For Earth Day, An Environmental Home Tour

On Earth Day, we visit the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., where an exhibit features replicas from a "green house" of three full-sized, furnished rooms. Building Museum curator and architect Susan Piedmont-Palladino gives us the tour.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Today is Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970 by a growing number of people concerned with the future of the planet's ecology. After decades on the fringe, the environmental movement is now decidedly mainstream. At the National Building Museum here in Washington, there's an exhibition featuring three full-sized furnished rooms - replicas of those in a working environmentally friendly house. Building Museum curator and architect, Susan Piedmont-Palladino, gave us a tour.

We're standing outside a pair of double-glass doors at the National Building Museum. And inside, what are we going to see?

Ms. SUSAN PIEDMONT-PALLADINO (Curator and Architect, National Building Museum): We're going to take a walk through an exhibition called the "Green House." And it talks about strategies for greening your own personal environment and choices people can make about how to improve their home.

HANSEN: Lead the way.

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: Okay. This is the "Glidehouse," and it's by an architect in the Northwest. Her name is Michelle Kaufmann, and she designed this house with green principles in mind. And everything in here is to illustrate about the choices you can make in your home.

HANSEN: Let's start with the kitchen.

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: It's interesting to see people come in to the show. They tend to gravitate toward the kitchen, because I think that's where all of those choices about what we use, and the water, and how we cook, and our appliances, sort of, comes to the fore. And one of the interesting things here is the countertops, which are this wonderful matte black. And they're actually made of pressed recycled paper.

HANSEN: You're kidding.

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: Recycled fiber composite countertop, paper fiber.

HANSEN: The kitchen cabinets are - just are wood?

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: They are formaldehyde-free. And one of the things about many of the materials in the house is not only being green for the sake of the planet, but green for your own personal health. And so keeping formaldehyde, bleach, chlorine, all of those chemicals that we really don't want in our environment, particularly in an area where you're preparing food. Let's go on the deck.

HANSEN: That's a natural place to go after one's been in the kitchen. Right? Tell us a little bit about what's on the deck.

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: We're looking at the sliding glass doors and then some layers of wood, horizontal ribbed wood shutters, that can slide in front of the doors like a garage door might slide or a barn door. And it's a wonderful example of a low-technology way to control the solar gain in your house.

On a sunny day, you can keep the doors open, but you can slide these wooden shutters across - keep the sun out of the space, but let the breezes go through.

HANSEN: Do they work?

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: They do work.

HANSEN: On average, how much would a house like the "Glidehouse" cost?

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: Oh, that's the question everybody always wants to know. Prefabrication, which is part of what Michelle Kaufmann used to, sort of, design this house, eliminates a lot of the waste that not only drives up the cost of construction but also is ecologically unacceptable. And so prefabrication helps to control costs, because so much of that work is done offsite and in a factory. It's a different way of thinking about the cost of your house. And I think people do tend to think about initial cost instead of focusing on the long-term cost.

When you look at the difference between an incandescent light bulb and a compact fluorescent light bulb, you can be shocked by how different the price is. But if you think about how much longer and how many fewer light bulbs you'll be buying, if you make the right choice, then it's the difference between thinking long term or looking at that first price tag.

HANSEN: So do you think, given everything that we see in this exhibition, that the movement toward green architecture and design is gaining momentum?

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: I think - to use a hackneyed phrase - I think it's tipped. I think we've reached a tipping point, and I think that it's become something that any architect, any engineer who doesn't have green as part of their agenda, is going to find themselves left out of the game. I think consumers are interested, not only for altruistic reasons, but I think they realize it has to do with their health and the health of their community, as well as the health of the planet.

HANSEN: Are architectural firms getting on board too? Is there becoming an increased demand for this kind of house?

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: I think there's a huge demand for this kind of house and increasingly demand for architects to retrofit, upgrade, consult, help people understand even if they don't want to build a new house - not everyone's going to build a new house - but if they're putting an addition on their house, what are the other things they can do while they're at it to improve the space.

HANSEN: What kind of reaction have you had to this exhibition?

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: Oh, we've had great reaction to this exhibition. It's been immensely popular. I don't know what we're going to do when it closes. People are going to be coming here looking for that "Green House," and it's going to be gone. We had an exhibition before this, "Big & Green," that looked at large-scale developments - office buildings, housing, and some communities and cities - and the demand was so great for follow-up to that that we did the "Green House," and the third one will be on "Greener Communities."

HANSEN: Susan Piedmont-Palladino is a curator at the Building Museum here in Washington. Thanks so much for our green tour.

Ms. PIEDMONT-PALLADINO: Glad to have hosted you here. I hope we'll see you again for our next green exhibit.

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