From Ugly Duckling to Sustainable Swan: A Bay Area Home

Earth plasters, reclaimed wood, wheatboard, bamboo and handcrafted décor turn a nondescript 1940s Bay Area cottage into a home full of warmth and comfort.


Virtually unchanged since the house was built, the kitchen was small and cramped. It was difficult for more than one cook to use, and it turned its back on both the living room and the outstanding view of San Francisco Bay.

Photos By Barbara Bourne

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The approach to Kelly Lerner’s home in the hills above San Francisco Bay includes a lush, colorful garden and a meandering stone path leading to a bamboo gate. Behind the gateway is a sunny patio and the front door, which opens into a sensory feast of expansive views, sunlight, and natural finishes. It wasn’t always this way.

In 1996, Kelly and her friends Jennifer Helmuth and Deborah McCandless bought a homely 1940s bungalow on a large sunny lot with great views. It was a fixer-upper’s dream: the worst house on a good street. As an ecology-minded architect, Kelly saw pure potential.

The house perched at the top of a sloping lot; from the street, at the uphill end of the property, it appeared to be one story high, but a daylight basement added some living space—and some headaches. Water ran like a small stream across the floor, the stairway to the basement was steep, the ceilings were less than seven feet high, and it was always cold.

The main level had its own problems. The southwest-facing living room overheated in the late afternoon and the single-pane windows fogged up easily. The living room was large, but it had doors on three walls and picture windows on the fourth, making furniture arrangement difficult. There was no dining room. The kitchen had the best location for views and sunlight, but its small corner windows allowed for neither. A single floor furnace provided heat, and the electrical wiring was ancient. In short, it’s a good thing Kelly had some construction skills.

First things first

Where to begin? The house itself set the agenda; the day after the women moved in, the sewer plugged up. Kelly replaced the sewer line and observed that as long as she was digging up the front yard, it was a good time to put in a French drain to curtail the basement stream, a pipe to capture rainwater from the downspouts, and an irrigation system for the landscaping.

With the emergencies addressed, Kelly, Jennifer, and Deb turned to landscaping. “We didn’t start with the inside,” Kelly says, “because the landscape always takes the longest to mature. Besides, if the front yard looks good right away, it makes you popular with the neighbors.”

They began by planting drought-tolerant native plants in the front yard; an orchard, herbs, and a vegetable garden in the backyard; and bamboo (with root barriers) front and back. “I knew I would want to use bamboo for future building projects,” Kelly says, “so I planted my building materials first.” She applied a basic eco-building principle to the landscaping: Take two problems and make a solution. She had both thirsty plants and groundwater and rainwater to dispose of, so she directed the water to the bamboo groves and the orchard.

After the first rains, there was still some water in the basement. Because the U-shaped house’s “courtyard” faced uphill to the street, it collected water and drained it into the basement. Taking that lemon firmly in hand, Kelly made lemonade: In the entry courtyard she poured a concrete slab that sloped gently toward the French drain.

“Once we created the front patio and started using it, I became viscerally aware of how well semi-enclosed spaces function,” says Kelly. “The house blocks the wind, and this patio faces northeast and gets lots of morning sun. The thermal mass of the flagstone patio and the brick chimney store that solar heat, and in cool weather the patio stays comfortably warm until evening.”

Soon there was also a good crop of bamboo. Kelly crafted a lacy bamboo fence and gateway to enclose the street side of the front patio, and it became an outdoor room that made the house feel larger and more gracious.

One room at a time

Two years after moving in, Kelly turned the front bedroom into an eco-friendly office. It was a good place to start remodeling because it could be isolated from the house. She upgraded the electrical system, built bamboo desktops and bookcases of Medite II formaldehyde-free fiberboard, refinished the white-oak floor, and installed salvaged French doors that open onto the front patio, bringing in more sunlight.

Next, the attached garage beckoned. “We never parked our car there, so we wanted to claim that space for a family room and dining area,” Kelly explains. “Also, I’d just learned about earth plasters, and I wanted to experiment with them.” First, she gutted the garage, insulated the walls and ceiling, then poured an insulated slab with in-floor hydronic (fluid-based) radiant heating, connected to the domestic water heater. As with the office, she installed salvaged French doors that open onto the front patio. “It makes the room so much more useful and comfortable to open it up and have that indoor/outdoor experience.”

