Author Archives: Monica Michael Willis

Monica Michael Willis

About Monica Michael Willis

The former features director at Country Living magazine, Monica Michael Willis writes frequently about design, gardens, and environmental issues.

An 18th-Century Stone Farmhouse Reborn

Thanks to thoughtful material choices and a spacious contemporary design, a streamlined addition to an 18th-century farmhouse stylishly connects the old and new.

Farmhouse Reborn

Photo: Jeffrey Totaro

Over the past 20 years, Jeffery Wyant and Maria Keares Wyant of Wyant Architecture in Philadelphia have become known for their clean, uncomplicated solutions to tricky design dilemmas.

Not long ago, the enterprising team put their skills to the test, when new clients asked them to enlarge the footprint of their 18th-century farmhouse in Elverson, Pennsylvania. “The couple wanted an addition sympathetic to the original architecture, but they didn’t just want to replicate what they already had,” says Jeffrey.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Addition Original HouseBuilt in the late 1700s, the two-story stone farmhouse had a cramped, compartmentalized layout with six-over-six double-hung windows that didn’t let in much light. While the architects tried to honor the provenance of the existing structure, they also wanted to create a new space for the family that was bright, spacious, and contemporary.

Slideshow: Tour the Farmhouse Addition

“We ultimately decided to make only minor modifications to the original living space and instead open it onto the new addition,” says Maria. Because the low ceilings of the existing house didn’t lend themselves to large, gracious spaces, the couple lowered the ground floor of the new addition to gain a more generous ceiling height on the first floor, and also opted for vaulted ceilings on the second level. The addition, which features a sleek master suite and a light-filled great room, expanded the family’s living space by roughly 2,000 square feet.

Besides creating more expansive common areas, one of the architects’ main goals was to redesign and re-orient the entryway. As it was, the front entrance faced out toward the road, but the driveway led straight to the back door, which, by default, had become the family’s primary entrance. To remedy this, Jeffrey and Maria sited the new addition at a perpendicular angle to the back of the farmhouse, thus creating a front entrance the family could access from the existing driveway.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Entry 05

The reconfigured entrance serves to tie the old and new structures together. “When we drafted the plans for the new entryway,” Maria says, “we wanted the connection between the addition and the original structure to be very thin and glassy, with the glass itself becoming a design element that served as a separator.”

This transparency was achieved by flanking the door with fixed casement windows from Pella’s Architect Series. The aluminum-clad windows rise to the second floor, forming a clerestory beneath the roofline, then wrap around the side of the house to fill in the master bedroom gable. “When we first described our idea about the windows to the owners, we used the analogy of a baseball,” remembers Jeffrey, who likens the flow of the glass across the addition to how the leather of a baseball is bound together by one continuous stitch of thread. “All in all, Maria and I felt the windows made the whole composition feel lighter, like the roof was almost floating on top of the stone wall,” Jeffrey says.

In terms of materials, the husband-and-wife team united the exterior of the structures by sheathing the new addition with nearly identical stones purchased from a neighboring farm. Riffing off the house’s original copper downspouts, the Wyants chose a standing-seam copper roof, which they extended down to create the wall at the rear elevation of the addition. “The copper will age and patina,” says Jeffrey. “It was shiny and bright when we first installed it, but it oxidized right away to this warm, bronze color.”

Instead of wood, a Burlington Stone from Stone Source was used on the ground level and the terrace beyond the great room’s glass wall. “The terrace flows out of the family room and is protected on three sides—by the addition, a wing off the 18th-century structure, and the stone guest house—so it feels very intimate, which is nice, since the farmland beyond it is so open and vast,” notes Maria.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Addition Master BathThe couple also installed a traditional Japanese-style rain chain on the terrace. “The chain hangs away from the building and becomes a water feature in stormy weather. The water’s both visible and audible, as it travels down the chain into the stone drainage bed below,” says Maria.

Besides the spacious master bedroom and its 400-square-foot deck, the second level of the addition includes a home office and a wide stair hall that connects the original and new portions of the house. Sustainable palm wood paves the floors. And the striking staircase features reclaimed lumber for the treads and a custom-designed railing made from plate steel.

Outfitted with a freestanding soaking tub, the open-design master bath pairs standard-issue white tiles with Erin Adams’ Zen Weave graphic tiles from Anne Sacks, not to mention 12-by-24-inch porcelain tiles with a copper patina, installed horizontally.

“We’re fortunate our clients were so open-minded. They gave us the freedom to design something modern and contemporary and in contrast to the historic structure,” says Jeffrey. “I think everyone was proud of the outcome.”

For a virtual house tour, click here. To learn more about the architects and other projects, visit Wyant Architecture.

Vacation in a National Park

Consider these seven National Parks every American should visit, plus recommendations on great places to stay once you decide to go.

National Park Vacations

Photo: National Park Guidebook

Nearly 140 years ago, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the act that made Yellowstone the first national park in America. Since then 58 of the country’s most spectacular natural spaces have been safeguarded for future generations to enjoy. Each year, tens of millions of Americans visit the parks, all of which are overseen by the National Park Service.

While the majority of the nation’s best-known national parks—Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Olympic Zion, Rocky Mountain—can be found in the western United States, the most popular park in terms of visitation is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee and welcomes nine million guests each year.

