Case Study: Heider House

Case Study: Heider House

  • March 24, 2015
  • by Suzanne VanGilder

Heider House 0035-sKnowing as much about sustainability, construction, project management, historic preservation and architecture as Elizabeth Heider, FAIA LEED AP BD+C, (See In Depth with Elizabeth Heider) is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to personal projects. “I wanted to take this 1920s bungalow and do something that both celebrated the fact that early in my career I did historic preservation and adaptive use work when I practiced as an architect, and also reflected my commitment to sustainability,” says Heider, who is the Chief Sustainability Officer for Skanska USA. “The renovation project, for me, was kind of a monumental and herculean test of my personal stamina. I was really committed to making it right. Good design, sustainability and quality craftsmanship are important to me. It required constant vigilance and constant education.”

Heider acted as both architect and designer for the project. Although there was a construction company involved, she also directly purchased the majority of the materials. However, there was an area where Heider was able to let down her guard, the cabinetry. “The one provider or co-creator that I would say exceeded my expectations was Neil Kelly Cabinet Co., in particular, Mark Smith. He knocked himself out to make sure that my vision was realized,” says Heider. “And one of the things that Neil Kelly does is simplify sustainability. They are committed to that ethos, and have established a supply chain of environmentally responsible materials and finishes. It was one less thing for me to worry about.”

Good Design

Although Heider lives in Virginia, her work regularly brings her to the Pacific Northwest, which is where she first came into contact with Neil Kelly Cabinet Co. “I used to read this great publication on home renovation. It was very thoughtful and stylish,” says Heider. “ And it always seemed that the kitchen and home renovations I liked were credited to Neil Kelly.”

Heider connected with Mark Smith, president of Neil Kelly Cabinet Co. at the Living Future unConference event and told him of her own renovation project. She learned about the company’s exemplary sustainability practices, such as the standard specification of Columbia Forest Products’ PureBond® formaldehyde-free hardwood plywood, and returned home in search of a cabinetmaker with similar environmental integrity. “I researched the East Coast, and there wasn’t another company that was committed to really exploring the sustainability of the supply chain,” says Heider. “Some of them didn’t even know the term ‘FSC’.” And so, Neil Kelly was engaged for the project. “The experience with Mark was just amazing,” says Heider. “The attention to customer service and his ability to incorporate details into the design of the millwork were really extraordinary.”


Heider House 0020-sBased in Portland, Ore. Neil Kelly Cabinet Co. started manufacturing premium custom cabinets in 1966, first as a division of Neil Kelly Design/Build Remodeling, and since 2001 as a stand-alone company. “In 1998 we made an aggressive move and became the first FSC- certified cabinet maker in the country. Since then, we committed to using annually renewable substrates as a base for cabinet construction, Columbia Forest Products’ PureBond® for our standard plywood, and a formaldehyde-free conversion varnish for our standard finish,” says Smith.

In 2012 Neil Kelly Cabinets again made a bold move in environmental integrity by becoming the first cabinetmaker to conform to the International Living Building Institute’s DECLARE label for its Naturally Northwest Collection. The DECLARE system includes a nutritional-style label that is currently the industry’s most stringent form of transparency in materials. “It’s hard to get a handle on real sustainable value, so the easier we can make it for people to make better decisions, the better,” says Smith.

Neil Kelly Cabinet Co.’s commitment to sustainability is both non-negotiable (company motto #1 “You’re going to get green whether you want it or not.”) and sincere (company motto #2 “We provide products that don’t do harm, either to employees or end customers.”)

“It’s important because the low-quality imports don’t usually look very different from the sustainable materials,” says Smith. “The big advantages are often the ones you can’t see. Our vendors make products sourced from well-managed regional materials. They use good ingredients and efficient manufacturing processes. They employ local labor, keep a steady stock and stand behind their products. That’s how they build relationships with us, and how we build relationships with our clients.”

There is a lot of truth in Smith’s observations about seemingly similar materials. During the bungalow renovation, Heider found that her contractors were often willing to break spec for convenience or to pad the margins. “I had really interesting conversations, like when they under-ordered the amount of FSC-certified lumber for a small timber-framed section of the basement,” says Heider. “The carpenter showed up with non-FSC-Certified material and said,’ hey, do you really need FSC down there in the basement? Nobody is going to look at it.’ Yes. It’s important. It’s the whole point. Or making sure they weren’t using Liquid Nails all over the place after we had carefully selected no-VOC materials and finishes. Seemingly small details.”

Quality Craftsmanship

Neil Kelly Cabinets

Neil Kelly Cabinets

Neil Kelly builds custom cabinets with a five-year warranty. “Bottom line, if there is a problem, we are just going to fix it,” says Smith. It is a testament to the quality of the craftsmanship, as well as the materials. “It’s been my experience with the different manufacturers out there that Columbia Forest Products provides a superior product. Their platforms are always consistent with the specifications I require for my product level,” says Smith. “They meet my needs every time, even going beyond the standard, like the Moda conference table.*”

The craftsmanship on the bungalow project was also superb. “Consider that we are more than 2000 miles away from their facility, so we had to get it right,” says Heider. “Our house has the kitchen in an old section, and there is a small addition from previous owners. The cabinet package had to negotiate around something like 49 obstacles, and then it also had to look right.”

“Neil Kelly Cabinets made sure the package was constructed properly, so there was no waste of material or time,” says Heider. Between that and the quality of the material, I knew that Mark cared about the project. Doing something like this requires everyone involved to carry out the intention. This is where I think Neil Kelly is doing such a service. They have done all the research so conscientious clients can rest easy.”

*Neil Kelly Cabinets won first place in the 2014 PureBond® Quality Awards commercial category for a conference table they created for Moda Health Network in Anchorage, Ala. This fine piece of furniture can seat more than 20 people.