The way we design our homes and gardens often determines the lifestyle we live. For laid-back environmentalists Thomas McMurtrie and Genia Service, creating a healthy, relaxing home helped them achieve their dream lifestyle. In their sunny, passive-solar home in a cozy neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the couple and their son, Gary, live well in an easy-to-clean, low-maintenance, colorful home that is modern in design yet tied to nature and history.
When Tom and Genia got married more than a decade ago, they both owned Victorian-style homes—charming, but filled with tiny windows and dark, tucked-away spaces. Instead, the couple dreamed of a modern, sunny home that would enable them to create the efficient, healthy and low-maintenance life they envisioned for themselves. Although they wanted to create their own space, the two also hoped to maintain close ties with their community, to be surrounded by neighbors and near enough to walk downtown, to work and the farmers’ market.
When Genia and Tom came across a sunny urban infill lot—a vacant lot in the midst of a city’s developed spaces—they knew they had found the perfect place to design their dream home. Along with using healthy, low-maintenance and salvaged materials, they incorporated a variety of energy-efficient and functionality components, which enable them to live more comfortably and affordably.
The Living’s Easy
Tom and Genia hired architect Tonino Vicari of Tectonic Design, a then-recent graduate of the University of Michigan architecture school, to help them design a loftlike home that flows from space to space for maximum ease and usability. One of the couple’s main goals was to create something low-maintenance that would help reduce daily stress. “I lived in California for 12 years, and it’s kind of that vibe,” Genia says. “It’s really casual.” With an open floor plan and tons of storage space, keeping the home clean and clutter-free is easy. “Everything stores easily here,” Genia says. “It’s easy to make it look good, so at the drop of a hat we can host a barbecue or have kids come over to play games.”
In contrast with her former Victorian-style home, Genia loves how everything in her modern home is at her fingertips. “There is easy access to our computer. We have a grand piano in the big, main room. In the winter when you have all this snow gear, we have an entry that’s big enough for you to take off your snow boots and hang everything up. It’s planned so that in every season it’s easy to navigate through our house.”
They also chose materials that would minimize the amount of upkeep their home required. With corrugated steel siding and reclaimed barn wood on the exterior, the home will never need repainting. With native plants, prairie grasses and a rain garden, the yard is designed to avoid mowing and weeding. “Any house—even ours—is a lot of work,” Genia says. “Anything you can do to keep maintenance down, keep weeding down, ensure you don’t have to paint the outside, those are the things that enhance life and make less work. When you raise a family, there are so many things you have to do. It’s my philosophy that you should do anything you can to make things easy and functional. Our house functions like a machine.”
Along with easy access to everything within the home, their urban plot makes everything in the neighborhood easy to access, as well. The family loves living in Ann Arbor, a college town with a great sense of community, and they wanted to be able to interact with the city. “We wanted to be able to walk to the farmers’ market,” Tom says. “I wanted to be able to walk to work downtown, but to be in an established community and close to Gary’s school. Here, Gary’s school is just down the street. There are 10 kids his age in the immediate neighborhood.”
The house also enabled Tom, Genia and Gary to comfortably create a larger community within their own home. The home’s first level is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible, a decision inspired by a good friend who had multiple sclerosis, as well as Tom and Genia’s plan for Tom’s parents to live with them. Tom’s father passed away before he had the chance to move in, but Tom’s mother lived with the family for several years.
The family found that the house’s easy design allowed them to accommodate even more people than they’d originally anticipated. Shortly before Tom’s mother moved in, close friends of the family were remodeling their home, and Tom and Genia opened their home to them, as well. The family friends—a couple with a daughter Gary’s age—shared one bedroom, while Tom’s mother used another spare room. “That arrangement lasted about a year,” Tom says. “It was very pleasant and a lot of fun. It was great for meals and having our kids together. It was a very supportive environment and something we’ll always remember fondly.”
Along with their laid-back, low-maintenance attitudes, Tom and Genia’s home also reflects pieces of the couple’s careers. As the recycling coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor, Tom has worked since 1991 to develop what is recognized by the EPA as one of the top 20 recycling programs in the nation. “We’ve always been cutting-edge,” Tom says. “And we have a public who really cares and wants to do the right thing—more than 90 percent of our community recycles.”
