A Texas Home Gets a Healthy, New Start



Health is occasionally directly affected by the health of your home. Potential dangers lurk in paint, fibers, electronic equipment — you name it. No one understands this more than ecological health professor Jules Elkins, who — together with her political science professor husband, Zach, and their three boys — put out to create the cleanest, most toxin-free refuge in Austin, Texas, possible. They did so by preventing products with stain-resistant chemicals, fire retardants or some other potential health threat — a strategy that turned their house into a one-way breath of fresh air.

Following a lot of chopping away and bulldozing — that the previous home was moldy, dilapidated and overgrown with bamboo — the two-story, three-bedroom house that Furman & Keil Architects and Dunnam Tita Architecture + Interiors made started to take shape. The catch was a multipage “healthy house contract,” according to Elkins, that laid out material constraints for Pilgrim Building Company to stick to, down to what kind of wiring might be used. This was to ensure that all that entered the house didn’t prove for a Trojan horse of leaching chemical chemicals.

As for the design itself, the outdoors-loving homeowners wanted the design to spill into the big, leafy lot — they kept lots of the bamboo. And the better way to celebrate the outdoors than with a screened-in sleeping porch with a queen-size bed? “There is always a debate of that has to sleep out there,” Elkins says. “Kids, grown-ups, on occasion the entire family. It is really excellent.”

at a Glance
Who lives here: Jules and Zach Elkins, and their 3 boys
Location: Austin, Texas
Size: 3,600 square feet; 3 bedrooms
That is interesting: The kitchen cabinetmaker’s mom, a United Nations chief officer of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, assisted the homeowners in finding a sustainable, nontoxic finish.

Furman + Keil Architects

The couple wanted the dining room to have more function than just as a place where they gather for foods. They included bookshelves and a white-oak bench to create a reading area and library, which holds Elkins’ late father’s extensive book collection. “He read the many incredible things, from physics into Chinese philosophy,” she says.

LED lights, like the glass-covered ones hanging on the table, are used throughout the house for energy efficiency.

Chairs: Wishbone, Urbanspace Interiors; artwork: Angela Fife, Wally Workman Gallery; table: De La Espada, Urbanspace Interiors

Furman + Keil Architects

The living space, which juts out from a slope, was created with corner windows which go to the floor to give the impression of hovering over the creek bed below. “It is an absolutely amazing view,” Elkins says. “You will find monster herds of deer which move and graze through the space below. Simply wonderful. Of course, 6-foot snakes, coyotes, scorpions and a 2-foot-tall owl live back there too. Texas wildlife is not for the faint of heart”

Sofa: B&B Italia; lamp, brown chair: Scott+Cooner; rug: Fibert Multi by Rex Ray, David Alan Rugs

Furman + Keil Architects

From the master bedroom, eye-popping colours and high windows brighten the room.

Missoni bedspread, carpeting, Matthew Hilton bed for De LaEspada: Urbanspace Interiors; artwork: Christopher St. Leger

Furman + Keil Architects

A big fireproof door was added to totally shut off the upstairs from the downstairs. “It is also the world’s most secure baby gate,” Elkins says.

Furman + Keil Architects

Most wall decals are made from vinyl, Elkins notes, “which is forbidden in a wholesome residence.” She found these BPA-free cloth decals made with a nontoxic adhesive through Wee D├ęcor.

Rug, bed: Pottery Barn Kids

Furman + Keil Architects

If it comes to kids’ furniture, Elkins loves Pottery Barn Kids. “It is so cheerful,” she says. Additionally, the company sells all-wool rugs made without stain-resistant chemicals, keeping in accordance with the couple’s clean-house vibe. The bed was a floor model which was a couple of years old if the Elkinses purchased it. “The item with volatile organic chemicals,” she says, “[is] they’re really high initially, then drop off real fast.”

Bed, rug: Pottery Barn Kids; dangling chair: Haba

Furman + Keil Architects

The timber featured across the interior area is white oak. From the kitchen, the couple needed a broader plank cut to highlight the exceptional grain. The couple worked with cabinetmaker Chris Honea of Honea Woodworking to find a finish that was durable, sustainable and nontoxic.

Furman + Keil Architects

Bathroom views capitalize on the rolling Texas Hill Country during the afternoon, and during the night: mobile phone towers. “It is a haunting opinion,” Elkins says.

Seat: Wishbone, Urbanspace Interiors

Furman + Keil Architects

The screened-in porch is one of the Elkinses favorite spots in the house. They place the fireplace out here to maintain the unhealthy chemicals from burning timber out of the clean-air interior. “You feel like you’re in the midst of a bamboo woods out there,” Elkins says.

Furman + Keil Architects

The outside wood slats on the open garage are garapa timber, or as Elkins refers to this, “ch-ipe,” because it is a less costly form of the tropical timber ipe. The garage has been separated from the main house by an outside wall, therefore car emissions do not mix with the home’s clean air supply. Most of the electronic components for the home are kept in this area too, to keep the fire retardants from the components out.

Furman + Keil Architects

Elkins was a aggressive snow skier, and her husband a semipro baseball player; combine that with the fact that the couple has three little boys, and it means that the Elkinses invest a lot of time outside. So much, in fact, that they put in a drinking fountains with this outdoor limestone wall.

Paradoxically, the Elkinses’ story started at an extremely unhealthy location: an overgrown, 30-year-old bamboo woods with “an older, disgusting black-mold house and dilapidated, bizarre outbuildings,” Elkins says. The property was suspicious, the homeowners had the soil tested for methamphetamine before building started. Now the house spills into the leafy, green lot.

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