Renovate and Live Like a Kennedy

Robin Wilson, a designer known for her green homes expertise, will add this spring's release of her latest book "Kennedy Green House: Designing an Eco-Healthy Home from the Foundation to the Furniture" to her impressive resume. The book documents the eco-friendly renovation and redecoration she helped to carry out on the Westchester home of Robert Kennedy, Jr., who has specialized in environmental issues throughout his career as a lawyer. (Kennedy has also written and spoken frequently on environmental issues, and helped the organization Riverkeeper to clean up the Hudson River.) The LEED-certified renovation of his home focused on energy efficiency throughout the structure, and indoor air quality in particular.

We caught up with Ms. Wilson to see what else we could learn about the project--and whether she had any pointers to help the hoi polloi live, and decorate, like the Kennedys.

1. Tell us a little bit about the house, its location, and the extent of the renovations.

The Kennedy private residence is a house located in Mt. Kisco, NY, which is in Westchester County. The house is on a 12-acre property fronting a 30-acre private lake. The land is unique in that there are wetlands, forest, lakefront and field--with a significant amount of biodiversity.

The home was infested with black mold after a flood. After multiple attempts at remediation, the family recognized that their children were becoming ill with pneumonia, asthma and allergies by staying in the home, so they decided to move out of the home into a rental while the renovation took place.

From Fall 2008 to January 2009, the home was rebuilt: It had started out initially as a renovation, but snowballed into a complete rebuild after a wind-storm created a precarious situation. It was rebuilt from the foundation up using eco-friendly materials and methods of construction. The demolition items were recycled where possible, including studs, wood flooring and drywall. The work was done by a unique firm called Green Demolitions.

2. What elements of the renovation were you responsible for?

My team was hired to work with the project manager, architects, builder and the client to ensure that the design protocol for an eco-friendly and LEED certified home was followed. Our role also involved specification of products and obtaining donations for the client. We were able to obtain over $1.3 million worth of donated product from flooring, paint, cabinetry, countertops, etc so that these various vendors would be able to showcase their products with media exposure and to show that these products can work in a tradition home. Our role involved schedules, specifications, design consultation and staging the home for photography.

3. Can you give us a sense of how the LEED-certified renovated home compares to the pre-renovation home, in terms of efficiency?

The original home was a clapboard home, and the new home is a masonry style home with bricks from the Massachusetts brickmaker Stiles & Hart. The new home is powered with solar, geothermal, hybrid hot water and utilizes passive lighting devices called Solatubes, which are present in each closet and in the center hallway on the second level. The Solatubes prevent a power surge each morning compared to a standard home where everyone turns on the lights. The geothermal manifests inside the home with a radiant heating system that keeps the home at a constant temperature year round which lowers heating and cooling costs. And the solar panels collect energy all day and powers a battery converter which makes the electric meter run backwards. The hybrid hot water heater is a backup system that is affordable for most families--and instead of heating a huge tank, or having people run the water to 'warm it up', it provides instant hot water, which can lower water bills.

The insulation in the home is a DOW product which is 35% more efficient and most people recognize that the home must still have great insulation, no matter which products are used, to ensure that there is no energy leakage in the walls and attic space.

The windows are also triple-paned MARVIN windows which prevent heat loss/gain in the home.

4. Part of your book, "Kennedy Green House," is about the selection of energy-efficient, health-promoting appliances and furnishings. I think most people understand what energy efficient appliances are. What are the qualities that make a home furnishing 'green'?

Eco-friendly home furnishings are those which do not add toxins to the indoor air environment. For example, the kitchen cabinetry is custom from Holiday Kitchens and utilizes low-to-no VOC paints and stains, no-added UREA formaldehyde boards and no-formaldehyde glues or adhesives. When the cabinets are delivered, there is no off-gassing (chemical smell) and this can be very helpful for a family with asthma and allergy-sensitive children.

5. What advice would you give to regular homeowners looking to 'decorate like a Kennedy'?

The most important thing for all homeowners is to review the eco-friendly principles: sustainable, renewable, recyclable, non-toxic. For example, you could have a family heirloom that can be re-upholstered or 'renewed' at a carpentry shop (instead of throwing it into the landfill), you could install bamboo flooring (sustainable since bamboo regrows), or you could install recycling bins in your kitchen to encourage the action of separating your items. And most importantly, you can leave your living space non-toxic by removing your shoes so that you don't bring pesticides into your living space--and make sure to use low-to-no VOC paints so that an hour after painting, there is no paint smell.
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