The 58 National Parks in America range in size from the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska—which at 13.2 million acres is bigger than Switzerland!—to Hot Springs National Park, a bucolic 5,500-acre Arkansas park, whose thermal waters and wooded hiking trails attracted nearly 1.4 million visitors in 2011. To learn more about visiting America’s National Parks, visit the National Park Service website.

1.  YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (Wyoming/Montana/Idaho)
Why go? Besides being one the most beautiful spots on the planet, its nearly 3,500 square miles of wilderness are home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of free-ranging bison and elk. And don’t miss seeing Old Faithful, a spectacular thermal geyser that erupts once every 45 to 90 minutes.

Where to stay? Overnight at Old Faithful Inn, a rustic log hotel with an 85-foot-high stone fireplace in the lobby (from $98 for room w/out bath to $217 for a 2-room suite with bath), or Lake Yellowstone Hotel, the oldest lodging in any national park (from $139). For more information on Yellowstone National Park, click here.

Yellowstone Old Faithful Inn

Why go? It is 1,200 square miles of wilderness right in the middle of California! There’s Half Dome, a towering granite peak that sits 8,800 feet above sea level; the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias (the Grizzly Giant is 2,700 years old); and the stunning Yosemite Valley.

Where to stay? Overnight at the laid-back Wawona (rooms start at around $150), an old-fashioned family-style hotel nestled under the pines and aspens. For more information on Yosemite National Park, click here.

Grand Canyon National Park Bright Angel Cabin3.  GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK (Arizona)
Why go? It’s the only official “natural wonder” in the U.S. Best known for its painted desert and sandstone canyon—and the Colorado River, which surges through the valley.

Where to Stay?  Overnight at Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, a popular South Rim hotel designed in 1935 by noted architect Mary E.J. Colter. The check-in point for the park’s famous mule rides, the lodge charges $94 for a standard room with bath and $183 for a cabin with fireplace. For more information on Grand Canyon National Park, click here.

Why go? You can explore the rugged coast of Maine, climb Cadillac Mountain (the highest peak on the Atlantic Coast), and hike the park’s historic stone carriage roads.

Where to stay? Overnight at one of two campgrounds, including Seawall, rated one of the coolest spots to camp in America (from $14 to $20). For more information on Acadia National Park, click here.

Why go? You can straddle the Continental Divide, hike more than 300 miles of trails, and see some of the most majestic mountain peaks in North America, including at least 60 peaks that reach an astounding 12,000 feet.

Where to stay? Overnight at one of five campgrounds in the park, including beautiful Moraine Park ($20 per night), or book a room at the 1909 Stanley Hotel, a Colorado landmark in nearby Estes Park and the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. For more information on Rocky Mountain National Park, click here.

6.  GREAT SMOKY NATIONAL PARK (North Carolina and Tennessee)
Why go? For the sunsets on Clingmans Dome Road, the wildflowers, the 19th-century Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill, and the chance to cruise along what some consider America’s most scenic byways. It’s also the nation’s most visited national park.

Where to stay? Overnight at LeConte Lodge. The only hotel in the park, it’s located at 6,360 feet near the summit of Mt. LeConte (depending on the trail, you may need to hike five to eight miles to get there!) A rustic, hand-hewn lodge room or cabin (plus dinner and breakfast) costs $121 per adult per night and $85 for kids. Two- and three-bedroom cabins that sleep eight to 13 are also available. For more information on Great Smoky National Park, click here.

Zion National Park Lodge

Why go? Everyone should see the park’s magnificent 15-mile-long Zion Canyon and Checkerboard Mesas at least once.

Where to stay? Overnight at Zion Lodge (from $159) or Flanigan’s Inn (from $129), a great small hotel with standard rooms and efficiencies that is within walking distance of the visitors’ center. For more information on Zion National Park, click here.

The Container House

California architect Peter DeMaria transforms surplus cargo containers into modern homes that are stylish, affordable, and good for the planet.

Redondo Beach, CA container house. Photo: DeMaria Design

Drive past any port in America today and you’re bound to see row upon row of empty shipping containers stacked, like so many colorful building blocks, one atop the other. Due to the United State’s ongoing trade imbalance with countries like China, roughly half of the shipping containers that enter our ports never make it back to their points of origin. Not surprisingly, this growing glut of steel cargo containers has prompted more than a few creative minds to start thinking outside the box. One of them is Peter DeMaria, an innovative California architect who has spent the last decade exploring the potential of these retired containers as affordable building materials.

Weburbanist Cargo Shipping Containers 2

Getting Started
“For me as an architect, the challenge had always been how to give my clients the highest level of design while still keeping the projects on budget,” say DeMaria, one of the country’s first architects to incorporate steel cargo containers into residential designs. Indeed, soon after he built his own home in 2003 (and saw firsthand how even a small change in the cost of materials can wreak havoc on the bottom line), DeMaria took a year-long sabbatical and started searching for alternative building materials that could add value to his projects while helping to reduce costs. Shipping containers showed exciting potential. “They’re widely available, inherently strong, and inexpensive when compared with more conventional building materials like steel and concrete,” says the architect. They’re also resistant to fire, mold, and termites, and made of heavy-gauge steel, a material meant to last centuries. Plus, DeMaria adds, the containers’ uniform sizes (they come standard in 20- and 40-foot-long sizes) lend a level of predictability to projects that are usually anything but predictable.

