What we used to call “green” design is now just common sense. Take it from a contractor who called on his eco savvy to update his own home
By industry definition, Jeff King is a contractor specializing in sustainable building, but he’ll be the first to warn you
against the G-word. “Green has become so overused a lot of people don’t take it seriously,” says King, who became a certified
green builder in 2004. So he reframed the conversation, telling his clients about the health benefits of cleaner air from
zero-VOC paints, the dollars saved by radiant-heat flooring, and the durability of Caesarstone countertops—all choices that
happen to be environmentally friendly.
Of course, green design was a given when he and his wife, Margot Beall, started remodeling the San Francisco Edwardian they
share with their kids. It needed a kitchen update, a family room, and a more open layout. "I wanted to be able to cook in
the kitchen while watching the kids in the backyard and family room," says Beall. "I envisioned them doing homework at the
But first, they had to make room for it. An 11½-foot addition to the back of the house let them lengthen the galley kitchen. They also gained a modest family room that opens directly to the backyard, and a master suite with a deck and rooftop garden on the top level. Behind the scenes, King reworked the home’s infrastructure for maximum energy efficiency.
Even better than the extra square footage is the sense of openness. Airtight and long-lasting aluminum-clad windows now span the back façade, providing views of the yard from almost anywhere on the lower level. Now that’s genius.
Though it has a similar footprint to the prior kitchen (“low 8-foot ceilings, red cabinets, dismal,” Beall says), the new
walk-through space feels bigger thanks to higher ceilings, glass-front cabinets, floating shelves, a pull-out pantry, and
bright white surfaces. King added recessed energy-efficient LED lights in the kitchen and family room.
In the breakfast area, the bench seat maximizes the narrow kitchen-to-backyard area and stores art supplies in drawers underneath.
“We squeeze as much out of the space as we can,” says King. By day, it’s a homework spot. By night, it’s additional seating
while the family and their friends watch movies together.
Though King used zero-VOC Mythic paint on the walls, he chose low-VOC for the trim and woodwork since the zero-VOC versions aren’t as durable yet.
At the top of King and Beall’s remodeling wish list: a family room that opened to the yard. “In the front of the house, we’re
two flights up from the street, but inside the house we’re level with the backyard,” Beall says. “You walk into the house
and it’s all this greenery, a bonus when you live in the city.” Aluminum-clad windows cost more than wood initially, but the
family won’t have to spend time or money maintaining the exterior.
The new family room also functions as a home office, thanks to an ingenious floor-to-ceiling media center. A sliding door on the cabinets conceals the TV, and doors fold down into desks. File drawers and a printer station are concealed below—not a phone charger in sight. “Getting stuff to disappear was a driving force, while optimizing every inch,” King says.
The addition let King expand one of the four bedrooms upstairs into a master suite—he bumped out the master bedroom at the back of the house and added a bathroom and closet. “It’s my favorite part of the house,” says King. Surrounded by trees, “it feels incredibly private for an urban area,” he says.
A small master bathroom is tucked into a short hallway that also houses a shared closet. “We decided not to do drawers on the bathroom cabinets to keep the face really simple,” says King of the FSC-certified cherrywood vanity. The custom medicine cabinets’ niches hold electric toothbrushes and hide the cords. In addition, a water-efficient steam shower takes the place of a bathtub, saving even more floor space.
A lot is packed into the 25- by 45-foot backyard: a play structure, fruit trees, a deck, lawn, and even a zipline. The addition made room for a rooftop garden just off the master bedroom’s deck where the family grows herbs, strawberries, and succulents.
“Out back, our top priority was a no-maintenance exterior,” says King. He clad the addition in white cedar shingles knowing they would turn a silvery gray. “We didn’t paint any of it. If you paint it, you have to maintain it,” he says, noting they might eventually go all-shingles out front too. He also used highly durable copper gutters.
The most eco-friendly material is often the one that lasts longest with the least effort. “The endgame is the net energy use
on a product, so if it requires repainting, refinishing, or constant cleaning, it’s not the best product,” says King. For
example, the family’s bluestone patio requires zero attention.
Not all wood is harvested equally. Furniture and materials with the Forest Stewardship Council’s label signals the wood was
responsibly harvested from a forest that’s being managed to ensure future growth.
In the last few years, the cost of hyper-efficient LED bulbs has gone down dramatically—most pay for themselves in a year—and
the quality more closely matches natural light. Try the Cree LED TW Series (from $17; homedepot.com).
Ammonia- and chlorine-based cleaners add toxins to the air and also often degrade the material they clean, shortening its
life. Instead, go back to basics. “Simple things like vinegar and water are the most eco-friendly cleaning products out there,”
says King. Just add elbow grease.
Read the fine print: “So often, ‘recycled content’ is splashed all over the packaging,” says interior and furniture designer
Kelly LaPlante. “But when I look into it I learn it’s only 5 or 10 percent post-industrial waste—not even consumer waste.”
(At least 85 percent is considered a good amount.) We love the Lollygagger Lounge chair, pictured, which was fashioned from
312 recycled milk jugs ($440; lolldesigns.com).
When choosing between an item made with recycled materials or one of natural components, the natural choice should win, according to architect Eric Corey Freed. When something like flooring is made with a high percentage of recycled content that isn’t natural, the material could continue to off-gas.