Green Design Ideas: Learning from the Best

In a world gone green, there are an increasing number of examples to help us to take a more eco-friendly position in our own designs. One such example of this is the Neil Kelly Company, a residential design-build remodeler and custom home firm based in Portland, OR. The Neil Kelly Company is something of a legend in leading the way to environmentally friendly design concepts, products and practices for the kitchen and bath industry.

Naturally, when I had the opportunity to examine the kitchens and baths that are part of the LEED-certified mountain home of Neil Kelly president Tom Kelly and his wife, Barbara Woodford, I jumped at it. From design team members Therese DuBravac and architect Liz Olberding, I was able to get a deeper understanding of the products, concepts and processes that went into designing this home.

With so many of us struggling to find a formula for the evasive goal of sustainable design, here is a home where environmental impact was the focus. Hopefully we can all learn from this model.

Defining Green

To begin with, we, as designers, need to determine which of these concepts will be important to a given client. DuBravac suggests a discussion during the initial meetings with clients to clarify what “green” means to them and to determine how much focus there should be on green issues.

Olberding emphasizes our listening skills at this point, noting that the way we phrase green considerations must be in tune with clients’ primary concerns.

For one client, the priority might be energy savings, while another may have allergies, making reduction of pollutants and indoor air quality a top priority. Some clients bring with them sustainable goals, while others may be less passionate about green design as a concept, but may be persuaded to incorporate green solutions due to long-term economic considerations and independence from fossil fuel.

Because green can go in such a variety of directions, with each impacting the design and budget, prioritizing key issues is essential.

Of the many aspects of environmental preservation that were incorporated in the Kelly-Woodford home, an effort to minimize materials used and a decision to work with local sources first, reducing the carbon footprint, were at the top of the list. To accomplish this, the team sought out local suppliers that were savvy as to sustainable products and practices.

The open plan helped reduce material use and supported the concept of flexibility and multiple uses for most spaces. In fact, only one bedroom and the two bathrooms have full walls for privacy. With so much open space and hard surface, noise could have been an issue, but commercial acoustic baffles were planned into the design to reduce abrasive noise, and because the intent of the home was a sense of community, shared sounds were not an issue.

To further reduce material use, structural elements were chosen that could also be the finish materials – such as structural concrete floors, exposed concrete block and structural steel pan deck ceilings – all left unfinished rather than covered in traditional materials.

Whole-house systems that help to sustain the kitchen and baths included photovoltaic panels that adjust to the sun’s direction and orientation, location and types of glazing in windows, and insulation, all of which contribute to the energy savings. On days when the sun is intense and energy use is minimal, energy is sold back to the local utility grid, and then used later as needed, making this a net-zero energy home.

The size and location of windows and the orientation of the home to the sun and in relation to natural wind patterns also helps to maximize day-lighting and reduce the burden on mechanical ventilation. Water usage was reduced through the use of native landscaping and appropriate plumbing design, with an emphasis on short plumbing runs. A higher level of consciousness on construction waste helped to minimize the impact on the environment, as well.

While these and the other whole-house systems are not typically the responsibility of the kitchen/bath designer, they do affect the success of our spaces and need to be part of our awareness of the whole package.

A Greener Kitchen

Starting in the kitchen, indoor air quality was protected through the use of inert, low-VOC materials, paints and sealers. The building envelope was designed to breathe, reducing the risk of mold. The HVAC system includes an energy recovery ventilator that provides continuous outside air and supplements heating with a coil connected to the hydronic heating system.
The Neil Kelly cabinetry was made of agriboard, using agricultural by-products with no added formaldehyde, and low-VOC glues, binders and finishes. The cabinets were completed with 90-year-old clear vertical grain Douglas fir from vinegar vats, with Kirei Board insets that are made from sorghum crop waste.

Materials used for the countertops included Paper Stone, made from recycled paper in a fly ash cement mix, and Ice Stone, made from 75% recycled glass in a matrix. The floors were cast of concrete with 20% fly ash content.

Appliances were selected based on Energy Star ratings, using at least 15% less than the EPA standard for energy use. An electric cooktop was specified because electricity is more easily created from alternative sources. In addition, it is more efficient and cleaner than gas in terms of the immediate environment.

The design favors the environment in that it is a flexible and open space that can be comfortably used by a few or many cooks and guests. This openness, plus the abundance of windows, helps to emphasize the beauty of the natural habitat surrounding the home, which, in turn, inspires the owners’ effort to minimize the home’s environmental footprint.

Eco-Friendly Baths

The bathrooms in the home emphasize water efficiency. The fittings were all chosen to save water, with dual- and low-flush toilets, water sensor fittings, and again, short plumbing runs. Hot water radiant heat supplies the home, and the hot water for inside use was integrated with this system.

The bathroom cabinets were Neil Kelly Company formaldehyde-free agriboard, and were kept simple in their design. To minimize space needed, the laundry area was designed into one of the baths.

Much more could be said about this house, but these concepts and products may help provide some initial ideas to ponder as you move in a greener direction. It’s important to remember that, when it comes to going green, it’s not all or nothing. And certainly, learning more about the process and philosophy behind this project can help us in our own decision making.

As Tom Kelly says, “There are lots of little choices that you make along the way that accumulate to become the overall solution in striving for a home that’s green or energy efficient or sustainable.” The example set by Tom in his company and in his home certainly gives us guidance in that process.