I have always loved the ideals of accessible and sustainable interior design. But in reality, I usually found the former as ugly as sensible shoes and the latter as odd as Earthshoes. I’m not a fashionista, but I do believe that good design should be able to sustain the health of planet and people, while also providing a daily dose of beauty.
In this post, I share two tales that prove me right. Not coincidentally, each story is also about a person who built a home that was a tour-de-force demonstrating how to put his or her principles into practice. I hope that you will find them as inspirational as I do.
David Gottfried & the Nation’s Greenest Home
The nation’s greenest home is where David Gottfried, the founder of the US Green Building Council, and his family live. The family remodeled a 1444-square-foot Craftsman bungalow that was originally built in 1915. Having had hands-on experience in remodeling 1906 and 1930 houses and also building from scratch, I can testify that modernizing an old house holds quite a different set of challenges.
Done well, a remodeling project should be an exercise in recycling and re-use writ large. Because remodeling usually occurs where people are already living and identifying problems, remodeling challenges us to think deeply about the patterns of daily life. How can these walls and windows, colors, shapes and patterns of movement enhance the relationships that people have with one another and with their immediate environment? Those are fun questions to ask and answer.
In answering some of those questions, the Gottfried house has won the distinction of a LEED Platinum rating, the highest green certification anyone can get.
LEED®, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification system for sustainable buildings. It’s used more often for commercial than residential buildings, and it’s used more often for new construction than remodeling. (There’s a historic Green Building in Kentucky that is currently working toward certification.) Buildings receive points for satisfying various categories of green-building criteria. Projects are then ranked as silver, gold or platinum. Gottfried’s house scored 106.5 points out of a possible total of 136. That’s way over the 80 points required to qualify for a platinum rating, and it’s the highest score of any house in the US.
One of the things I find most refreshing about this house is its size. It’s modest, about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. For reasons that were initially financial, I have lived in small houses for years, working toward turning them into well-thought-out jewel boxes, where everything has place, where everything fits perfectly, where every detail is useful and where nothing was just for show. As I learned more about architectural history, necessity has become interwoven with know-how and living small is now a deliberate choice.
My own tastes – which I don’t necessarily press onto clients – lean toward the clean-lined and unfussy. I find inspiration in Shaker design, which dates back more than a century, and I’m an unabashed fan of Susan Susanka’s Not-So-Big-House books. I like the looks of modern design, and love to work in a modern office and visit galleries done in the sleek international style, but I don’t really want to live amongst their steel, glass and industrial fittings. It feels too cold. And that eye-popping post-modern Memphis-style design just sets my teeth on edge.
I can imagine living comfortably and happily in the Gottfried house. The modest scale of the house cuts against the tide of fashion, and I like that too. I find the twenty-year American trend towards McMansions environmentally and ethically unsettling. The environmental publication Jetson Green expressed my sentiments very well when they wrote the following:
Among (some of!) the notable green features of David Gottfried’s house are these:
- It’s a walkable site, close to shops, parks, BART rapid transit and schools
- It reuses a 93-year-old existing home
- It saves energy because it has cellulose wall insulation, closed-cell foam in the attic rafters and batt insulation in the crawl space
- It has energy-saving new Marvin low-E double pane windows
- The cabinets are locally built “green” cabinets (by Silverwalker)
- The new kitchen features Bosch appliances and washer/dryer – all are quiet, Energy Star rated and use less water
- It achieves water-savings through dual-flush toilets by Caroma (1.28 and 0.8 gallons per flush) and efficient shower heads and faucet aerators by Bricor and Kohler
- It uses sustainably-harvested wood for construction framing, plywood, and replacement floors
- It features tile and countertops with a high recycled content (Oceanside and Syndecrete tile and Syndecrete counters)
- It heats its own water with solar hot water panels (HSC) and produces energy with solar photovoltaics (Envison Solar/Suntech) – 16 panels = 2.72 kW
- It has a solar hot water heater (Phoenix System by HSC)
- Used “greywater” and rainwater are recycled in the garden and toilet
- Greywater is used in a drip irrigation system in the garden, where vegetables are grown among drought-tolerant plants
- Reclaimed wood was used for entry stairs, framing and deck; old doors and hardware were also reused
And to think I got a thrill just from recycling a set of slats from a futon that was left on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s house; I nailed the slats together to make a trellis for an overgrown passion plant. Mr. Gottfried should be feeling ready to walk on (grey) water about now.
Universal Design & Aging in Place
If you have been reading my posts for awhile, you know that I moved in 2007 so that I would be able to age in place. This was proactive. I do not want to find that I need to move an assisted living facility when I am too frail or discombobulated to be able accomplish the move, as with some elders I have observed.
