|Nurseries for Nature
Sustainable interior designer and expectant mother Sarah Latham entices local moms to share their secrets for creative and healthy children’s rooms.
photos by Kirsten Shultz
Quite soon after discovering I was pregnant with my first child, I made a second startling discovery: Babies need stuff. A lot of stuff. Not only that, but there’s a daunting multitude of options, and with all the health concerns and product warnings facing a first-time mother, the fear of getting the wrong item is magnified. So I set out to determine which products would be the healthiest for my baby and the environment.
According to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide, the most important step is to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals. Babies’ immune, hormonal and nervous systems are still developing, meaning environmental pollutants affect them more than they do adults. Creating a green nursery is incredibly important to a child’s health since newborns spend an average of 16 to 17 hours a day there.
I wanted to create a nursery where I wouldn’t have to worry about chemicals, toxins or other hazardous materials. I wanted to make my child’s room safe and green.
For answers and advice, I turned to the community of Wood River Valley mothers to glean from their experiences just how best to envelop my child in a healthy and sustainable environment.
Anne Mulick designed the rooms of her daughters, Maeve, 1, and Grace, 7, with the environment in mind. “It gives us peace of mind that we are doing the right thing,” she said.
The key ingredient for any green nursery is the paint. Benjamin Moore Aura paints are a low-VOC, low-odor, acrylic paint that releases no or minimal volatile organic compounds, though they’re more expensive than standard paint (a gallon of regular Benjamin Moore starts at $34, its Aura paint starts at $58). “The paint seemed like a logical choice,” Mulick said. “Why wouldn’t we do that for our girls?”
An area rug made of 100 percent wool in Maeve’s room also contributes to better air quality. Wool and other raw, natural materials don’t require the use of VOCs or other chemicals that are known carcinogens (such as benzene and formaldehyde), substances commonly found in synthetic floor coverings. They also contribute to the use of rapidly renewable, local and environmentally friendly practices in growing.
This is why it is also important to choose natural, and if possible, organic materials for the child’s bed. The Green Home Guide recommends real wood, natural finishes and untreated pure cotton and wool (preferably organic) bedding.
However, the crib is one area where going green can be substantially more expensive. For safety reasons, reusing cribs is not recommended and, as Becky Kinman of Hailey discovered when she researched cribs for her son, Holden, the environmentally responsible route costs more in this instance. Kinman selected a crib from Nurseryworks, which specializes in handcrafted contemporary furnishings made with environmentally friendly materials and manufacturing processes. The crib, which retails for $800, is made with paulownia wood (a fast-growing, richly grained, lightweight, fire- and decay-resistant hardwood species), low-VOC finishes and glues and formaldehyde-free dyes. Kinman also opted for an organic mattress. An alternative option is choosing an organic mattress cover, which helps limit off-gassing from a regular mattress (as does airing it out for as long as possible prior to use). For Kinman, the extra expense of a truly “green” crib was worth the investment. “With such a small space (the nursery is a trapezoid-shaped 9 feet by 11 feet), I wanted to make sure nothing was toxic for Holden or us,” she said.
Kinman offset the expense of the crib by using repurposed items for the rest of the room’s furniture. “They were items we had used in other parts of our house and incorporated into his room instead of purchasing new,” Kinman said. “So it almost felt like a wash.” Reusing existing furnishings cuts the demand for raw, virgin materials and eliminates landfill waste. An added bonus is that the items often have special meaning for the family. Old apple crates, salvaged from Holden’s grandparents’ farmhouse, were transformed into bookshelves, and a dresser from Kinman’s childhood doubled as a changing table. “We tried to make it a fun blend of whimsical art and color, along with some modern touches,” she said.
Mulick also opted to use hand-me-down, recycled and repurposed items to offset the cost of the pricier green items. An old chair passed down from Mulick’s parents was easily adjusted to the nursery courtesy of a new slipcover. “I like the nostalgia of reusing pieces from a different time into a different space,” Mulick said. Artwork from her childhood was framed and reused as decorative pieces in the girls’ rooms.
