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The Green Life: Interview: HGTV Hunk Carter Oosterhouse Talks Green to Us

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September 12, 2013

Interview: HGTV Hunk Carter Oosterhouse Talks Green to Us

Carter OosterhousePhotos of former model Carter Oosterhouse plaster the walls of many a dorm room. His pinup looks notwithstanding, Oosterhouse's real talent lies in knowing how to swing a hammer. A carpenter by trade, he caught attention after appearing on TLC's redecorating show Trading Spaces. HGTV then nabbed him to host Red, Hot & Green and Carter Can, both of which emphasize eco-friendly design. He's a regular on Oprah, showing viewers how to gussy up their homes in the greenest of ways. His nonprofit, Carter's Kids, builds parks and playgrounds in low-income areas. Oosterhouse took some time to answer our questions. 

Q: How did you get into carpentry? 

A: It started out as a summer job in the town I grew up in, Traverse City, Michigan. It was just something to do to make some money. My two older brothers taught me, and a neighbor took me as his apprentice. I would have never guessed that what started as a summer job would take me so far.

Q: What made you an environmentalist?

A: I blame my dad. He was always preaching. Whenever we'd have to wash a car or boat, we had to use biodegradable soap. In Michigan we have such big bodies of freshwater—they're among the richest commodities we have—so that's why my dad was so adamant. We didn't realize that it would, but stuff like that got stuck in our heads.

Q: What’s the greenest thing people can do when remodeling a house?

A: Going to a secondhand store and repurposing something. People toss things out without a second thought, and there are so many great items at secondhand stores. It’s easy and fun and helps keep the cycle of life for inanimate objects going. Think about all the objects filling up our landfills—granite, for example. It takes a little more effort to get from a secondhand store, but we would save a ton on landfill consumption by using it secondhand, as well as a good amount of money.  

Q: What do you tell people who say that eco-remodeling is too expensive?

A: I tell them that, yes, they may pay a bit more up front, but they'll save a bundle down the road. That's true with lighting and solar panels and anything that saves energy. As builders, we have a moral responsibility to at least showcase the products that are out there. With climate change the way it is, it's about being aware of what we're putting in the atmosphere and knowing what we’re using. We don’t have to sacrifice style to have eco-friendly materials. There are so many more now than there were even two years ago—stuff that's really stylish, cool, hip. I get excited when I see these new materials, I want to show them off. It’s important to me to see the change that occurs in people when they decide to go green. 

Q: What’s your favorite place outdoors?

A: Definitely on the bay in Traverse City. And the Great Lakes in general. I grew up on them. As a kid, it was such a great American experience of being on the water, learning to swim, to sail. All of that really helped me grow up and be the person I am today. If I can get on the water, I’m happy. But there have been huge drops in the levels of the Great Lakes, which concerns me. Fresh water is one of our biggest resources; if we were to ever lose that, it would be a real struggle to how we as a society function.

Q: How did you meet your wife, Amy Smart?

A: We literally met in a garden. We’re both on the board of the Environmental Media Association, and through that nonprofit, we'd been planting school gardens in L.A. Amy and I were paired on one of those projects, and that’s how we met. We both believe that change occurs on a local level, especially with students. We know we’re not going to change things overnight, but if school cafeterias can get their lettuce from their own gardens rather than from hundreds of miles away, that’s a start.

Q: Was the wedding green?

A: Super green. We had 220 guests and just one bag of trash. We composted as much as possible.

Q: Do you two plan to have kids?

A: Eventually, yes. Nothing in the works yet, but we’d love to do that someday. Teaching them about being green will be a no-brainer, since both of us were raised in the eco-friendly fabric. But then again, kids nowadays are much better at understanding how to be eco-friendly. They’re on a quicker learning curve than most adults with sustainability. We’re going to be teaching them but they’re also going to be teaching us.

Q: How did Carter’s Kids get started?

A: In 2007, I wanted to build something and work with kids. Playgrounds seemed like the obvious choice. The original goal was to fight childhood obesity by letting kids be kids. One study showed that kids are 400% more likely to be physically active if they have something attractive to play on, so I wanted to give them updated playground equipment. It’s hard to compete with computers and phones, so we’re trying to create playgrounds that are flashy and fun to get kids outside. Playgrounds help with physical and cognitive development, so we’re seeing all these huge, amazing achievements and markers in the kids. We’re seeing their stress levels and obesity rates go down. Now we build at least one playground a month, and they go up all over the United States.

Q: Why build parks in inner-city neighborhoods?

A: When we’re able to go into a minority area, it’s like everybody’s on top of each other in a concrete jungle. They just don’t have up-to-date playground equipment, especially with all the school cuts going on. When you give these kids beautiful playgrounds, even just a shiny new swing set, they literally act like they’re at Disney World. It’s so amazing to see. You’re changing their lives. You realize that these kids don’t have the luxuries that lots of other kids do have.

Q: You’re half Mexican. Are environmental issues are disproportionately affecting Latinos and other minorities?

A: That’s sort of a loaded question. But yes. They are more affected by it, simply by being unable to have the benefits that other people have in the face of needing to prepare for these new crazy weather patterns. In Michigan, it’ll be 75 degrees and sunny one weekend, and it’ll snow the next. And this is in late May. You have to be prepared, and lower-income families don’t have the financing to adequately prepare for the more drastic weather events we’re going to be seeing now that we’ve reached that climate tipping point.  

Q: Do you have a favorite thing that has a connection to the environment?

A: My running shoes. I love to run. I travel quite a bit for work, so it’s nice to get outside and explore new places that way. But also my stand-up paddleboard. It’s such a great workout, and a really fun way to experience our beautiful waters.

Q: I heard you’re starting a winery?

A: Yes! It’s opening in a year. I started it with my brother. We planted vines four years ago and just had our first harvest. We’ll have six varietals next year, a couple of which have done award-winningly well. It’ll be called Bonobo Winery, and we just want people to come and enjoy. Of course, our practices are very sustainable: Instead of fertilizer or pesticides, we use compost, which a lot of wineries do because it’s a much more eco way to grow.  

Q: Final question: What’s the best DIY or free thing people can do to green their home?

A: Composting is huge. A lot of people don’t realize how many food scraps they throw away, sending so much garbage into landfills when it could be going to work improving their soil. That’s a really easy one.

 --interview by Avital Andrews / photo by Larry Busacca

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