As a community leader in his progressive city, Tom was eager to showcase energy-efficient technologies in his home. Siting the home for passive solar was the first step. In passive-solar home design, use of the sun’s heat is maximized to keep down energy costs. In winter, the sun helps warm the home, while in summer, the home blocks the heat of the sun. Tom believes the sunny home promotes his family’s happiness, too. “The many southern windows let a lot of light come into the house, and it’s very bright,” Tom says. “In Michigan, the winters tend to be gray and dark. Here, we’re living in an environment that’s much brighter and healthier.”
The home also employs energy-efficient radiant-floor heating, in which a boiler distributes hot water through radiant heating tubes laid in the concrete floor. Because of its high thermal mass, the concrete warms up slowly and holds heat, warming the room from the ground up, rather than using relatively less-efficient forced air heating. The house also has 50 percent thicker wall insulation than a standard home, sliding insulating shutters on the windows and a whole-house fan (a fan that sucks out accumulated heat in summer). An air-to-air heat exchanger brings in fresh outdoor air, allowing the well-sealed home to maintain healthy indoor air quality. All in all, the home’s energy bills are about 50 percent of those of a more typical house. Low-flow faucets, showerheads and toilets, a rain garden and a rain barrel also help manage the home’s water use, while native plantings reduce the energy inputs the yard requires.
When it came to the home’s interior design, Genia brought her professional expertise to the table. A graphic and interior designer, Genia says the home’s aesthetics were important to her. She wanted it to have a modern home design, but also to be colorful. She chose a palette of natural blues, greens, yellows and browns, which she says is colorful but also feels neutral.
Aniline-dyed birch plywood cabinetry (aniline dye is a colored wood stain) placed in color blocks brings a modern air to the home and offsets the sleek, industrial feel of the polished concrete floors and stainless steel countertops. Outside, recycled corrugated steel siding meets reclaimed barn wood the couple found by placing ads in the local classifieds, creating a juxtaposition of rural history with modern sophistication.
The indoor materials were also chosen for their contribution to healthy indoor air quality. Unlike carpet, concrete floors don’t trap the allergens and dust tracked in by the family and their wire-haired fox terrier, Rex. Stainless-steel countertops are durable, easy to clean and release no chemicals.
Outside, mulch pathways allow water to seep into the ground rather than cause runoff as concrete can do. An ancient magnolia tree on the property serves as a focal point, while the rain gardens capture and filter storm water. Everywhere, the combination of choices helps support the health of its residents and shows respect for the environment.
A Chat with Tom and Genia
How has living in your home affected your son’s childhood?
Genia and Tom: He takes a great deal of pride in the home and enjoys showing it to friends and others. He’s become very interested in design and is always looking at ways to rearrange his room and other areas that he uses. He’s very curious about the design and construction process—he was really too young to remember what we went through with this house, but he has mentioned that he wouldn’t mind it if we designed and built another house. At the same time, he has a great fondness for this house, and really enjoys just hanging out in it.
Which season is most enjoyable in your home?
We built our house with a courtyard that wraps around a magnolia tree. In spring, it’s beautiful to look out over the magnolia in bloom. We also like summer, with all the windows open, and the breezes flowing through the house.
How has this home enhanced your family’s health?
The air in the home is always fresh, even with all the windows closed. We get more light, which is very healthy. We are happy here.
What’s your favorite piece of furniture?
Genia’s grandmother’s dining room table.
What’s your favorite way to spend a Sunday morning?
Sitting on the deck reading the paper or going for a bike ride along the Huron River Drive, just down the road from us.
Who would you most like to invite to dinner and why?
We would like to invite our grandmothers, who have both passed away. We never had the opportunity to meet each other’s grandmothers, and they were both lovely people.
What’s always in your fridge?
Hummus and brown rice—awesome combination for lunch or dinner (or even for breakfast, if we get desperate!).
Reclaiming the Past
Although the angular metal-clad home looks modern amid the more traditional homes in its neighborhood, Tom and Genia’s home also evokes the past by employing a slew of historic materials gathered from the rural land surrounding Ann Arbor. Tom and Genia put ads in the local classifieds section to locate the barn wood that makes up much of their home’s exterior. They found barns in two locations—one north of Ann Arbor and one south—and used wood from both. The home features deep window wells made of reclaimed silo material Genia’s father—a farmer outside Ann Arbor—helped them find. The family’s 300-gallon rain barrel is a cistern from a farm south of town, the fencing is made of locally grown cedar and the dark green deck is made with recycled plastic.
Mother Earth Living Editor-in-Chief Jessica Kellner lives in a modern home on a few acres outside Lawrence, Kansas. She knows from personal experience how a well-designed home can enable us to live the lifestyle we desire.