More Than Green

Incorporating green products and technology in a remodeled home shouldn’t exclude aesthetics, livability and accessibility. Iris Harrell, chief executive officer and senior designer of Mountain View, Calif.-based Harrell Remodeling Inc., believes strongly in that philosophy and demonstrated it convincingly in a remodel of her own home in which green doesn’t compete with ease of access and beauty.

“People think of green as an outside issue, but it’s integral to everything we choose to do, and it should just fold right in,” she says.

Harrell is so convinced of the necessity of integrating green and good design that she wrote a book to “show people they can have a green-rated home that is ADA-compliant, as well as award winning in terms of its aesthetics and functionality.”

The home Harrell remodeled was built in 1986 as part of a planned unit development in the hills of the Portola Valley south of San Francisco. When Harrell bought the home in 1992, it was being used as the developer’s office with rooms for architects and other staff. “There was no kitchen. It was like a 10-bedroom, one-and-one-half-bath, 4,000-square-foot house,” Harrell recalls. “None of the rooms made sense. They just put up walls and doors for the architects’ offices. To me, it was like an empty canvas,” she says.

A Functional Makeover

The first remodel was a functional makeover, but even then, Harrell had sustainability in mind, reusing cabinets and Formica countertops the architects had left. “We had a ‘temporary’ kitchen put together from used products that was quite serviceable for 14 years,” Harrell says.

The second remodel years later was inspired by several factors, one being that although Harrell was building award-winning kitchens for clients, she didn’t have one herself. The other was that her partner’s 88-year-old mother moved to California to be close to the couple, and Harrell wanted the house to be accessible to her and her friends.

To begin, the lower level, which was built into the side of a hill, was gutted and the hill was excavated to create an extra 400 square feet on the lower level. “The reason we needed the extra space was to create the right circulation downstairs so we could make a circle and not have a U. The other reason was we had a drainage issue. We had to dig on the lower level to correct the drainage anyway, so we just dug a little more,” Harrell says.

“We pushed out about 6 feet into the hill. The result was a huge walk-in closet, good circulation and a nice big laundry space,” she adds.

It was a labor-intensive job, requiring a conveyor belt that made three turns to get the dirt out and avoid damaging the trees and landscape, “but it made a huge difference,” Harrell notes.

Egyptian vs. Roman

One of the design challenges Harrell faced was the 14-foot ceilings in the great room. “It’s like Egyptian versus Roman architecture. You feel like a little minion in Egyptian architecture; you don’t feel important. Roman architecture was built on a scale that makes a person feel important,” she says.

The task was to visually lower the ceiling without physically bringing the ceiling down because the clerestory windows above the main windows were important to the view. Part of the solution was to install hanging grids featuring lighted quilt patterns depicted in custom art glass. “The darkness of the wood and the light makes you feel less like you’re in a huge museum. It really warms up the room; it not only lights it well, but makes it a comfortable space,” she says.

Also bringing the room into scale is a valance at the height of the bookcases that creates a horizontal line, a Frank Lloyd Wright trick that makes it feel as though the room stops there. The valance also conceals LED uplighting and window shades. Existing window shades were used and retrofitted with motors for remote operation.

Making the great room and other rooms cozy are Energy Star-rated gas fireplaces, creating a zoned heating arrangement. In fact, there are five gas fireplaces located throughout the house. “We actually reduced our gas bill because, rather than turning on the central heating, we turn on the gas appliance where we’re sitting and within five minutes it heats up the space and we turn it off; we’re not heating up the other square footage,” Harrell says. The zoned heating decreased gas usage considerably, enough that Harrell received a rebate from the local utility, she notes, adding that upgraded insulation was also a factor in the energy savings.

One needn’t go far to discover additional green and accessibility features. The kitchen was designed specifically to accommodate the needs and different cooking styles of two cooks. Two smaller refrigerators replaced a single larger model. A two-drawer dishwasher allows the user to load the upper drawer without bending over and allows smaller loads to be done, saving water and energy. Aisles are wide, and appliance and counter heights are varied for accessibility in the seating and cooking areas.

