When it comes to sustainable design, Kansas City, MO may not be the first city that comes to mind on Earth Day, or any other day, for that matter. But it’s here that design collective Hufft Projects has established itself as an industry leader, with several high-profile green design projects realized by a design studio brimming with LEED certifications.
The firm applies smart green techniques to every home, but projects like Curved House, with its photovoltaic array on the cabana roof, geothermal system, and radiant floor heating; The Residence’s pre-fabricated recycled steel and concrete exterior that provides natural ventilation; and BauLinder House’s passive solar heating, sprayed foam insulation, and FSC certified wood on the exterior, have earned the notice of green enthusiasts and custom homebuyers. Not to mention Architectural Digest, who named the 50-person, AIA-award-winning collective to its 10 Architecture Firms to Watch list—a prestigious honor that would help put them on the map if they weren’t already firmly planted there.
We recently talked to Matthew Hufft, co-founder and creative director of Hufft Projects, who told us about the firm’s passion for green design, how it’s evolved over the past several years, and where it’s going in the future.
Previews Inside Out What’s your firm’s motto on sustainable design?
Matthew Hufft We have a pretty firm stance that everything we do has to have some level of sustainability to it. At a minimum, we incorporate features that don’t affect the budget, which includes a number of things. You can do quite a bit for no additional cost. Beyond that, we do our best to make sure we promote those details and products that have a return on investment under 10 years.
Previews Inside Out Have you found that more of your clients have been asking for sustainable design in recent years? Or is this something you just do naturally through passive concepts?
Matthew Hufft It’s something we naturally do through passive concepts. I’ve seen and found that clients are asking less for it than they did five years ago. I think some of that has to do with the way society is changing. There’s a baseline level of sustainability built in to most custom projects anyway; that’s what we do. Our work is highly specialized and custom. Because of that, I feel like our clientele just assumes the home will be sustainably built. It might also have something to do with the changing expectations on both sides. Five years ago, the clients had to ask for LED lights; now they’re standard. It’s changing the way we talk about sustainable design.
Previews Inside Out Should green design be ‘invisible’?
Matthew Hufft Yes, I feel like it should. Again, this is how we’ve changed. Five to 10 years ago, seeing things like a cistern tank and a placard for a waterless urinal made sense because we were educating people. We’re at a point now where we can strip away that sort of exposure. People understand what they’re looking at more now. Unless you want to see a big cistern tank next to the building, it’s OK to bury it and use the land for other purpose.
Previews Inside Out When you are siting a house for daylighting and solar heat gain, what are some of the elements you typically look for?
Matthew Hufft The first is orientation, and then we consider the immediate surroundings and location, down to latitude and longitude, which can vary orientation. A house in the woods is very different than a house in the middle of an open prairie. A lot of it is fairly prescriptive and as long as you know how to read the information, the angles, and consider any other mitigating factors, you just do your best to follow the guidelines that are set forth.
Previews Inside Out What are some of the innovative active “green” features that you have specified for your homes?
Matthew Hufft We’ve done typically sustainable features, like water reclamation systems and solar panels. We do our best to implement daylighting in all of our projects to the point where you don’t need artificial light in any of spaces on a typical day. We find that’s a great element to really help drive design. We’ve done several projects where we cut a hole in the center of the house and created a highly landscaped retreat from an exterior courtyard for daylighting to central spaces. We do a lot with innovative daylighting strategies. We have also done a lot of things with clerestories and indirect light.
We just completed a big LED chandelier with very low electrical requirements made of LED diodes, and it’s beautiful. There is a lot of innovation surrounding LEDs right now. We’ve also used geothermal wells to heat and cool the pool. On Curved House, we used solar to power the pumps; ground source pumps then heat and cool the pool. The pool was almost net zero. That’s one way to minimize the impact.
Previews Inside Out In your view, do these elements increase the value of the home?
Matthew Hufft I think they do. They’re so project-specific that it’s hard to say how much with any rule of thumb. When we look at sustainable features, our trigger is always 10 years. If you’re going to invest in sustainable, in 10 years we want you to be able to recoup that investment. That’s a value add for the homeowner.
Previews Inside Out In terms of BauLinder Haus, why was it important to the client to add sustainable elements?
Matthew Hufft The owners of that house are a very unique couple, very educated, with very progressive thinking. They’re both medical doctors, parents of young kids, and extremely busy. It just made sense to them that this is the way you should build. They wanted a home that was fairly easy and affordable to operate based on their lifestyle.
Previews Inside Out What was the significance of meeting and exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their Indoor airPLUS qualified homes?
Matthew Hufft The reason we do it is it gives us a guideline to build upon that supersedes the standard of any other custom homebuilder when it comes to indoor air quality. That’s the most important thing to the health of homeowners. It’s more important than their utilities.
Previews Inside Out Are there any pitfalls or challenges that homeowners should be aware of when they are choosing to pursue some of these “green” certifications, such as the Energy Star qualification?
Matthew Hufft One thing we try to do when we suggest sustainable features is to brace clients for the fact that it’s going to take effort. It requires patience and time and oftentimes money—sometimes very little, sometimes much more than that. Making sure clients understand the commitment needed is really important. Building a custom home is challenging for anyone. People are confronted with thousands of decisions. Sustainable features still fall victim pretty easily to cost savings or fatigue.
Previews Inside Out What are the eco-friendly features that offer the most value to a homeowner?
Matthew Hufft Daylighting is at the top of my list. It can be done very inexpensively and it not only offers a huge benefit because you don’t have to burn electricity to light a room during the day, but also because natural light can positively affect mental health. Another thing is going back to air quality and thinking through how that’s done. Often times we use humidifier recovery ventilators (HRV), which recycle fresh air every 15 minutes or every hour based on your settings. They’re not that expensive and are one of those things that offer a return on investment in less than a year—well worth it to have indoor air quality immediately.
Previews Inside Out Has anything emerged — either in terms of recent sustainable design advancements or in terms of the more general “sustainable design” dialogue — that has surprised you recently?
Matthew Hufft The thing we’re most interested in and one we feel is becoming more prevalent with younger generations is a smaller footprint. We feel like the younger millennials are going back to the home size that was popular 50–60–70 years ago. They can live in 2,000 square feet and be happy. If you really want to be sustainable, you start there. Every square foot counts.
Previews Inside Out What advice would you give to a homeowner who wants to build a green home?
Matthew Hufft Be aware of the commitment it takes. And try to minimize the home’s footprint. Think through what you really need to live, and take it from there.
Previews Inside Out Is there a new green feature that you’re dying to use in a project?
Matthew Hufft I’m really interested in specialty glass that allows you to imbed solar cells or seamlessly control heat gain and glare. We’re looking at a few products that can do that. The price point is pretty crazy now but I think it will become like flat-screen TVs that were once out of everyone’s budget and are now in everyone’s home.
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