Stand in front of the modern marvel that belongs to Jack Williams and Jane York, and there’s a good chance one of the homeowners will step outside and invite you in for a tour.
A bit of that might be justifiable pride: It’s a breathtaking home viewed from outside or in. But it’s also because they’re hoping the home may rub off a bit on the people who visit their Wenonga Road home in north Leawood.
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It’s one of very few LEED-certified homes in Kansas City, not to mention Kansas or Missouri. A LEED structure can be a home, business or school that has been certified by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council as energy efficient, sustainable and overall green. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.)
The Williams-York home has the loftiest of distinctions. A home may achieve a certified, silver, gold or platinum ranking, and their home earned the highest of the four certifications: It is a platinum wonder.
“It takes a tremendous amount of time and determination,” says Williams, a retired electrical engineer. “We lived here for 28 years, so we knew exactly what we wanted this house to be, and, more importantly, what we didn’t want it to be.”
The new, light-filled house bears no resemblance to their old home. A tour of the old ranch house would have revealed a much darker home, York says. The old house, which was around 1,500 square feet, was built in the late 1950s. The rebuild, which barely added to the footprint of the house, increased the size to around 2,500 by adding a second floor.
The couple have enjoyed their environmentally friendly house since 2011. The process started when the two discovered that the basement of the old ranch house was compromised, and the house was no longer livable. It took around three years to create the new, two-story home. Part of the journey was in the process of deconstructing — not demolishing – the old home.
“Deconstruction took three months, where demolition would take three days,” Williams says. Deconstruction involves salvaging all the reusable parts of the home — everything from roof tiles to flooring. The goal is pretty straightforward: To keep as much material out of landfills as possible. The team managed to recycle or donate around 80 percent of the old home.
Deconstruction is a plus in the LEED checklist, Williams says. So is saving the mature trees on the property. And some, he notes, are more valuable than many homeowners realize.
“We have a mature pin oak worth $10,000, and two red oaks planted in 1985 valued at $5,000,” he says.
Often, when houses are renovated or demolished, heavy equipment does damage to the root systems of the fine old trees, and many of the majestic wonders die off.
“We had an arborist come in identify the critical root zone to keep heavy equipment from doing damage,” Williams says. “We had a fence area constructed, and the entire front yard was verboten.”
York joins her husband in the solarium tucked on the south side of the house. It’s the room both say is a favored spot in the bright home.
The garden holds interest year-round. Williams ticks off a list of a birds he’s spotted on the mature trees and bushes. Robins, jays, cardinals and cedar waxwings perch and poke around holly trees and dine on winterberries.
A tour of the house reveals an open floor plan with high ceilings that unites the living room, kitchen and dining area. A simple, comfortable seating area invites people to relax in the living room. Colorful paintings and bright segmented rugs punctuate the light exterior walls as well as the tile and cork floors throughout the home.
The kitchen is a cook’s dream, with plenty of counter space and a view through the solarium into the garden. Cabinetry under the countertops holds all cookware and kitchen essentials. The kitchen island features an induction cooktop with a down-draft exhaust system, and all appliances are Energy Star rated. Countertops in the kitchen and master bath from Granite Transformations are composed of 70 percent recycled glass.
Kitchen cabinets came from Ikea, York says, pointing to several of the treasures she found at deep discounts at a variety of stores.
The master bedroom and bath on the first floor ensure that this could be an age-in-place home if they are unable to maneuver stairs in the future. (Though the couple, both in their 60s, are yoga enthusiasts who hope their healthy lifestyle will keep them fit for decades to come.)
A notable feature in the master bathroom is the lack of shower doors, or even curtains. That lack of panel, threshold or door, made possible by a recessed floor drain, means the bathroom is completely wheelchair accessible. Maple veneer cabinets in the master bathroom were custom-made by a local artist.
Three bedrooms upstairs offer plenty of space for guests.
Even the upstairs bedrooms draw light from a glass wall that faces the open first floor. The couple recently had guests over, and a temporary curtain was hung across the wall.
“The one bit of criticism we hear from some people is that with all the glass, there isn’t much privacy,” York says, then laughs. “Privacy is overrated.”
“It’s a house that brings the outside in,” York says, pointing to some subtle privacy treatments on windows in the master bedroom and bath. “There are 30 windows in here, not counting the solarium.”
