Mother Earth Living

The Good Life: House Tour with Editor-in-Chief Jessica Kellner

Take a house tour with Mother Earth Living’s editor-in-chief Jessica Kellner.
By Jessica Kellner
July/August 2014
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The home’s south-facing front makes it ideal for a solar photovoltaic array, as well as the perfect place to grow peppers, tomatoes and herbs. The raised planter is an elevated table garden from Minifarmbox (minifarmbox.com).
Photo by Barry Rustin
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One of my favorite parts of my job as editor of Mother Earth Living is connecting with you, our readers. Our audience feels sort of like a family.

We connect in numerous ways. We correspond through email. At our Mother Earth News Fairs (for which my husband, James, is programming director) I see and chat with readers from all over about their lives. When I go on-site to a photo shoot, I get the chance to spend the day in the homes of the awesome people who we feature in the magazine. And through our various social media pages (if you don’t already, please meet up with us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, InstagramGoogle+ or YouTube), you all share with us everything from pictures of your homes, gardens and families to what you ate for dinner last night.

I love the sense of community we feel when we share our triumphs (a huge chard harvest!), our discoveries (the best mushroom-barley risotto recipe) and our challenges (“What can I freeze vegetables in that isn’t made of plastic?!?”). Recently, I decided I wanted to enhance that feeling of community by sharing my home and family with you.

I’m not the perfect example of “Mother Earth living” (I doubt anyone feels their home is perfect). But here at Mother Earth Living, we’re not really about perfection—we’re about living better, closer to the earth, closer to the seasons, and closer to one another. In that spirit, I hope you enjoy this tour of my home—and I hope you’ll share photos of your own home with the Mother Earth Living community.

A Lucky Catch

My husband, James, and I were lucky to find our home. On the prairie just outside the city limits of Lawrence, Kansas, our house is one of five on an 18-acre property. The homes are clustered together, and we and our neighbors share the adjoining 14 acres of woods and trails where we walk our dogs every night, hunt for morel mushrooms in spring, build fires in fall and sled in winter. Out of respect for the neighbors in our small community, the former homeowners didn’t want to list the house through conventional means, and instead put the word out through friends. Lucky for us, our boss is a friend of the former owner’s sister (they went to grad school together 20 years before), and he tipped us off. At the time we were living in a condo on the other side of town and I wasn’t convinced I wanted to buy any property. But the owner mentioned a built-in sunroom, concrete floors, a wood-burning stove...we decided to go check it out.

As soon as we walked in, my ambivalence evaporated (along with any semblance of a poker face I might have had). The house was on the small side (a plus to me) and included many interesting features: a wood-fired pizza and bread oven, a sunroom with a built-in planter, in-floor radiant heat, and a floating mezzanine-style bedroom. I’d been an editor at Natural Home magazine for years, so I’d seen many of these features in the homes we included in the magazine, but none in a house for sale.

Within 20 minutes I told James, “Of course we’re buying it.” Amazingly, it was within our modest budget—proof in my mind that our several years of fruitless house-hunting had turned out exactly as they should have. As first-time home buyers, the process of handling the paperwork, inspections and all the other necessities was time-consuming and somewhat intimidating; but it all worked out, and soon we were moving in.

House Tour

The house had formerly been owned by a bread baker, the cofounder of the beloved downtown Lawrence restaurant WheatFields Bakery Café. When he bought the house, it was a rundown ’50s tract home. He did an extensive remodel of most of the original house, then built a small addition a few years later when he got married. He had great taste and excellent contractors who took into consideration the importance of things like sunshine, ventilation and adequate storage.

Although we loved almost everything about our house, we’ve done a few updates. First, we redid some outdated tile in the bathroom, hiring a friend to install natural slate, and installed a low-flow toilet. Then, about a year after moving in we found out we were having a baby, so we decided to renovate the room that had formerly been the “shop.” The one room in the house never touched by renovations, the shop had been used as a place to repair bikes and store tools and other equipment. Connected to the living room and kitchen through a set of sliding shoji screens, it seemed the ideal place for a nursery—but because the paneling and flooring were old, potentially toxic and termite-damaged, everything in the room had to go.