Building Blocks: The Redondo Beach House
In 2006, DeMaria got his chance to build his first container house in Redondo Beach, California. “We were lucky to find clients like Sven and Anna Pirkl. They not only wanted a residence made out of containers but they were creative and bold enough to push the envelope with me,” notes DeMaria. “It was a match made in heaven,” concurs Sven Pirkl, who along with his wife, an artist, envisioned a modern, loft-style house that was both eco-friendly and budget-minded.

Redondo Beach Container House SlideshowIn DeMaria’s hybrid design for the Redondo Beach House, conventional stick-frame construction combines with eight repurposed steel shipping containers to form the two-story home. The contemporary house sports four bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, and a soaring 20-foot-high living room outfitted with glass-panel airplane hangar doors that fold out to create a seamless indoor-outdoor living space. To play up the industrial good looks of the containers in their new home, the Pirkls chose not to cover-up the corrugated steel walls with siding or to replace the sturdy maritime wood floors that come standard in cargo boxes.

For long-term energy savings, low-flow plumbing fixtures, LED lights, and Energy Star appliances were installed throughout the house. Stick-frame walls were insulated with UltraTouch, a recycled denim material, and the rooftops and walls of the containers were painted with a thick coat of white ceramic insulating paint originally developed by NASA. And thanks to simple passive solar techniques, like orienting the building to catch the prevailing breeze, the house remains cool and comfortable year-round.

Once all the bills were tallied, using steel containers for more than half of the Redondo Beach House’s 3,500 square feet equaled big savings. At a time when the average price of building a custom home in their area was upwards of $250 a square foot, the container project cost roughly $135 a square foot to build. Best of all, says Sven Pirkl, “We’ve been living in the house for five years, and we’re still very happy.”

Redondo Beach, CA container house.. Photo: DeMaria Design

The Future of Containers
Since the Redondo Beach House, DeMaria has built nearly a dozen container buildings, including a residence and gallery in Venice Beach and a community center in East Los Angeles. He’s also working on affordable housing projects in the U.S. as well as the Middle East, and just breaking ground on a custom family residence in Mar Vista, California “We’ve streamlined the process and learned more about what the containers can hold up to and how we can modify them,” notes DeMaria.

Most containers come in 20- and 40-foot models and generally cost between $1,650 and $3,000 each, depending on size and wear and tear. One-way containers that have only made one passage are usually in the best shape and demand a premium. For residential projects, DeMaria prefers High Cube models, which have a taller 9’6” ceiling.

Another thing he’s learned is that there’s a whole contingent of design-minded home builders who’d love to live in a container home but can’t necessarily afford to commission an architect. To address this groundswell of interest, DeMaria created Logical Homes (, a web-based portfolio of seven affordable model container homes. “We don’t believe good architecture is something that should only be experienced by the wealthy,” says DeMaria, “so we changed the way we deliver our product.” The model homes, which DeMaria refers to as “next-generation prefab,” come in 16 different configurations, all of which are available as is or tweaked to the buyer’s specifications.

Logical Homes contemporary designs range from the compact 320-square-foot Kara (pictured below), which features a roll-up garage door that opens onto a 270-square-foot porch, to the 1,692-square-foot Seto, a three-bedroom family home, which can be affordably expanded to five bedrooms by simply taking off the prefabricated Techno roof, adding more containers on top, then putting the roof back on—no moving out required! “We never want anyone who moves into a container house to feel like they’ve had to make compromises,” says DeMaria. As such, customers can customize the seven basic models, including sheathing the corrugated steel walls in siding to camouflage their industrial pedigree. The models range in price from $49,000 for the smallest unit to $449,000 for the supersized 3,560-square-foot version of the Seto, which includes five bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, a great room, second-floor deck, twin garages, and a covered front-porch with a built-in fireplace.

Logical Homes De Maria Container House Kara 320 800w

It’s just a matter of time before people become comfortable with the idea of building with containers and start embracing the technology, says DeMaria. “We’ve got a lot of things in the works, and once the projects all kicks in, container architecture is going to blossom. There’s no doubt.”

To see more of the Redondo Beach container house, take our House Tour slide show.

To learn more about Peter DeMaria’s work, visit DeMaria Design. To price containers in your area, click here.

Hudson Passive Project

New York State's first Certified Passive House sets the benchmark for energy efficiency.

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

For Dennis Wedlick, the conservation-minded architect who masterminded the Hudson Passive Project—New York State’s first certified passive house—passive building is nothing short of revolutionary. Based on design models established by Germany’s Passivhaus Institut, passive dwellings basically heat and cool themselves, often slashing typical heating bills by upwards of 90%. Although more than 30,000 of these ‘zero-energy’ buildings have been erected in countries like Austria and Germany, passive houses remain rare in the United States, says Wedlick, whose residence in Claverack, New York, is one of only 11 U.S. projects to be awarded certification from the Passive House Institute, the American arm of Passivhaus Institut.