That tie to light and nature is integral to the homes Dominique Davison designs.
People thrive in spaces with a lot of natural light, says the architect, principal of Draw Architecture + Urban Design.
“It makes you feel good to be in a warm space like that home.”
Williams and York were ideal clients, she says, because the project was in line with Draw’s mission: simple, modern, sustained development.
“They had specific ideas about the performance of the house, but they were open to my ideas.”
Davison says people are finally waking up to the idea of green buildings. Her firm is working on another home in St. Joseph and another around the Plaza.
“We’re finally getting people interested in designing for this time and place,” Davison says. “The quality of construction has improved so much, from the efficiency of the systems, to the insulation to the actual design.
The builder was essential to the process, Davison says. York and Williams add that the entire team’s dynamic was fantastic.
“We all really worked as a team,” says York, a retired speech pathologist.
Andy Homoly says sustainable construction has kept his business thriving, even when most construction companies faltered during the recession.
“In the downturn people started looking harder at the process,” says the owner of Homoly Construction. “They started to look at companies that were doing things the right way, and constructing homes that will last, like the Williams-York home.”
Homoly uses himself as an example to others who aim to build an energy-efficient home.
His Parkville home is about to earn a platinum LEED certification, he says, as well as an emerald certification from the National Association of Home Builders. The home is off the grid, meaning he has no energy bill.
And the 4,500-square-foot structure will last at least 300 years, with minimal upkeep, he says.
“We’re the pioneers in this, but I think this will be code 10 to 20 years from now,” Homoly says. “It makes so much sense to do it this way.”
Courtney Baker, U.S. Green Building Council residential operations manager, also sees the amount of sustainable residential architecture rising rapidly.
Nearly 40,000 housing units have been LEED certified; 15,000 of those were certified in 2012 alone.
“There is no silver bullet to building a LEED platinum home, but a good rule of thumb is ‘less is more,’” Baker says.
In short, that means build smarter, use less, and select a location close to local amenities so you don’t have to burn fuel to get a gallon of milk or check out a book from the library.
“Homes that are located near amenities like mass transit, restaurants, schools and grocery stores reduce the impact on not only the environment, but also a homeowner’s wallet,” Baker says.
Baker would advise anyone who is considering building a green house to consider the big picture.
While the initial costs of deconstructing might be more than demolishing, and building green might take more time and be a bit more costly, in the long run, the homeowner will save.
Tax credits for donating goods while deconstructing eventually came to Williams and York, and any extra costs involved in building a “smart” house will come back to them, as water and energy costs are minimal.
While the cost of the home was probably around $50,000 more than a more traditional home, Williams says the extra cost will have a relatively short payback period.
He laughs when asked how much the entire project cost.
“It either cost both legs and my right arm, or maybe it was both legs and the left arm,” he says.
Still, he and York are determined to get the word out that their home is healthier, not only for the planet, but for the people it embraces in its walls.
“We wanted the house to be our kind of dream home, but we wanted it to be a revelation to others,” York says.
The couple estimate than more than 500 people have toured the house, from students of architecture to real estate groups.
The couple’s goal to inspire others to conserve fit in perfectly with that of the Sustainability Advisory Board for the City of Leawood, says Debra Filla, chairwoman of organization and a Leawood city councilwoman.
In February, Williams and York spoke to a crowd of around 100, many elected officers of homeowners associations.
“Our mission is to lead, motivate and collaborate with Leawood citizens to promote green mobility, recycling and conservation,” Filla says.
Filla says the fact that the couple’s utility bill comes in under $100 every month garnered plenty of attention.
“Our HOAs are part of our focus on sustainability,” Filla says, adding that as part of a push toward lightening the loads going to landfills, recycling is up and waste is down in Leawood. “HOAs are focused on improving the quality of life, and that means focusing on sustainability.”
A sustainable home does take careful planning and more time than the “cookie-cutter construction” people are accustomed to seeing, green-building experts say.
“A lot of families with children want a new home they can just move right into,” York says. “It takes a tremendous amount of time and determination to do this.”
But the payoff is fantastic, Williams adds.
“It may sound unusual, but when people are looking at our house, there’s nothing we like better than hearing, ‘I’ve never thought of that.’”