When Patrick O'Neill and his wife Julie Barrett O'Neill bought a large foursquare-style building on Potomac Avenue, they made a conscious decision to renovate with the environment and the long term in mind.
"We wanted to consolidate our home and business into one multi-use building," O'Neill said. "Our goal as parents and community members has always been to have our work in close proximity to our home. Financially, this makes much more sense as well."
O'Neill is a chiropractor with a family-based practice. Barrett O'Neill is an urban planner, environmental attorney and executive director of the non-profit organization Friends of the Buffalo Niagara Rivers. They are the parents of two small children.
"We have tried to minimize the impact that the renovation and the building's operation have on natural resources," Barrett O'Neill said. "We are also raising awareness about green building science and renovation materials."
When they bought it last year, the house had not been occupied for more than five years. Due to serious damage caused by a tenant's cats, the previous owner had completely gutted the interior.
"The fact that the house was completely gutted is very unusual," said Mike Hamilton, architect for the project. "It allowed tremendous access for installing the mechanical and technical aspects of the renovation."
Hamilton, who is in his 70s, is a co-founder of Hamilton, Houston, Lownie Architects and a board member of Friends of the Buffalo Niagara Rivers. Though he is retired, he agreed to pitch in.
"I did a series of drawings to spell out the spaces Patrick and Julie envisioned," he said. "When you are doing any architectural project, you must carefully consider what you are putting into it and what you want to get out of it."
After the design was set, Jeff Brennan, 32, of Apollo Construction was called in. (Apollo's motto: "Smarter, greener construction.") Brennan, an engineer and an expert on heating and energy efficiency, also has a degree in environmental studies.
"The biggest challenge in remodeling is that you are not starting with a blank slate," he said. "We had to accommodate the existing building."
He went about it first by computer modeling, then by creativity and ingenuity.
"This building now has a one-of-a-kind heating system," Brennan added. "The increased insulation means it doesn't need as much supplied heat. So we eliminated buying a second furnace/boiler. The hot water heater, which was going to be purchased anyway, can provide the amount of heat that will be needed."
The top two floors of the three-story building contain living quarters. The third floor is the main living space. Heat, when needed, will be supplied solely by a wood-burning fireplace. The open loft space is approximately 900 square feet, and contains living, dining and kitchen areas.
"The kids respond differently to the different spaces in the house," said Barrett O'Neill. "Up in the loft, they mostly run and play in a more physical way. Downstairs, their bedroom and a playroom are where they mostly read or play more quietly."
She also notes it is unusual for the third floor of any house to be the center of family life.
"The vantage point, overlooking Bidwell Parkway's lawns and foliage, is almost like being in a treehouse," she said.
The second floor contains family bedrooms and also an office for Barrett O'Neill. The ground floor encompasses O'Neill's new chiropractic offices. While the major construction phase of the renovation is done, there are still plenty of details to attend to. And decorating will most likely come piecemeal.
But throughout the house are hints of the O'Neills' taste. Arts-and-crafts-style light fixtures and wall sconces have been installed, and O'Neill plans to tile a mantel with an arts-and-crafts-inspired pattern.
The finished basement will contain a full-on woodworking shop. There, O'Neill will continue to self-educate while building all things wood, including furniture, staircase railings and moldings for the house. He installed the thousands of feet of bamboo flooring in the house himself, learning as he went along.
Eric LeBlanc of Conscious Flooring in Vermont helped the O'Neills decide on bamboo as the flooring material. They used the sustainably grown and harvested material in its natural vertical grain state, not steamed to a darker color, which was an option.
Bamboo flooring ranges from $4.25 to $4.99 per square foot, compared to similar prices for oak flooring, which can range from $3.49 to $5.99 per square foot.
LeBlanc says that using these sorts of materials and products contributes to people's health, as well as the planet's.
"We are feeding into a cycle of healthy forests," he said. "These products and materials also help individuals because non-toxic and/or the least toxic volatile organic compounds are used in their manufacture."
Like other vendors working with the O'Neills, LeBlanc said he is driven by ideals shared with his clients.
"These are small businesses trying to form a new business paradigm," said Barrett O'Neill. "They use creativity and entrepreneurship to forge bonds with customers and the larger community. And instead of capitalizing only for personal gain, they use available resources to contribute to a sustainable world."
"Sustainable" may also describe the lifestyle Barrett O'Neill and her husband are after. They each work 35 hours or less per week, and spend as much time as possible doing things that matter to them.
"Our choice to live in the city is extremely conscious," she added. "We only have one car. We don't have -- or need -- a large back yard. Back yards are isolating for a community. Besides, we couldn't afford or sustain a backyard that encompasses a soccer field, a huge playground like the one at Delaware Park or the room for our dogs to really run around. That's what parks and public spaces are for."
The O'Neills' house/project has won a 2005 Erie County Executive Energy Achievement Award in the Individual/Household category from Erie County's Department of Environment and Planning.
The public is invited to attend an evening of environmental information and refreshments when the award is presented at 7 p.m. Thursday at Canisius College.
Waste not, want not: Julie Barrett O'Neill's favorite part of the renovation is the dual flush toilet. It uses different amounts of water for different flushing requirements. She is amazed that our country, unlike Canada, does not offer a rebate for people who choose to install the sensitive -- and sensible -- loo.
Blown away by savings: The blown-cellulose plus high-density foam insulation brings the house far above city code requirements, adding to the savings and efficiency of heating the house. Although they have not spent enough time in the house to cycle through all of their bills and costs, they expect their bills to be less than a third of what they used to incur heating a Victorian home with standard single-pane windows and no insulation.
Good day sunshine: The front porch doubles as a solar energy collector. Increased window area and a three-inch-thick concrete floor pad help it to absorb sunlight. It then releases the warmth into the house past dusk.
A way in: The first floor of the building will be handicap-accessible by ramp and elevator. City inspectors, who were helpful and accommodating to the unique project, have already approved its construction and dimensions.
Seeing clearly: Throughout the house, windows are deep set, and triple-paned where possible, with special glazing to maximize sun absorption and minimize heat loss.
Material world: Strawboard kitchen cabinets were purchased through New York City-based Pure Kitchen. Sustainable strawboard is made from compressed wheat or rice straw. Barrett O'Neill points out that the Pure Kitchen representative drove the goods up here himself to ensure proper delivery and installation.
Countertops in the kitchen and reception area are Richlite's compressed paper, also a sustainably made material. It is available locally at S&K Countertops in Orchard Park.
It costs about $80 a square foot, versus $55 to $60 for Corian, which is an acrylic product, and around $25 per square foot for laminate.