Not to be confused with passive solar, which requires architects to calibrate their designs to maximize solar energy, passive houses focus on minimizing the amount of energy used to heat, cool, and operate a dwelling. Unlike more traditional green residential designs, which often rely on technologies like solar panels and wind turbines, passive houses come close to achieving near-zero energy consumption by being super-insulated and airtight. To achieve this, builders insulate the entire envelope, including the walls, roof, even the foundation, and meticulously caulk, seal, and tape every possible gap or opening in the house so that the structure is so airtight it could literally hold water.

Related: House Tour—Hudson Passive Project

In addition to eschewing structural elements that might serve as thermal bridges (allowing hot or cold air to escape), passive design also relies on strategically placed windows to ensure the home gains more heat than it loses. Last but not least, passive houses tap into the energy and residual heat (from, say, a clothes dryer or a pot of pasta cooking on the stove) that exist in the house through an advanced heat-recovery system. “I call it a magic box,” says Wedlick. “It’s the only mechanical equipment required in a passive house. It brings fresh air in and exhausts stale air and brings fresh air in, all the while transferring the heat to the new air coming in.” And ‘airtight’ doesn’t mean you can’t open the windows, notes the architect. “Passive houses operate like any other house. They’re just a lot more efficient.”

Photo: Elliott Kaufman

Although Wedlick spent several years refining the eco-specifications of his design using thermal modeling and precise climatic information provided by Passivhaus Institut, the Hudson Passive Project took only about six months to construct once actual building got underway. Wedlick received grant money from the New York State Energy Research Development Authority, and tapped Chatham, New York, custom builder Bill Stratton to oversee construction.

Although high performance and energy efficiency motivated the project, Wedlick was equally attentive to the look and feel of the three-bedroom, two-bath home. With its exterior stonework, timber frame, and pitched roof, the house, which is situated on seven acres in the Hudson River Valley, pays tribute to the Dutch barns that were once common in the region. “The aesthetics of the structure have a lot to do with the message of the house,” says Wedlick, who wanted the residence to have a strong connection to nature and give the impression that the house is as healthy indoors as out. To this end, Wedlick opted for a striking two-story wall of triple-paned windows on the structure’s southern exposure as well as soaring, cathedral-like ceilings with bow-arch beams, which give the open, loft-like interior a roominess that belies its compact 1,650 footprint.

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

When it came time to outfit the interior, Wedlick cleverly proved that energy efficiency and luxury aren’t mutually exclusive. He relied on eco-friendly lines from companies such as Baldwin Hardware and Waterworks, focusing on products made to last (yet another important measure of sustainability). In the kitchen, Wedlick installed beechwood cabinets, marble countertops, and premium, energy-efficient GE appliances suited for a passive house. “We wanted to reduce penetration and the number of openings we’d need to make airtight, so we opted for an induction range with no hood,” notes Wedlick. Any exhaust fumes get funneled through the ventilation system.

Hudson Passive House Air Flow System Dennis WedlickThe bathrooms, which feature low-flow Waterworks faucets and fixtures, are outfitted in marble and recycled glass tiles. For increased energy efficiency, the bathrooms and kitchen were ganged together, back-to-back, in order to share the hot water provided by the home’s single on-demand water heater. Situated on the north end of the ground floor, the master bedroom features sliding barn doors that can be pulled shut for privacy. Tucked under the eaves on the second level, two bedrooms and a study occupy the open loft; skylight windows let in sunlight and provide a sense of spaciousness.

Passive house technology isn’t just for new construction, says Wedlick. “If you’re remodeling to the point that you’re working on the foundation, insulate it. You’ll see a big difference in energy usage.” Replacing windows? Consider high-performance models that eliminate thermal bridging. And if you feel a draft, do something about it. “If you had a leaky faucet in the bathroom, it would be foolish not to fix it, right? It’s the same thing with drafts,” says Wedlick. “It’s a shame that energy-efficient homes have this geeky, hard-to-maintain reputation because they’re actually easy to manage. Any good hardware store can show you what to do to make your house more airtight.”

If the house’s first winter is any indication, the Hudson Passive Project is working exactly as planned. The current owners of the home never turned the heat on last winter, says Wedlick. “In my mind this is a true breakthrough. It reminds us that good building techniques can really be the answer.”

©Elliott Kaufman

For more images of the project, check out our House Tour slideshow. For additional information on the standards and techniques used to build passive houses, visit Passive House Institute US. To learn more about the Hudson Passive Project, click here.

Color Trends 2012: Top Forecasters Weigh In

What’s color got to do with it? Everything, according to top forecasters!

Tangerine Tango Bedroom

Photo: Sage Atelier

Last year, Honeysuckle (18-2120), a rich, energetic pink, nudged out Turquoise (15-5519), the previous year’s darling to win Pantone’s color of the year. For 2012, the company’s forecasters passed the crown for hottest new hue to Tangerine Tango (17-1463), an adrenaline-packed orange that decorators are already embracing as a sassy visual antidote to the malaise many Americans are experiencing this election year.

“Tangerine Tango has the dynamism of red and the friendly, welcoming undertones of yellow, plus a certain amount of seductiveness,” explains Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of Pantone’s Color Institute and author of the “We all know that certain colors can lift our spirits,” says Eiseman, who notes that the ups and downs of the global zeitgeist play a significant role in her color-selection process.

