Real Estate

Going for the green

Remodel evolves into eco-friendly project

It all started with shredded pants.

Bruce Schena and Cathy Ricke didn't begin their home remodel intending to be the greenest house on the block. But as their plan progressed, they made decisions such as using recycled blue jeans for insulation.

Before they knew it they found themselves looking into every possible environmentally friendly option for their house and getting a high rating from Build It Green, a nonprofit that rates structures on a range of environmentally friendly parameters.

They even won awards from environmental organizations for making eco-friendliness a priority in all aspects of the remodel.

The couple, with Ricke doing much of the research, started picking out sustainably made countertops, searching out the most efficient heating and lighting systems and looking for formaldehyde-free building materials. Schena even used equipment at his workplace to find the toughest brand of bamboo flooring on the market.

When they first envisioned their remodel, Schena and Ricke were looking to build a modern house on the bones of a 1939 bungalow. They had already added about 500 square feet (in the form of a master bedroom at the back) since they bought the place in 1995 but were ready to add on even more space for them and their two adolescent girls.

They loved the aesthetics and processes of Michelle Kaufman Designs, which is known for modular homes built with environmentally friendly materials and practices. The couple saw a model of a Kaufman house at a Sunset Magazine event and worked with Kaufman for six months before concluding that the house they wanted from the company wouldn't fit properly on their lot.

They were disappointed about not getting to use Kaufman, but they soon found Menlo Park architect Ana Williamson and Palo Alto building contractor Drew Maran. Williamson and Maran had already done several houses together, Schena said. Maran, he added, was using green materials and practices 20 years ago. Hiring such a local architect and builder was all part of the eco-strategy.

"We tried where we could to use local vendors and sources," Schena said.

The project resulted in the house being dismantled down to the studs.

From the ground up, there were a lot of decisions for the couple to make, including those bamboo floors. They had seen houses with bamboo floors where the wood showed dents and marks after just a couple years.

While bamboo is a sustainable wood, regrowing quickly, it wouldn't be very environmentally friendly if the floors had to be replaced many times more frequently than hardwood. So Schena collected all the bamboo samples he could find and used load-testing equipment he has access to at work to figure out which ones were the sturdiest. This and other decision-making processes were documented on his blog, Pope Street Modern, which developed a substantial following during the remodel.

For cabinets and countertops in the bathrooms and kitchen, they managed to get the "hot," modern colors they wanted while still using local vendors and sustainable materials. A favorite material choice of Schena's is the "Rice Hull" concrete in the kitchen. The rice hull byproduct produced by some power plants is mixed with concrete to make it stronger and less permeable.

They decided to use radiant floor-heating, which got them a lot of "points" for their green rating because it uses so much less energy than the typical forced-air system. In an interesting twist, they decided against solar panels. Schena says the technology is expected to improve dramatically in the next few years, so they decided to wait for a better system than what's available now.

In the end, Schena estimates that they spent about 15 percent more in order to use green practices and materials than they would have otherwise. But it was worth it, he said. And, they had a lot more options for a lot less cost than if they had done the project 10 or even five years ago.


Architect: Ana Williamson Architect, Menlo Park, 650-329-0577, Ana Williamson

Contractor: Drew Maran Construction, Palo Alto, 650-323-8541, Drew Maran

Landscape architect: Keith Willig, Menlo Park, 650-326-2294, Keith Willig

Goal of project:

Remodel home using green materials and practices while going for a modern, yet

warm, look

Unanticipated problems:

Preferred architect's pre-fab modules wouldn't fit on site

Year house built:


Size of home, lot:

1,500 sq ft before, now 2,500 sq ft on 8,750-sq-ft lot

Time to complete:

13 months

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