Lisa and Nate Scales came up with a practical solution for one of the biggest contributors to indoor air pollution in children’s rooms: plastic toys. They made their own.
After searching for a step stool for their two daughters, Ripley, 4, and Daisy, 1, the Hailey couple was disappointed in their choices. “They were expensive, poor quality and not the size we were looking for,” said Lisa. Fortunately, Nate, a carpenter, set about making the perfect one from wood, decorating it with no-VOC paint.
“We had so much fun with that project, so we started looking for the next toy to build and came up with the toy kitchen,” Lisa said. “It was really a great learning experience for Ripley to watch the transformation of the pieces of wood she was sanding turn into her kitchen.”
Using mainly leftover wood and salvaged scraps of pine from their wood pile, the Scales have so far created a step stool, a kitchen set (complete with over-easy eggs, noodles, tomatoes and lettuce made out of felt), a baby carrier, trees, animals, blocks and a repurposed play house.
The handmade approach is not only environmentally friendly (an assembly-line product uses more energy), but it provides the family with a deeper connection to the products they consume. “They mean something to all of us, because we all have contributed to the final product rather than some plastic, store-bought toy that has no significance,” she said.
If making your own is not an option, opt for cloth and wooden toys, available at local shops such as The Toy Store. Where plastic is unavoidable, choose PVC-free (PVC is usually identified by the number 3 in the recycling symbol) and when in doubt, smell it. Toxic softeners give plastics that strong new smell.
Creating an environmentally clean room for a child gives parents the assurance that their children are at least sleeping in a safe environment. The next step, ensuring that the rest of their world is safe, healthy and sustainable, may not be quite so easy.
Ripley and Daisy Scales play in the handmade kitchen they built with their parents.
Sarah's Sustainable Selections when designing a nursery for my first child, I wanted the room to be environmentally friendly, inexpensive and gender-neutral, as well as to have simple, fun shapes and colors.
MATERIALS I focused on finding cotton or organic products as much as possible. Washable was important to make sure I can continually clean the items.
PAINT I selected green and white Benjamin Moore Natura no-VOC wall paint (starting at $58 a gallon). I plan on painting a tree silhouette with two shades of green leaves and a brown trunk. If we have a girl, I’ll add pink accents. It’s important to finish painting at least a month before baby arrives to allow any off-gasses time to dissipate. If time doesn’t permit this, curing the room with a space heater will also do the trick.
FLOORING A striped, green, 100-percent-cotton woven rug, made by New York-based Dash & Albert, will be the centerpiece of the floor over our existing wool carpet. These rugs are lightweight, reversible, washable and affordable ($28-$385). When choosing flooring, the best option is mostly bare, embellished with a rug or two with nonslip pads, as this is easy to clean. But don’t rip up old carpet, just clean it well.
FURNITURE For the crib, I wanted as natural a sleeping environment as possible, so I decided on a crib from Dwell Studio, an environmentally responsible company based in New York City. The Century Crib ($980) is made in Canada out of solid European beech wood and painted with nontoxic paints. I selected an Ikea dresser made from renewable material (wood fibers), which will easily be separated for recycling after its lifetime. My husband, Zach, and his father, Nick, have built a changing table out of repurposed wood from our garage to place on top. For those nighttime feedings, I found a vintage rocking chair at a garage sale. I plan to make a cushion for it from environmentally friendly fabric company Mod Green Pod’s Grand Jubilee Chocolate pattern. The fabric is 100 percent organic cotton and retails at $40 a yard.
BEDDING For the bedding, I also went with Dwell Studio, known for its colorful and whimsical patterns. I opted for its Owl Sky crib set ($360), which is 100 percent cotton and uses low-impact fiber-reactive dyes and eco-friendly pigments. The owl theme is gender-neutral and gives the room a sweet, playful sensibility.
upkeep After all this hard work and research, I’ll be sure to keep the nursery safe by using natural and nontoxic cleaning products and pest controls.
Sarah Latham LEED AP ID +C (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Associate Professional Interior Design & Construction), is the owner of White Canvas Designs. She is expecting her first child in April.
Holden Kinman enjoys racing his cars on the oak floors with his mother, Becky.