Once upon a time, Leslie Hoffman, executive director and president of the always forward-thinking environmental nonprofit, Earth Pledge, worked as a green builder and carpenter. She also holds a degree in architecture and design. So when approaching her latest building project, a four-season “beach modern” home on New York’s Shelter Island, Hoffman knew exactly what she was after.

Hoffman wanted her new home to be as sustainable as possible, naturally, and she wanted the center of activity to revolve around the home’s garden. (Earth Pledge is behind New York’s Green Roofs initiative). Hoffman also wanted the home to be different beyond just being a beautiful, sustainable structure with solar photovoltaics, a rainwater catchment system, green roof, and so on. She wanted it to tell a story.  

And so, Hoffman has made the building of her Shelter Island home a “living laboratory” of sorts, the Gimme Shelter project. By encouraging interaction and community-involvement ("the glue that makes it happen") on-site and through the Gimme Shelter blog and Twitter and Facebook pages, Hoffman has turned her green home building project into something quite remarkable … a home with a lot to say. It’s safe to guess that the home will have even more to say when construction is completed this summer.

Hoffman also has some things to say. She took some time out to answer a few of my questions about the ins and outs of Gimme Shelter. 


MNN: Green home building has become more and more mainstream with many new homes being built and then inhabited by folks who sometimes don't fully realize why their home was constructed the way it was. The Gimme Shelter project differs because it's more than just a green structure — it's a learning tool, a sustainable showcase, and a vehicle for community interaction. When and why did you decide you wanted your home to stand out from the pack?

Leslie Hoffman: It's in my DNA to ‘stand out from the pack’, so I have never aspired to have a home that is conventional. Each of my homes — I think there are four so far, plus my office — have been special projects for me, places where I have been able to use what I know about design and construction, focusing my creativity on my own particular needs or desires. For Gimme Shelter, I am trying to live by example, and sharing what I’ve learned through the blog, and Facebook, for example, is part of the value of doing the project to me.

The building of the Gimme Shelter home has been largely a local, communal effort. How do you envision the unique community-building, "living laboratory" aspect of Gimme Shelter evolving after the home is complete?

I think that there will be several aspects of the teaching and sharing associated with this project that continue beyond the construction phase. It is likely that these may be the most valuable of all ... there is the ever growing community of friends who visit regularly, work in the garden, socialize on weekends, and come by and enjoy the beach. We will be hosting events with sponsors for a wide variety of audiences to showcase the house and how the products were used and integrated to create a holistic lifestyle. We are also discussing how to use the house to support and teach school groups, green building groups, college students, local political leaders, and nonprofit organizations. Publishing the project once it is finished can take the form of magazine pieces, a book, a film, television programming, and whatever else gets dreamed up. I expect Gimme Shelter to have ‘legs’, as they say.

Shelter Island is an interesting locale because it's perhaps mostly known for being a seasonal destination. Does your vision for the Gimme Shelter community transcend seasons? Are there any unique features of the home that make it especially well-suited as a summer "beach modern" house?

While Shelter Island is known widely as a summer destination, it is actually a thriving small community year-round, with a high school, as well as all other traditional town services. Gimme Shelter is being built to be a four-season house, but in the nicer weather it opens up in a way that is uniquely suited to being indoors and outdoors at the same time.

You opted to tear down the existing home on your Shelter Island property to make way for the Gimme Shelter home. Since the benefits of deconstruction over demolition is an increasingly hot topic, I'm curious as to what parts of the old home are being incorporated in the construction of the new home?

We have salvaged the original siding for use in the interior and used whatever framing materials were in good enough condition to reuse. The fact that the house was built in the late '70s using some pretty low-end materials — things like steel bathtubs that had rusted out and windows that all had broken seals — made reuse of most of the old house not desirable. We did use the old foundation, and saved the section of the house that housed the garage, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. I should note that all demolition materials were recycled, including the concrete slab, the wood and the sheetrock. I also did a garage sale (my first — I am usually on the other side of those transactions) and let friends have anything they needed, whether it was a dishwasher or the hardware off of the old garage door.

Gimme Shelter will boast the latest and greatest green building bells and whistles, but it seems the one part of the home that's receiving a good amount of attention isn't even in the home, per say: the garden. What for you makes the garden 'the heart of the home'?

Gardens are a great source of pleasure and of sustenance. My garden brings together friends — whether it is trading plants, participating in the work, sharing the produce, or dining together. I always invite children who are visiting to come into the garden and eat a few things right from the plant, see the vegetables on the plant or in the ground, etc. I also consider whatever I am able to grow as far superior to anything that I can buy. My own garden produce has embedded in it the pleasure of growing it, in addition to the flavor, aesthetic, nutritional and environmental benefits of producing food on site. The plan is to use the unique shape of the roof to manage the rainwater (that would otherwise run off into the bay) to be diverted to water the garden before recharging the aquifer.

How did you come to connect with project architect Steve Hoffman? Did your own experiences with architecture and building make finding an architect that shared your vision (and your last name) all the much easier?

Steve is married to a former Earth Pledge employee and friend, Mindy Fox. They met through the architect Sam Mockbee when Mindy was writing a piece about him for our Sustainable Architecture White Papers book. Steve had visited Shelter Island with Mindy a number of times and had gotten to know the place. I think both Steve and I would agree that finding an architect with the same last name is outside of the reason for our working together. Some people must just assume that I hired my little brother! Steve and I have had a good working rapport and I think it's fair to say that we have each brought our strengths to the process and this has been a real collaboration. Steve’s commitment to the principles that we established early on are evident throughout the project.

Have any aspects of green home building really managed to surprise you during the Gimme Shelter process? What's something new that you've learned and been able to share?

My first instinct was to say that I hadn’t really learned anything new per se, or been surprised by, but that being back in the middle of the design and construction process reminds me of how complex it is, how many details there are to chase, in order to strive for perfection. While nothing is ever perfect, the best green buildings are detailed beyond a conventional building — the systems and the envelope are crucial to high performance.

But to answer fairly — Susan Serra, the kitchen designer, has introduced me to induction cooking, a new super efficient and highly responsive alternative to gas or conventional electric cooking. The other surprise to me is that framing these days is all tied together with metal straps. This is a first for me. In all of my years as a builder, we relied on a tight careful framing job, the sheathing skin tying it all together. I think since the hurricane disasters, the metal ties have become an additional safeguard.

Have there been any obstacles, expected or not, thus far in making Gimme Shelter a reality?

All design processes and construction involve compromise, and moving through making those choices is the challenge. We have made great progress in defining all of the details, engaging the product manufacturers, refining our own understanding of the community’s role in making Gimme Shelter a success, and starting to share the story with a broader audience so this its message is understood. I don’t see any obstacles —just challenges. And how we manage the challenges in life defines our success. Gimme Shelter has become a metaphor for me, and I hope for others as well. There is much to learn, and much to share.

Photos: Leslie Hoffman/Gimme Shelter

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Gimme Shelter: A Q&A with Leslie Hoffman
Earth Pledge's Leslie Hoffman discusses how community plays a key role in her remarkable green home building project, Gimme Shelter.