National Trust for Historic Preservation: Preservation Green Lab

Who doesn’t love old buildings? They give us a sense of history, our roots, stability, nostalgia–especially during the holiday season. We should be doing all we can to preserve our historic structures. (Just a note–when I talk about historic buildings on this blog, I’m usually referring to pre-war structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation widely aims to protect “landscapes, buildings, and neighborhoods that have played a meaningful role in our past“)

However, inhabiting historic buildings does have some complications–seismic retrofits may be needed, they may not be accessible, and they can be terribly energy inefficient. According the AIA, in 2011 43% of the energy consumed in the US went just to heating, cooling and powering buildings–a higher percentage than industry or transportation.

Pioneer Square, Seattle's oldest neighborhood, in the snow....can't you almost hear the sleigh bells?

Pioneer Square, Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, in the snow….can’t you almost hear the sleigh bells?

Retrofitting historic structures is complicated–more so when they are occupied–but they add so much value to the urban fabric and experience. It is usually cost prohibitive to create new buildings with the same weight and quality of materials. Because of the debt service on new buildings, the commercial spaces are usually more expensive than existing buildings. There is such a tremendous opportunity in old buildings for new and small businesses in urban neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.

Enter the National Trust for Historic Preservation Preservation Green Lab, based in Seattle. They are working to bring the process of preserving buildings full circle: documenting the value of historic buildings while working to provide policy solutions to ease the process of greening and reusing these structures.

Their publication “Learning from LA” provides strategies for retrofits and reuse. A study from the Preservation Green Lab used to Life Cycle Assessment and “compares the relative environmental impacts of building reuse and renovation to demolition and new construction over the course of a building’s 75-year life span. The study compares scenarios for six building types across a range of climate regions. The results of this analysis show that it takes from ten to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process,” echoing Architect Carl Elefante’s famous phrase, “The greenest building is one that already exists.”

See also: America Saves! Energizing Main Street Small Businesses, “Supported by a $2 million grant award from the U.S. Department of Energy, America Saves! is achieving preservation-based solutions by identifying obstacles that prevent cities from realizing the benefits of saving and improving existing buildings, and by guiding communities toward the benefits of immediate cost savings, carbon savings and local job creation resulting from energy efficiency.”

Project Update: Rocky Coast Retreat Construction

Siding and drywall are going up [with great care from KDL Builders] at the Rocky Coast Retreat.

2013-11-12 Rocky Coast Construction 1       Rocky Coast Modern
Incredible views from the living/dining area.


2013-11-12 Rocky Coast Construction 9
Rain screen application in preparation for HardiePanel


2013-11-12 Rocky Coast Construction 11
The remainder of the house awaiting cedar siding.

See all Rocky Coast Retreat images here.



Adaptable//Sustainable: Breakfast Nook to Office Conversion

Part 2 in the series “Adaptable//Sustainable: DIY Home Adaptation//Remaking Your Space to Work for You.”
Gut check: how often to you really use your formal dining room? Compare this to how much that square footage is costing you each month in your mortgage. And, do you really need two tables and two sets of chairs? Why is it that one of the most beautiful rooms with the nicest furniture is hardly used? We have an open kitchen with a combined living/dining area, and since this is our only dining area, it is on the more formal side. If you have a formal dining area, why not use it every day? Your breakfast room may already be used as the default office. Below are tips on how to use your formal dining room for everyday meals, and convert your existing breakfast nook to the home office.
Formal Dining Room: Keep it special yet functional (these apply especially with young children)
  • Have 5-7 sets of place mats and switch them out each night when you clear the table. Throw them in the wash each week with the sheets or rags or wash them with the dishes, depending on the type. Having the table always set will keep the table from getting cluttered and will keep the room looking special.
  • Or, for everyday meals, use a table cloth.
  • If there’s a rug under the table, make sure it’s durable and easy to clean.
  • Always keep a center piece on the table. If you have a garden, keep a vase stocked with fresh cut flowers. If you are like me and don’t have a green thumb (or a garden), have a few fake options that you switch out. Or, cluster candles on a formal tray.

Now that your dining room is ready for everyday meals, it’s time to convert the breakfast nook to a more functional space. If you have a breakfast bar built into your counter space, you can use this for meals also. Now is the time to invest in some comfy bar stools. If you don’t have a built-in bar, you can buy a free-standing one to replace your kitchen table.

