Ask the Green Architect: Commercial Cleaners, Historic Preservation, and 'Green' Lawns

Ask the Green Architect: Commercial Cleaners, Historic Preservation, and 'Green' Lawns

  • Are there green cleaning products for commercial spaces?
  • Are lawns environmentally friendly?
  • Is historic preservation part of green building?

    Are there green cleaning products for commercial spaces, such as day spas, baths, or gyms? Given the more stringent health requirements for these spaces, are these products approved for this use?

    Eric: Cleaning ones home or office is often considered a healthy thing to do. After all, it feels kind of good and self-satisfying to remove all of the inevitable dust, food crumbs, fallen hairs, and other gross remnants of daily life from our home.

    Ironically, we typically clean our homes and offices with chemically intensive and potentially toxic cleaning materials. Did you ever wonder why you have to wear gloves (and sometimes even masks) to clean? The chemicals used to clean are adding to the already overloaded toxic soup we have in most indoor spaces.

    The American Association of Poison Control Centers ranks household cleaners as the leading source for acute human exposure to toxic substances. In addition, these caustic cleaners, pesky pesticides, raucous removers, and other potent products with their toxic ingredients also damage our environment through their production, use, and disposal.

    Fortunately, a number of commercially available healthy alternatives exist:

    Ecover, established in 1980, is one of the global leaders in healthy cleaning products. Not only are the products healthier, the company is incredibly dedicated to sustainable business. Their solar powered factory features green building features such as passive solar and water efficient methods.

    Seventh Generation is named in deference to the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, "in our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Seventh Gen offers a full line of household cleaning products, including paper and baby products. Their website is an incredible resource for information on healthy living.

    Mrs. Meyers, with their striking graphics and packaging, these products are made with natural essential oils, are all biodegradable and all phosphate-free.

    Method Home offer sensuous, almost sexual, bottles designed by Karim Rashid. Method Home has targeted their market quite differently. Selling on design and style, rather than simply on health, these gorgeous bottles are filled with all-natural ingredients. I suspect many of the people buying their products are not aware of the health aspects.

    Simple Green offers different sites for Consumer and Industrial products. Their products are designed to meet Federal USDA and FDA requirements for cleaning in cosmetics, medical and pharmaceutical environments. Since their products are non-toxic, they are exempt from OSHA and EPA special handling requirements.

    Cook Up Your Own Cleaners

    But rather than purchase new products, your kitchen offers a wide array of ingredients for naturally cleaning your home and office. Save some money and make batches of your own household cleaners.

    According to Stephanie Deitz, founder of Verde Green Cleaning, "Eco-cleaning is easier than one would think. Most everything you need is already in your pantry, basic products such as white vinegar, lemons, baking soda, and some essential oils will tackle most of your cleaning and disinfecting needs plus it will make your home smell fresh without the need for harsh perfumes or chemicals."

    Essential Ingredients

  • White vinegar: A natural disinfectant, stain remover and reduces mineral and lime deposits, vinegar is a perfect substitute for ammonia-based cleaners. You can use white wine vinegar, but white distilled vinegar is cheaper. Don't use malt vinegar - the odor will resemble a bar after a long night.

  • Bicarbonate of Soda (baking soda/sodium bicarbonate): Baking Soda is the miracle cleaner. When mixed with water it forms a paste that cuts through grease and dirt on almost any surface. In powder form the abrasive texture can scrub out problem stains. Often vinegar and soda are mixed together for maximum cleaning strength.

  • Lemons: The citric acid in lemon juice makes it perfect for bleaching, disinfecting, deodorizing or cutting grease.

  • Olive Oil: A wonderful alternative furniture polish. Don't worry about using the extra-virgin type, the most basic will do.

    Damp dusting is great for general cleaning and ensures dust is not scattered around. For best results, soak your duster in two parts water, two parts vinegar and two drops of lemon oil. Then wring out and store in a covered glass jar until you need it.

    Green Cleaners Cookbook

    All-Purpose Household Cleaner
    1-quart warm water
    1-teaspoon liquid hand soap
    1 squeeze of a lemon
    Good for a multitude of jobs including countertops, floors, walls, rugs & upholstery.

    Furniture Polish
    1-pint mineral oil
    1 squeeze of a lemon

    Drain Cleaner
    1-cup baking soda
    1-cup salt
    1/4-cup cream of tartar
    Pour 1/4 cup of mixture down drain once a week.

    Clothing Stain Remover
    1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
    1/4-teaspoon cream of tartar
    Create paste, spread over stain, and allow to dry.

