By Lisa Antenucci
A Minneapolis Couple Plans for a Growing Family with a Sustainable Home Renovation
Kevin Miller and Bobby Jardin are feeling hopeful. They are preparing for a Skype interview with a birth mother in Florida who showed interest in their adoption profile. Though the outcome of the interview is by no means certain, it is a vital sign that the outlook looks good for the married couple hoping to adopt. They have been in the adoption process for four years, during which they have undertaken an extraordinary home renovation and built a life together here in Minneapolis. But since enlisting an adoption consultant three months ago, they have expanded their reach significantly, qualifying for agencies that are licensed in many states beyond Minnesota. Their prospects have increased, too: they get a call about every fortnight from an interested party.
The adoption process may have begun four years ago, but Kevin and Bobby have been planning for it for much longer than that. They met in Chicago in the early 2000s, Kevin, a civil engineer, and Bobby, a medical device specialist recently out of the Air Force and Navy. When Bobby lost his job, Kevin suggested that they move back to his home state of Minnesota. “Typical Minnesota-boy behavior,” says Bobby with a laugh. “Move away…move back home.”
After renting for a few years, the couple wanted to settle down as homeowners. Originally they wanted to buy a loft, but at the time loft options in Minneapolis were limited to new condos going up in the warehouse district. “We thought, why increase the demand for new construction when we can find something that exists and fix it up?” says Kevin. They bought a Queen Anne on a double lot in the Whittier neighborhood and settled in.
Whittier at the time was not utopian. “At first, I was not a fan,” admits Bobby. “The first night there were cops in the yard.”
“We called the PD over 100 times the first year,” adds Kevin. They witnessed drug deals, arrests, gun shots, and prostitution on a regular basis. “When you move into a house, you learn more than the real estate agent told you,” Kevin jokes.
Despite after-hours offenses, Whittier was an attractive neighborhood for the prospective parents because it had good schools and diverse residents. Since Kevin and Bobby did not know the race of their future child, they selected a multiracial neighborhood — Somalian, Hispanic, and Hmong — that had an IB World School and the Waldorf Magnet School. Whittier was also close to Uptown and the lakes, both with easy access via Midtown Greenway, and close enough to downtown Minneapolis that they could ditch one of their cars. “We expected that one of us would have a job downtown, so we can take public transit,” Kevin explains.
The house needed to be fixed up significantly. The previous homeowner had removed most of the flooring on the main level, exposing the subfloor such that the basement was visible between the cracks. Tiles were missing and the plaster and batten walls were damaged. There were even “skulls and Wiccan symbols all over the place in the basement,” notes Bobby.
“My mother came over with holy water and blessed the house!” jokes Kevin.
Kevin and Bobby started the renovation in 2008. The first phase aimed to make the house livable by updating the interiors throughout. “We have always been sustainably minded, Bobby and I,” says Kevin. An unwavering commitment to sustainable design guided the renovation. For starters, Kevin became LEED-accredited. At the time, LEED had not published residential guidelines for existing homes, so he took the training for new buildings. They wanted to get LEED credit for as much of what they touched as possible. Doors came from the Re-Use Center (now defunct), knobs and hardware from Northwest Architectural Salvage and Guilded Salvage Antiques, tiles from a recycled goods shop, lights from Bauer Brothers Salvage, and reclaimed timbers from local tear-downs. They replaced bathroom components with low-usage faucets and fixtures. They wished to use only lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as being sustainably or locally harvested, which in one case meant sourcing trim from a mill in Green Bay, WI. Though now common, FSC-certified lumber was at the time new and hard to source. All the paints and stains were certified as containing low or no amounts of VOCs.
One of the bedrooms had original floorboards, which Kevin and Bobby wanted to match throughout the house. Though one-inch hard maple plank flooring is difficult to come by, they decided to stick with it for two reasons. The first reason was ecological. Kevin likes to point out that reusing existing materials is more sustainable than generating new materials. The second reason was historical. Queen Anne houses like Kevin and Bobby’s were the living quarters of blue collar workers in the 1880s, while the nearby Victorian houses were upper-class homes. The one-inch planks that floored Queen Anne houses were the cut-off scraps of the wide planks that floored Victorian houses. The flooring was a social differential.
“I liked that story,” says Kevin, “so I said ‘let’s keep it.’” Finding FSC-certified one-inch hard maple planks to match the existing floorboards presented its own challenge. Kevin ultimately hired Aacer Hardwood Flooring in Green Bay to custom mill it.
The homeowners’ attention to the flooring typifies their persistence in finding sustainable solutions. They scoured the Twin Cities and beyond for whatever materials would work. “We were on a budget!” laughs Bobby. “We thought ‘we want to do something sustainable; let’s find the materials that are out there and make it work.’”
One of the most in-depth parts of the first phase was the implementation of a residential greywater system, which Kevin designed and certified himself. “I was in a unique position to stamp my own design,” admits Kevin.
The City of Minneapolis acknowledged that the state plumbing code did not allow for greywater systems but the city (and the state) can approve the systems on a case-by-case basis. The city approved the system after performing an “equivalency review,” comparing the international plumbing code to the state code. “At the time, the city’s plan examiner said he used our plan as practice review for the Twins stadium that now also has a greywater and recycled rainwater system,” explains Kevin. Since issuing a permit to Kevin, the city has referred several homeowners interested in installing a greywater system to Kevin’s design. In 2008, it was only the second permitted residential greywater system in Minneapolis.