Becky Bar Table
The Becky Bar table from Dania can be used in place of built-in bar area.

The breakfast nook office is a new take on the traditional hearth room off of the kitchen. After school, the kids can gather to do homework while a parent works in the kitchen. The computer can be easily accessed for recipes or for watching TV or movies while cooking. The kitchen is the heart of most homes, and combined with the adjacent nook-turned-office it becomes the control center. This also keeps a bedroom from having to be used as an office.

Does everyone in the family have a laptop? Create a cozy space by grouping a love seat and some comfy chairs around a storage ottoman that double as a table. The laptops go in the ottoman when they are not in use.

A storage ottoman provides storage space for laptops while doubling as a coffee table. Coaster storage ottoman on Amazon

Be sure to protect yourself and your family by using a lap desk for your laptop. Creative Essentials LLC lapdesk on Amazon. 
KIVIK Loveseat IKEA KIVIK is a generous seating series with a soft, deep seat and comfortable support for your back.
A durable love seat for the modern hearth room like the Kivik from Ikea.
Twin-size Bedford Black DayBed
As part of the seating cluster, or as the main soft seating area, place a day bed in front of the window to substitute for a built-in window seat. This can be used while working on a laptop, taking advantage of a nearby book shelf, or for relaxing while chatting with the cook. Bedford Day Bed.

A two-sided desk like the Expedit from Ikea provides multiple homework spaces and storage space.
Chances are your existing breakfast nook doesn’t have a closet, but you need an out of sight place to store those binders, software CD’s and office supplies. This Pax Wardrobe from Ikea is perfect for keeping the clutter hidden. Or, use a desk that can be closed up. Hint: you don’t have to weighed down by of those manuals. Most manuals are available online. 
HEMNES Secretary IKEA Built-in cable management for collecting cables and cords out of sight but close at hand.
Don’t want to look at your office all of the time? Keep the desk hidden also. Hemnes Secretary from Ikea. You can also find nice antique secretaries on Craigslist or at consignment stores.
By converting your breakfast nook into an office, you are saving valuable square footage by getting rid the the redundant double dining space. Also, a bedroom is often not the ideal place for an office, since often an entire bedroom is not needed, and you want to keep an eye on kids computer use. Since all ages are now spending more time on the computer, why not at least spend that time in the same room, and why shouldn’t that room be adjacent to the room where everyone wants to be and always ends up: the kitchen. If  needed, you can use my favorite cheap substitute for square footage: headphones or ear plugs.
Next week: Adaptable//Sustainable: Formal Area Conversion
This post originally appeared in my “Redesign Without the Remodel” series on D+A Studio’s blog in 2010.

Adaptable//Sustainable: DIY Home Adaptation

adaptablesustainable logo copy
I’ll be exploring many concepts under the Adaptable//Sustainable banner, and it’s still forming. Basically, it’s about equipping bottom up, accessible, incremental change towards a more sustainable, resilient future.
Starting with four basic concepts:
  1. Artful Infill
  2. Casual Cohousing
  3. DIY Home Adaptation
  4. Grassroots Retrofit

Each one of these will be unwrapped throughout the series. The concept of DIY Home Adaptation will be explored first. As a designer, I look at most life challenges as design problems to be solved. My hope is that these small, accessible steps can help people better utilize the space they have. By making each square foot count, we can live in smaller spaces, saving money, time and energy spent heating, cooling, cleaning, maintaining and furnishing all that space. We can avoid the need to move into a larger or different house for every life change.

I’ve chosen a pretty lofty title for this series to go with the lofty ideals of sustainability. You might be saying, The title includes sustainability, and she’s going to talk about Ikea furniture? Well, it’s hard for people to respond to lofty ideals. People are busy with their everyday lives and need practical, accessible steps. You may not have time to ponder where trash goes when it leaves your house, but you will be diligent about recycling if your municipality has a user-friendly system in place.

There’s so much we can do to create more vibrant, healthier, enjoyable places to live, which will require both top down and grassroots efforts, and different types of projects at many scales. This series is about empowering people to remake their space for the way they really live.

