time well spent
Transforming a “relatively plain” house into a sustainable showstopper takes time, commitment, and a sense of humor.
This article first appeared in Autumn 2010 Su Casa
In the summer of 2000 my wife, Delcie, and I bought our first house. This was mostly a spatial necessity as our newborn son, Aidan, forced us to recognize our sweet little rented adobe in Albuquerque’s North Valley was just not going to suffice for raising a family. We were excited about the big purchase and the associated highs and lows of making offers and countering against the other bidders, but the most fun was imagining what we could do with the place. I cannot say exactly when we formulated specific plans for alterations—if it was before closing or 13 minutes after setting down the first box in the living room—but I distinctly remember thinking the house had volumes of potential. That potential may have been the single most exciting feature of our undertaking.
We had already spent five years falling in love with the valley while we breathed life into a funky old rental house. Our landlord let us do what we wanted, but he did not care much for issues of energy efficiency, water conservation, or integrated landscapes, which we always pushed. Now with our own place, we figured our efforts could be exclusively for us and respectful of our greater context. Why not spend time improving our environment for our enjoyment and benefit while supporting our sustainable idealism? Why not spend time crafting a home from a relatively plain and unassuming house?
Sustainability has always been a focus in our lives as it is in our blood. We both grew up with parents who designed and built solar homes and landscapes and carried the torch of change. We hope our efforts will make a difference for our children and those who would take stock of our achievements. In my work as an architect with Environmental Dynamics in Albuquerque, I specialize in site-integrated, climate-appropriate, nontoxic design, and every day is another opportunity to bring sustainability from practice into reality. When my partners and I created our company, we founded it with the very ideology of sustainability. I take on every house design, office building, master plan, and lecture with the intent to share what I know, pass on what knowledge I can, and engage dialogue that advances our collective awareness of these critical issues.
The overall vision for our home was simple. We should live and build in a manner that is consistent with our values of sustainable living. Being as sustainable as we could afford, we wanted to learn how it’s done and use our process to educate ourselves and reveal better, more sustainable approaches that can be replicated by others locally. We also had these goals within that vision:
Make the house livable for our family and lifestyle. This mostly addresses function—for example, making the kitchen work for two people who love to cook.
Reduce our environmental impact. We acknowledge our place in the greater ecosystem and strive for an equitable relationship of give and take. This means taking advantage of every opportunity to reduce our energy, water, and resource use as well as our carbon footprint. This goal extends to both our construction activities—like reusing wood studs and salvaged concrete from demolition—and day-to-day operation.
Utilize and craft the natural and built environment for heating, cooling, food, and spiritual nourishment. This is about integration and finding our place in our environment—in short, how do we draw from and contribute to the fabric of this place? One example includes locating a fruit tree to provide shade and food while it receives water and weather protection from the house. The relationship between the two becomes symbiotic, supports greater diversity, and revitalizes agriculture in the community.
Make the improvements consistent with our sustainable expectations. Our expectations include comprehensively reducing the home’s utility energy consumption to net zero. We also wanted to increase land productivity to provide our family’s annual food requirements and generate little to no garbage that has to be taken off-site. We hope to do all of this with only a fraction of the water consumed by conventional residential properties.
We started out almost immediately fixing the floor plan dysfunction around the kitchen and dining room. These two rooms, like the rest of the house, suffered from lack of light, visual confinement, and lost space. Specifically, our kitchen was a train wreck of irrational circulation and a desert for useable space. We had doors in three of the four walls, a freestanding range, and eight feet of countertop mostly occupied by the double-basin sink. A diminutive piece of glass in the exterior door supplied natural light, and the gross upper cabinets seemed to be built for the convenience of someone who is six foot eight. The room offered no storage, no light, and no way more than one person at a time could set foot inside.
The dining room was not much better, suffering mainly from isolation. A weird door to the kitchen right in the middle of the wall and an arched opening to the living room accentuated its narrow dimensions. Any more than four people felt awkward. All the white paint in the world could not make that room feel bigger.
Since these rooms’ functional and practical flows are critical for any sense of family or entertainment, they became phase one. First we dispensed with the concepts of level, plumb, and square, and then we dispensed with all three doors in the kitchen. We cut a new opening directly to the living room as the sole access point to the kitchen. We replaced the door to the dining room with a room-width, pass-through, Saltillo-tiled counter flanked by cabinets trimmed with copper. The door to the exterior evolved into a large morning-sunlight window to the east, and the door to the back end of the house became our refrigerator nook. The kitchen is now a bright, colorful U-shaped working zone with bright-blond bamboo countertops and cabinetry, rich green and red clay plaster, space-maximizing storage, and an ergonomic layout that can accommodate three people (only one of our mother-in-laws at a time) despite its 8-by-12-foot confines.
After the big kitchen/dining project came basic yard improvements, tree plantings, and edible landscaping. We enclosed our front porch to provide gear and coat storage and to create a thermal vestibule. Inside we integrated a space for our home office needs and introduced a lot of natural light. We opened up the layout and visually connected the spaces so despite its small footprint, the house would feel less confining. Somewhere along the way we started messing around with new finishes. In fact, we spent almost a year learning how to do gypsum plasters before we got hooked on American Clay. Then there was the chicken project, of course . . . fresh eggs anyone?
getting there is half the fun
Now in 2010 we have stopped counting the phases of change to the property. Every surface inside and out has been modified to some degree. Our latest, most substantial effort involved completely removing and reconstructing a third of the house after we discovered massive water damage and a termite infestation. We replaced all the existing windows, plumbing, and wiring, then relocated the bathroom. Through it all we have managed to remain in the home. Certainly it has been inconvenient at times, but there is so much enlightenment in inconvenience. You only really appreciate having water run instantly from a faucet after you have been without it awhile. It’s like a desert vision quest without the sunburns.
Sometimes we have felt frustrated by our maddeningly slow pace. We periodically take stock of our accomplishments and revel in the outcome. We spend most of our time researching materials, techniques, and alternatives. Honestly, the hardest part of the process is making decisions among equivalent choices.
When we finish, we will have converted an energy-sucking, fossil-fuel–burning, 1,200-square-foot, 1948 concrete block production house on a generic rectangular site into a net-zero-energy, passive- and active-solar, 1,500-square-foot, architecturally invigorated (but not pretentious), site-integrated oasis: our home.
We just finished putting the nontoxic, rapidly renewable stranded bamboo floor down in a new much-needed bedroom for our daughter, Sonora. We sealed it with a nontoxic, all-natural, one-coat oil—it’s stunning. After we cleaned up the tools, swept up the dust, and sat down with the first mojitos of the season, we started having those dangerous thoughts: “You know, this floor would look good throughout the house . . .”
You would think that after 10 years we would have tapped every shred of potential this little place had. Apparently our home is quite a rich vein of opportunity. Even now, our project responds with promise. Every day we can still taste our initial excitement. Every day there is something new to implement. It looks like we may have to push that completion date back again.
Kent Beierle is an architect and founding partner of Environmental Dynamics, an Albuquerque-based architectural firm that is a recognized leader in sustainable design, consulting, and education. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.