales.

Books That Blew My Mind

UPDATE February 1, 2012: For the past two years, this has been an article like my links page where I keep adding content as I get around to it.  Now I’m going to call it finished!  Of course, I expect to read additional mind-blowing books during my visit to Earth, but this list now includes all the qualifying books I have discovered so far.  [Um, and I added one more on February 2!] [Further updates, mostly formatting and links, in June 2015.]

This is a list of books that made a big difference to me at the time I first read them, and in some cases forever afterward, by giving me many new things to think about and/or a completely different angle on an old favorite topic.  I highly recommend them all.  They’re in approximately chronological order according to when I first read them, but that doesn’t mean anyone else needs to read them in this particular order, and where I mention ages please take into account that I was a very precocious reader–many kids will not be able to read these books to themselves until they are several years older.  (Check out these great chapter books for kids!) Read more…

The Path at the End of the Road

I wanted to be an architect.

From the moment I first learned what architects do, when I was about ten years old, I knew that’s what I wanted to be: a person who designs buildings that make people comfortable and happy.  Right away, I started reading architecture books and magazines.  I was fascinated by floorplans (and other drawings too, but especially plans) and began drawing my own.

This clear career goal motivated many of my decisions in junior high and high school: Read more…

The Guest Nest that was the Best Nest

I have a home-improvement book that poses an important, well-worded question in its section on one-room apartments:
“Do you want to sleep in your living room or live in your bedroom?”
In other words, do you want your one room to look and function primarily like a daytime living room but also have a place to sleep, or do you want the room to look and function primarily like a bedroom but also have places to eat and do daytime things? This is a wise question to consider before choosing furniture and so on.

I haven’t lived in a one-room place since 1994, but sleeping in the living room and living in the bedroom are ideas that have worked for me in various homes, and I think that being flexible about which activities belong in which room of your home can make it a lot more comfortable and efficient. Here’s one example:

A few years pre-parenthood, Daniel and I lived in a second-floor apartment whose entrance was at the back of the living room. It was a long, narrow place with the two bedrooms (one of which was very skinny) next to each other at the back. We naturally assumed that the larger bedroom with two closets should be our bedroom, and the smaller one should be Daniel’s home office. We also needed to store our two spare twin-size mattresses someplace, ideally a place that could be used as a sleeping area for guests. Read more…

Tips from The Lightbulb Ninja

When I was about 12 years old, I became quite a stickler about shutting off unnecessary lights. Suddenly all the adult nagging and public-service announcements I’d ever heard got through to me (I can’t recall why) and I began to see how amazingly wasteful it is to leave a bunch of extra lights on, just burning up energy for no reason, when it’s so easy to turn them off! After all, even if electricity is generated in a non-polluting way, it costs money!

For a while I was a bit too zealous. One day I ducked around a corner, flipped off a switch, and went swiftly on my way, drawing a yelp of annoyance from my mother, who was in that room (sitting very still) and using that light! I happened to be wearing a dark navy sweater and jeans that day, so my mom nicknamed me The Lightbulb Ninja for my swift and merciless killing of excess lights.

Since then, I’ve continued to strike lightswitches everywhere I go, and I’ve also come to embrace the darkness. Here are my strategies for minimizing lighting: Read more…