Image Credit: All photos: Ken Wyner Before it was renovated, the condo was a bleak, worn-out wreck. The same view after the renovation shows that partitions have been moved and shaped to allow light from the floor-to-ceiling glass doors (not shown in the photo) to reach the back wall of the condo unit. The floor plan of the existing condo before renovation. Partitions and doorways were reshaped and finessed. The redesign focused on defining functional spaces for work, hobbies, and overnight guests. It brought order and reason to bear upon unreasonably bad feng shui. The partition doesn't go all the way to the ceiling, allowing light and air to flow into this inner hallway. The new kitchen is conveniently open to the front entry as well as the main living area (out of frame to the right). Open to dining and living room, the kitchen is illuminated by natural daylight from floor-to-ceiling windows (out of frame to the left). The walnut countertop was made from "urban harvest" lumber by Marcus Sims. A striking range hood made from scrapyard stainless steel anchors the room. Patrick Sells of Salvaging Creativity fabricated the range hood. The vanity cabinet is capped with locally fabricated concrete. Daylight from floor-to-ceiling windows invigorates the rich wall color of the master bedroom.
The purpose of sustainable design and green building is to achieve sustainable living. To do this, we attempt to make best possible use of the assets at hand. That could mean designing and building from scratch. It could also mean taking an existing dwelling and nudging it in the direction of sustainability.
It’s an imperfect process and takes time. It’s only natural that we look for shortcuts to living green. Here’s one: downsize and move into a condo.
Do what our clients did. When the time was right, they sold their single-family detached house. They kissed their lovable, drafty old Victorian goodbye. With the kids fledged and their careers on cruise control, they didn’t need it anymore. So they bought a dowdy condo on the upper floors of Parkside Plaza in Silver Spring, Maryland, and transformed it into their own cool, colorful, light-filled living space.
What’s sustainable or green about living in a high-rise, you say? Read on.
A lazy man’s way to living green
Depending on the year it was built, a condominium building may be burdened by outdated or inefficient systems. And yet, these buildings start out with two big gold stars on the list of sustainable design features: energy efficiency and sustainable land use.
Energy efficiency. A free-standing house is exposed to the elements on all sides plus the roof. The typical apartment shares three of its walls (plus floor and ceiling) with other units or common areas. So, right there without lifting a finger you’ve just become 80% more energy efficient because only one wall has to face the elements.
Sustainable land use. The other big painless step toward sustainability has to do with land conservation. A single-family house occupies at least 5,000 or 6,000 square feet of land. In a multifamily building like Parkside Plaza, 250 families occupy about four acres. That’s an average of less than 700 square feet per family.
So, if you were a complete deadbeat and did nothing else to ease your footprint on our tender Earth, you’d be ahead of the game with this one simple move. And why stop when you’ve started out so far ahead?
That brings us to our green remodeling story. Our clients found a bleak, worn-out wreck of a place and loved it into a work of lifestyle art.
To see what they walked into, check out Image #2, below. Where others may have flinched and fled, they saw potential. Image #3 shows the same view after renovation: partition walls have moved and been shaped to allow light from the floor-to-ceiling glass doors to reach the back wall of the condo unit.
One plus one makes one big one
When the Parkside Plaza building converted to condominiums around 1988, several pairs of one-bedroom apartments on the top floors were combined to create spacious luxury units.
The apartments had been stuck simply (and oddly) together, the possibilities of the combined spaces left unexplored. As a result, the space lacked definition or any unifying themes. Closets and storage spaces were haphazard. Nothing related to anything else.
The original single-glazed windows and doors leaked, rattled, and whistled in the wind. The heating/cooling units were choked with crud and they leaked, ruining the floors.
And, finally …
The kitchen. It was one of those kitchens made so long before we learned how to “do” kitchens that it doesn’t seem fair to criticize. Boxed off from the main living area, it cried out to be set free of confining partitions. It is enough to say it was intolerable to our empty-nesters.
Accentuate the positive
Was there anything good about the place? Yes! It was luxuriously spacious. Truly splendid, however, were the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors framing a wall of sky beyond twin over-sized balconies. This! This was worth the work. And work there was.
Even with so much wrong, the renovation relied more on the scalpel than the wrecking ball. As shown in the detail below (see Image #5), partitions and doorways were reshaped and finessed.
The redesign would focus on defining functional spaces for work, hobbies, and overnight guests. It would bring order and reason to bear upon unreasonably bad feng shui.
Making sense of space: interior realignment
Transitions were clarified. Storage was optimized. What had been a dark and creepy passageway to the second bedroom was illuminated by interior windows and divided-light bedroom doors.
The kitchen was fully integrated into the adjacent living areas (see Image #8, below).
Repurposing found materials
Materials were selected with sustainability in mind. These included wood counters and shelves crafted from urban harvest walnut and cherry (see Image #9).
Patrick Sells of Salvaging Creativity, York, Pennsylvania, fabricated the range hood with stainless steel from a local scrapyard (see Image #10). It was a thrill to be able to work with these artists to incorporate reused and recycled materials in the project.
To ensure healthful indoor air quality, cabinets were made with zero-formaldehyde materials and finished with no-VOC coatings.
One of the huge successes in this green living project is the use of color (see Image #12, below, showing the master bedroom). The owner, an artist in her own right, created the palette.
Living sustainably is living well
Sustainable design elements included in this green remodeling project feature the usual cast of characters: LED lighting, Water Sense fixtures, Energy Star appliances, and energy-saving doors and windows insulated with low-e, argon-filled double glazing.
But the most sustainable aspect of this green living project is downsizing. It proves that it is possible to do much more with much less than we think we may need.
Alan Abrams is a Certified Passive House Consultant, a Certified Passive House Builder, a
Certified Green Professional (NAHB), and a Certified Professional Building Designer (American Institute of Building Designers). He is also the owner of Abrams Design Build in Takoma Park, Maryland.