One of the primary goals of phase one was to prepare a nursery, what Kevin and Bobby call “the baby’s room”. “Since we wanted to start a family, we knew that one of the bedrooms had to be set up as a nursery right away — an obvious choice was the second bedroom next to the master bedroom — and we wanted it done before signing up with our adoption agency in Minneapolis. We didn’t know how long we would wait to have a baby, but from doing some research it was said that a baby’s room should be the first thing to have situated when considering adoption.”
For the décor, Kevin and Bobby chose gender-neutral colors since they did not know if they were going to have a baby boy or girl. They painted the walls pale lavender and the trim white. The crib and baby changing station came from their friends John and Thomas, whose adopted son had outgrown them.
By the time phase one wrapped up in 2011 “we knew we were in over our heads,” jokes Kevin. Consequently they enlisted Shelter Architecture to design phase two, an addition to the house and new garage that aimed to be GreenStar certified. The addition is designed as a family room that can be converted to a master suite in the future. In the short term, Kevin and Bobby wanted a gathering place for their growing family, but in the long term could see its use changing as the family changed.
The addition has a flat roof that features both a roof deck and porch. The roof hosts two solar arrays — one elevated on a pergola outfitted by Silicon Energy, a Mesabi Range company, and the other mounted directly to the roof by tenKsolar, a custom solar product company based in Bloomington. The addition has radiant heated floors and all-LED lighting with James Hardie Panel siding and Black Locust cladding. The couple earned extra GreenStar credits for using Black Locust wood, a documented invasive species in Minnesota. The concrete floors are sealed with SoyCrete and the reclaimed wood interior with TimberSoy — both soy-based stains from Kevin and Bobby’s favorite DIY shop, the Natural Built Home Store. The deck railing and stairs were custom fabricated by Discount Steel, while NE Sheet Metal fabricated the exterior light fixtures, planters, and gutters. “We employed local labor as much as possible,” notes Kevin.
Though Shelter designed the expansion, Kevin handled construction administration. His professional experience as a project manager put him in the unique position to be both homeowner and general contractor. “If you have the time, and you just start making phone calls, you can typically find what you’re looking for, though it may require a bit of creativity,” he says. “You eventually become an expert in the field by the end of the day just by osmosis, just by living and breathing.”
Kevin may make it sound like wearing both general contractor and homeowner hats was a breeze, but in fact it was a complex operation, complicated by the fact that Kevin was out of state during the nine months prior to construction. He was working in New York City as a project specialist, helping with FEMA’s infrastructure mitigation efforts after Hurricane Sandy. His team repaired parts of the existing water resources infrastructure, in an attempt to limit future damage. They improved critical components of the waste water treatment plants so the sewer system could stay functional during the next hurricane. Preparing for construction back home while he was away required careful planning.
Phase two was completed last summer and the outcome is striking. Kevin and Bobby deem it a success in every regard except one: the kitchen flooring. When the kitchen remodel was postponed to the next phase of the project, they decided to install a temporary floor covering in the interim to get by. It is a tile product by Armstrong, unique because of its high recycled and rapidly renewable material content and low-emitting adhesives. “It’s a cool product to talk about and research, but it didn’t quite meet our fashion needs,” laughs Kevin.
“It’s bio-based, though, so I’m OK with it,” jokes Bobby. It was the only sustainable temporary solution on the market.
Over the course of the renovation, the Whittier neighborhood has gentrified. Homeowners of all kinds have moved in: “young urban professionals, families with kids, ‘the gays’,” Bobby laughs. “We and the neighbors here made a commitment to stay.”
Phase three is up next, set to commence this summer. The homeowners plan to insulate the walls and attic of the original house, replace the original siding and windows, and complete the roof deck. Implementing the remainder of the master plan — including a rain garden and water feature — is in the works, too. “We want to be totally off the grid,” says Kevin, so he is looking into a storm water retention system that he learned about through FEMA to irrigate the yard and pump the water feature. It is essentially a custom-shaped bladder that will fit in the crawl space under the deck and collect run-off from the roof.
“Of course, the most sustainable thing to have is a native landscape [that doesn’t require irrigation] and a garden feature that doesn’t need water,” says Kevin. They will adhere to a “no potable water rule” so if the bladder is empty, they won’t irrigate or operate the fountain. The garden feature is designed to be as attractive dry as it is while it is running. They plan to ask the City of Minneapolis to waive a portion of their storm water fee, as their site will not slough water back into the city infrastructure.
Even though phase three hasn’t begun yet, the “most intrusive” parts of the renovation are done and the home is ready and waiting for an adoptee. Friends and family have passed on loads of baby supplies: a crib, baby changing station, stroller, and at least three car seats fill the basement. “Basically everything; we just need the baby!” says Bobby.
Kevin adds, “We’re hopeful that 2015 is the year we at least get matched.” As the saying goes, build it and they will come.
Lisa Antenucci is an award-winning dynamo at Shelter; an innovative, creative, yet accessible design studio specializing in the architecture and interior design of sustainable homes and unique commercial spaces. See her work at www.shelterarchitecture.com. Article written with Benjamin Olsen, Shelter’s marketing associate.