Q & A with Michelle Kaufmann: Green Architecture and Design Pioneer

Michelle is an architect, designer, and advocate for smarter ways to design, build, and live. Her mission with all of her work is to make thoughtful, sustainable design accessible. With her firm, Michelle Kaufmann Studio, she specializes in sustainable lifestyle design, including single-family homes, eco-luxury resorts, and multi-family communities. Kaufmann is a design and modular consultant to home owners, businesses, and developers, and is an adviser and consultant to Blu Homes.

She was the founder of Michelle Kaufmann Designs, a designing and building company that led the movement for prefabricated green homes. The firm was given the 2008 Top Firm Award by Residential Architect. Kaufmann's book Prefab Green describes off-site construction and the green design principles of homes such as the Glidehouse®, the Sunset® Breezehouse®, the mkLotus®, and others. She has been called "the Henry Ford of green homes" by the Sierra Club and was named 2009 Green Advocate of the Year by the National Association of Home Builders, was included in Business 2.0 magazine's list of "100 People Who Matter Now," and was listed as one of the "The Green 50" by INC magazine.

She has been featured on the Sundance Channel, HGTV, Discovery, and Planet Green, and in numerous magazines including Town + Country, Dwell, Sunset, Time, and Smithsonian Magazine.

MindBodyGreen: How do you start your morning? Do you have a routine?

Michelle Kaufmann: My typical morning begins with being woken up by our two dogs, Otis and Peekay. We then go for a walk—which on good days when my husband Kevin is home includes him, as well. Our Glidehouse home is basically in the country, so we can go for a lovely 30-minute walk in the fields and by the bay. The walk usually includes run-ins with deer and turkey and, every once in a while, ducks. Upon our return home, I make coffee (I have tried to make the conversion to tea, but haven't been successful with that in the mornings) and then head to the office. Most days, that means a 20-foot walk to my home office, which is a separate structure to the house. That is an amazing and efficient commute. At least one or two days a week, I work in an office with friends in Sausalito, California. Sausalito is one of the most beautiful towns, and our office is on the bay. Spending the day working with the water and sailboats floating behind my computer screen helps keep me balanced and puts things into perspective.

MBG: Were you always passionate about great, green design?

MK: I suppose I have been. But for the first 35 years I didn't know that it was called "green design." I thought it was just "good design" that was thoughtful and smart. My mother used to call many of the green design elements "being frugal" when I was growing up.

When Kevin and I decided to build our own house, we wanted it to be healthy, with no mold (as I was getting migraines in our apartment in Sausalito, and we found it was because there was mold in the walls); we wanted no energy bills (we were and are on a budget); we wanted low water bills (that budget thing again); and we didn't have a lot of money, so we couldn't build a big house but still wanted it to feel spacious. Also, I thrive on natural light, so I wanted the house to use natural light in a smart way, so that we wouldn't have to turn on lights during the day. Kevin wanted to make sure we chose materials that would last a long time with little maintenance. In the end, all of our qualifications defined a green home. But it was before the term "green" was being used. And definitely before green was cool.

MBG: Do greener homes relate to mind/body wellness?

MK: Good question. Absolutely! It is unbelievable to me how many homes that have been built in these thoughtless subdivisions are toxic and not good for us. The off-gassing paints and materials, as well as lack of proper air ventilation, are creating allergies and cancers and are making us sick. Unfortunately, the data is not always clear about what our homes are made of. They need to be more transparent with information, like nutrition labels.

Spaces that have natural light and are connected visually to the landscape help us to mentally feel better, more balanced, and less stressed. I am thrilled when I hear people walk through a home I have designed and say, "I feel great here. I don't know why, but I do." Music to my ears. Goal achieved.

MBG: What advice would you give someone who wants to buy or build a green home but doesn't know where to start?

MK: First, know that this is doable. And you will save money. And it will be healthier. So it's a very good choice. Please do not feel overwhelmed.

I think Eric Corey Freed's book Green Building for Dummies is a great place to start. It has really helpful data and resources, as well as good descriptions of the basic principles and outlines many options. I would also recommend checking out your local planning office and ask them for their green rating program. Do they offer incentives for going green? What do they list as green elements for your area?

There are thankfully an increasing amount of architects, designers, and builders focused on designing and building smarter and more efficiently. Make sure you ask for credentials and their experience with green homes. Look for architects and designers with LEED accreditation. Look for builders who have built certified green homes before.

You can make a difference. If you see a problem, try to come up with a way to fix it. Our journey proves that. We saw a problem. My husband and I couldn't find a home we could afford, and couldn't find a green home. That is what started all the work I am doing now. We really all can make a difference.

MBG: What new companies are out there doing great things that we probably don't know about yet—but that we should know about?