Although possibly the most well known, Pantone isn’t the only company with a color-of-the-year forecast. The experts at Benjamin Moore landed on Wythe Blue (HC-143), a restful blue-green with cool gray undertones, as its top pick for 2012. “It’s interesting that the color’s from our historical collection,” says Sonu Matthew, a senior interior designer with the company. “We’ve actually cited it because it has a modern edge, yet it’s rooted in history and respectful of what’s classic and enduring.” Likewise, several shades of gray, including trendy Nimbus (2131-50) and Revere Pewter (HC-172), make Benjamin Moore’s list, as do spicier, less restrained hues, like Gypsy Love (2085-30) and Persimmon (2088-40), both of which hit the bolder note of Pantone’s upbeat Tangerine Tango.

Sherwin Williams Argyle Green 2012 Color Bob VilaFor 2012, Sherwin-Williams’ Indigo Batik (SW 7602), a deep navy blue, was nudged out of first place by Argyle (SW 6747), a true, almost emerald green that the likes of Lilly Pulitzer and Kate Spade have always kept in their arsenal. “It’s a very preppy color, the perfect blend of blue and yellow,” says Jackie Jordan, the company’s director of color marketing. “A lot of people haven’t liked it, but we’re surrounded by it in nature everyday. It’s a very basic green. People don’t fully appreciate the color yet, but I think they’ll grow to love it the more they see it.” Like Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams also included a robust orange called Daredevil (SW 6882) on its 2012 hot list.

So what exactly is color forecasting? Much more than meets the eye, according to Eileen McComb, Director of Communications at Benjamin Moore. “It’s a process that starts a year or more in advance. Our team of color technologists, trend spotters, and designers are constantly looking at global socioeconomic and political trends as well as what designers, architects, and manufacturers of durable goods, automobiles, and home décor are producing,” says McComb. In addition to monitoring major furniture, kitchen and bath, and electronic shows, the company’s color sleuths also keep a finger on the pulse of the latest fashions and cosmetics, as women make the majority of paint-color decisions at home.

Jackie Jordan and her team at Sherwin-Williams look to pop culture for new and notable color stories, including up-and-coming artists; soon-to-be-released films; and the latest runway fashions, which oftentimes set the tone for future home décor trends. “We talk about the economy, and try to gauge our customers’ mood and how that’s going to be translated into the spaces they’ll create,” says Jordan.

At Pantone, the sources of inspiration prove equally vast. “Color forecasting is intuitive but not arbitrary. We have to do a lot of homework, and we collect data nonstop,” explains Leatrice Eiseman, who considers everything from fashion and the theater to traveling art exhibitions, films, the Internet, new technology, and more when projecting which new color will get selected each year. “There’s no magic bullet. We look at what’s trendy today and what’s likely to carry on into the future,” Eiseman says.

Benjamin Moore Wythe Blue 2012 Color Bob Vila“Color forecasting definitely isn’t a linear progression,” adds Eileen McComb. “What we give people is a guide.” In 2011, Benjamin Moore’s color was a purple, this year it’s blue (Wythe Blue wall color right). “We’re not dictating to consumers, we’re just saying that a certain color is something that should be in the consideration mix if you’re thinking about transforming a space,” she adds.

And like most stars, not even hot colors burn bright forever. By mid-January, forecasters have already moved on, busy trend spotting new and beautiful hues for 2013. We asked for hints on what to expect next, but all of our experts responded the same: “Give me a few months!”

For more on paint and color, consider the following articles and slideshows:

TangerineTango: 10 Products on Trend
Historic Paint Colors
How To: Choose a Paint Finish

Brad Pitt’s MAKE IT RIGHT Homes

The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

Photo: Make It Right

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, bringing category-3 winds and tidal surges that devastated scores of Delta communities, including New Orleans, where levee breaches resulted in historic flooding across 80% of the city. The now infamous Lower 9th Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, absorbed the lion’s share of the damage. Floodwaters destroyed more than 4,000 homes, and close to 15,000 residents found themselves homeless.

Related: Make It Right: 6 Years After Katrina

Two years later, FEMA trailers housed entire families and block after block of the Lower 9th Ward still had not been rebuilt, which is why architecture enthusiast and part-time NOLA resident Brad Pitt stepped in. Discouraged by the lack of progress in the wake of the disaster, the actor created the nonprofit Make it Right, pledging to rebuild 150 affordable, green, and storm-resistant LEED-certified houses for working families who had resided in the neighborhood when Katrina hit. “These people did everything right,” said Pitt, when introducing the project. “They went to school, they got jobs, they bought their own homes, and suddenly all that was wiped out.”

Pushing Green Forward
Since its inception, Make It Right has functioned as a huge laboratory for sustainable, eco-friendly building innovations. “We had no idea we’d get such positive reception to the project,” says Tom Darden, Make It Right’s executive director. “We basically set out to build the best houses that we could build, with Brad Pitt asking some architects he respected to participate and design houses for us on a pro-bono basis. As a result, Make It Right’s become an initiative that a lot of people are watching in terms of disaster recovery and sustainable building.”

