Real Estate

Upkeep for Eichlers

As Eichler homes age, specialized maintenance may be required

Eichler homes -- those mid-century marvels with huge windows, open floor plans and clean lines -- are prevalent in Palo Alto, especially in the Greenmeadow, Palo Verde and Fairmeadow neighborhoods, and surrounding communities. Eichler fans can be very passionate about their houses and West Coast aesthetic but do the homes, known for their plentiful natural light, have a dark side as they age?

Lisa Knox, a Realtor with Midtown Realty, is an Eichler expert.

"I speak Eichler," she said. She and her family have lived in their Palo Alto Eichler for five years and are currently undergoing a major remodel. The majority of homes Knox sells are Eichlers, too, so she's familiar with the benefits and potential pitfalls.

Eichler homes were cutting-edge when they were designed in the 1950s and '60s but half a century later they can suffer wear and tear like any older buildings, she said.

One of the most noteworthy features of an Eichler design is its radiant heating -- a system of pipes that circulate hot water from within the concrete slab floors, warming the house from the ground up. It's a "luxurious" and efficient way to heat, Knox said, but it can be a hassle if the system goes awry. While houses built years before and after the Korean War had heating systems made with copper pipes, those built during the war period were done with galvanized-steel pipes instead. Steel, Knox said, corrodes, causing the system to fail.

Completely replacing the radiant heating can be quite pricey, she said, estimating costs of more than $30,000 for the heating system alone, not including the expense of jackhammering through, then replacing, the home's floors. Some Eichler purists find the replacement worth it. Other, less invasive options do exist, however.

Knox's own home, built in 1954, was done with steel pipes, which did corrode and fail. The previous owners chose to install a valance heating system, with pipes running overhead, instead. Another choice is to install heating pipes in the baseboards. Installing a furnace (for central heating) or an air-conditioning unit to an Eichler, she said, is awkward, as there's no designated space for them.

The Eichlers built with copper pipes have heating systems more likely to stand the test of time. Copper pipes don't corrode so they could "almost go indefinitely," she said, though homeowners may have to be willing to have a contractor go through part of the floor to check the system for leaks or perform maintenance periodically. Companies specializing in radiant heating are available to perform such maintenance and repair on copper-pipe systems.

Coldwell Banker, Los Altos, Realtor Elena Talis has remodeled her own Eichler three times (twice to expand to fit her growing family and once because of flood damage), and assists clients in readying Eichlers for sale. She's a radiant-heat fan, calling it much healthier than forced-air heating because of the reduction in dust and allergens, and the original system in her home is still going strong. However, she said original blueprints exist for Greenmeadow homes, which allow William Lipp of Lipp Hydronics to fix leaks with relative ease and limited intrusion.

"When it works right it's great but it's always more expensive to repair than a forced-air system," said Dan Salzberg of Salzberg's Radiant Heating Service. He estimated repairs at between $500 and $1,500. To replace a system, "you probably would spend a minimum $20,000 to $40,000 or more," he said, while a valance or baseboard system could cost a bit less.

Eichlers also come with slab foundations (rather than crawl spaces or basements), which make it more difficult to access underground gas pipes. In 2010, an Eichler home on Maureen Avenue in Palo Alto literally exploded due to a gas leak under the slab, prompting the city to put out a "Gas Safety Information for Homes with Slab Foundations" memo.

"Gas pipes running under homes with slab foundations ... can be exposed to surrounding soil which may increase their potential for corrosion, leading to a gas leak," Palo Alto Utilities representative Debra Katz wrote in an email. But she emphasized that corrosion is only one potential cause of gas leaks and that such situations are rare. "There is no reason for the owner of a slab foundation home to feel anxious or panic," she said, but homeowners may wish to get their pipes periodically tested.

Sergiy Smelyansky, general contractor and owner of Eichler Solutions said another common issue with aging Eichlers is replacement of their floor-to-ceiling, single-paned windows. He's been specializing in Eichlers for the past decade, after he "fell in love" with their style. Their "streamlined and elegant beauty," though, requires some upkeep.

"Fifty and 60 years ago they didn't have the same safety and energy rules as they do today," he said, so many Eichler residents opt to replace the original windows with more up-to-date glass for better insulation, energy-efficiency, cleaning ease and safety. Multiple options exist, from complete replacement to the lower-cost option of adding a film that decreases the likelihood of the glass shattering in case of an earthquake or someone crashing into it.

Depending on how elaborate a project, the price for a standard four-bedroom/two-bathroom home remodeling project may vary from $4,000 to $40,000, he said.