This makes me a bit of an “early adopter” in the aging in place movement. Aging in place is predicated on the notion that a home’s features should be planned well in advance so that they can accommodate the likely losses of mobility, vision, hearing and dexterity that usually come with aging. Accordingly, aging in place homes draw on advances in both “universal design” and “accessible design.”
Universal design is rooted in the work of Ronald Lawrence Mace, an architect who had polio as a child. In the 1970’s, Mace, who had pioneered barrier-free design in his work, helped to develop the country’s first accessible building code.
What is Accessible Design?
Accessible design is specifically about enabling people to live full and vibrant lives despite having to contend with disabilities: lack of mobility, hearing, vision, weak hearts and other frailties. Accessible design became the law of the land with the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An appendix known as ADAAG, ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, codifies clearances for wheelchairs, braille signs for the blind and TTYs and flashing alarms for the deaf. (Sadly, it doesn’t yet provide help with the poor acoustics that hamper hearing impaired people like me.)
Sexy Design & the Senior Citizen
The diva of the aging-in-place movement is an interior designer named Cynthia Leibrock. Her compassion awakened by the plight of a brother who has had to be repeatedly hospitalized, she has devoted her career to mainstreaming accessible design. Leibrock has built an “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado. Here’s how the New York Times described Leibrock:
If there were a glitzy, razzle-dazzle competition for cheerleading captain of the Aging in Place movement — and given the boomer resistance to anything to do with aging, there certainly should be — Cynthia Leibrock, designer, consultant and Harvard instructor, would be a contender, strutting down the barrier-free, skid-free runway of a well-lighted arena; tossing an easy-grip baton in the air; blinding the judges with a smile and that fascinatingly taut face.
The Green Mountain ranch house contains more than 180 ideas that demonstrate the complementary aspects of green and universal design. Over a period of years, Leibrock has proactively used design to prevent injuries and encourage a lifestyle that leads to health and longevity. People in wheelchairs can easily visit the house. It has shelves and counters that adapt to both tall and short people, and its design helps people with low vision and poor hearing. All these special features are “visually integrated” so that a person who uses them doesn’t feel stigmatized by doing something different that advertises their age or disability.
An energetic 60 year old, Leibrock consults and designs, having done prominent projects for the Betty Ford Center and the UCLA Medical Center. She created a universal design exhibit for the Smithsonian, a universal design showroom for the Kohler Company and has a “living laboratory” in Fort Collins where she is researching the environmental needs of older people.
Using four passive solar greenhouses, Leibrock’s home cost-effectively provides the warmer temperatures that older people need. The house is well insulated, with all its doors and windows sealed and tested to prevent heat loss.
In the kitchen, cabinets are mounted at 42″ above the floor for ease of use by tall people. Leibrock has anticipated retrofits however; with a minor remodel, they can be lowered to 32″ for shorter people or wheelchair users. (Sounds good to me, I keep a mechanical grabber in my kitchen so that I can reach the shelves up near my 10-foot ceilings. I am 5’1″ tall, and I often find my feet danging above the floor in airport chairs. I sometimes solicit tall strangers to help me collect top-shelf items in the grocery store.)
Below Leibrock’s cabinets, in the kick space, there’s a 10″ removable drawer that can be used to lower the cabinets for wheelchair users. As shown in the top photo at right, the inside of the cabinets are white. That provides contrast that makes it easier to see a shelf’s contents, even if your vision is fading. It also reduces the need for lighting.
The kitchen also features Hafele shelves that can be pulled up or down, as shown in photos two and three at left. Leibrock has installed pulls and handles that are easy to grasp and require little strength to operate. There are Hafele lazy susans and an ironing board in a drawer for easy access. Leibrock, who is also an accomplished cook with a published cookbook to credit, has even included what she calls “appliance garages” on the counters so that she doesn’t have to lift food processors or other hefty devices.
While I can’t begin to draw on the wealth of expertise (or the consulting fees!) that these two pioneers command, I have infused my own home, and those of my clients with their green and aging-in-place principles. I thank Cynthia and David (neither of whom I have met) for their design leadership and humanity. I’m not only inspired by their work, but I also feel a personal connection to the places where these homes are located. The country’s greenest home is located about 10 miles away from me here in San Francisco, in the Rockridge area of Oakland. The “aging beautifully” home is located in Colorado, where I grew up.
Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website
(Excerpt – listen to the whole song)
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
They got little baby legs
They stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time
Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die.
(It’s a wonderful world.)