San Diego by Design

The Greener House


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“MAYBE SOME OF MY COLLEAGUES don’t want to hear this,” says North County–based designer Laura Birns, “but I truly believe more designers need to educate the public and promote environmentally sound designs that assist in maintaining or improving the quality of life.”

She admits it’s challenging to work with and research materials that qualify as environmentally “green.” It eats up billable hours, and not all clients agree to do it. “Yet it’s worth the time and energy,” she says. “We have to start sometime. Why not now? After all, my energy is a renewable resource.”

Birns found kindred souls in clients Karen and Randy Weisser of Escondido, sparking her passion to select as many green materials as possible and apply them to the design concept.

The designer and the Weissers agreed the homeowners’ 1920-something, custom-built house, situated inland with no discernible architectural style, needed to be opened up inside and out. The home’s existing floor plans boxed in expansive views with unnecessary walls.

“Right off, we removed nonstructural barriers so the kitchen, living and dining rooms flowed spontaneously into one another,” says Birns. The result brought added views, more natural light and a breeziness that encouraged family togetherness instead of separation.

The Weissers like to entertain casually—almost on the run. They favor comfortable, low-maintenance furniture. “Because they like having large parties with guests overflowing from the living room onto the rear deck,” Birns says, “I designed a sofa and chairs filled with down for easy lounging.”

When homeowners entertain that often, the furniture is best kept to a minimum.

Birns designed the coffee table with wheels so it can be moved out of the way. Central to any home is the kitchen. Adding a kitchen counter, by Berkeley’s Counter Productions, was not only a stylish decision but also a green one. The colorful top has a durable mineral-based glass surface made from 80 to 95 percent recycled materials, including crushed Snapple bottles.

The countertop can be used inside or out. It will not fade and is scratch- and heat-resistant.

We’ve heard the adage “The cobbler’s kids go shoeless.” Randy Weisser, who owns Unique Lighting, a local maker of landscape lighting, knew his home wasn’t as energy- efficient as he’d like, but he’d never had the time to fix it.

Birns, who for 20 years has operated Laura Birns Design, quickly changed that. She added low-voltage, halogen and fluorescent lighting to kill kilowatts. All switches were put on dimmers to control the amount of energy used. Natural light from a skylight and additional windows and sliding- glass doors help maintain an open environment.

MANY OLDER PAINTED SURFACES, especially those brushed with oil-based paint, emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) into the air. Using low- to zero-VOC paint (such as waterbased Sherwin-Williams latex) means a cost savings, since oil paints are more expensive and the same amount of paint would be required for an interior whether latex or oil-based is used. Zero-VOC latex paint is best for painting walls because it has little odor. If you want more durability, latex semi-gloss is a good choice.

“Water-based paints are safe for the environment and for human health,” Birns says. “They have extremely low harmful emissions and contain no heavy metals or formaldehyde.”

And to apply tile on floors or walls, a zero-VOC adhesive is now available at hardware stores.

The greening of the Weisser home didn’t stop with paint selection or lighting improvements. The woods used for cabinetry and furniture are from nonendangered species or are veneer composites.

Kitchen drawer interiors were fabricated using bamboo. Medium-density fiberboard, which contains harmful pollutants, was used at a minimum, on the floorboards.

The flooring, a wide-plank aspen, is from Cozzolino Inc. Its sister operation, COR Products Inc., offers a line of flooring and decorative surfaces. COR—Conserve Our Resources—uses woods from sustainable forests.

“Cozzolino’s engineered wood is beautiful, and it has the advantage of shrink-resistance, strength and stability not normally found in solid-wood products,” Birns says. “It also uses up to 75 percent of the harvested lumber in each tree, while standard wood floor systems are able to use only about 40 percent of trees.”

The greening of the project continued with the addition of woven-paper wall coverings from New York’s Maya Romanoff. All dyes in Romanoff’s products (available from Donghia nationally) are water-based, as is the glue on the backing.

Natural slate was selected for the fireplace face; faux rocks were used around the hearth. The designer fashioned an artificial- stone stream, which she had cut into the floor, that flows from the hearth to a nearby powder room.The stone continues on the floor of the power room and climbs to sink level as wainscoting. All stone and tile are from International Tile.

Inserts in the kitchen cabinets and the powder room door are made from a recyclable acrylic resin-based product by 3-Form.

It’s fire-rated for interior use and classified as a 100 percent green product, says Birns. “And it doesn’t shatter,” she adds.

The living room carpet, from Coles Carpets, is 100 percent wool, and the Weissers have documentation verifying it’s a product made without child labor. The custom cabinetry and all furniture were locally manufactured, keeping the “green” in the area. Most of the art is by local artists. The Viking kitchen appliances are from Kearny Mesa’s Ferguson Enterprises; the kitchen sink and faucet, by Franke, are from the Faucet Factory.

Birns handled all planning and design work, including the kitchen cabinets, the dining room table and its formed aluminum base. She designed the coffee table and built-ins for the great room, master bedroom and the kitchen/family room. She also designed the bedside tables, sofa sectional and barstools.

The dining chairs (Roche-Bobois), counter chairs (Davis Furniture) and assorted glass accent tables and light fixtures (Highlights and Kneedler-Fauchere) were purchased items


Design editor Thomas Shess, writing in San Diego Magazine, was awarded first place for at-large reporting in architecture and design by the San Diego Press Club at its most recent Excellence in Journalism Awards.

Greener Kitchen  Comfortable Colors: ASID designer Laura Birns chose a warm and lively color palette for Karen and Randy Weisser’s Escondido remodel. Ceiling-high slate showcases the fireplace, as does the pebble-stone hearth that’s cut into the recycled aspen planks. The living room rug is 100 percent wool from Coles Carpets.
 Greener House 2 Bright Idea : White marble stones from Artistic Tile embedded in resin cover a creative light box (foreground) that doubles as a buffet. Its stainless steel cap allows for food service and can be removed to replace fluorescent lighting. The lower counter is ribbon eucalyptus veneer.
  Openness: Franke brand faucet is in the foreground. Plank flooring of nonendangered aspen sets the color tone for the open dining room in the background. The glass-top dining table, designed by Laura Birns, seats six.
 Greener House 4 Purple Reign: The powder room screams creativity, from the wild wall color to the pebble backsplash. Adding flair is a light fixture from Highlights, resin countertop by Counter Productions and a Vitraform basin with Dornbacht faucet from the Faucet Factory.
  Seamless: Nonessential walls were removed so the kitchen, living and dining rooms flow together. This view reveals an all-Viking kitchen with bright colors on the cabinets and an exotic ribbon eucalyptus counter at seating height.

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