James tore out the old walls down to the studs, installed new recycled-material insulation, then put Unearthed Paints lime plaster—zero-VOC, biodegradable and commonly used in nurseries in Europe for its antibacterial and antifungal qualities—on the walls. We also installed electric radiant floor heating from Nuheat.

Last year, we built four raised beds for food gardens, which produced tomatoes, greens, beans, peppers and herbs just outside the front door. We planted large butterfly bushes to attract pollinators. In the side yard, we planted flowers (chamomile and four o’clocks) and herbs such as mint and basil. Under the apple tree we replaced the grass with some ground cover donated by one of the neighbors and left some lovely hostas already planted there.

James and I are both huge fans of local art, and we shopped our local arts collective, SeedCo Studios for décor. After buying several pieces there, we hired one of the artists we especially like, Erok Johanssen, to paint a mural on the wall of our dining area in the sunroom. One of our neighbors is the well-known artist Dave Van Hee, and we’ve bought several of his pieces as well.

James loves to build things. He made our living-room coffee table from an old door we bought years ago at an antique store. He “roughed it up” with some sandpaper and added some hairpin legs we bought on Etsy. Our dining room table and chairs came from an auction several years ago. We had a friend reupholster the chairs and we’ve repainted the whole set multiple times—right now they are covered with clay paint from CeCe Caldwell’s Paints. An 1800s buffet acts as our media console and our tiny office nook is filled by a small antique desk we repainted in clay paint under a wreath we bought on Etsy. Just inside the front door, an auction chair that looks like a short church pew provides a nice wide seat where we pull on our boots. Out back, a bright yellow antique rocking chair contrasts with sleek aluminum siding.

The Life a Home Makes

In many ways we make our houses the homes we want, but our houses also help shape our lives. Natural lighting helps us feel brighter, more awake and happier. A strong indoor-outdoor connection helps us live in a way that’s more in tune with the seasons and, I think, compels us to spend more time outdoors. Having a kitchen with enough storage space and a cozy dining area encourages us to cook family meals at home and eat them together.

Of course, we all face challenges in our homes and try the best we can. I use the tips I learn from this job every day as I enjoy, and try to improve, my home and life; I hope all of you can do the same. And I look forward to collaborating with you as our homes and our families change over the years.

Powered by the Sun

Last year, we were excited to lease an energy system from Cromwell Solar, the first company to offer solar leasing in Kansas. Solar leasing, is a process that’s been fairly common in California and some other places in the U.S. for several years but still isn’t available in all areas, and it makes investing in a solar electric array about as easy as buying a car. In a solar lease, a bank owns your solar panels and leases them to you for up to 15 years. The solar leasing company determines how many solar panels you’ll need based on your electricity bills. In our case, our south-facing roof and smallish house meant that our solar array will be able to provide 98 percent of our energy needs. If we cut back on energy use a bit, we should be able to achieve a lifestyle that’s 100-percent solar.

Our lease payments cost less than our old electric bills, on average. The payments do go up over the years of the lease, but it is less than the expected increase in electricity costs. At the end of the lease period, we buy the remaining cost of the panels—in our case, contractually no more than $1,000. Once we own them, they continue producing free energy on our roof. The panels are under warranty for 25 years.

In many leasing programs, none of this requires a down payment. The bank gets big tax credits for financing the alternative energy; the homeowners get an advanced energy system with bite-size payments they can afford. Depending on your location, national, state and local tax credits may make it more feasible to take out a home-improvement loan to purchase panels. To learn more about state and national tax credits and rebates, visit the Department of Energy.


Jessica Kellner is the editor-in-chief of Mother Earth Living. She adores her job and is madly in love with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time outdoors, cooking and eating delicious food, kicking back with a good book, running and yoga, drinking fine (or not-so-fine) wine, and spending time with friends.


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