Indeed, the US Green Building Council calls the 16-block area where Make It Right has focused its revitalization efforts America’s largest green neighborhood of single-family homes, with all of the organization’s dwellings qualifying for LEED platinum certification—the highest designation for energy efficiency and sustainability awarded by the Council.

In 2008, Make It Right finished construction on its first six houses on August 29—the very day an evacuation notice for Hurricane Gustav, another category-3 storm, was issued by the city of New Orleans. “We got to see the durability of the designs tested in the real world,” says Darden. Happily, the houses survived unscathed, a confidence builder for the first families to move into the residences.

Photo: Make It Right

As the nonprofit completes its third full year of building, 75 single-family residences and duplexes have been completed. The structures, which feature jutting rooflines, elevated porches, and bright tropical colors, have been built from plans submitted by 21 high-profile design firms run by such notable architects as Frank Gehry, William McDonough, and Hitoshi Abe. All of the products used in the construction of the houses are analyzed using the holistic cradle-to-cradle philosophy, which basically means that all building materials meet strict green standards and are healthy for the people who dwell there. The affordable homes, which cost $150,000 each, currently shelter more than 300 Lower 9th Ward residents displaced from the storm.

Building Smart, for the Next Storm
While no one would wish another Katrina-like disaster on the city, making sure the new houses can weather the next big storm has always been an overriding objective of the Make It Right design process. Since the Lower 9th Ward experienced sustained flood levels of four feet in the wake of Katrina, Make It Right residences are built at an elevation of five to eight feet, a full two to five feet above the FEMA recommendation. “Every time it rains in New Orleans, it floods to some degree,” says Cesar Rodriguez, the organization Construction Service Manager. “So we wanted to help change how people managed water.”

One way is to collect rainwater in 300-gallon cement cisterns (outfitted with filters and pressure pumps), which homeowners can use to irrigate gardens, wash cars—and ultimately reduce their water bills. Capturing the storm water also reduces topsoil erosion on the properties, all of which are landscaped with hardy, native trees, shrubs, and perennials that require minimal to no maintenance. To control localized flooding, Make It Right’s houses also feature highly porous pervious concrete driveways and sidewalks, which reduce storm runoff by allowing rainwater to seep back into the ground.

Recently, the nonprofit has also partnered with the city of New Orleans on an innovative pilot program to evaluate pervious concrete as a possible replacement for major portions of traditional roadways. “We’re in the testing phase right now, but the Lower 9th Ward could have one of America’s first zero-runoff streets,” states Rodriguez. “We get 60 inches of rain a year in New Orleans and it costs the city about two cents per gallon to pump the water over the levee. Pervious concrete roads cost more upfront, but they could potentially save the city 20 to 25 million dollars a year.”

All Make It Right homes are extremely energy efficient, eco-friendly and are produced using environmentally sensitive construction methods. Photo: Charlie Varley

Home Eco-nomics
Besides being good for the planet, Make It Right’s super-efficient houses save homeowners money, sometimes shaving as much as 80% off the pre-Katrina energy bills Lower 9th Ward residents paid. The homes feature maintenance-free 266-gauge metal roofs that absorb less heat (and cut cooling costs) as well as 4-killowatt photovoltaic solar panels, which harness Louisiana’s bright sunlight to generate electricity for the homes. Some residents, according to Rodriguez, pay as little as $12 a month for utilities on a roughly 1,200-square-foot home—all in a city where the average monthly electric bill runs anywhere from $150 to $200.

Inside the houses, close-cell spray-foam insulation ensures a tight seal against the elements, tankless water heaters cut heating bills by half, and low-flow plumbing fixtures and stream-lined Energy Star dishwashers, washing machines, and fridges conserve water as well as energy. Benjamin Moore’s zero-VOC Natura and Aura paints improve indoor air quality, while formaldehyde-free plywood cabinets from Armstrong and Cosentino’s ECO countertops—made from 75% post-consumer glass, porcelain, and stone scraps—come standard in kitchens and baths. And, in true cradle-to-cradle fashion, the recycled Green Edge carpeting that softens the floors can be recycled yet again when it’s in need of replacement. (Shaw, Green Edge’s manufacturer, even retrieves the old carpets at no additional cost to the customer.)

75 Houses Built—75 to Go
As he looks to the future, Tom Darden hopes Make It Right will become a national model as well as a resource for other groups and communities considering low-income green building and cradle-to-cradle sourcing. While it’s a common assumption that homeowners need deep pockets to build green, Make It Right has proven that adaptable, durable, high-quality LEED-platinum houses can be constructed at a competitive, market-rate price point. “We think the principles we’ve applied to drive down the cost of our houses can be implemented everywhere, not just in communities that have experienced a natural disaster,” Darden says. “If all goes as planned, we’ll work ourselves out of a job at some point and everyone will start designing homes that reach Make It Right’s level of green and sustainability.”

Nevertheless, the human quotient remains the true bottom line for Darden and Make It Right. “The real success story as far as I’m concerned,” notes Darden, “is seeing these families move into an affordable green home that will shelter them safely through the next storm.”

To learn more about Make It Right, visit

Bob Vila’s 50 Shades of Green

While our 50 Shades may not be as sexy as the blockbuster novel, these green tips for the home promise gratifying results and earth-friendly fulfillment. 

