Suburban Simplicity

A professional couple with two young children lived in a glassy corner condo on the water, dreaming of gardens, grass, stars and fireflies. So they bought a 1950s house in a leafy neighborhood north of downtown.

From the moment we met, this project was on a very tight schedule, with closing coming in two months. A design-build approach was the best way to meet the clients’ needs. We started with a design workshop to get a feel for the bones of the house and begin to speculate how it might be altered to fit their taste and lifestyle. Design work included a master plan to tie the house to its site with gardens, trellises, terraces, and a swimming pool, and to locate a future guesthouse for grandparents.

The focus was on simplifying and reducing the space to essentials. We substantially altered the first floor by removing two later additions, shrinking the house’s footprint. Two walls were also removed to open up the living spaces and allow sweeping views of the outdoors.

Stair composite_610w

An airy, modern stair connects to the second floor. Separate his and hers bathrooms became one master bathroom, taking advantage of an old back stair to create a laundry chute. The other bedrooms received new windows and finishes, and bathrooms were updated.

The new master bath was made snug with recycled denim insulation

The new master bath was made snug with recycled denim insulation

Family room, before and after

Living room, before and after

Exterior before-after_450w

Front entry, before and after

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After removal of rear addition

With new, energy-efficient windows and a fresh coat of paint, the updated house is ready for landscaping, which will include a front entry trellis and back terrace. The fireplace and chimney were retained when the old family room addition was removed, extending the indoor living room to the outdoors.

A fast-tracked design and construction made good communication critical. We made use of web sharing technology and 3-D computer visualizations to keep the team up to date and help the client through the many decisions required. Having Greenbuilders involved from the beginning made it possible to complete the project on time and on budget.





This video has many great views of the house interiors, as well as comments by industry experts and project team members on the collaborative design process.

Creating Good Jobs


#6 in a series of previews for our film, currently in production.



Eli Allen has a passion for connecting people with opportunities.

As founder of Civic Works’ Retrofit Baltimore program, he sees opportunities of all sorts: to save energy and money; to learn new skills; and to have a fulfilling job that pays a living wage.

To Eli, the American Dream means access to meaningful jobs that allow people to provide for their families. Access means connecting people with opportunities that may previously have been unavailable to them.

Spread the good by sharing this story with some friends.

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“We the People 2.0″ shows the power of new stories – real people who are creating a better world every day.

Stop by and “like” the project on our Facebook Page.

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The Shortsightedness of Eco-Guilt

Last evening, as left my friend’s neighborhood, a young man stopped me to ask if my car really gets 51 MPG. (Answer: yes, on the highway.) We had a long conversation through my passenger window about cars and engines, fuel types, automotive design. He indicated his 34-year-old Jeep Cherokee Chief, an orange behemoth that crouched behind him. He said, provocatively, My car is greener than yours; want to know why? With an impish gleam in his eye, standing there between our cars, he balanced one foot on his main mode of transport – his skateboard. He gave a brief dissertation on Lithium Ion, how environmentally damaging the mining is, how it can’t be recycled. (To be verified, I thought to myself. See below for more links.)

I said I wanted my next car to be no car and he said, yeah, get a bike. Smiling, he flipped the skateboard up and held it aloft. This is my other car.

Our conversation continued several minutes longer, touching on dual catalytic converters, combustion engines and fuel types. The exchange got me thinking again about the things our eco-guilt drives us to do or buy. Even though sometimes we unknowingly make choices that have an even worse impact, we go on thinking – at least in this one area – our hands are clean. I already have the fate / impact of my car’s original hybrid battery, replaced at 92,000 miles courtesy of Honda, on my scorecard. How do I know whether that offsets or even overshadows the gas efficiency and avoided emissions over the eight years I’ve driven it?

I wonder if this sort of dilemma (which we are usually unaware of) plays out with more frequency than we realize. We are so ensnared in modern industrial systems, it’s possible that purchasing a certain type of car hasn’t made much, or any, difference. It’s only by thinking up and up the stream, to get as close to the source as possible, we can start to unravel some of these entanglements.

