Sweet Home California
Greening a Seaside foreclosure brings joy and pain.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
In the dead of the night, in a tiny Monterey apartment, my toenail became the first casualty of my future home’s eco-retrofit.
A few curses later, I managed to fire a grumpy question at my snoozing partner, “Why is that in the middle of the floor?”
“It’s old barn wood,” she replied. “It could be shelves in our house one day.”
“Could” was the operative word in this half-conscious sentence. Like a sparrow in spring, Tracy Parker, a certified green building professional, had begun collecting odds and ends before we’d even purchased our tiny Seaside abode. As recycled wood, doors, plants, and stone piled up in my once-uncluttered apartment, the search for a house intensified.
It only took a minor global meltdown to bring Peninsula home prices into range, but when it did, we were ready. We discovered our 650-square-foot house in late summer 2008 near the intersection of Broadway Avenue and Noche Buena Street and became immediately enamored with its rough-around-the-edges charm.
A pale yellow bungalow with paper-thin windows and a decaying front porch, La Casita Verde (as we affectionately christened it) was a beauty. Sure, it came with 3-foot weeds on all sides, but at least it wasn’t smeared with blood-red spray paint, broken glass or ripped-up rugs like many area foreclosures. It had been neglected but not abused.
Tracy cooed, “This house has so much potential.”
A neighbor in the nearby apartment complex yelled over the fence, “That house ain’t worth buying.”
Depending on the day, I wholeheartedly agree with both of these statements. Building a green house takes more time and effort than anything we’ve ever undertaken, but as they say, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”Disaster relief
Six hundred and fifty square feet is not a lot of room. La Casita Verde was a two-bedroom home (though the second “bedroom” seemed more like a walk-in closet) with low ceilings and claustrophobia-inducing spaces. Instinct commanded: Take a sledgehammer to those shoebox walls!
Not so fast. In building (or reconstructing) a home, nothing is as easy as it seems. When the hazardous materials team arrived, they found asbestos in the old linoleum flooring, the paint on the walls and the insulation on the furnace pipe.
We wanted complete liberation: “Gut it,” we told them. And so, within a week of our owning the house, every wall, ceiling, layer of flooring, cabinet, and appliance was gone. Giant tubes connected to humming boxes and hung outside windows. We were told not to enter the house for 24 hours during the abatement. From outside, the house looked like it had been attacked by Martians… or was on life support.Into the great wide open
The abatement finished, we were left with exposed walls, a partially removed attic, bare ’50s-era wiring, and termite-tormented wood beams and studs. Though I found the wide open space of our newly-purchased shell rather intimidating, I suspect my designer hubby found the space intoxicating – a blank canvas. Words like daylighting and passive solar fell from her lips like divinely-inspired song, and Google became my pocket translator for all things green.
The oppressive drop ceilings gone and the roofline transformed into cathedral ceilings, the sky literally became the limit. I found myself wondering about the mentality that created these box structures in the first place. Were people somehow reassured by the tidy lines, the cozy confines, the geometric monotony of post-World War II sprawl? Had it now fallen upon us, the Gen X-Y cuspers, to overthrow that vision of the world, transform it one by one with green retrofits?
I could have been reading too much into it, but as north-facing skylights went in above the second bedroom and a wall fell to expand the kitchen, dining, and living space, a new era dawned on our tiny home. We took advantage of La Casita Verde’s ideal orientation to capture every last glimmer of sunlight, adding two upper windows and big energy-efficient bay windows around the house’s perimeter. Our back door is composed of glass and aligned with the future studio shed, another extension of our living space.
Our open floor plan translates into a home without boundaries. With the partitions and openings, there is not a single true wall in the house; each ends before reaching the ceiling. From any point in the house, you can see every other point, which creates a spacious and comfortable environment despite the constrained space. With the recent addition of a five-window dormer, we’ve extended the roofline and created even more vertical space.
