Leonid Furmansky Photography

When interior designer Laura Britt found herself on Craigslist in the early hours of a fall 2014 morning, it wasn’t to peruse the furniture classifieds, but to give away her house.

True to her firm’s green design principles, when the Austin-based designer learned the pre-existing 1951 ranch-style home she planned to remodel was built on an insufficient foundation, she eschewed demolishing it (and adding waste to the landfill), and instead put a plan into place to segment and relocate the house—on a new foundation—in order to donate it to a local family of 14 in need of a place to live.

“We couldn’t just raze it ... there was still good life in it, and we knew it could be home for someone,” says Britt. “That really gave us a fresh start and opened up our design possibilities.”

The upcycle became step one of transitioning the planned remodel into a new construction project and allowed the project team—led by Britt in collaboration with architecture firm Tornbjerg Design and local builder Bonterra—to explore a new driving force for the home’s design: conceptualizing an ultra-efficient home that actively enhances occupant health. The four-year process gave way to a case study in sustainability; Britt set out to design a home that could mitigate barriers among designers, builders, and students unfamiliar with healthy home-building practices. She also wanted the home to serve as a role model for universal design in residential architecture while maintaining a strong visual connection between its key interior spaces and the outdoors.

“The more I learned about sustainable design in graduate school, the more I wondered—why doesn’t everyone practice this way? But then you start working in the profession and realize the challenges,” Britt says. So she decided to turn her home into a “living laboratory” and invite students and professionals to interact with the build process.

Leonid Furmansky Photography

The LEED-Platinum home implements environmental as well as health attributes that stretch far beyond baseline requirements, and was designed around the principles of the WELL Building Standard, a certification based on seven concepts that promote a holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle: air, mind, water, nourishment, light, fitness, and comfort.

Britt and her son have a long history of respiratory ailments, so healthy air was a top priority, and materials were speced that support indoor air quality, such as zero-VOC paints and stains and furnishings made from sustainable materials that don’t contain irritants.

“We’ve worked on several Energy Star–certified homes, but this project was unique,” says Bonterra’s principal Austin Pitner, whose firm is well-versed with environmentally conscious builds. “There were several different sources of input on every aspect of the house—from student walk-throughs to discussions with architects and designers. There aren’t many projects like this around.”

Leonid Furmansky Photography

At its entrance, a flowing fountain helps soften the street noise and transition visitors from the busy road to the soothing environment within. The 2,750-square-foot home’s U-shaped architecture—which lays two bedrooms, a kitchen, living and dining spaces, a mudroom, laundry room, and home office across a single story—aims to simplify everyday, basic functions by making transitions feel seamless and intuitive, while also preparing the home to be aging-in-place-ready down the line. An ADA ramp from the carport pavilion (which is structurally separated from the home to keep pollutants contained) leading to the home makes entry accessible. Inside, extra-wide hallways fitted with Lutron downlights also make the home easy to maneuver with minimal “light pollution” even late at night, Britt says.

With the living room as its central point, the entire structure overlooks and wraps around the porch along the private rear exterior. Oversized windows across the back volume offer uninterrupted views of the surrounding landscape, and fill the home with greenery and sunlight.

To balance the scenery pulled in from the outdoors, the home is outfitted in a neutral color palette. Light-hued, matte wall paints complement the walnut furnishings and white oak floors to add warmth while maintaining clean, modern lines. In the kitchen, appliances such as the dual compressor refrigerator and Gaggenau combi-steam oven were selected for their support of healthy food preparation and preservation, and to meet WELL guidelines. A Gaggenau induction cooktop and oven eliminates the risks of an open flame as well as gas release and offers a low-fitting side door that makes it easy to access while seated.

Low-flow plumbing fixtures minimize water use, and a rooftop rainwater collection system purifies drinking water through reverse osmosis. Plus, the home’s tankless water heater ignites only when hot water is needed, and reduces carbon dioxide output.

Dehumidifiers throughout both the cooking and bathing areas prevent the accumulation of mold and mildew, and large, curbless showers are built upon a slightly sloped floor with a Schluter barrier system that acts as a waterproof membrane without the effects of off-gassing that can occur when fiberglass or mastic is used.

With the help of its rooftop solar array, the home produces more energy than it consumes: from June 2017 to May 2018, the panels produced 14,040 KwH and the house consumed 11,093 KwH, which helped earn it a five-star rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program. Britt and her family continue to invite design professionals to attend “LEED lunches” at the home to showcase its durable, low-maintenance living environment.

“Our objective for this house was to think of it as our home but also as a living laboratory—to experiment with materials and systems, test how they work, determine their longevity, potential issues, and how our industry can experiment with new materials,” Britt says. “We want to share what we’ve learned thus far.”