Let there be natural light


Like any model citizen, Juliet Whelan believes in taking responsibility for her actions. When she’s knocking down walls and installing countertops, floors and ceilings, she’s constantly thinking about the long-term impact.

"As designers, we are responsible for the effects of our decisions," she said. "With all designs, environmental designs should be considered."

A mantra the 35-year-old designer/architect/sometimes contractor lives by and has carried out through several jobs in the city, including South Philly.

She’s gearing up to show just what "going green" can mean in terms of building by holding an open house for her firm, Jibe Design, 813. S. Fourth St. The three-story structure also has served as home to Whelan and life partner Kevin Arceneaux since November and will be on display from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 22. Whelan will present ways to retrofit existing homes to make them eco-friendly and show images of several of her South Philadelphia home and garden renovations, including a Queen Village parcel that’s in the next issue of Philadelphia magazine’s Home & Garden — a bi-annual edition of the magazine that covers trends and innovations that’s set to hit stands within the next month — for its use of plants requiring little water and materials free of toxic chemicals, as well as the effective use of a small amount of space.

"I’m an environmentalist in the context of America," she said. "I don’t have a car; I ride my bicycle. I recycle and encourage the least-toxic and most-sustainable design solutions wherever I can with clients."

She’s retrofitted gutted buildings and even renovated a merchant’s space in the Reading Terminal Market. Making slight changes to better accommodate the environment is easy, she said, adding recycling, composting and choosing compact fluorescent lighting are ways to make immediate changes.

Whelan steps in when going green gets a bit tough. If someone is contemplating replacing a furnace, hot-water heater or appliance, she suggests a high-efficiency or more energy-efficient model. Similarly, if someone is remodeling, materials like paint and insulation and finishes that are sustainable are discussed.

"It’s an ethical decision for architects," she said. "It’s doing the right thing. I don’t see an alternative right way to think about things."

Whelan moved to the area two-and-a-half years ago from Houston, Texas, when Arceneaux got a job as a political science professor at Temple University. In the Lone Star State, she spent a couple years as a construction superintendent for a design firm, was a freelance architect and taught art at a middle school.

"But I always had an interest in green," she said of her design and architecture leanings.

Ten days before making the trip north, Whelan put an ad on craigslist listing her contemporary design services and, even minus a mention of her green interests as the concept was still in development, was quickly hit with responses.

Under Jibe Design, Whelan set up shop out of her apartment on Fourth and Catharine streets. The name was inspired by the multiple meanings of "jibe," including a sailing term that refers to a change in course, to get along with and to poke fun at.

"All of these meanings relate to my design work," she said. "I often have to change the course of a design to find the best solution; my work has to integrate into the community and a client’s needs; and I like the idea of a light-hearted component to my practice."

During her first two years in business, Whelan designed and built each project, acting as a general contractor. More recently, she’s decided not to build, but offer subcontractors, following a format closer to a traditional architecture firm with heavy involvement in design.

Two years ago, she took on her first large project for Steve DeShong, owner of Market Blooms, and Market Blooms and Garden in Reading Terminal. DeShong was the owner of a Center City building looking to convert the second and third floors into an apartment. Whelan worked with DeShong to conceptualize a design and completely gutted the interior, choosing green features like recycled glass countertops and natural pebble tile for the bathrooms. She also brought in a heavy dose of day lighting through lots of windows that allowed for natural light and heat, as well as a skylight to augment the day lighting and let heat escape in the summer.

Additionally, DeShong chose to install a gas-on-demand water heater that heats water as it’s being used rather than an entire reservoir, which helps cut down on energy consumption. Touchless faucets adorn the sinks in the two-bedroom apartment, keeping water from being used unless the sensors detect motion.

DeShong was very proactive in making the space as green as possible, Whelan said.

"He got rid of a lot of stuff, too," she said of his tossing unused items. "It’s sustainable to use less space, that’s another green aspect that’s there."

The process took a year from start to finish. Her work was showcased in Philadelphia magazine last April with DeShong’s space he shares with Troy Usnick named one of the greenest homes in the city. At DeShong’s flowershop in Reading Terminal, the design was more about making the location aesthetically pleasing with a contemporary look via new floors, lighting and signage, but Whelan did add a few sustainable touches.

"We used black locust wood [for the countertops]. When it gets wet, it’s naturally water resistant. A lot of wood when it gets wet, rots," she said.

The work there only took three weeks to complete.

In ventures closer to home, Whelan’s jobs have included a patio and bathroom at the home of Martin Duffy on the 200 block of Queen Street, who heard of Whelan from a flyer she distributed in his neighborhood.

Duffy purchased a high-efficiency washer and dryer for the bathroom that uses frosted glass in its shower to allow for more natural light. The patio features plenty of built-in space to house recyclables, a Whelan recommendation that was important for Duffy, wife Christine Johnston, and their 5-year-old son, Calder Duffy.

"It’s a minor thing, but a big issue for the little amount of space we had for a patio. In 10 years when my son’s older and he’s smarter, it’s just going to be a given that’s how it should be," he said of a conscious effort to be green. "It’s like 35 years ago, smoking health issues were laid out, but people didn’t catch on until much, much later. Now it’s common knowledge."

Whelan leads by example, as well. Her office/residence does not have one piece of furniture that isn’t used — saving the energy and materials expended for the creation of new fixtures. She has many windows for day lighting, never flipping a light switch during the day. She also used salvaged wood for the flooring on all three stories.

Duffy maintains a working relationship with Whelan — as do many of her clients seeking small renovations — turning to her for advice on future green adjustments.

Whelan said there is a shared attitude among many people to go green, specifically when it comes to design work.

"The general public is really pushing this. Clients are really the driving factors in green. The public is making the [design] industry change, the construction industry change and making businesses change by having them state their green policies," she said. "It’s a fantastic grassroots kind of movement."