Home & Garden

Options for green building materials growing in Tucson

Natasha Winnik stocks water-based wood stains at Originate. (Deborah Mayaan)

I used some green blue paint on my walls last week, and ordered some green green paint and green purple paint. These are not artsy descriptions of green tints, but rather a palette of environmentally friendly paints I got from Originate Natural Building Materials Showroom here in Tucson. Originate was able to match shades I needed, so I had the convenience of buying locally, while still getting the most natural materials. Before Originate opened in October of 2003, Tucsonans who desired nontoxic and natural building supplies had to order by mail and the internet.

In doing recent renovations on the house I bought recently, I was also able to get a low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) grout sealer, a healthier drywall mud that also worked for some spackling and minor stucco repair indoors. Originate also supplied a water-based wood stain and floor wax to apply over it. I appreciated the convenience of seeing the actual colors of the stains rather than squinting at color swatches online, and being able to buy several small jars and play with them to find the right shade before ordering a larger container.

While I did some of the renovations myself, I hired people to do most of the work. Natasha Winnik, owner of Originate, notes that it is important to be proactive and not assume that a painter, contractor, interior designer or architect will know about materials such as low-VOC caulks and adhesives. The owner who wants the healthiest materials needs to seek them out and tell tradespeople what they want; otherwise, home improvement contractors will just use what they are familiar with. Originate can also provide referrals to contractors familiar with natural materials.

The advice I would add is to double-check with each person involved to be clear on the sequence of materials for each aspect of a project. Because of a communications mixup, the wrong material was applied to one of my floors, resulting in stickiness that took longer to cure.

Winnik notes that the prices of many natural materials have come down a great deal over the last five years due to increased demand and improved production methods. Natural paints in particular may sell at prices that are the same or lower than conventional paints.

When prices are higher, she encourages buyers to think about all that is involved in the production. Countertops made from recycled glass and concrete are more expensive than granite because they are made in the United States in healthy working conditions by workers who are paid a living wage and receive medical insurance. A majority of the materials at Originate are made in the United States.

Here in Tucson, the Fairfax Companies employs workers to take construction debris dropped off at its landfills to produce sustainable products. When I visited, they were out of stock on the crushed concrete I wanted to use instead of gravel for my driveway, but another supplier, Big Truck, had some and delivered it in, yes, a very big truck. While most of the material is light gray, there are some interesting color variations from the variety of concrete sources. A few bits of tile, plastic and wire also came with it, but the additional labor cost of removing the small volume of debris was made up for by the cost of the material compared to gravel.

Rather than using crushed concrete to make all the paths on my property, I got a sample of coarse wood chips from Fairfax’s landfill site (they are also available at selected retail locations). There is a nice springy feel to the path section I laid out. I decided to go with wood chips for now because I am in an interim point in my renovation plan. I need some sort of pathways in place before the monsoon turns my yard to mud, but I’m not yet clear on how I’m going to contour the earth and direct rainwater. I am following the advice local rainwater harvesting expert Brad Lancaster, who says, “Begin with long and thoughtful observation.” (See Lancaster’s “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume I: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape.”) If I decide to later dig up an area and contour it, the wood chips will be much easier to move (or simply let decay in place) than gravel, which can become mixed with the soil permanently. The Fairfax Companies’ chips come from green matter that arrived at the landfill. Another supplier, Romeo Tree Service, creates mulch and firewood directly from mesquite and palm tree trimmings.

As well as buying recycled materials, I also looked for salvaged materials at Originate, the HabiStore, and Gersons Used Building Materials. While some basics were abundant, such as light fixtures and outlet covers, I discovered that wall-mounted medicine cabinets were snatched up quickly. I was fortunate enough to arrive at Gersons shortly after one arrived and took it, even though the mirror had some chipped edges. After painting the body of the cabinet white to match the trim in the bathroom, I took some of the room’s lavender wall paint and created a floral design along the edges of the mirror to cover the wear.

Reusing materials scattered about my property has also been a time and money saver. When I first saw that the landing between the two outbuildings only had a small patch of finished surface of 4 x 8” red brick pavers, I checked on the price of pavers and had a bit of sticker shock. They were over twice as much per square foot as plain 12” x 12” concrete pavers. Pieces of stone to fill in and extend a stretch of grey flagstone walkway were even pricier. But searching the property turned into a scavenger hunt. The previous owners had salvaged pieces of concrete and stacked them to make retaining walls. While they varied too much in depth to readily make a solid surface between the outbuildings, several were of just the right size to fill in the gaps in the grey flagstone walkway. And there were enough red brick pavers scattered about to shrink the price of the pavers I’ll need to buy to a mere $15.

While quick calls showed that salvage yards didn’t have these pavers in stock, at least I can combine buying these with a list of other items I need from the hardware store — planning well and saving on work time and transportation costs are also part of sustainable building.


Big Truck: Crushed concrete as a gravel substitute – 304-0606

The Fairfax Companies: See website for locations to buy directly at a landfill site or from retailers that carry its products www.thefairfaxcompanies.com/recycled-products.cfm

Gersons Used Building Materials: 1811 S. Park Ave. at E. 29th St. 624-8585. www.gersons.net

HabiStore: New location, 935 W. Grant Road. 889-7200. www.habitattucson.org/habistore/

Originate Natural Building Materials Showroom: 526 N. 9th Ave. 792-4207. www.originatenbm.com

Romeo Tree Service (Tucson Urban Firewood / Mulch): 603-0143. romeotreeservice.com  Bags are available at Whole Foods Natural Markets.

Deborah Mayaan is an energy work and flower essence practitioner and writer based in Tucson. www.deborahmayaan.com