Driven by a mission to make sustainable design accessible, architect, designer, and eco advocate Michelle Kaufmann is someone who is making a real difference. Awarded for her green home design principles and often credited for helping pioneer the green prefab category, Michelle and her firm specialize in sustainable lifestyle design for single family homes, eco-luxury resorts, and multi-family communities. In addition, she consults with builders, developers, and architecture firms on sustainability and prefabrication, most recently with Google. Here, “the Henry Ford of green homes” (as she’s been called by the Sierra Club) tells us, in her words, about her background, her commitment to finding sustainable solutions, and the studio space she’s thoughtfully created along with her team in San Francisco.
Give us a look into your background, then tell us what you’re passionate about now, what inspires you, and where you’re going.
Growing up in Iowa offered me an appreciation of the important balance between the landscape and how we inhabit it and use it. I have a great love of the farmlands with their big skies and beautiful barns. I guess I am an architectural romantic that way. This background, mixed with graduate school at Princeton and studying with architecture greats like Liz Diller and Michael Graves, and then working for Frank Gehry, helped show me that there are non-traditional models for the practice and work that can be as innovative as the work itself. Both Graves and Gehry were some of the first world-known architects to get into mass-produced products (for companies such as Target and Tiffanys). It got me interested in thinking about an entire building as product.
It was also during the (very painful) process of looking for a home for my husband and I that I realized how difficult it is for most people to obtain a thoughtful, sustainable home. Now that it is no longer a question if people want a green home or not (they do — they want lower energy bills, lower water bills, and a healthy environment for their family), but it can’t cost any more or take any more than a non-green home. And it needs to be easy. I began in my quest for making thoughtful, sustainable homes accessible by looking at models to address those three aspects: time, cost, and ease.
Originally I did it with my previous company that was focused 100% on modular design and construction. I am proud of the work our team did to create over 56 green homes to date and do proof of concept on a very different model for architecturally designed homes.
However, now I am looking at a much larger scale. Proof of concept is no longer adequate. As we look to population projections over the next 40 years, we are going to have to provide shelter for 10 billion people by 2050. At the same time, those buildings are going to have to use dramatically less energy, water, and create much less carbon. Buildings are one of our biggest problems — but this is exciting for architects and designers because it means that through innovation, buildings can be our biggest solution.
I am spending most of my time now looking to the future role of the architect and how we can re-imagine our roles, maximize efficiencies with technology, and realize our full creative potential. I am super excited about the future and all the possibilities.
Tell us about your space. Were there any special considerations that influenced the studio’s design or set up?
Our office in San Francisco was set up with a few main goals: low budget, high comfort, a space where people can be creative, collaborate and thrive. So, we spent money on items we cared most about — mainly the workstation chairs (we chose SAYL chairs because of their comfort, individual controls, and beautiful design), a great espresso machine, and a pizza oven.
We were given various occasional tables, but I didn’t love how they looked, so I wrapped them with old architectural drawings and pages from one of my old Roman architecture bucks. It really transformed the tables into unique pieces. Other items were bought on Craigslist or were donated by friends. We also bought our kitchen counters and shelves used from a restaurant. They are all stainless steel, super functional, look great, and were low cost. We have a green wall by Woolly Pockets where we grow some herbs for the pizzas, as well as some air-filtering plants.
Knowing that people do their best work when they move frequently and sit in different situations throughout the day, we created plenty of working lounge spaces. We are all on laptops, so it is easy to work at our desk, or in one of the lounges depending on the task at hand and if we want a quiet moment or want to be working more collaboratively on a design problem. We also have a lot of books, writable walls, cork walls, and toys to keep our minds playing and encourage conversation and spark unplanned brainstorming sessions.
We bought the chairs before we did anything else – before we built out the office walls or bought any other furniture. So for the first month, we stacked the SAYL boxes to make a curved wall to define our meeting room. I’d say it worked pretty well…
Learn more about Michelle’s award-winning work and strives toward a more sustainable world at michellekaufmann.com.
Photos: Michelle Kaufmann; top portrait by Garret Curtis