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Case Study

Green Remodel of a Midcentury Kitchen

Location: Alexandria, VA

A thoughtful redesign makes the heart of this home brighter, healthier, and more functional

A vintage home gets a 21st-century energy overhaul

After 10 years of working around the shortcomings of this 1950s kitchen, the owners felt it was time to change the room to meet their needs. Ginger, the cook of the family, was mostly concerned with function, but her architect husband, David, had additional plans for the space. Of course aesthetics were important to him, but David had a growing interest in and understanding of sustainable design and put these principles at the core of the project.

Upon contacting the state for technical advice, homeowner Alex Cheimets learned that the DOER was in the middle of developing standards for net-zero-energy buildings and agreed to include his home in the research. The state brought NSTAR into the project. NSTAR brought in Building Science Corp. to conduct a study of the building and make recommendations on the overall design and details of the insulation retrofit. Explaining that the project would serve as a model for broader reaching energy-efficiency programs, Alex convinced several sponsors to donate most of the materials, including the rigid foam (Dow), spray foam (Anderson Insulation), roofing (Atlas), and siding (NuCedar). This brought the budget closer to what Alex had initially set out to spend. The hope is that lessons learned on this retrofit could help lower the cost on similar projects in the future.

Working with existing space

The old kitchen was cramped and dark—both characteristics that Ginger was anxious to change. Years of experience in this kitchen had helped her understand exactly how she worked when she cooked, which played a big role in deciding the new layout. David and Ginger felt that, with three kids in the house, an open space without an island made the most sense. To bring in plenty of natural daylight, they wrapped the back of the kitchen and two sides of the breakfast room with windows.

More natural light

A thoughtful redesign makes the heart of this home brighter, healthier, and more functional

After 10 years of working around the shortcomings of this 1950s kitchen, the owners felt it was time to change the room to meet their needs. Ginger, the cook of the family, was mostly concerned with function, but her architect husband, David, had additional plans for the space. Of course aesthetics were important to him, but David had a growing interest in and understanding of sustainable design and put these principles at the core of the project.

Working with existing space

One of David's biggest concerns was how to get better work flow in the kitchen and a casual place to eat without building an addition. Fortunately, an adjacent carport (which had already served as a place for warm-weather dining) offered plenty of room to expand under its existing roof. A few walls were built and doors rearranged to create a fluid path from an adjacent dining room, through the kitchen, into the carport-cum-breakfast room, and out to the backyard. To replace the family's barbecue space displaced by the breakfast nook, David built an FSC-certified ipé deck off the new back door.

More natural light

The old kitchen was cramped and dark—both characteristics that Ginger was anxious to change. Years of experience in this kitchen had helped her understand exactly how she worked when she cooked, which played a big role in deciding the new layout. David and Ginger felt that, with three kids in the house, an open space without an island made the most sense. To bring in plenty of natural daylight, they wrapped the back of the kitchen and two sides of the breakfast room with windows.

With the kitchen gutted and the walls opened up, the renovation offered a great opportunity to make the room more energy-efficient. Argon-filled, double-pane windows were the obvious choice. Because the new windows were not well sheltered from direct sunlight, David went with low-e, low-solar-gain glazing. Before closing everything up, he filled the old and new walls with cotton batt insulation and even added blown-in cellulose to the entire attic.

A challenging materials list

This renovation occurred in 2002, which wasn't that long ago, but green products just weren't as available as they are today. David spent hours on the phone just trying to track down the FSC-certified ipé. He wanted to use fluorescent lighting, but the cold hue and buzzing ballasts convinced him to switch to halogens.

Some choices weren't as difficult. The custom cabinets are built with wheatboard—a formaldehyde-free particleboard made of wheat straw, an agricultural waste product. They also contain wood, but there's about 60% less than in a conventional cabinet. The cotton and cellulose insulation contain 85% recycled, renewable materials. The linoleum floor tiles are mostly cellulose and linseed oil—very durable and easy to care for. Countertops are Fireslate— a cement-based material that has a lower embodied energy than the stone it replaces.

Lessons Learned

This project came near the beginning of David's experience in green building. In retrospect, he would have focused more attention on the envelope and energy-efficiency details, even though this was essentially just an interior renovation. In fact, he's currently working out the details of a possible full-house superinsulation retrofit.

General Specs & Team

Location: Arlington, MA

  • General Specs and Team
  • Location: Alexandria, VA
  • Existing kitchen space: 204 sq. ft.
  • New breakfast room: 158 sq. ft.
  • Completed: 2002
  • Architect: David Peabody, Peabody Architects
  • Builder: Grey Emmons, Emmons Contractors Inc.
  • Construction
  • Attic: fully insulated with blown-in cellulose (R-30, GreenFiber)
  • Walls (existing and new): 2x4 studs, cotton batt insulation (R-13, Bonded Logic)
  • Windows: double-pane, low-e, argon-filled glazing in wood frames (U-factor=0.29, SHGC=0.35, Marvin)
  • Energy
  • Added insulation to existing wall and attic
  • Double-pane, low-e windows
  • Windows sized and located for better natural lighting
  • Indoor Air Quality
  • Formaldehyde-free wheatboard cabinetry
  • Linoleum flooring (naturally antistatic and antimicrobial)
  • Green Materials and Resource Efficiency
  • Kitchen expansion built within existing carport
  • Reused existing appliances
  • Cellulose and cotton batt insulation
  • Fireslate countertops
  • FSC-certified ipé decking

Image Credits: Karen Tanaka, David Peabody

Content By GBA
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