Greenmeadow resident Breht Napoli, who's owned an Eichler for 23 years, said that while the homes were not designed with efficiency in mind, he and his house's previous owners have greatly improved energy efficiency by installing dual-paned windows and doors, insulation and a solar water heater, among other additions.

Marty Arbunich, publisher of eichlernetwork.com/CA Modern Magazine, said Eichlers shouldn't be more expensive to maintain than any other older homes, but that it's crucial that contractors working on the house have extensive knowledge and experience with the unique Eichler setup.

Aside from radiant heating, "the No. 1 consideration is the roof," he said, as Eichler roofs tend to be flatter than standard, which can lead to leaking when water pools. "But I think any home that gets to be 50 to 60 years old is going to need special care," he said.

For the most part, though, Knox said, "Eichlers are really not that different from other homes." They continue to sell briskly, she said, adding that for buyers looking to purchase stylish homes in an affordable (for Palo Alto-area standards) price range, Eichlers are often the best choice.

For devotees, occasional upgrades are a small price to pay for "the pleasure of living in an Eichler," Arbunich said. "Most people who live in Eichler homes love them."

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by John Baum
a resident of Triple El
on Nov 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Thank you for the article.

We've owned our home since 1971, so we've had a chance to observe a lot.

I have a question about the potential 'gas leak' problem. Would it be possible to insert a lining into the gas line to forestall leaking? Is this less expensive than the alternative of running a line over the top or through the garage (as would be our alternative?) I ask because the Utility Department installed plastic lining into the gas lines leading to our house. I don't recall just when, but probably in the last 20 years. I would hope that they have records and could provide information about cost and anticipated effectiveness. Clearly they chose it as a cost-effective approach to a problem the anticipated. I see as a potential community service from Palo Alto Online the assignment of a reporter to follow up with the Utility Department on this idea.


Like this comment
Posted by short memory
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 2, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I am amused at self-proclaimed real estate "experts" about Eichlers, who have lived in one here for 5 years. That isn't very much time to proclaim onself an expert on Eichlers. A little more research by the author would turn up more expertise out there. Also - don't be so Palo Alto-centric.
Some of us have owned more than one Eichler, in my case it was two homes in different cities/developments for ownership of 13 yrs -- and others have much more experience, though perhaps not with two properties in two different areas. The point I would like to convey is that they are quite individual homes and each development and city is unique and has assets and drawbacks. Time and knowing other Eichler owners brings a wealth of insight to these homes.
What I mean by the moniker "short memory is that the article should recognize the fine book, "Eichler Homes - design for living" by Jerry Ditto (who was an expert agent on Eichlers) - Chronicle Books, 1995, which contains wonderful photos.
There were various other expert Eichler agents with very great knowledge - this would include the well-acknowledged "Eichler queen," Connie Misiewicz. I don't know of any one expert agent in current times, but real esate overall is in a funk ot a boom time.


Like this comment
Posted by George Usinowicz
a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2011 at 8:51 am

A strong consideration for the upgrades of the uncomfortable and energy-inefficient windows is radiant heating glass systems.
By sensibly incorporating radiant heating glass and controllers, the occupants can eliminate the radiant transfer, (chilling effect), of their warm bodies near the cold, blackbody glass.
Convective streams of cold air cascading down the glass are eliminated.
With both of these problems eliminated, the occupants lower ambient air temperature thermostat settings, saving energy, yet gaining comfort.
And re-claiming the valuable floor, working, and living space next to the window, consequently using the natural daylight and using less electrical energy for lighting.
A soft, infra-red wavelength provides the deep-tissue radiant healing, not like sidewalk systems that "crisp", (yet warm), the skin.
And now condensation or sweating windows that are petri-dishes for the incubation of virus, pathogens, mould, and/or bacteria.
We support the innovator of RC Systems for radiant heating glass, located in Sacramento, CA. They were implementing 21st Century radiant heating delivered by glass over 25 years ago. Another California innovator.
www.warmvue.com


Like this comment
Posted by LN
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I am disappointed that once again the Weekly is referring to the house on Maureen (that had the gas explosion) as an Eichler. It was a Stern & Price home. In the September 30, 2009 PaloAltoOnline article (not 2010 as stated above) the Maureen house was referred to as an "Eichler-style" home, then later in the comments as a "faux Eichler." While today's article is not earthshaking news, it's an interesting topic and deserves to be researched carefully. An article with at least 2 errors makes me wonder about the rest of the story.

While Eichlers receive most of the press for that style home, Stern and Price homes predate the Eichlers in South Palo Alto. Early Stern and Price homes were built on Waverley in 1949, then on Ramona and Emerson, and in the area around the Maureen fire. They were 2 or 3 bedrooms, one bath, single or double car garages, with lots of windows and open beam ceilings. They were built with sheetrock inside and redwood siding outside, which kept them from burning as easily as the Eichlers that were built later south of East Meadow.