MK: Here are some fun current faves:

Novacem's cement that eats carbon.

Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology (SMIT) is a new approach to solar and wind power, a hybrid energy-delivery device that resembles ivy growing on the side of the a building. Leaf-like solar panels harvest the sun's rays, while their fluttering harnesses wind power using a series of piezoelectric generators on the underside of each leaf.

Eco-Machines by Todd Ecological. Eco-machines are miniature ecosystems that use flora, fauna, and bacteria to naturally cleanse water, treat sewage, and turn wastewater and material into fuel and food.

Green roofs. I love them. They help reduce storm-water runoff, improve insulation, help protect the roof from the sun, help create more oxygen, and visually nestle the building in the earth. Can you imagine how different our earth would be if every building on the planet replaced the earth by having a green roof? It would be a very different place.

MBG: What's on tap for Michelle Kaufmann Studio?

MK: We are working on some pretty great projects right now. We are working on a green community in Denver and an eco-resort in the Bahamas that is net-zero energy, and also some net-zero-energy single-family homes. A few of the projects are site-built, but most are modular. We are focused on not only designing better spaces, but also building smarter and efficiently, with less waste.

MBG: Any predictions for green building in 2010? 2015? Where do you hope to be?

MK: So much is happening so quickly. So much is being developed in terms of renewable energies, healthy environments, and recycled or renewable materials. It is fabulous to see, and I am excited about the path we are all on. The direction is correct, although we need to increase the rate; we need to move faster. The area I think we are going to be seeing a lot of focus on is water. That is our next scarce resource, and hopefully, we will make changes before it is too late and we are already in crisis mode. (Hopefully, we can learn from our mistakes with the financial and housing industries, where we didn't make changes until we were already in crisis mode.)

MBG: Do you have a favorite eco-resort or green getaway?

MK: Oh, yes. I have many. Here are some of mine, at varying price points:

Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. One word: spectacular. The materials and design are so simple and modest, yet beautifully designed. I feel inspired and invigorated when I spend time there. Plus, it doesn't hurt that it is on an epic site overlooking the ocean. It is powered by solar, and they have worked very hard to be smart about water usage and land preservation. While this doesn't fit into every budget (including ours), it is eco-luxury at its best and worth every penny.

Another Big Sur favorite are the retreat rooms at New Camaldoli Hermitage Monastery. Each room is small and modest, but many have private gardens and ocean views. They are perfect for one person who wants a quiet, contemplative retreat. (There are a few rooms for couples.) The monastery is very inexpensive and rustic, but one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In San Francisco, there is Cavallo Point, which is lovely—close to the city, but you feel a million miles away. I love to go there even for dinner or a spa treatment, and I feel like I have gone away on vacation, even though it was for just an afternoon.

One of my favorite trips that Kevin and I have taken was to Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja, Mexico. It is very rustic, with few luxuries, but full-on pure beauty. We went there and rented a cabin on the beach for $25 a night. We kayaked and fished during the day, and made fish tacos over the fire pit at night. It was honestly one of the best vacations we have ever had—getting back to the pleasure of simplicities in each day was the perfect way to relax and renew.

MBG: Who inspires you?

MK: A few people:

Architecturally: The Eameses were so remarkable in so many ways. They shared a similar goal, and they blurred the boundary of what a typical architect's scope should be by not only designing houses, but also toys, and exhibits and films and books. They had fun and put play into everything they did. Photographs of them exude joy. I always try to imagine what they would be doing if they were still alive. And that is what I try to do.

My daily role model: my husband Kevin, whom I often call the "green gorilla." He makes mindful choices every day and pushes me to do more and question more. Some days it is a bit embarrassing (like when he carries around CFL bulbs and will replace them in the local coffee place or a restaurant that uses less efficient incandescent bulbs, but without asking permission to do so), but he inspires me and makes me want to be a better inhabitant of this earth.

And also my parents. I think of them every day. They live in Iowa. They should be able to live in a home that is healthy and efficient. But those are tough to find and mostly inaccessible to them and to many in the U.S. That needs to change. That is what drives me and my mission to make thoughtful, sustainable design accessible. Green homes need to be for everyone, or we are never going to get there.

MBG: If it was your Last Supper, what would your last meal be? Where would the meal be? Who would you like to be there (past/present/future)?

MK: If I could plan my last days, I would do it the same way my birth father, Michael French, did it when he died two years ago. I would go to the beach with friends and family and lots of cocktails, games, and laughter. And then after my passing, have my ashes blow into the waves with friends building sand castles and surfing the waves right after. Catch the next wave. Life goes on. And so does the beauty in the world.

For more on Michelle Kaufmann:


Michelle's Blog and Michelle on Twitter

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