Green Tips for the Home - 50 Shades of Green

Standing in her kitchen, she knew the handsome stranger wasn’t like the other men in her life, when he pulled her close, gazed into her eyes, and whispered, “Can I fix your leaky faucet?” And that was only the beginning.

He adjusted her thermostat, put air in her tires, even convinced her to get up on the old bike again. She swooned at his knowledge of glorious things. Could this be the man, she wondered? The man whose desire for energy conservation would finally unleash her deep desire to recycle, repurpose, and live sustainably. As he drew a deep breath to speak, her heart leapt. Could this really be happening?

And so begins the 50 Shades of Green…



Green Tips for the Home - Plant a Tree


Plant a tree (or two). These hardworking beauties help prevent soil erosion, absorb C02 and produce oxygen, and provide sweet shade come summer. To determine the right species for your region, visit


Green Tips for the Home -

Recycling is great but precycling is better. Choose products that create less waste from the get-go: If possible, buy grocery staples in bulk and opt for items with less packaging, such as a two-liter bottle of soda instead of a dozen single-serve cans.


Green Tips for the Home - Dripping Faucet

You’ve it heard before, but remember to turn off the faucet each time you polish your pearly whites (or shave). You’ll save two to four gallons of clean water every time you brush


Green Tips for the Home - Trash

Volunteer at one of American Rivers’ annual cleanups and help collect some of the millions of tons of trash that wash up along the nation’s waterways. To locate an event near you—or find out how to become a sponsor—visit


Green Tips for the Home - Birdfeeder

Feed the birds, especially in winter, when providing food and water may really make a difference. If it dips below freezing in your region, invest in an electric deicer so your birdbath doesn’t ice over.


Green Tips for the Home - Leaking Pipes

Fix leaks promptly. According to the EPA, leaks in American homes account for 1 trillion gallons of wasted water per year—or the annual water use of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami combined!


Green Tips for the Home - Machine Wash

Buy clothing that doesn’t require dry cleaning—and the toxic chemicals that entails—whenever possible.


Green Tips for the Home - Coffee Cups

Brew organic, fair-trade coffee. No chemicals are used on the fields, famers make a living wage, and the tasty java costs just pennies a cup! And if the beans are shade grown (which most organic coffee is), the trees that shelter the coffee plants provide habitat for birds and mammals, too.


Green Tips for the Home - Dishwasher

Save water and energy by only running your washer and dishwasher when fully loaded.


Green Tips for the Home - Car Wash

Does your car need cleaning? Use a bucket of soapy water to tackle the grime, saving the final rinse for the hose.

Bob Vila’s “50 Shades of Green” continues here.

5 Historic Homes Open for Christmastime Tours

Everything’s sparkly and bright at five of America’s historic landmarks—all open for touring this holiday season.


1. Christmas at Biltmore

Holiday House Tours - Biltmore


In fitting fashion, it was Christmas Eve of 1895 when George W. Vanderbilt officially welcomed his family and friends to Biltmore, his 250-room country retreat overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains. Today, this National Historic Landmark (and America’s largest home) still welcomes guests for the holidays for daytime and candlelight evening visits through January 12th. On the self-guided tours, check out the stunning 35-foot-high tree, miles and miles of festive lights and garlands, and Antler Hill Village—where Santa holds court on weekends to decide who’s been naughty or nice. Want to learn how to make a wreath? Holiday craft classes are also held daily. Pricing varies; visit to learn more.


2.  Holiday Evening at Vizcaya

Holiday House Tours - Vizcaya


December 18 and 20, from 6 to 9:30 pm, experience Vizcaya—the Italian Renaissance-style winter villa of American industrialist James Deering (of tractor fame)—as it would have looked at Christmas time in the early 20th century. The main house, which overlooks Biscayne Bay, will be dressed to the nines in twinkling lights and holiday decoration (much like Deering, who moved in on Christmas Day in 1916, would have liked it). There will be holiday tunes played on the home’s custom-built pipe organ as well as holiday treats and libations available for purchase. Tickets will be available on-site for $25; visit to learn more.


3. A Christmas City Stroll

Holiday House Tours - Bethlehem, PA


Every afternoon until December 23, explore Christmas City USA on 45-minute walking tours through beautiful downtown Historic Bethlehem. You’ll learn about the town’s Colonial and Victorian architecture, as guides in period dress explain the famous candle-in-every-window tradition and shed new light on the well-known Bethlehem Star. If you go, book a horse-drawn carriage ride and remember to swing by the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem on Church Street to see some of the oldest holiday decorations in the country. The town’s famous sugar cookies and Moravian stars also make perfect stocking stuffers! Admission costs $12 for adults; $6 for youths six to 12; carriage rides are $50 for four people. Visit to find out more.


4. Christmas at the Newport Mansions

holiday house tours - Newport mansions


Through January 5th, The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House—three icons of the Gilded Age—will be decked out in spectacular Yuletide finery and open for tours. Thousands of poinsettias, fresh flowers, evergreens and wreaths can be expected, while each window in the three homes will be lit with a white candle. Dining tables will also be set for Christmas dinner with period silver and china. Admission to all three houses is $28 for adults and $9 for children six to 17. Visit to learn more. 