While it may seem minor now (especially since many of the Stern and Price houses have been torn down, and virtually all have been remodeled) the history of South Palo Alto's architecture was more varied that we ever read about.


Like this comment
Posted by Debra Katz
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 3, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I am the Utilities Communications Manager for the City and I want to be sure there is no confusion for readers. Slab foundation homes, like Eichlers, typically have pipes running through the slabs themselves as part of the radiant heating system. These pipes DO NOT have gas in them...they are water pipes. The gas pipes we are talking are separate lines that run under the slab (not through it) that are delivering gas to specific appliances, e.g. a water heater or a stove.

Which leads me to my main point, which is that ALL homeowners, regardless of the type of home they have need to realize they are responsible for the maintenance of these home gas lines. (The City handles maintenance of the gas lines leading up from the gas main to the home's meter.) Old, corroded pipes in any location have potential to develop leaks and should be tested periodically as part of routine household maintenance. And of course, whether pipes are new or old, recently tested or not, ANY TIME A PERSON SMELLS GAS they should treat it as a serious situation, leave the premises and call 911 or the Utilities Department at 329-2579.


Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 4, 2011 at 5:11 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Gas service should be discontinued immediately to any building where gas runs under slab. This includes exterior slabs that are connected to the house.


Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 4, 2011 at 11:31 am

We have friends who have remodeled their Eichler near Duveneck. For those of you who worship Eichler --- you may want to consider your opinion when you start opening up walls or digging on your property. Problems found:

Bare wires jumped from one outlet to another in the bathroom walls.
Gas line submersed in the patio slab, not underground.
No insulation in the walls.
No insulation in the roof/ceiling.
Wood panel walls - rapid fire hazard.
Unreinforced slabs - sinking into the Earth.
No earthquake bolting of the perimeter walls to the foundation.
No shear walls.
Most exterior walls built down next to the soil - an expressway for subterranean termites into the walls.
Single pane windows that pass the cold or hot weather into the home.
No way to service or repair fresh water pipes.
No clean outs for sewer lines.
No main water shut off.

...the list is endless


Like this comment
Posted by short memory
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 4, 2011 at 7:38 pm

About that roof:
They must not have re-roofed for a long time.
When we re-roofed our nice Sunnyvale Eichler we did a stnadard thing and put 2" of insulation in the roof - all that could fit - and it did make a big difference.
While you have a roof off is a good time to add electrical lights, fish wires down, etc.


Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Nov 4, 2011 at 7:58 pm

@Crescent Park Dad,

Good points. What most people don't know is that Eichlers were cheap post-war housing constructed for blue collar workers. Why they go for 7 figures plus has always been a mystery. Are people really that gullible?


Like this comment
Posted by sigh
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Nov 4, 2011 at 8:08 pm

7 figure is for the schools. We poor people have no choice.


Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 5, 2011 at 2:40 pm

All these comments sure make me glad that we are preserving our "historic Eichler" shopping center with all its beauty and charm. Such a perfect entrance to Palo Alto! (said with sarcasm...)


Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2011 at 11:43 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

In Sacramento, in the 50s, the flattop was the Strizick. They were known, up front, as cheap. You bought a Strizick if you could not afford anything else. At least the walls were often cement block rather than stick. Imagine my surprise, moving to Palo Alto, to find that these flattops were actually adored. As I moved into construction, I observed the cost cutting with Eichlers. For instance, a contractor was given half a day to install the radiant floor tubing, then another half a day to complete the installation. The adoration of Eichlers by City Hall is par for Palo Alto's course.


Like this comment
Posted by Syed W Hussain
a resident of another community
on Apr 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm

We have lived in our 3 bed 1350 sqft Eichler since 1976. We learnt of
the cracks in the floor when we removed carpets. The house shifted
seasonally but the radiant heating system held up till 2011.

Within the last 6 months 2 heating pipes fractured. I believe that
compounded the issue with the foundation. The cracks are now quite severe
I am having them inspected for a soluting. The floor in the living
room area has sunk a little and the bathroom are tilted.

There is no question, we raised a family in this house, the only issue
we faced was 2 burgalaries prior to installing a security system.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Mountain View's Hangen Szechuan to close after 25 years
By Elena Kadvany | 1 comment | 2,395 views

Populism: A response to the failure of the elites: Palo Alto edition
By Douglas Moran | 12 comments | 2,029 views

Let's Talk Internships
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 1 comment | 1,487 views

Couples: Sex and Connection (Chicken or Egg?)
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 1,311 views

Zucchini Takeover
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 1,029 views