The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
One of the things that’s always been really fun about my work in the law is how it constantly exposes me to new areas I knew little or nothing about, and I have to become reasonably expert in them in a fairly short period of time, at least to the level that I can discuss them with the people whose work they primarily are. It was perhaps most obvious in patent law, but it’s come up in all kinds of cases. In one case, I learned all about state-administered benefits programs like SNAP. In another, I learned about botox. I learned about the requirements for traffic signs. I learned about flood control. I learned about fences. In my criminal work, I’ve learned about all kinds of neurotoxins, about cell phone records.
Now I’m learning about sealants. A couple of weeks ago, Matthew and I were talking about interior paint, and he started out the conversation with saying we should use Benjamin Moore paint if that was okay with me – they make such great paint. I shared that opinion even going in; I’ve done enough panting to know the quality of the paint can make a huge difference both to the process and to the outcome. I did a little clicking around on their site and realized that they make a line that’s supposed to be environmentally friendly – meaning, primarily, that it has low VOCs. I read a little about that paint and decided it would be a good pick. There had been some concerns a few years ago about a bad batch or two that people complained about, but for the most part, it was well received. That was great – the product we wanted anyway, but made in an eco-friendly version.
Shortly after that conversation, Matthew suggested I should start looking into finding a low- or no-VOC version of other products we were going to need: sealants for woodwork and for the concrete floors. These things, he explained, are often polyurethane. In other words, basically pure VOCs. Surely there were alternatives, but looking for them felt a little bit like planning a menu for a Texas barbecue – for vegans. It’s not that it can’t be done, and indeed, in both cases there are products on the market for just this sort of thing. It’s just that at a glance it seems like a strange thing to ask for.
So began the research.
I discovered fairly quickly (and then wondered why I had not known of before) Greenseal.org, a nonprofit that’s been around since 1989 that does independent testing of products (and other things) and offers a science-backed certification. Perhaps in another post I’ll look at them in more detail, but for now, I found them useful to identify a few products that would meet our needs.
But before I realized what GreenSeal was, all I saw was a product that said it was certified GS-11. Any other current or former federal government employees out there who can share in my brief confusion? My brain immediately processed GS-11 as a payscale on the General Schedule, i.e, a designation of how much money a particular federal employee is making. Of course I knew that couldn’t be right, and I tracked down the proper meaning for this context, which then led me to all kinds of information about sealants and their attributes. But there’s always that brief moment of utter confusion, before your thinking brain catches up with what you’ve automatically processed.
But it did catch up, and off I went down the research rabbit hole, learning about the EPA’s VOC standards, the performance standards for how protective various products really are, all the different things they can be made out of—in short, things not interesting enough to write about in any detail.
Amy KniMuch of this information could be found a document I found the products’ websites called a TDS – which is neither the Texas Defender Service nor The Daily Show, my first two points of reference for those letters, but a Technical Data Sheet.
Believe it or not, there’s plenty more to say about sealants, and especially about how this topic has led me to learn more about the relationship between what’s “green” and what’s healthy for humans in our environments. But I’m going to file that away as its own topic for one of those weeks where absolutely nothing happened. Which might be wishful thinking…
Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at email@example.com or leave a comment here.