    Carpet Stain Remover
    Baking soda or Club Soda
    Rub baking soda or club soda into carpet and vacuum until stain is removed.

    Mirror and Window Cleaner
    1-tablespoon rubbing alcohol
    1/2-cup white vinegar
    1-quart water
    Apply solution with spray bottle and dry with newspaper.

    Silverware Cleaner
    Scrub silverware with toothpaste. Rinse with warm water.

    Oven Cleaning
    Cover the bottom of the oven with baking soda.
    Spray with water until very damp, and keep moist by spraying every few hours.
    Let set overnight.
    In the morning, scoop out the baking soda and grime and wipe well.

    Paint Remover for Your Hands
    Use vegetable oil instead of paint thinner to remove paint from hands and skin.

    Caveat Emptor

    As a word of warning, manufacturers can make almost any claim they wish about their products. Buzz words like biodegradable, all-natural, nontoxic, hypoallergenic and fragrant-free — all of those things technically don't have to mean anything.

    Be sure to check with local health and safety regulations for using these alternatives in commercial environments.

    Building health expert Debra Lynn Dadd writes, "In general, it is best to avoid using products that say "Danger," "Poison," or "Warning," on the label."

    Dadd continues, "I do all of my cleaning with a squirt bottle of fifty-fifty distilled white vinegar and water, liquid soap, and baking soda."

    More Information

    Department of the Interior Greening the Janitorial Business

    Cleaning Products Pilot Project (co-sponsored by EPA and GSA)

    Green Cleaning for Schools

    Cleaning For Health: Products and Practices for a Safer Indoor Environment

    Green Cleaning: How to Select and Use Safe Janitorial Chemicals

    Green Cleaning for Carpet Cleaners

    Pennsylvania Green Building Maintenance Manual

    The Cleaning Products Pilot Project is part of the U.S. EPA's efforts to identify cleaning products with reduced human health and safety impacts and to foster environmentally preferable purchasing decisions by U.S. federal procurement officials and the public.

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Are lawns environmentally friendly? Are there alternatives?

Eric: Each weekend, 54 million Americans get up early on their day off and roll the trusty, old mower out of the garage to mow some 20 million acres of lawn. From mowing, to watering, to fertilizing, lawns consume an immense amount of resources and are responsible for an equally offensive amount of pollution.

Lawn care is a big business, totaling some $25 billion each year. But beyond the cost for the materials and equipment, we cannot discuss lawns without mentioning their environmental cost.


As anyone who has ever used a lawn mower will attest, these engines are not very efficient. They emit high levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, producing up to 5% of the nation's air pollution. A conventional lawn mower pollutes as much in an hour as driving your car for 100 miles.

In an effort to keep the lawn looking good, we annually use 800 million gallons of gas, producing tons of air pollutants. In fact, just switching to a push-type mower instead of a power mower will help reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by 80 pounds a year per lawn.

Perhaps more surprising than the gas we use, is the gas we misuse. According to the EPA, 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. To put that into perspective, that is more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

Once we mow the lawn, the clippings generate over 160 million tons of solid waste annually. The second largest component of our solid waste is this yard waste.

Ironically, most grass is not meant to be cut so short. The short, well-manicured lawn does not have the same effect of shading the soil, increasing the need for water. Additionally, tall grass can have a much deeper root system, resulting in less need for watering.


30 to 60 per cent of all urban fresh water is used for watering lawns. For some reason, most people water their lawns during the day, when the sun is the hottest, causing more than half this amount to evaporate and be wasted.


In the US, 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used each year. While these are effective at killing weeds and insects, they are also killing us. It is always surprising to think how people assume spraying poison all around your home would only be bad for the bugs.

Does this make sense?

This sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? Is this need for neatly manicured lawns a form of American vanity? After all, we take great pride in our neat lawns. Images of a row of houses fronted with organized patches of green are often an iconographic reminder of the American Dream. Luckily, we have numerous alternatives.

Alternatives to Mowing

While a hand-powered mower would reduce pollution, one should ask, “Why plant something that needs cutting at all?”

Ecoturf is a term used to describe a variety of turf grasses selected to reduce these typical needs of mowing, watering and fertilizing. A dense mix of English daisy, yarrow, strawberry clover or perennial ryegrass, Ecoturf only grows to a certain height and will not need frequent mowing. The addition of clover in this mix provides valuable soil-fixing nitrogen, helping eliminate the need for fertilizer. Since it is so hardy, Ecoturf only requires regular watering during the hot, summer months.