Then Kelly put Mexican tiles on the floor, woven bamboo on the ceiling, and earth plaster with a decorative border on the walls. “I just love it,” she says. “The room has a feeling of solidity and the craftsmanship of earlier times. Because of the insulation and the earthen materials, it’s also the quietest, coziest room in the house. Most people don’t experience rooms like this in stick-framed houses.”

Going for it

Finally it was time to remodel the rest of the house. Not wanting to overbuild, Kelly explored several scenarios and decided that a small addition (51/2 by 13 feet) would significantly improve the house. “We have so much indoor/outdoor living space that the house didn’t need to be much bigger,” she says. “And a big addition would have messed up the backyard and shaded the rest of the house.”

The first step was to tear out the basement slab to lower the floor. The broken-up slab was used to make retaining walls to terrace the sloping backyard. Kelly installed hydronic heating in the new basement slab and extended the system to add wall radiators to the upstairs rooms, eliminating the floor furnace.

Then, with the help of a cooperative contractor, Kelly tore out and remodeled the kitchen, adding a dining nook surrounded by windows that overlook the bay. The kitchen cabinets are made of wheatboard with doors and drawer fronts of beautiful reclaimed Douglas fir, its iron-nail stains adding character. The flooring is prefinished cork tiles. Kelly chose Richlite, a solid-surface composite of wood fiber and resin, for the countertops, largely for its strength and long-lasting finish. “Durability is green,” she points out.

The kitchen walls are finished with gypsum plaster, over which Kelly applied a homemade casein (milk protein-based) glaze tinted with mineral pigments. The ceiling was finished with a lime wash and a glaze; the opalescent off-white color improves light distribution and provides a feeling of spaciousness.

“I love natural finishes,” says Kelly. “You can literally go into your kitchen, get your materials together, and mix your paint. And if you don’t like it, you just try something different and go over it again. It takes a little time, but it’s easier than going to the paint store, looking at all the paint chips, and paying a lot of money for something that’s probably toxic.”

Off the dining nook, a new deck adds outdoor cooking and eating space with sweeping views of the bay and hills. The deck allowed Kelly to keep the kitchen/dining addition small by extending the living space at a reasonable cost. The deck’s structural members are custom-milled salvaged cypress, and the decking is a composite material of recycled plastic and wood fibers.

During this stage of the remodeling, Kelly added cotton batt insulation to the roof and exterior walls, and replaced most of the single-pane windows with double-pane wood windows. The difference in comfort—and utility bills—is palpable.

Around the living room, Kelly added chest-height bookcases topped with reclaimed wood; they gently define the spaces while adding storage and display space. To add depth, the living-room walls were plastered, painted with a light-colored micaceous clay (clay with shiny, natural mica in it), and glazed.

Downstairs, the walls are earth plaster over sheetrock, with a micaceous-clay finish and a clear casein glaze. The new stairs are made of reclaimed Douglas fir salvaged from the original basement stairway. “Thanks to the insulation, the double-pane windows, the radiant heating, and the thermal mass of the earth plaster and the tiled floors, it’s really quiet and cozy down here,” says Kelly.

Backyard Eden

Off the downstairs bedroom is a flagstone patio where Kelly, Jennifer, and Deb often dine al fresco. The flagstones soak up daytime sun and give back evening heat, allowing warmth-loving plants to inhabit the area too. Under the new deck is a shady place to lie in a hammock and catch a breeze on hot days. Nearby, tucked under the bamboo grove, is a bench overlooking a pool with a little waterfall—a place for rest and reflection.

On the next terrace down, the gardens are now mature. In the orchard, the women harvest raspberries, blackberries, apples, apricots, peaches, nectarines, cherries, lemons, oranges, limes, and guava. The next terrace grows vegetables and herbs. Looking up the slope, the revived house presides proudly over them all. What better place to contemplate the fruits of one’s labor?