For instance, wouldn’t it be better simply to walk my son to school, less than two miles away, rather than drive? I already work from home, so that’s done. We buy food locally as much as possible, especially in spring, summer and fall. We eat very little meat. As I understand it, these choices are meaningful.

Taking care when making substitutes can be a daunting responsibility. I recently ran across a discussion about the many forms of vinyl in building materials. The trick is, some alternatives may carry greater environmental penalties, if one factors in raw materials, manufacture, longevity, end-of-life recycling, and other life-cycle considerations. For example, PVC pipe for waste lines is far more long-lived than cast iron, which itself requires a coke furnace to forge (with attendant climate-changing emissions). The choices aren’t always as black and white as we might hope. In the case of pipe, there are fortunately other plastics that have a lighter environmental impact – ABS and HDPE, for example.

I’ve known for a while that our family’s next big hurdle is the energy use of our house, which was built in 1948 and is sorely in need of a good weatherizing. I’m more motivated by inspiring big-picture goals, such as weaning ourselves off fossil fuel altogether. Sure, we purchase 100% wind power through our electric utility, but what about the natural gas we use to heat our house and cook our food? For an anti-fracking girl, this is a rather sticky situation.

I felt a burst of excitement this morning when I used Hildy Gottlieb’s technique of a big vision plus reverse-engineering. From a no-fossil-fuel household, how do we get there, working backwards? The steps are clear: solar hot water panels, an electric induction cooktop, and – yes – weatherizing to minimize heat loss in winter. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get started.

Fossil Fuel weaning diagram

And those additional articles about lithium mining: “Cleaner than coal, but. . . .” and “Salt of the Earth,” about Bolivia’s lithium extraction industry.

An Abundant Future

LEAFHouse, the University of Maryland’s 2007 Solar Decathlon project, touched hundreds of lives. Over 200 students were involved with the two-year effort, as well as dozens of industry experts and professional tradespeople. Julie Gabrielli was one of three faculty advisors, designing curriculum to guide the students through the process of collaborative, interdisciplinary design; giving feedback on the design; and contributing to the communications package.

The LEAF in the name stands for Leading Everyone to an Abundant Future, and also speaks of the inspiration the team drew from the leaf as nature’s solar collector. The team finished second overall in stiff competition, first in the U.S. LEAFHouse now has a permanent home on the College Park campus, as the headquarters of the Potomac Valley AIA, and is sometimes open for tours.

An abundance of details about the house design, the team, the process, and the Solar Decathlon contests, can be seen on the official website.

Photo by Jim Tetro

Photo by Jim Tetro

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Group process

Line at LEAFHouse_David Hicks Solar Decathlon

Strawbale Transformation

The musician owners of a 1960s-era house are planning extensive renovations to the living spaces on the first floor. They are committed to using low-impact, non-toxic, sustainable materials. They also desire to wean themselves off fossil fuels, so energy efficiency is a high priority.

As part of a long-range master plan by Gabrielli Design Studio, the first phase was a small addition to the kitchen. Built by Greenbuilders on the existing foundation of a dilapidated screened porch, the structure is post-and-beam with infill strawbale walls and fiberglass-clad windows . The green (planted) roof drains to a chain drain and a rain barrel.


The new room brings daylight deep into the kitchen, while sweeping views upwards along a steep hillside to the sky. The straw walls are clad in lime plaster, the floor is the existing concrete, finished with a natural, plant-based stain and beeswax.

Polly Bart, President of Greenbuilders, Inc on 1-8-2006. ES

The next phase was going to be a kitchen renovation. But the new room has changed the character of the existing kitchen so dramatically, the owners may not need to renovate it for a long time.

Existing_croppedWorking with this family has been an inspiration. During the year we worked together on this project, they also chipped away at wasteful practices all around the house. Using tips from friends and from green websites, they reduced their electricity use by 64%! What a difference a little curiosity and a lot of motivation can make in a household’s budget, as well as the health of our planet.

