The Thin Green Line

The Thin Green Line

For years, as the author of books on eco-home design and a founder of two environmental general stores, I’ve been advocating sustainable design to others.

Yet year after year I managed to turn a blind eye to my San Francisco home’s leaky windows, spotty insulation, and crumbling brick foundation. After more than a decade of putting up with my diminutive Victorian’s deteriorating charms, I finally embarked on a green rehab of my own.

When my partner Erik Kolderup and I bought the house in the early 1990s, it was pushing 100 years old. For the most part, the 1,300-square-foot house was in fine shape, with rooms that were small and a bit dark but amiably quirky—11-foot ceilings with ornate molding, offbeat plaster castings of rams’ and women’s heads mounted on fluted columns in the front hall, and floor tiles made of sapele, a West African hardwood that’s now on Rainforest Action Network’s "do not buy" list.

The kitchen was another story. A space-wasting hall cut it off from the rest of the house. The 8-by-12-foot room’s dropped ceiling and wall-to-wall cabinetry pushed my claustrophobia buttons. The windows afforded views of a blank wall and the underside of the neighbor’s deck. Worst of all, there was no room for a table, let alone a chair. So we took the plunge, gutting the original kitchen and hallway, bumping one wall out into an unused side yard to expand the room by a modest 78 square feet, and adding a deck.

While kitchen remodeling is never a breeze, I can truthfully report back that incorporating eco-friendly products and practices can be relatively painless. We had the good fortune to hire pros for whom green building is standard practice, which is always the best way to insure adherence to green-building guidelines if you can do it, and we managed to include virtually every eco-friendly strategy we deemed appropriate, from a new foundation with 50 percent recycled fly-ash content to a 5-by-12-foot Kalwall skylight filled with a superinsulating translucent material called aerogel.

Leger Wanaselja Architecture helped us design a kitchen that would work well today while being flexible enough to adapt to future changes. Bucking the popularity of built-ins, we went for an unfitted kitchen with modular components that could be dismantled someday with minimal disruption to structure. Most of the storage is provided not by cabinets but by an adjustable system of open shelves made of recycled and recyclable aluminum. The freestanding stainless steel restaurant sink can also be readily reused or recycled, should future owners prefer a more traditional look.

Our contractor, Fusion Building Company, did a commendable job of procuring wood from sustainable sources. Roughly 90 percent of the framing lumber, sheathing, siding, and decking is reused from the original structure, salvaged from other sources, or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to have been sustainably harvested. Inside, the kitchen floor, butcher-block counters, and trim are salvaged wood finished with plant-based oils.

In contrast to the rest of the house, the new kitchen is snug and energy-efficient, with double-pane windows, walls properly sealed against rain and air infiltration, and insulation made from recycled denim. The lights all have energy-saving fluorescent bulbs; we sourced the fixtures from commercial lighting manufacturers after finding residential products to be uninspired and inefficient. Though I did learn a few lessons along the way, I’m now keener than ever on the benefits of green building.

Here are four areas in which my green ideals clashed with the realities of home remodeling, and how we resolved the conflicts.

My ideal: Use integrated design to capitalize on green-building opportunities.
The conventional design and construction process is linear, with the building plans passing sequentially from the architect to engineers and other consultants and eventually to the general contractor. If the design is finalized before key players have a chance to weigh in, opportunities for energy efficiency and greener materials can be missed. With integrated design, the design and construction team collaborates on the design from the outset, increasing the likelihood of more sustainable results.

What we did:
We followed a traditional process, finalizing the design with our architect and then hiring the general contractor. Integrated design makes sense for majorprojects, but for small-scale renovations, it’s tricky. Before signing a contract with a builder, homeowners want accurate construction cost estimates. To come up with those numbers, builders need construction documents from the architect—hence the linear, nonintegrated process.

What I would do differently:
Even though our project was small, it used, in my view, an excessive amount of construction material, especially lumber, plywood, and concrete. If we had brought together the architect, builder, and structural engineer early on, I suspect that they could have come up with creative ways to reduce resource use.

My ideal: Size matters.
Smaller homes are gentler on the environment: They require fewer resources to build, furnish, and maintain, they eat up less land, and they consume less energy.

What we did:
At the outset, architect Cate Leger presented us with six preliminary concepts, including one that reconfigured the existing space but didn’t expand the building’s footprint. That’s the one I rejected out of hand. I needed a bigger kitchen, or so I thought. Many months later, on the day that deconstruction began, I found myself standing in the middle of our dining room, looking around the temporary kitchen we’d set up. We had a table, refrigerator, toaster oven, microwave. A single-burner hot plate sat on top of a Sears Craftsman tool cart that held our dishes and cutlery. Remodeler’s remorse struck in force. "What have I done?" I moaned.
I’d pulled the plug on our savings account, only to be hit with the epiphany that maybe we don’t even really need a kitchen.

What I would do differently:
Yes, our kitchen redo could have been smaller, and yes, we can survive with a hot plate and toaster oven, if we have to. Thank goodness we don’t have to. Small may be beautiful, but just a little bit bigger can be divine.

My ideal: Choose low-e windows.
Low-emissivity, or low-e, windows have a transparent coating that reflects internal heat back into the room. This keeps the room warmer when it’s cold outside and reduces heating energy use.

What we did:
For major construction projects, window manufacturers offer a variety of low-e coatings, allowing building designers to fine-tune the U-factor and SHGC for the climate and the window’s location. U-factor indicates the window’s insulating value; the lower the U-factor, the more heat is retained inside. SHGC indicates how much of the sun’s heat passes through a window from outside. But for small-scale projects, coating choices are limited; ultimately, we couldn’t find low-e windows that met our specific needs, so we skipped the low-e coating. The windows we ended up choosing are double-pane and airtight, a vast improvement over the windows in the rest of the house.

What I would do differently:
From now on I’ll add a caveat to my advice: In most cases, choose low-e windows. In the long run, reducing energy use helps the environment more than virtually any other green building strategy. Energy-efficiency improvements may be a hassle, but they’re more easily accomplished if you already have remodeling work under way.

My ideal: When remodeling one area, look for ways to boost the energy efficiency of the whole home.

What we did:
Early on we flirted with whole-house upgrades like replacing the aging water heater with a tankless model and blowing recycled cellulose insulation into all the attic and perimeter wall cavities. But after the estimates came in for the kitchen work, those efficiency "extras" went out the window.

What I would do differently:
Nothing. We’re enjoying our energy-efficient, weathertight kitchen. Someday, we’ll get around to the rest of the house.


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