Ecoturf needs to be seeded, and will take a year or two to fully take root. During this initial period, just water it regularly, as you would a regular lawn.

Be sure to consult a landscape architect to select species appropriate and native to your area.

Alternatives to Watering

Traditional watering and sprinklers spray water at the top of the grass, wasting more than half of the water. A drip irrigation system is under the soil, and applies water slowly to the roots of plants. By using less water and providing the water where needed, drip irrigation will pay for itself in water savings.

Another worthwhile investment is a weather tracking systems, such as the one from HydroPoint. Put simply, these small boxes check the weather and turn off your drip irrigation system if rain is forecast. Priced starting at $600, a weather track device will save enough water to pay for itself within a year or two.

Alternatives to Fertilizer

Xeriscaping refers to landscaping in ways that do not require additional water or fertilizer. The word Xeriscaping, from the Green “xeros” for "dry", encourages the use of native and indigenous plants already suited for their specific climate. Rather than planting a lawn, a rich, native landscape will provide more visual interest and require much less effort to maintain.

Pesticide use can be drastically reduced through the use of Biological Pest Control. By using natural predators, both insects and weeds can be controlled.

Worth Mention

A discussion of lawns would not be complete without mentioning SynLawn. Made of either nylon or polyethylene (depending upon the version), SynLawn is a synthetic lawn. In a wonderful display of hubris, SynLawn is being marketing as a green product.

After all, a fake lawn never needs cutting, watering or fertilizing. While that sounds great, killing your existing lawn by covering it with a plastic carpet cannot be worth all of that.

Priced between $4-6 per square foot, SynLawn is a very convincing fake lawn. The samples sent were surprisingly more realistic in appearance than AstroTurf®, but the notion of placing fake grass on your lawn is about as green as bathing in bottled water.

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Is historic preservation part of green building? I never hear much mention of these subjects together.

Eric: Historic preservation is the practice of preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction of historically significant buildings. Based on the premise that historic buildings have intrinsic architectural value, historic preservation has traditionally not crossed into discussing of green building techniques, but more and more examples of green historic preservation projects are available.

To be eligible for federal funding or certain tax credits, most historic buildings undergoing improvements must meet the Standards for Rehabilitation. These standards require the retention of historic character and materials, but make no mention of sustainable or healthy materials. Of course, this is not within the spirit of the Standards. Reuse of an existing building is somewhat inherently sustainable, especially given the amount of construction waste that typically ends up in our landfills.

As Michael Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency states, “The historic preservation movement is the only organized design philosophy that promotes building re-use. The “green design” movement has largely ignored the inherent ecological advantages of building re-use. The environmental benefits of building re-use, such as embodied energy, have to be measured against the operating energy for a true life-cycle equation. Historic buildings can be made energy efficient through the appropriate use of new technologies and 'invisible interventions.’

The goals of sustainable design are toward maximizing the quality of the built environment while minimizing or eliminating any negative impact to the natural environment. While new sustainable buildings are appearing all around the United States, existing buildings are already one step ahead of any new sustainable design project.

Both the environmental movement and historic preservation movement were independently born in. the 1960s. While both parties push forth the idea that our future relies on the preservation and protection of our culture, each is going about it in a different way. The joining of the green building and historic preservation movements is long overdue.

While older, historic buildings tend to be less energy efficient, relatively simple measures such as replacing windows, adding insulation and upgrading appliances will solves most of these energy issues. The energy saved in this building reuse far outweighs the need for these extra efforts. Existing buildings not only embody high amounts of energy that would be wasted during demolition and reconstruction, historic buildings often contain common sustainable practices such as abundant natural light, use of local materials, and proximity to public transportation.

The LEED Rating System

More Information

Sustainable Design and Historic Preservation

A Natural Connection: Sustainable Design and Historic Preservation

Changing Mindsets: Sustainable Design in Historic Preservation

Sustainable Re-Design: The Holistic Approach to Historic Preservation

Whole Building Design Guide: Sustainable Historic Preservation

PreserveNet: Sustainable Design

Seminar: National Preservation Institute: Green Strategies for Historic Buildings

National Trust for Historic Preservation: Economics, Sustainability and
Historic Preservation


Eric Corey Freed is principal of organicARCHITECT and teaches Sustainable Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and University of California Berkeley. He is on the boards of Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), Green Home Guide and West Coast Green. This article has been excerpted from his upcoming book, The Inevitable Architect: A Phase by Phase Guide to Green Building.