5. Christmas at the Castle

Holiday House Tours - Hearst Castle

Photo: Judy Watkins

In 1919, publishing baron William Randolph Hearst sent a simple note to San Francisco architect Julia Morgan: “Miss Morgan we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch at San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.” The resulting estate, with its 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens and walkways, will be decorated for Christmas in appropriately festive Gilded-era style. Expect glittery lights, garlands, wreaths and twin 18′ Christmas trees in the Assembly Room. Plus, docents will be suited up in 1930 period clothing. To find out more about tour options available through the end of December, visit


For more on historic homes, consider:

Tour of Olana (VIDEO)
10 Ways to Bring Historic Style Home
Hasbrouck House: Reclaiming the Past at Washington’s Headquarters

Architect Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forest in Milan

Bosco Vertical Forest apartment building in Milan by Stefano Boeri

Bosco Verticale building in Milan by architect Stefano Boeri.

In Milan, Italian apartment dwellers will soon have the chance to live in the middle of a forest, 20 floors up.

After years of planning, Italian architect Stefano Boeri of Stefano Boeri Architetti has taken the idea of the vertical garden one ambitious step further with his Bosco Verticale, the world’s first “vertical forest”.

Now under construction in Milan’s Isola neighborhood, the urban reforestation project includes two residential towers (one is 27 stories tall, the other 20), both of which incorporate a network of plants, shrubs, and trees on cantilevered balconies. Each building will be planted with 900 trees that range in height from 10 to 30 feet, emulating the mix of species at different maturity levels to be found in a true forest.


Bosco Verticale, Milan

According to Boeri, “Bosco Verticale is a project for metropolitan reforestation that contributes to the regeneration of the environment and urban biodiversity without the implication of expanding the city.” Indeed, if the units in his vertical forest apartment buildings were laid out on level terrain, they’d cover roughly 12 acres of land, with the trees occupying yet another 2.5 acres of open space.

In terms of green building, Bosco Verticale is much more than a lavish beautification stunt. The trees, which include deciduous oaks and amelanchier among others, provide dramatic energy savings year-round (shade in summer; sunshine in winter), plus they improve air quality by releasing humidity and converting CO2 into oxygen.

Tree foliage also provides a windscreen, captures dust particles circulating in the air, and helps filter noise pollution from the street—significant quality-of-life benefits for residents of one of Europe’s busiest and most polluted cities.

In addition to rainwater, Bosco Verticale’s stunning array of greenery will be irrigated by the building’s gray water recycling system.

Trees lifted for planting at Bosco Verticale

Trees being lifted for planting at Bosco Verticale. Photo: Marco Garofalo

If all goes as planned, Bosco Vertical will be the first step in Boeri’s grand sustainability plan, BioMilano, in which he envisions a sheltering green belt of trees around the city and some 60 abandoned farms restored for community use.

When completed, Bosco Verticale will be a “model of vertical densification of nature” within Milan, according to architect Stefano Boeri.

For more on sustainability, consider:

Home Sweet Container
House Tour: Hudson Passive Project
2020 Alton Road: Anatomy of a LEED Home

Bark If You Love Architecture!

Man’s best friend gets the royal treatment at Barkitecture Houston. 

Being in the doghouse isn’t such a bad thing when you’re from Houston! On October 27, some of the city’s best architects, designers, builders and artists unveiled their super-stylish takes on the doghouse at the fourth-annual Barkitecture Houston.

Open to the public (and their pets), the free event included “yappy hour” as well as a silent designer doghouse auction benefiting Pup Squad, an animal rescue group dedicated to finding adoptive homes for stray and abandoned dogs and cats. Following are this year’s top Barkitecture winners.


Best in Show

Doghouse Architecture - RdLR Architects

RdLR Architects

The 2012 Best in Show award went to RdLR Architecture for its chic “Le Dog Hausss”, a luxury suite inspired by the elegance of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Form follows function in the colorful structure, which features a covered eating area and an oval interior that mimics the shape of a dog in the resting position.


2nd Place

Doghouse Architecture -Philo Wilke

Philo Wilke

Architecture firm Philo Wilke grabbed second place for its “simply complex” design, whose contemporary slant-roof design and ventilated wood details ensures the lucky canine resident stays cool and comfortable even on the muggiest summer days.


3rd Place

Doghouse Architecture - John Ruelas

John Ruelas

Third place went to designers John Ruelas and Jeff Erlich, who incorporated a graphic sign and a row of columns into their charming “Good Dog” pavilion.


People’s Choice

Doghouse Architecture - Leslie Elkins Architecture

Leslie Elkins Architecture

This versatile wooden structure from Leslie Elkins Architecture (winner of the coveted People’s Choice award) does double duty as a doghouse and an outdoor table. The tabletop shades Fido, while the slotted sides allow him to enjoy the breeze.


Kid’s Choice Award

Doghouse Architecture - John Gay

John Gay

Created to honor all those who rescue—from the Coast Guard to Houston’s Pup Squad—engineer (and very accomplished woodworker) John Gay’s cedar rescue helicopter was the clear favorite with younger attendees.

To learn more of download information on how to build your own doghouse, visit Barkitecture Houston.

For more on doghouses, consider:

Fab Doghouses
“Best in Show” Doghouse Contest Winners
The Doghouse Frank Lloyd Wright Built