So long as the sun shines, we won’t have to flip on a light switch.
That’s daylighting, baby – and I didn’t even need Google to figure it out.Love notes and rock ‘n’ roll
Though Home Depot is a short two-mile jaunt from our house, we’ve veered away from the colossal megalith, seeking to reduce our building footprint. The National Association of Homebuilders estimates construction of a 2,000 square-foot house produces 8,000 pounds of waste – mostly drywall, cardboard and wood.
As we began rebuilding after the epic gutting, we sought ways to reduce this garbage whenever possible. Among the better finds: salvaged redwood from Santa Cruz park benches, reclaimed World War II-era Douglas fir from a Bay Area warehouse, recycled 30-year-old redwood decking dismantled from one of Tracy’s local landscape projects, and a recycled 6-by-8-foot Doug fir beam.
The Santa Cruz park benches featured decades of love confessions butting up against Led Zeppelin fanfare. We sanded the messages away before using them for interior purposes: doorway trim and closet door planks. But we consciously left the carvings in repurposed exterior benches and an entryway arbor, preserving a bit of history and acknowledging that someone out there loved Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977.
To gather our Douglas fir flooring, we drove to Petaluma’s Heritage Salvage and purchased 60-year-old wood. Though new hardwood floors may glimmer and shine, the facts would make even the least conscious consumer blush: Deforestation, illegal logging and questionable labor tactics dog most producers of hardwood flooring today. Our solution: a drive up to Petaluma with a flatbed trailer. Unfamiliar with such a towing device, we passed a tense three hours driving and faced a near meltdown after a wrong turn on the Bay Bridge led us into Oakland. After a four-point turn with a flatbed trailer in downtown Oakland, we’d earned our hardwood floors.
We found 100-year-old redwood barn doors from San Juan Bautista on Craigslist, and spent a Saturday with surgical masks, sanders and eco-friendly sealer to get the planks ready for assembly. Along with the salvaged pine beam from Castroville’s Randazzo Salvage, this wood went on to become our porch overhang.
Even our appliances have a story. The Wolf Range that will one day grace our kitchen was unearthed after a haphazard glance at the San Francisco Craigslist. Used only twice, the restaurant-grade stove soon became two-women-and-a-gay-man’s nightmare to load. Back in Seaside, a kind Weekly photographer helped unload the range. Today, the stove lies in the house draped in canvas, still awaiting installation.Our final frontier
The yard takes a backseat for most people working to make their home livable, but for us, getting our hands dirty, tilling the land and planting has been a way to have a home before moving into it.
Every day brings a new experiment in sun/shade exposure and watering practices for our native plants and edibles: buckwheats and salvias, lemons and apples. Pulling up to the house, I never know what exactly I’m going to see. Tracy’s passion for landscape design takes the form of a never-ending game of native plant musical chairs.
“Did you see I moved the white sage?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say obediently, trying to notice.
As the sun sets on Seaside, we’ve yet to turn on a light – because we’ve yet to move in. The Energy Star appliances and water-saving sinks and toilets are not installed, but the graywater system has already been plumbed. Our planned solar array seems to glisten from the roof’s south-facing edge, though it does not yet exist.
Although we don’t technically live here (we’re shooting for a summer housewarming party), life on the land goes on without us. Behind the shed that will soon feature a green roof, worms work tirelessly to consume our food waste and produce the best fertilizer on earth. Resident birds and honeybees have taken root in our yard along with the neighborhood’s faithful stray cats. It seems that all that’s missing from our house is us – and we’re on our way.
Tracy has noted a number of times, “We could have torn this house down and rebuilt it with less time, money and energy.”
But that’s what it means to do an eco-retrofit on a budget: more time, money, and energy than initially imaginable; uncountable joys and unexpected discomforts around every corner.
I can say only two things for sure. On most days, the joys outnumber the sorrows.
And Mom was right: Toenails do grow back.