going green

Mt. Lebanon is called a “community with character” in part because of the wide variety of historic houses found within its borders. But the charm that comes with an older Mt. Lebanon home often also comes at a price—leaky single pane windows, outdated bathrooms, small closets and floor plans that feel cramped when compared to today’s open concept layouts.

Until recently, Anna and Paul Siefken and their children, Ella, 11, and Ruby, 9, were living with this trade-off.

Their home on Woodland Drive is a 2,200-foot stone Cape Cod with a slate roof and large windows. The interior boasts the original red oak hardwood floors and plaster walls accented by ornate crown molding and chair railing. Up until last fall, the house also included an outdated kitchen, complete with energy-inefficient lighting and appliances. Although they loved the craftsmanship and beauty of their 1948 home, they wished it were more “green” and “functional” for their family of four.

“The house was very much in the vernacular of the area,” Anna says. “But the kitchen needed an upgrade…It was a very well-constructed [1980s] renovation that has been improved by some additional work.”


At left: before construction and at right: during the process.
At left: before construction and at right: during the process.

Siefken, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited designer by trade, set out to modernize the house while also preserving its charm. Quickly, she narrowed in on the kitchen and dining areas, knocking down the wall between the two rooms to open up the space.

“We wanted a heart for the home,” she explains. “We wanted a much more usable space.”

Before moving to Mt. Lebanon in 2013, Siefken spent much of her career working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and implement the ENERGY STAR program that is now the standard measure for product efficiency. She is now the special projects director for the Pittsburgh 2030 District at the Green Building Alliance.

Recycled glass backsplash
Recycled glass backsplash

It’s no surprise that as part of the renovation she replaced all the older appliances with ENERGY STAR-certified models, installed a WaterSense qualified faucet, swapped out the garbage disposal with a newer, more efficient model and also put in an ENERGY STAR-certified storm door that lets less air in and out. The new glass backsplash was made partially from recycled glass. New insulation was added, “tightening the envelope” of the kitchen so that it’s more energy efficient.

Reduce, Reuse…The new appliances are Energy Star certified. The old cabinets, doors and light fixtures were donated to Construction Junction. More insulation was added to reduce heating energy consumption.

The Siefkens chose new kitchen cabinets that met Environmental Stewardship Program requirements from the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association. They also traded out all the incandescent lighting fixtures in the kitchen for LED lighting and bulbs. Siefken says the bulbs will cost about $1 a year to operate and are projected to last more than 20 years.

“One of the areas in the kitchen that uses a ton of energy that people don’t think about, are those sparkly twinkly halogen lights,” Siefken says. “A lot of people will do a kitchen renovation, and their energy use will actually go up, even though they put in energy efficient appliances, because of those hot lights. Using LED lighting in the kitchen is optimal.”

It wasn’t only the outcome that had Siefken thinking green. She was determined to keep the entire renovation process environmentally friendly.  For that reason, she picked a new kitchen floor made of cork tiles, which she had laid over the existing concrete floor. The simple installation meant no fumes from adhesives, which result from the installation of many standard kitchen floors.

Cork floors
Cork floors

Siefken says the benefits of the cork floors go beyond being green. “I didn’t realize how fantastic the new cork floors would be on our knees as we age and an excellent dancing surface for the kids,” she says. “Very easy on the joints [and] insulating qualities in winter.”

She also used all no-VOC paint during the renovation, further reducing any off-gassing, and focused on recycling and reusing. Instead of throwing away the cabinets and appliances from the old kitchen, Anna donated all 17 pieces, including five doors and three lighting fixtures, to Construction Junction in order to minimize construction waste. She salvaged trim and moldings and then reused the wood in the finished kitchen and dining room. She also saved the old back door and scrap wood for future home projects.

“We have upcycled almost every item that we took out of there!” Siefken says. “It’s not just about energy and about being sustainable, it’s about doing stuff that makes sense for the long term. And I think that people think about long term around Mt. Lebanon. There are quite a few people here who are interested in leaving a better planet—you know, making things really good for their kids.”

The Siefkens did make one concession during the renovation. Although there are countertop options on the market that may be greener, they went with granite.

“Granite is what sells,” Siefken explained. “Renovation is a blend of keeping the house marketable and keeping it sustainable.”

Mt. Lebanon resident Todd Tischendorf, of Tischendorf Contractor Services, says his company was very honored to work on the project and that the Siefkens were “great to work with.”
Although making a commitment to a green renovation and carrying it out may sound like a lot of work, Siefken insists it’s something that anyone can do: “The only effort required is asking a lot of questions.”

She also rejects the argument that a green renovation can be cost-prohibitive.

“There were a couple of choices I made that were green and less expensive. The cabinets came from Home Depot! The flooring choice was click together, so the labor cost was less,” she says. “The lighting was more expensive on the front end. But I made some investments in the lighting which will last longer. I was cost-conscious at every turn.”

The finished product is environmentally-friendly, cost-effective, functional for their family and blends seamlessly with the look of this classic Mt. Lebanon home.

“The improvements that we made to the house will make it so that the house lasts forever…I love this house.” Siefken says. “My daughter recently made the comment that we aren’t using the living room as much as we used to. We’re in the kitchen!”

Photos by Julie O’Hara