ADU 101

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) have become more popular and acceptable in the past few years. The City of Seattle began allowing for ADUs in all residential zones (it had previously been only some south Seattle neighborhoods) in 2009. San Juan County allows for a limited number of permits for ADUs each year. The number of ADUs proposed each year has not necessitated use of the lottery system for permits, which was conceived before the recession.

Lopez Island House, garage with attached Accessory Dwelling Unit, Lopez Island, WA
(Original design: D+A Studio) See more of my ADUs.

An ADU can be attached, as in a basement apartment, or detached, as in a backyard cottage, carriage house, or alley flat. The implementation of ADUs can fulfill many goals of sustainable development, including [not so scary] density, affordable housing, and smaller house sizes. As our urban fabric is “re-knit”, neighborhoods can become more dense, creating more demand for services, therefore creating more opportunities for walkable neighborhoods and less dependence on a car.
The concept of ADUs resonates with many things happening in housing currently: attractive central cities with high barriers to entry for home ownership, long commutes, lack of diversity in housing typologies, social isolation. Slowly adding a few ADUs in established neighborhoods can add density without inherently changing the character of that neighborhood.
Truly sustainable development also includes social goals, many of which are also met by integrating ADUs: a way for homeowners to have a separate income stream, a mix of income and ages; the ability to stay in one neighborhood through varying phases of life, therefore creating lasting community: kids can live in a backyard cottage as they start on their career path, elderly parents or relatives can live in smaller spaces that require less upkeep and be close to their children and grandchildren. Extended families can live close together. Friends can create a casual co-op. An ADU can be a “tiny house.”
The term “mixed income” may be worrisome to some, but from a social standpoint, renting out an ADU can more successful than an absentee landlord renting a house, in that owners are close to the rental unit, tenants are close to their landlord, so each keeps an eye on each other. The Kentlands Development in Maryland (designed by New Urbanism pioneers DPZ)  is a neighborhood that has successfully integrated market rate, large suburban housing with backyard rental units. An oft-cited example is of a woman who lived in her ADU and rented out her large house in order to save money and pay off her mortgage.


At D+A Studio, we developed a full catalog of stock plans perfect for ADUs, backyard cottages, guest houses, vacation retreats or just simple living. Since the website for this catalog is no longer online, please contact me for more information.

Next week: A closer look at ADU rules for the City of Seattle.

An update to my original post ADU 101

Adaptable//Sustainable: Remaking Your Space to Work for You

Friday is now “Adaptable//Sustainable” day on the AKH blog. The next few months, I’ll be posting a blog series, Remaking Your Space to Work for You. The problem solving aspects of a custom remodel or addition can also be applied to looking at ways your space can work better for the way you really live. It’s great if you can do a remodel, but let’s face it, most people just have to work with what they have. Even if you’re stuck with a standard one-size-fits-all floor plan, there are some moves that can really improve how you use your space.

Most single family homes are built for the nuclear family, which is now less than 20% of all households. New strategies and housing types are great, but I am interested in solutions for the vast amount of people inhabiting speculative existing housing stock.

The Adaptable//Sustainable concept is green, since you are using an existing building. If you’re itching to move into a larger house, think of the money you are saving each month by staying in your smaller space, especially in a strong housing market like Seattle is currently experiencing. Staying put may serve as a catalyst for decluttering or simplifying your life (for more on the simplicity movement, I highly recommend the blogs/books/ebooks from Rowdy Kittens and Be More with Less). It allows us to stay with the same neighbors, schools, connections.

During the presentation of D+A Studio’s entry in the AIA Seattle 2009 What Makes it Green Awards, the judges were most interested in this graphic, illustrating the built-in flexibility of the San Juan Channel House.

San Juan Channel Adaptable House

The layout of the house and garage apartment allow for future wealth creation and sustainable living arrangements for the family, through rental of different areas of the house, cohousing with another family or allowing adult children a place to live while they find their way financially or take care of aging parents. There are also options for creating a home office, for the owner or for rent to others. So far, the garage apartment in this house has proved its flexibility by acting as a temporary apartment for friends in transition, space for a temporary live-in nanny and a home office.

