Officially, Earth Day is celebrated annually on April 22 and while it's great to see communities come together to help the home we all have in common, there are plenty who do that everyday, internationally recognized holiday or not.
Milwaukee's Urban Base is one of them. The husband and wife team of William and Sara Smith launched the company in late 2008 as a resource for Milwaukee-area homeowners looking to make eco-conscious upgrades to their properties.
Equally armed with backgrounds in construction, finance and design, the Smiths recognized a sizable gap in the local market for sustainable home improvement services. Sara says their shared passion for reclaimed materials stems from years spent in commercial construction.
"We saw colossal amounts of waste. You go into a mall, gut it and throw it all in a dumpster. Construction is such a huge opportunity to do something good for the planet," she says.
The Smiths are LEED Accredited Professionals and among Urban Base's long list of green handyman services are eco-friendly air sealing and insulation, green cleaning using HEPA air filters and vacuum cleaners, window and door striping, as well as carpentry, drywall, tile, electrical work and plumbing.
And, perhaps surprisingly, going green doesn't necessarily mean spending a lot of green. Overall, Bill says, green construction is about making choices that are going to lead to energy savings, water savings and improved air quality in the home.
"When you upgrade your appliances or your insulation, you're bringing down your cost of energy and water consumption. On the front end, building green homes can sometimes be more expensive, but over the course of home ownership, most improvements pay for themselves and then some."
And much of the time, homeowners aren't aware of all their options. In a recent remodel project in Whitefish Bay, the Smiths turned the owner onto using wood from sustainable forests rather than from Home Depot for her floors.
"The price of the Forest Stewardship Council wood is exactly the same price as the non-sustainable wood, so it's just about knowing what's out there," explains Sara.
The Smiths feel that educating the public of these types of options is a huge part of their business goal.
"People can get scared of green concepts. They think they have to have a bamboo floor or their house has to look super modern, but really, in every design aesthetic there are green products."
Urban Base offers a wealth of knowledge on the topic and if you can't incorporate all its suggestions, try just a couple:
- If you're building a new house, orient south-facing light to maximize heat and light.
- When you're putting in appliances, look for the Energy Star certification logo.
- Use radiant heat flooring rather than furnace heat.
- Use No-VOC paint, as chemical paints can let off gas for years.
Bill says, in general, Milwaukee hasn't latched on as tightly to the green movement as, say, cities on either coast have, but that's not to say many locals aren't making eco-friendly upgrades in their homes.
"When you break it down into the cost savings they'll realize over the years based on their investment, they're more receptive. People in Milwaukee are really looking for the practicality of the improvements."
Sara agrees it can be a financial issue.
"I watched a program yesterday that said if you outfit your home in all Energy Star appliances, you save 30 percent. That's huge. So, if people put a little thought into designing the house in the beginning, it'll produce a great return on their investment in the long run. That makes sense to people."
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”