Many years ago, at a green-building lecture that focused on indoor air quality, I gleaned a factoid that has stuck with me ever since: One of the most common ways that contaminants enter homes is by hitchhiking in on the bottoms of our shoes!
At first I found this startling, even laughable—as do many people to whom I relay this information. But then the light began to dawn—when we’re out walking around in shod feet, we inevitably walk on streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and lawns. And on those surfaces are inevitably deposited substances that, if you spend more than a few seconds thinking about them, will make you scrunch up your nose in disgust:
- Brake fluid
- Motor oil
- Dog doo
Not too long after that revelation, when my son was about five months old, an Estonian nanny came to work in our home. She never wore shoes in the house, explaining in the most diplomatic way possible that, where she came from, it simply wasn’t done—for precisely the reasons enumerated above.
Now, it was one thing for me to blithely tromp around my house with my shoes on, being sure to wash my hands if they came in contact with the floor. It was quite another to contemplate the fact that my infant child spent a fair amount of his time if not on the floor, then in very close proximity to it—needless to say, his hands were often on the floor, and he would pick up anything from the floor at any time. Hand-washing, even now at age 9, still isn’t very high on his list of favorite things to do.
And so I became a shoes-free convert. Everyone in the household got a pair of fleece scuffs to wear around the house, the hall closet became home to a shoe rack, and we learned to put up with a resident covey of shoes in the entry hall.
When we did an energy retrofit to the house about three years ago (see case study), we removed a big, leaky greenhouse window from the south wall of our front entry hall. This meant there wasn’t going to be much of a wall left, so, since one of my mottoes is “Think of demolition as opportunity,” I designed a shoe bench and storage area for the space.
I’m a big fan of built-in storage anyway, but even so, this is one of my hands-down favorite features of the house. I absolutely love it. It gets used every single day, occupies very little floor space, and provides space for so many things, I can’t even list them all—but here are a few:
- Shoes and slippers (of course)
- Putting shoes on and taking them off (naturally)
- Grocery sacks—full ones inbound, empty ones outbound
- Bike helmets
- Outgoing mail
- Library books
- Purse, keys, etc., when I come in and hang up my coat
Our shoes-free policy is a fairly liberal one. Those of us who are here the most usually leave our shoes at the door and pad around in slippers or socks. Some of our visitors do, too. But we don’t insist on it, because some people are really loath to remove their shoes, even though we do have toasty radiant floors. My philosophy is that perfection in anything is pretty difficult to achieve, so if we eliminate 90% of the tracked-in crud, that’s pretty darned good.
Of course, you don’t have to remodel your house to go shoes-free —if you have enough space, you can give this a try just by adding a chair or stool to your entryway and making room nearby for a few pairs of shoes and slippers. You may find that it’s quite easy to adopt this particular habit and leave the dirt at the door.