In tough economic times, or just in looking towards a more sustainable future, we may need to use our space in different ways, whether that be working from home, adding a rental unit, or sharing what was once a single family home. New homes should be designed with this in mind, but more realistically, existing homes can be retrofitted to adjust to our future needs.

Next week: Adaptable//Sustainable: Breakfast Nook to Office Conversion

To Certify or Not to Certify: Is it a Question?

There are enough green certifications out there to make your head spin: LEED, Passive House, Living Building Challenge, Earth Advantage, Built Green, Energy Start, Built Smart….the list goes on. WHAT does it mean when a project is certified? And WHY would you want to certify your project, or purchase a building that is certified?

The national US Green Building Council LEED standard and the local (King & Snohomish Counties) Built Green program use an easy to understand checklist format, covering all aspects of the building from site selection to materials. Meet a certain number of criteria worth a certain number of points, attain a level of certification. Programs like Passive House require that specific energy targets be met, like a maximum air leakage and maximum heating and cooling demand. Energy Star Certification calls for certain efficient HVAC systems, efficient lighting and appliances, and building envelope. The Living Building Challenge is a straight forward performance standard requiring such benchmarks as net-zero water and energy (see my blog post on the nearby Bullitt Center, which was designed using the LBC). Most of these programs require third party verification and energy modeling for higher ratings.

The Built Green Certified San Juan Channel House, which I worked on while at D+A Studio, features geothermal heat, recycled materials, and low-VOC finishes.

The Built Green Certified San Juan Channel House, which I worked on while at D+A Studio, features geothermal heat, recycled materials, and low-VOC finishes. Photo by Jeff Case.


Standards such as LEED have been criticized for capturing low hanging fruit. Yes, of course, we should continually be striving to build more sustainably, but we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some may argue that drastic changes in how we build are needed, and this is true, but the building industry is a large ship to turn, and any improvement is a step in the right direction. Even little adjustments translate into environmental gains when they catch on and become more mainstream (The motto of Built Green is “imagine if everyone did”). How many people had heard of low-VOC paint a decade ago? Now you can buy it in any hardware store.


A graphic for the San Juan Channel House, mapping the source of materials.

A graphic for the San Juan Channel House, mapping the source of materials.


If you are building a home: should you certify? If you are striving to build green, yes. The truth is, you could do it without a certification. But considering how small a fraction of the overall cost a certification will be, it’s worth it to stay on target and enjoy energy savings and improved indoor air quality for the life of your home, in a addition to all of the external environmental savings. Look at it this way: we need guidelines and discipline. What is a more effective way to lose weight, saying “I am going to eat better” or planning your meals, making grocery lists, making a list of banned foods and packing your lunch? If you don’t have guidelines to meet in attempting to build green, chances are other priorities will take over and green intentions will be value engineered away.

If you’re in the market: certification programs usually have maps or list of certified projects. Built Green has a handy map, with some entire neighborhoods certified. You can search for LEED certified buildings by project type. A certain level of certification ensures that the building performance has been tested by a third party, so the hard work is done and you can move in and enjoy the benefits. The work of greening the MLS is underway, so that Realtors can identify homes with green home certifications. Built Green certified single family homes and townhouses held value better than their non-certified counterparts. (For a comprehensive analysis of this prepared by the other Hamilton, see this PDF report).

If you’re happy where you are: most certification programs have guidelines and options for remodels and retrofits. Virtually all older homes could benefit from some sort of energy retrofit.

What is Passive House?

A few weeks ago I attended a class for Passive House through the Seattle AIA. The Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) is a non-profit organization that verifies and approves super efficient buildings (not just houses)-meaning a building that achieves an overall energy savings of 60-70% over conventional building and provides 90% of its heating without mechanical means.

While the PHIUS standards deal mainly with energy use, other certifications, like the Living Building Challenge, deal with “the whole pie” of material use, site location, etc and can be complimentary. The logic behind the concentration on energy use is the carbon footprint of a building: 8% in actual construction, 92% in energy use over its lifetime.

Reduced energy use is achieved by creating a super tight building that uses the sun for heating, through direct and passive solar gain, solar sinks and thermal masses, while providing appropriate shading for warm months.

