Real Estate

Big, green but not modern

Old Palo Alto home achieves highest sustainable standards

It's big. It's "green." And, it isn't modern.

When Diane Christensen and her husband Jean Pierret began thinking of renovating their 1931 home five years ago, they wanted to modernize their house while achieving three goals: the renovation would be sustainable; the ground floor would be handicap accessible; and the house would still look like it had been in the neighborhood for 50 years.

"These are not goals we're used to hearing together," noted Heather Young, project architect for Fergus Garber Young Architects, Palo Alto.

But by the time they analyzed how the couple was using the home, how much the house was settling and cracking and how difficult it would be to retrofit for accessibility and energy efficiency, they decided to start all over again, architect Dan Garber added.

From the beginning the project was "thought of holistically," Young said, with a design team (including the contractor, interior and landscape designers, lighting expert and energy pros) "at the table from day one."

"We first thought we could hit LEED silver, then gold. Then we realized we were going to hit platinum. That really floored us," she said.

The homeowners remained very involved throughout the process, explaining that this wouldn't be the usual four-bedroom, single-family home with a full basement. The couple wanted adequate space to accommodate their extended family: grown children, a nephew, even family friends who stay during the week before commuting home.

That demanded "a different approach to how spaces were sized," Young said, pointing to the great room -- the core of the first floor -- designed to be enjoyed by many at the same time, or to serve multi-functions. The bedrooms are relatively small, she added.

That great room functions as living room, dining room, family room and kitchen and opens to a large courtyard patio with a fountain. Many a meal can be enjoyed outside, in the quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood.

The house is sited on a corner lot, with the second story set back. One can enter through the front door, a side "friend's" gate or from the driveway/carport over permeable pavement to either the mudroom or the laundry room.

All the landscaping is either drought-tolerant and/or native plants, with the exception of a few of Christensen's mother's roses, some of which were taken from Sunset Magazine's garden cuttings. The heirloom roses blend with the grasses, adding touches of color in the driveway.

Raised beds in the back "yard," which is more like a patio, hold herbs and veggies. Espaliered fruit trees adorn the fences at the edge of the property.

Sometimes going green was quite compatible with blending with the neighborhood. For example, rounded roof tiles -- the kind that were molded over workers' thighs -- were reused from the original house. Coincidentally, a house was being demolished nearby and the contractor was able to acquire additional tiles. (Later, they were able to pass on the dirt dug out for the basement to someone who needed more soil for their landscaping, said Michael Good, project manager at Pete Moffat Construction.)

The Old Palo Alto home ended up earning 112.5 points to achieve "platinum," the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environment Design) rating. Good pointed to those things not seen: concrete made of 70 percent slag cement mix that took two to three times longer to cure for the foundation; 8-inch thick walls made of structural-insulated panels; low volatile-organic-compound stains; radiant hydroponic heating; even locally sourced stone walls from Lodi.

Adapting a Birge Clark-like sensibility to the California Spanish-style home meant incorporating dark ceiling beams, wrought-iron touches and dark wood floors. Only in this case the beams are hand-carved, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified cedar, the metal in the banisters, railings and cabinet hardware is hand-forged steel; and the floors are hand-scraped, FSC-certified quarter-sawn white oak, made in staggered widths and lengths.

A small room in front, what could be called a parlor, is now a music room that opens to the courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard is the master-bedroom suite.

As for the handicap accessibility -- or use of universal design -- all the doorways are wide, and many do not include doors. In the basement, they've located a bathroom that is easily wheelchair-accessible, with no threshold, two shower heads and a long bench, all decked out with Walker Zanger Alhambra Craftsman tiles.

A workout room, aquatherapy pool and a workshop where the husband builds guitars complete the basement. All can be reached either via stairs or elevator.

The basement also houses the control center for the home, which monitors greywater collection (which connects to sinks, showers and laundry areas) as well as two 5,500-gallon rainwater collection tanks. The family seldom needs to tap into Palo Alto's water system for irrigation.

For heating and cooling, the home is sited to take advantage of passive solar, with active panels on the roof. No air conditioning is required to keep the home cool.

Good noted that there would have been no additional construction costs to achieve LEED silver, about 1 percent for gold and about 5 percent for platinum -- plus about 20 to 30 percent of one person's time for managing the process.

The home was completed in summer 2010, two and a half years after construction began.

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