Erin Petersen

Sustainable living and design with Josh Foss

By - Feb 8th, 2011 04:00 am
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Courtesy CarbonNYC via Flickr

Whether you’re a home owner or renter, we can all agree that improving the quality of our living space adds to a general sense of well-being. Tackling at-home craft projects and small remodels without the aid of an expensive contractor not only saves money, but also boosts confidence and creates a sense of value and identity within your home. Re-upholstering an old chair, or refurbishing that splintered dining room table by yourself offers a level of satisfaction you just won’t get when you passively buy an item off the showroom floor.

The Dwelling Renovations Lower Level 2010 Wisconsin Remodeler of the Year Gold Award winning project, featuring bamboo ceiling panels and natural Cedar accent walls. Photo courtesy of NARI.

It’s the same sense of satisfaction you get when you prepare a delicious meal at home, or when you reap nature’s bounty from a backyard garden. These sorts of projects will be the focus of this weekend’s NARI Home Improvement Show, offering live, interactive demonstrations from local and national experts on food, gardening and eco-interiors.

Handymen and women, at-home gourmands and green thumbs: this is an event for you.

In Milwaukee, the concept of DIY is alive and thriving, manifested in the rise of craft culture and the proliferation of urban gardens and time exchange collectives. The common thread that runs throughout these ventures is a commitment to sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices — the general sentiment being that we all want to live better, healthier lives while being mindful of our impact on the planet’s dwindling resources.

For home and lifestyle remodeling with a decidedly green bent, NARI brings Josh Foss, an interior designer and builder renown for his dedication to sustainable living, to Milwaukee.

I chatted with the Minnesota native about his “hippie” upbringing, and his artistic approach to environmental stewardship.

How long have you been working as a designer, and what inspired you to focus on green practices?

I’ve had my own design business for 7 years now, working as a design consultant with businesses and home owners doing interior renovations to help them utilize more sustainable materials and processes.Up to this point, I’ve been working primarily in interiors, but in the last year or so have been getting involved in the strategy [of exteriors], but the process for exterior building is much more complex.

My forte is more in the aesthetic; I love working with salvaged materials and old furniture pieces, bringing those dynamic elements into spaces that have a personality. You can buy a living room set from the showroom, and then you have a room that looks exactly like the neighbor’s — there’s no identity. I like helping people find ways to get hands on and crafty with their homes, then each piece carries a sense of real value because you did it yourself.

Professionally, the focus on green practices has always been there. I had fine arts degree and realized that I wanted to do something creative but that also had strong leaning towards environmental stewardship. I was raised with those sorts of ideals…my parents weren’t “psychedelic” hippies, but more the type of hippies that were always trying to live more efficiently. So we always had a garden and solar panels on the roof — and this was in an urban area in the early 80s.

Sometimes it’s difficult to define the “green” lifestyle. What does “eco building” mean for the layperson?

Green building means innovation, thinking about how we use and conserve energy to have healthy homes and then asking ‘how can we do it better’? In essence, that’s what green building is — the evoltuion of building, how homes are constructed, and finding ways that we can operate more efficiently. The approaches are abundant. Green building is picking up a lot of speed, especially over the past 5 years. Even throughout the down economy, green building is doing quite well.

“Green” products sometimes come with a higher initial cost. In times when people are pinching pennies, what are the benefits?

Josh Foss, photo courtesy

Long-term planning saves money down the road and reduces reliance on volatile energy prices. For instance, the easiest thing people can do to conserve energy is to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs — you save 15 percent on energy bills and have better light quality. The bulbs are $20, though, so when you’re used to paying one or two dollars for a bulb, you might think it’s a waste. But the fact is they will last 100,000 hours and will pay for itself within 3 months of energy savings.

Newer and more efficient technology and innovations are coming along, too. In terms of home safety, products like non-toxic paints natural cleaning products make a huge difference for improving air quality, and do away with a lot of nasty chemicals that probably aren’t the best for your health.

Tell me about some of the demonstrations you’ll host at the NARI show this weekend.

I’m focusing on design trends for 2011, specifically where we are in the movement and where we are heading. There have been some amazing innovations from the past 5 years, particularly this building standard called the “Living Building Challenge” which, in a nutshell, sets environmental building standards so that the structure creates as much energy as it uses, and incorporates elements like non-toxic materials and urban agriculture.

There are already a handful of buildings that have passed certification, proving that it’s officially possible that buildings can be constructed so that they won’t have any negative impact on the existing nature. There’s a similar project in Milwaukee called Milwaukee Fix, which is trying to work on green construction to create more progressive sustainable businesses, and I’ll be talking about that as well.

What’s your best advice for people who want to start making steps towards a greener lifestyle?

Don’t overwhelm yourself with a sense of “I need to do all of this” — the best approach is to just recognize that it takes baby steps. Any opportunity that presents itself that allows you to be more conscious of your impact is really helpful. Even if you change 2 percent of your actions every year, in 10 years time you’ll affect massive change. That’s when it gets really exciting. If everyone is doing their part and recognizing the value of those actions, that’s when real change happens.

The NARI Home Improvement Show runs Feb. 10-13 at the Wisconsin Expo Center at State Fair Park (640 S. 84th St.). Featured guest include Chef Bonnie Muirhead from Season 3 of Hell’s Kitchen, Shari Hiller & Matt Fox of Around the House with Matt and Shari on PBS, and Chef Darren McGrady, former private chef for Princess Diana, plus live demonstrations from local contractors. For more information, click here.

0 thoughts on “5Q: Sustainable living and design with Josh Foss”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the shout out Josh. Looking forward to welcoming you to Milwaukee. Cheers – Juli (

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