Amidst a tangle of blackberry bushes and decaying tires, architects Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio saw the perfect site for their future home. "The lot was vacant for 30 years and was kind of the neighborhood dump," Mihalyo explains of the small space a mere 15-minute walk from downtown Seattle. "There were several cars’ worth of car parts and 25 or so pickup-truck loads of debris that we had to haul off the lot. Just clearing away all the stuff that was sitting on the land took us about a month."
This exercise in manual labor—rare for most architects, who supervise projects and don’t usually wield hammers or drive Bobcats—became an everyday task for the couple. With a materials and construction budget of just $70,000, Han and Mihalyo did all the design and almost all the building themselves, since they couldn’t afford to hire extra hands.
Despite their financial constraints, the architects seamlessly incorporated sustainable building design into their dwelling, disproving the stereotype that environmentally conscious materials are costly or complex to use. "Most of the things we did are simple, low-cost additions to what we would have done anyway. They’re doable on nearly any structure," says Mihalyo of the couple’s matter-of-fact approach to green architecture. "It’s like buying organic fruit. If there are two apples sitting side by side and one’s organic and one’s not, you buy the organic apple unless it’s much more expensive," Han explains.
Their house—1,350 square feet that combine the couple’s architecture and sculpture studio with their living space—is a box of unfinished wood, steel, and concrete. The couple had wanted to live in an industrial-type space, but when they were unable to find a building to renovate in their price range they simply transplanted their sustainable urban ideal into a quiet residential neighborhood within view of downtown high-rises.
The bottom level of the home is poured concrete mixed with 30 percent fly ash (a waste product), a combination that both increases strength (you can do more with less) of the concrete and decreases harmful emissions. The 15-foot-tall walls were built with the help of a small company of five friendly and strong Tongan brothers—the couple’s one financial indulgence in their cost-cutting regime of self-build. Wood-framed walls comprise the second story, clad with sheets of recyclable hot-rolled steel (see sidebar).
Inside the open, loftlike space, the temperature is kept comfortable year-round through energy-efficient solutions. "Compared with our neighbors’, our energy bill is puny," boasts Mihalyo. Thick walls densely packed with fiberglass batting provide excellent insulation, and a radiant heating system under the cement first floor keeps the place warm. The walls, roof, and floor are insulated
at twice the value required by code. On the second floor, the architects designed a 5-by-20-foot south-facing passive solar window with a canopy for shade, providing heat in the winter and a cooling effect in the summer.
Plundering the local salvage yards provided most of the doors, sinks, and bathtubs in the home. The old cast-iron tub upstairs and a pair of old working double doors at the entrance give the house "a mark of history that you can’t fake with new materials," says Han. As a nod to the local airplane-manufacturing industry, aluminum sheeting scrounged from Boeing surplus was used for the solar canopy and covers the roof deck.
And those neighbors who used their yard as a dumping ground? "While we were doing the work hauling stuff away, the neighbors walked by sheepishly waving at us as they saw the tires they threw out," Han says. "But everyone has been really supportive and happy that we did something with this empty lot that was an eyesore," Mihalyo interjects. And as it turns out, the couple still helps haul away trash—the neighbors often borrow their ’67 Chevy pickup for trips to the dump.
To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.
A former editor at Dwell, Amara recently left the glamorous life of a magazine staffer to pursue her freelance writing dream. She has written for Sunset, Wallpaper*, the Architect’s Newspaper, VIA, and Apartment Therapy.