Adjustable Vanity

Another example of the array of features to be found in every room is the guest bathroom, which features a 60-inch space to accommodate a wheelchair turning radius, curbless shower and motorized lift to adjust the height of the vanity from 30 to 34 inches. Different-size floor tiles delineate the shower floor from the floor in the rest of the bathroom. A hands-free faucet reduces water use, and the low-voltage electric radiant-heated tile floor is controlled by a timer. Lighting is controlled by an occupancy sensor, a requirement per California Title 24. Grab bars adjacent to the toilet are discreetly concealed by a short wall next to the vanity.

The home has a host of universal design features that have been subtly, and as a matter of course, integrated into the design. “Universal design; green; long-term, low-maintenance products; and planning are so much a part of our DNA that’s it’s all one with us,” Harrell says. “And I think it is the future. Think about the Baby Boomers who say they’re absolutely not going to leave their houses.” She explains that although clients may not ask about universal design and low-maintenance products, “we know they’re going to need them, and a good designer has to anticipate [those needs] and bring it up as an option.

“It’s better to [install universal-design features and low-maintenance products] now and be prepared than do it later, when it’s inconvenient, when you need it immediately and when maybe you don’t have the resources. In the long run, spending the money upfront for energy efficiency and accessibility saves money,” she continues.

“Homeowners don’t think about green as something that’s attractive or sexy. They think it costs more, and that is a myth, “Harrell says. She points out during the initial remodel of her home in 1992, she specified engineered hardwood flooring that had enough thickness so it could be refinished. “It’s greener—and less expensive—to refinish something than to take it out and put something else in,” she says, “although I wasn’t thinking about ‘green’ as a word in 1992. It’s just part of my thinking from when I grew up on a farm in North Carolina.”

These days, green is much more than a word for Harrell. Oakland, Calif.-based Build It Green, a nonprofit organization that promotes energy- and resource-efficient homes in California, meets at Harrell Remodeling’s Mountain View office once a month. “There are things we can all learn to do better no matter what level of green we’re at,” Harrell says.

Keen on the need to keep abreast of changes, Harrell is nevertheless cautious about being on what she calls the bleeding edge of green versus the leading edge of the movement. Being on the bleeding edge of green means one is a beta tester for new products, she explains. “We want our clients to be on the leading edge without being on the bleeding edge; we want to be second or third, not the first. I want to know how it works, whether it has lasted and whether it has been problematic. There are some new products and techniques we haven’t embraced yet because we are waiting for the data,” Harrell says.

Forever Home

Harrell’s feelings about the relationship between universal design and green are further summed up by the term “forever home,” a term she uses in the title of her book.

“We came up with the expression ‘forever home’ because we felt it was the best description of what people say they want. To be a forever home it has to include universal and green,” Harrell says.

“People don’t know what universal design means. It sounds like a graduate school program. Aging in place sounds like it’s just for old people,” Harrell adds, “and people don’t want to imagine themselves incapacitated.

“One of the ways we overcome that is to talk about visit-ability. Is your home visit-able? Do you have any relatives or friends who can’t come to your house? Are you not having Christmas dinner at your house because there’s not a zero-step clearance from the house to the car? Are they not spending the holidays because there’s not a curbless shower or they can’t get into the guest room because the door is too narrow?” she asks.

An ‘Aha’ Moment

Harrell recalls an “aha” moment when working with a client who had aging parents and was also expecting her first child. The client was asking how to make the house safer for her parents when they came to visit, Harrell relates, and then asked if she should do anything different to make the home safer for a young child. “If the place is safer for an 84-year-old, it’s safer for a 4-year-old,’” Harrell notes.

“The green part of a forever home is that you’re using low-maintenance, long-lasting products, and on the universal side it means you’re not going to have to rip out improvements because now somebody is in a wheelchair or broke their ankle,” she says.

Harrell’s home is green for some of the things she did and some she didn’t do. There are 42 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, for example. On the other hand, the home’s two original 1986 furnaces are still in place. The ductwork was sealed with a liquid mastic so the furnaces effectively perform at 93 percent efficiency. “We would have received a lot more green points if we had replaced the furnaces, but it just seemed inappropriate and ungreen to throw them in the dump,” she says.

The home has a green rating by Build It Green as opposed to a Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating because “LEED started out for new homes and commercial, and Build It Green originated trying to make existing homes more green. Build It Green is less expensive, and I think it achieves the same outcome,” Harrell says.

Harrell’s remodel demonstrates that thoughtful design and aesthetics are as much, if not more, a part of green remodeling as green points accrued under a rating system.

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