21st Century Craftsman Bungalow

This new home is nestled at the end of a quiet street in Takoma Park, Maryland. The lot is surrounded by great Tulip Poplars and historic bungalows. Because of new setbacks on the small site, the original one-story house had to be completely deconstructed.

Left: existing house Right: new design

The design and detail is based on the traditional bungalow. A significant amount of space is deftly contained within pleasing proportions and scale that fit the neighborhood. The house has a full basement, two complete living floors and a sizable attic for storage and kids’ lofts.

Care was taken to create a comfortable and efficient home that is well-knit with the site. Orientation of “winter” and “summer” spaces takes advantage of the path of the sun through the day and seasons, allowing for passive heating and cooling. The sunroom, screened porch, and deck with outdoor shower are in-between spaces from which to engage with the outdoors.

A deep commitment to environmental sustainability informed every aspect of the design and construction. A computer energy model helped the team to coordinate the interactions of the building orientation, envelope, and the mechanical system.


The existing house was carefully deconstructed so that salvaged materials could be donated or sold, including brick, framing lumber, oak flooring, paneled doors, kitchen appliances, copper and steel pipe, and aluminum. Even the mercury from the old thermostats was recycled, rather than landfilled. Stone from the original chimney was incorporated into the new house.

85% of the construction waste was recycled.

The concrete has a high percentage of fly-ash, a waste product from coal-fired electricity plants that is usually landfilled. Fly-ash offsets the use of cement, the production of which is highly energy –intensive and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Hardie board siding made from cement and recycled wood fibers; front porch timbers from urban salvaged trees; zero-VOC paint; FSC certified wood floors; bamboo floors; water-based stain and varnish; oak trim from urban salvaged trees (cured in a solar-powered kiln); formaldehyde-free cabinetry; cast concrete & recycled glass counters and soaking tub; LED and fluorescent lighting; interior doors of oak veneer over compressed wheat core.


Great attention was paid in the construction to proper insulation of all walls and slabs; and air sealing at joints and openings.

Ceiling fans in all bedrooms, the sunroom, dining room and den are a very low-energy way to stay comfortable during swing seasons.

Heat: High-efficiency “Munchkin” boiler, some rooms have radiant floor heat; Tulikivi ceramic stove in Great Room (a few logs can keep the first floor warm for twelve hours)

Energy Star appliances .


Plumbing: PEX instead of copper. Low-flush and dual-flush toilets; low-flow faucets and shower heads.

Native plant landscaping.

Epstein Residence, photo by Julie Gabrielli

Forest Retreat

The steep path crosses wetlands and streams as it winds through the forest up the hill and into a clearing. Our clients’ priorities were to maintain a deep connection with the forest and to build with non-toxic materials. We designed an earth-sheltered house with passive solar heating, natural ventilation, and other energy- and resource-efficient elements. Computer energy modeling and building science helped us to optimize the orientation, building elements and heating and cooling systems.







Visitors arrive at the house from the north, through a modest walled garden passageway set into a gentle rise near the top of the site. From within, the house gradually opens outward, towards a dramatic ravine to the southeast. Part buried, part pavilion in the woods, the house alternately acts as cave (refuge) and treehouse (prospect).

House from southeast


















The main structure is foam and steel prefabricated panels, for maximum insulation with minimum embodied energy. We found historic chestnut logs salvaged from an 18th century church and a traditional timber framer to build the structure of the Great Room. The clients love it because it feels like a lodge to them.














Other features:

  • open and screened porches at the forest edge
  • radiant heat floors
  • eco-friendly finish materials such as cork, rubber, and locally quarried stone
  • concrete countertops and Japanese soaking tub made by a local artisan
  • rain garden and native landscaping
  • no gutters; rain drips off the roof into a gravel bed and percolates back into the water table
  • durable Hardi-board siding on the outside












The house has grown into its surroundings over time and provides sensual delights year-round. Great Blue Herons have been known to visit – brazenly stealing fish from the pond. Hints of the client’s experiences of serenity, beauty and wonder can be glimpsed in her album of photographs below.