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.