Greener than ever: EnviroHouse celebrates 10th year

Volkmer watches eco-project grow up from the beginning

By David Guest

Tacoma Daily Index editor

Janda Volkmer is the caretaker of a unique Tacoma house. She entertains adults and children of all ages at her place at the garbage transfer station, but she bears no resemblance to J.P. Patches, the famous Seattle TV clown who called the “city dump” home in the 60s and 70s. Her place is real.

Janda Volkmer, EnviroHouse coordinator, demonstrates how the a rain collection barrel is set up. Credit: David Guest / TDI
Janda Volkmer, EnviroHouse coordinator, demonstrates how the a rain collection barrel is set up. Credit: David Guest / TDI

Volkmer doesn’t dust very often, but not because she’s lazy – she’s trying to prove a point. And don’t expect to find her doing the laundry if you show up for a  visit. As she points out, “the washer and dryer aren’t even hooked up.”

For the past 10 years, Volkmer has been the coordinator at the City of Tacoma’s EnviroHouse, a project that was started in 2006 by the city’s five utilities in an effort to encourage and educate the public about conservation and ecological best practices.

The house is a Timberline modular home originally built in 1990 for use as a Pierce County exhibit at the Puyallup Fair. The house was acquired from the county and moved to its current location at the Tacoma Recovery and Transfer Center. It’s here that it serves as an educational center where green construction materials and methods and an extensive eco-friendly garden and landscaping are on display. Through the years, Volkmer has called the house a home, but she doesn’t live there, even though at times it may seem that way.

“I love this job,” Volkmer said without hesitation. “I’ve always been involved with the environment since I was little. And my mom was a big tree-hugger. It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had.”

The EnviroHouse is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, and hosts a variety of workshops that educate participants on subjects such as how to set up a rain collection barrel, or to start a worm bin for composting, or how to raise chickens.

Energy-conserving showerheads are on display. Cutaway drywall reveals a selection of the latest energy-efficient, recycled-content, low-to-no VOC emitting insulation options (volatile organic compounds). Rock-hard paper-resin composite countertops made by Tacoma’s Richlite Company deck out some of the counters, giving visitors a chance to rap their knuckles run their fingers over the kind of sustainable, local products that Volkmer loves to talk about.

She spends a great deal of time researching products before displaying them at the house. Volkmer’s applies a straightforward criteria before a product gets her recommendation – clean, green and the closer to home, the better.

“We look at sourcing, we look at what the contents are, we look at whether it has stuff like formaldehyde so it’s not off-gasing and making you sick,” Volkmer explained. “We try to get things from as close as we can – all things being equal – because the pollutants (generated) in getting them here.”

Volkmer knows the advantages and disadvantages to just about every building material and can rattle them off like she’s playing a game of word association.

Q: What’s wrong with granite or marble countertops? Rock is eco-friendly.

A: “Stone you have to mine. And ship here.”

Q: Why use these new composite building panels instead of locally milled tried-and-true plywood?

A: “They (the composite fiberboard manufacturers) are using recycled content. Low VOC emissions. And it’s light. Easy to put up.”

If you want to get Volkmer fired up, ask her about worm bins.

“I spent over a year putting together a spread sheet and investigating every worm bin manufacturer I could find,” she said. “Spreadsheet  – Manufactured in China (check). Manufactured in Australia (check). Contents recycled? Yes/no (check). How much? Shipping?” Check, check, check, check, check.

“I got a deal where I can offer people worm bins,” Volkmer said. “They can order it directly from Bellingham and can get a discount. I can say that that product in Bellingham is the best product out there, that meets our criteria the most.”

For those that attend the workshops offered at EnviroHouse, Volkmer has become an old friend. She relishes the teaching opportunity to show someone something new, and learn more herself in the process.

“I have somebody who signs up for a workshop because they want to do chickens,” she said, referring to backyard egg farmers. “But they’ve never heard of anything else (other workshops at EnviroHouse). And then they see the workshop list . . . I have people that have come back 10, 12 times. I’m on a first name basis with them.”

“They’re learning. Every time they come in here, they’re learning something that they take home and put into their daily life – and improve their life, improve their environment and improve their neighborhood,” Volkmer said with a resolute pride – the house mom at times still instinctively defends her mission although it’s clearly past the time when she perhaps ever needed to.

Volkmer says she will get around to dusting the shelves, but the slight dusty layer that has accumulated over the weeks is a useful teaching tool. The EnviroHouse is equipped with a high-efficiency ductless heat pump which seems to have several advantages over older forced-air systems. A noticeable lack of dust wafting through the air and onto the house surfaces.

“I normally don’t dust these (shelves),” she said. “Because I want people to be able to see (the benefits of the ductless heat pump).” Always teaching. Always looking for another lesson to share.

You, Janda, should just move in. This place suits you.

“I’ve offered to do that,” she said. “I’ve told them that I’d be the night watchman.”

Upcoming EnviroHouse free workshops

Sept. 10, 2016 – Yard waste and worm bin composting, 10:30 a.m.

Sept. 17, 2016 – Gardens: winter plants, cover crops, mulch and more, 10:30 a.m.

Sept. 24, 2016 – Natural daylighting; Solatube DIY demo, 10:30 a.m.

Oct. 1, 2016 – What’s new in windows; when to consider replacement, 10:30 a.m.

Oct. 8, 2016 – Care and pruning of landscape trees, 10:30 a.m.

Oct. 15, 2016 – Ductless heating/cooling: does It make sense for you? 10:30 a.m.

Oct. 23, 2016 – Rain barrels: how to make and maintain, 1:30 p.m.

Oct. 29, 2016 – Rain gardens and trees for landscape function and beauty, 10:30 a.m.

Nov. 5, 2016 – Fruit trees and mason bees: plan now for February, 10:30 a.m.

Registration required

(253) 573-2426

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