A Green Home to Last a Lifetime in Austin

Originally published in 
This is It

Austin couple Anne Suttles and Sam Shah built a house to last their lifetime—and longer. Mixing new efficient systems with old upcycled materials, they keep it weird while keeping it green.

Suttles / Shah Residence

“Anybody can throw money at a house and make it green,” says designer Kevin Alter of Alterstudio Architects. “Anne and Sam’s approach is differ­ent.” For proof of this, look no further than Anne Suttles and Sam Shah’s stairwell, where a neon sign declares their long-term commitment to their 2,428-square-foot green home in Austin, Texas: “This Is It.”

There’s a tankless water heater feed­­ing the faucets and a TPO cool roof on top, but the most sustain­able element is the couple’s lifestyle. They chose their hilltop site in Austin’s Boul­din neighborhood for its walking distance to downtown, weekend farmers’ markets, nearby corner stores, and bustling South Congress Street. With natural ventilation built into the house’s design, Suttles and Shah hardly use their air conditioning. And thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and a strategically placed glass floor below a skylight, they rarely turn on a light during the day. Both work from home, and when they need a set of wheels, they drive their shared hybrid.

Before building the house, Suttles and Shah had to remove the existing home. Rather than tearing it down, they hired Come and Take It Structural Movers & Demolition to pick up the structure and drive it to Leander, Texas, where it’s now home to another family. Construction and demolition waste ac­counts for 40 percent of all U.S. land­fill material—–and the couple doesn’t plan to add to it. “We want to live here for­ever,” Shah says.

Solar and Rainwater Collection Setups

Right when Suttles and Shah were prepared to put up solar panels, Austin rescinded its lucrative rebate program. Nevertheless, they followed through with their plans to ready the house for photovoltaic panels, a solar waterheating system for the pool, and a rainwater collection setup so that everything’s in place when there’s more money in the bank.

Your Turn...

If you're building a new house or undertaking a major renovation, it's a good idea to install the framework for systems that you'll want down the road but can't afford right now.

Wire the house for solar.
Prepping for panels in advance saves money in the long run, as retrofitting can be a laborious and expensive task once the house is already wired.

Ready the roof for solar water heating.

As part of preparing the roof for photovoltaic panels, the designers also laid the groundwork for the future solar water heating for the pool.

Design the drainage system for future rainwater collection.
Though Suttles and Shah don't collect their rainwater just yet, the central drain will make it easy to install a collection tank at its base without having to redirect any pipes.

Invest in quality appliances now.
Reject the notion of starter appliances. "The most wasteful thing is to redo something instead of getting it right from the start," Alter says. Suttles and Shah splurged on energy-efficient Wolf, Miele, and Liebherr appliances.

Cross Ventilation

Though the couple and designers work­ed well together, the windows proved a point of contention. “Archi­tects across the board hate screens,” Suttles says. “But we picked our lot for its breeze. I told Kevin, you’ve got to find me a place for screens!”

To avoid looking through the “veil of metal,” as Alter describes it, the de­signers took cues from Le Corbusier’s only building in the United States—–the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University—–and created “ven­tilators.” In the corners of the kitchen and living room, narrow screened doors let the southeast breezes flow through the home and allow the remaining glass windows to stay fixed and clear. “Anne really challenged Kevin on this issue,” Shah says, “The results really blew our minds.”

Foam Insulation

Traditional batt insulation leaves gaps in the walls and as a result falls short of being able to keep houses cool in 100-degree heat and warm when winters dip into near-freezing temperatures. Alter and his partners instead specified open cell foam insulation. When sprayed into walls, it expands to fill the cavity and hardens in place, creating insulation with twice the R-value per inch (a measurement of thermal resistance) than batt insulation.

Your Turn...

Whether you’re looking to insulate an entire home or fix a drafty doorframe, foam insulation—including the products below—will do the trick.

Icynene: icynene.com
Tiger Foam: tigerfoam.com
Touch ‘n Seal: touch-n-seal.com

Salvaged Objects

Throughout the house, Suttles and Shah mixed old with new. The dining table is made from two old Mexican doors. Around it, four wooden chairs that once belonged to Suttles’s grandmother are paired with two new fiberglass side chairs from Modernica.

Incorporating vintage and salvaged pieces into the modern house not only looks good, but also helps keep per­fectly fine, used materials out of the trash. Upstairs, the floors are clad with beautifully textured reclaimed wood from a barn in Missouri, and in the mas­ter bedroom, old wooden fruit boxes turned into side tables soften the sleek lines of the couple’s Alpine bedframe from CB2. Suttles first spied the rusty 7Up sign, now on the door to the TV room, on the side of a house in Gonzales, Texas. She asked the owner how much she’d sell it for, handed over the $70, then climbed up a ladder to take it down herself. “Every single thing has a reason for being in the house. It all has a story,” Suttles says.

Your Turn...

You don't need to scale a house to score a great vintage find. Visit these online and brick-and-mortar shops that specialize in collectible and mid-century-modern furniture and accessories.

BackGarage: backgarage.com
Century Modern:
Modern Mobler:
Three Potato Four:

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