Sam Hagerman, President of the Passive House Alliance, presented examples of construction techniques frequently used in Passive House Buildings to ensure a “Stem to Stern” blanket of insulation, including liquid applied membranes and flashing, multi-layered walls that eliminate thermal bridging and argon filled triple pane windows with a U-factor of 0.125, with other features such as adjustable exterior shading and louvers and heat recovery ventilators. He estimates the cost to do a Passive House is 5-10% more than conventional construction.

Graham Irwin, a certified Passive House Consultant, presented some interesting numbers relating to air leakage. In standard construction homes, 40% of air leakage comes from the crawlspace, which is detrimental to indoor air quality because of potential radon infiltration. The average home in the US has the equivalent of a 3 square foot hole due to small air leakage. A 9mph wind effectively produces a 30% drop in R-value (the measure of thermal resistance in building materials, the higher the better).

Click here for a handy list of Certified PHIUS Projects. The Kiln Apartments in Portland, currently under construction, are intended to become the largest Passive House certified project in the US, with energy performance 65-75% better than Portland’s already progressive energy standards.  The Stellar Apartments in Eugene, OR, are built to Passive House standards and provide affordable housing.

How do you build and certify a Passive House building? See the Step-by-Step Guide and Fee Structure.

Coming soon to the blog: Should you certify your home?

Construction Progress: Rocky Coast Retreat

The siding is almost complete on the Rocky Coast Retreat on San Juan Island. The clients envisioned a modern look with pops of color, mixing stained cedar siding and site-painted HardiePanel with rainscreen installation.

Thanks to contractor KDL Builders for the photos.

2013-10-24 Rocky Coast Construction 1 copy 2013-10-24 Rocky Coast Construction 2 copy 2013-10-24 Rocky Coast Construction 3 copy

Book Review: The End of the Suburbs

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

As someone who reads everything they can get their hands on about urban planning and the shape of our cities, “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving” by Leigh Gallagher seems to be one of the most widely talked about outside of the industry circles. I appreciate her perspective as journalist, coming from the viewpoint of business and the economy. I appreciate that the idea for the book did not originate from an elitist, morally superior opinion of city over suburbs, but from financial and census data that points to a trend worth discussion by everyone, not just those in the industry.

There’s really no way I would not recommend this book: It’s a great overview of the subject of how the suburbs were created and how we got to where we are today, but it’s also very readable and entertaining for those who know the pattern as well as any other important cultural event in American history. Gallagher states that the suburbs have “overshot their mandate.” The book goes through a basic history of the suburbs, and presents snip-its from interviews with leading authors, thought leaders, developers, builders, and suburban residents. Gallagher talks a lot about alternative development patterns, like New Urbanism and infill projects, changing demographics and household size, and the future of the suburbs as we know them.

The anecdotes from people in different situations are the most telling for me, like the story of Diane Roseman, who defied convention by moving from the suburbs to the city (Cambridge) while her kids were growing up, and found more freedom for her kids, a shorter commute, less yard to maintain, a more vibrant and connected social life, and most importantly, she is unshackled from her car.

Even those who love and appreciate the suburbs (most of us, since the majority of Americans live or grew up there) cannot deny the fatal flaw with how we have distributed ourselves over the land: total dependence on the car. What was once an emblem of freedom has allowed us to spread out to where now so many families never leave their home unless it is in the car.

From here, setting aside impassioned debates, the problems with the suburban pattern of building are just simple math: more time in the car=more stress=less exercise=less time on things we love=poorer health=less time for civil engagement=decreased quality of life. More roads and infrastructure spread over more miles with less people=unsustainable tax base. Rising oil prices=a canceling out of whatever savings were achieved by moving further out. More lawn to treat+more house to heat and cool+more vehicles to drive and maintain+more impervious surface leading to flooding and pollutant run-off+more stuff+more infrastructure=environmental disaster. More cars+wider streets+faster car speeds+inhospitable infrastructure+isolation that comes from being totally dependent on rides from parents=more danger for children, physically and psychologically.

The conclusion of many thought leaders, including Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institute, is “People really just want more alternatives.” Alternatives for housing types, living space, yard size, land use, use mixes, transportation options. Our job as design professionals is to provide liveable, vibrant, healthy communities that are “car-optional,” and somewhere between the car-dependent exurb and the city apartment tower. Public will must be there to affect change in zoning laws and lending policies, and accessible books like this are a great tool.