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Inside one of Austin’s Cool Houses


Laura Britt calls her family’s home “a living laboratory.” The Austin architect and interior designer known for some of Austin’s high-end projects, including the model homes for the Austonian, set out to create the healthiest home she could when she and husband Jeff Capra bought the property in 2012.

They thought they would be remodeling the 1,900-square-foot 1951 ranch house near Camp Mabry, but its foundation could no longer support it. They had to come up with a new plan.

The result is a new 2,750-square-foot home that has earned a five-star rating from Austin Energy Green Building Program and has reached LEED Platinum certification, the highest level in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design program. The home was featured in the American Institute of Architects Austin tour in October and will be part of Austin Energy and Texas Solar Energy Society’s Cool House Tour on June 11. The tour features seven homes, a multifamily development and a neighborhood.

The ultimate recycling project

Britt didn’t want to tear down the old house. She tried to donate it to two organizations, but they couldn’t take it. Desperate, she posted an ad on Craigslist for a free house — you just have to move it. The phone calls came in, and a family of 14 in Bertram now has the house after it was split into three parts and moved by truck, then put back together on a new foundation.

Designing a house around how they live

“How we wanted to be in the house was the impetus for design,” Britt says. That meant designing a house that was kid-friendly for their then-7-year-old son.

They worked with architect Tom Tornbjerg on the project. They needed an architect that would be flexible, she says, because “I would have a lot of say in it.” It’s a job hazard with Britt.

How they live meant having some flexible spaces and some defined spaces. The living room is the focal point of the house, but it also spills onto 1,000 square feet of exterior living spaces. The living room is open to the dining room and the kitchen and can also be open to the family room that doubles as a guest room, creating one large entertaining space.

Rather than having a completely large open floor plan from the entryway, the kitchen wall with the refrigerator, pantry and oven serves as the backside for a wall that defines the entry. Britt also didn’t want long hallways that seemed endless. She created turns, and at each turn pieces of artwork create interesting focal points.

The family room can be sealed off with pocket doors if it isn’t needed for entertaining. A closet and direct access to a full bathroom make it easy to turn into a guest room. The family room shares that bathroom with their son’s bedroom, which sits off a hallway that also contains a laundry room, mudroom and access to the carport.

Britt created a large master suite that is away from the rest of the house. Doors separate it from the living room. A hallway leads to a cozy porch for drinking coffee in the morning as well as an accessible full bathroom and office that could serve as another guest bedroom. The master suite then unfolds with a large walk-in closet, a fully accessible bathroom and the bedroom. Close the doors and you instantly feel like you’ve entered a private sanctuary.

Focusing on indoor air quality

Britt grew up with respiratory problems, and her son also has had that struggle. She wanted off-gassing to be kept minimal. It meant experimenting with some of the materials in the house. For the floors, she chose sustainably harvested oak floors from Reclaimed DesignWorks with no volatile organic compounds, and, more importantly, picked an adhesive from DriTac that also had no VOCs.

For cabinetry, they chose Heritage Joinery walnut cabinets that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to be produced responsibly as well as use water-based adhesives without VOCs or formaldehyde. The counters are made by Dekton out of clay that has been made molded using heat and pressure in a process that avoids using VOCs and won’t off-gas.

She also chose a mineral-based paint with no VOCs.

“A lot of it is just having to figure things out,” Britt says of the finding the right materials.

Part of the indoor air quality is what you put in the house after it’s finished. Britt used her own Vervano furniture line that is made in the United States from sustainable or recycled materials with low VOCS to reduce off-gassing.

Instead of an enclosed garage to trap car fumes, Britt chose a carport and separated it from the main living area by placing the laundry room and mudroom by it instead of something like a kitchen.

“It makes me feel really comfortable that our home is super healthy,” Britt says of the steps they’ve made to improve indoor air quality.

Focusing on energy efficiency and water conservation

Good energy efficiency started with how the building was sited to reduce exposure to the sun and to get the most out of the site’s breezes. They also put the house on a pier-and-beam foundation to build a full-insulated envelope. 

Britt has a 12 kilowatt solar array on top of the roof over the back patio. It is expected to generate 85 percent of the home’s annual electric needs. “It’s really fun when you get a rebate check,” Britt says.

The home also uses all LED lights, a variable refrigerant flow heating and air conditioning system and a dehumidifier that lessens the cooling load.

The metal roof does two things: It collects rainwater in a rainwater harvesting system, and it reflects the sun’s heat rather than absorbing it. All the windows are insulated glass with a low-E coating. The windows also open to bring in fresh air to improve air quality.

In addition to the rainwater collection system, the home has a water treatment system for better drinking water as well as a high-efficiency tankless water heater and low-water-use toilets with a dual flushing system.

For appliances, Britt chose a Gaggenau induction cooktop and steam oven that cook with less energy.

Outside, Britt conserves water by planting 98 percent heat- and drought-tolerant plants, creating rainwater gardens that absorb rain and distribute it, and installing a drip irrigation system to control the amount of water used to keep the plants alive. The home has become a certified urban wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.

Now that they have lived in the house for more than a year, most of the elements have pleasantly surprised Britt with how they have worked well for the family. It’s something she can share with clients who are thinking about building their own cool house, but more importantly, something her family can live in for years to come.



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