Mother Earth Living

A New Lease

What happens to all those old Volvos once Berkeley drivers are done with them? They’re transformed into building materials for this funky home crafted from old car parts and other recycled goods.
By April Thompson
July/August 2002
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The architects knocked out six walls and added nine windows to create a bright, open room that blurs the boundaries between dining, cooking, and lounging spaces.
Photos by Cesar Rubio
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The windshield from a 924 Porsche juts over the plate-glass storefront door, bouncing light onto the walkway. Volvo hatchbacks brace a stair railing. Red, yellow and green road signs tile a bathroom wall.

The gas-guzzling automobile may not seem like a fitting theme for a home renovated by two Berkeley, California, eco-architects, but it makes sense if you know Cate Leger and Karl Wanaselja. Given the couple’s penchant for creative experimentation and commitment to ecological design, it’s no surprise they’d spend their weekends rescuing cars from the junkyard and recycling them into a fixer-upper project. “Karl always dreamed of creating a ‘crushed-car’ house,” says Cate.

Nearly four years ago, Cate, Karl and their yet-to-be-born daughter, Chloe, moved their home and business from a small redwood cottage in the Berkeley hills to a Victorian-era house and adjacent shop on Adeline, one of the city’s bustling commercial streets. They had a lot of work to do—the two-and-a-half-story home was “basically a wreck,” says Cate. From roof to foundation and wiring to plumbing, the building had barely been worked on since it was built in 1900. “But the place fit our budget, and it had a good mix of potential and charm,” she adds.

While tending to the house’s ailing structure, Cate and Karl took the opportunity to modernize its aesthetics, materials, and function. They jacked up the house and built a new commercial space below, replacing the brick foundation with reinforced concrete, adding 25 percent fly ash (waste from coal burning) to reduce the use of energy-intensive Portland cement. The result was a compound of two street-level commercial spaces (the annex and the bottom story) and two residential units (on the second and third stories).

The couple sold two units and kept two for their home and business. The annex, formerly an antique shop, is now home to the couple’s architecture and general contracting firm. Leger Wanaselja Architecture has designed, constructed, and remodeled about twenty-five projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a rammed-earth art studio. The couple’s own home and office exemplifies their design objective: to make architecture functional, beautiful, and ecological. “With this project, I would like people to really consider the impact of remodeling a house or building an addition—or even just buying cabinets or staining the floor,” says Karl. “It’s getting people to think about the big picture in every little thing they do.”

Karl spent many a Saturday with his toolbox at local car yards, combing through acres of junked cars for good finds.

Doing more with less

Remodeling provided the team with creative challenges and opportunities, particularly in trying to maximize the use of light, space, and energy. Double-pane windows and blown-in cellulose insulation made from old newspapers and phone books not only conserve energy but also block out street noise. “We barely turn the heat on in the winter—we get a lot of solar gain on the south, and the bottom unit has an insulated slab floor that helps keep heat in the building,” says Karl. “If we were designing this from scratch, we could have used a passive solar strategy with all daylighting, but you have less control over things like that with a remodel.”

The 1,000-square-foot top unit, now the family’s home, was originally chopped into several small rooms. The couple took out six walls, added nine windows, and raised the ceiling, merging the living room, dining room and kitchen into one open space. The roof of the unit below became a deck; the railing is a collage of red, white, yellow, and black truck tailgates with a Mazda RX7 rear windshield as its awning.

Small gestures went a long way in making the place sunnier and more spacious. The architects flared a bathroom window jamb to bring in more light; to expand and brighten a tight entryway, they carved out a nook and added a bay window. In the former attic, the couple put in a wall-to-wall sloped skylight, raising the ceiling enough to create a light-filled bathroom.

A new window above the tub looks out onto Marin County’s crown emerald, Mount Tamalpais; Karl uses a former Volvo rearview mirror for shaving. The couple also constructed an adjacent two-and-a-half-by-five foot mini-bath with a skylight, cutting floor tiles lengthwise to elongate the space.

The unit’s compact size helps the family keep their “stuff” in check, says Cate. “Our society is so focused on accumulating stuff, and houses are getting bigger to accommodate it,” says the architect, who is now designing residential two-bedroom units as small as 700 square feet.

Reduce, reuse, renovate

In their renovation, Cate and Karl put the three Rs to work, using recycled products and reusing components from the old building to minimize the need for new materials. While it was much more time-consuming to take the building apart, “our approach was to disassemble rather than demolish the building and then save all the pieces,” says Karl.

The couple and their construction crew sorted and reused or recycled several tons of debris, which normally would have ended up in the dump. All the Victorian trim, fixtures, windows, and doors were salvaged and reused; old redwood wainscoting became built-in bookshelves and cabinet doors.

Through reuse, the couple found creative ways to honor the property’s history. They left a piece of the old wrought-iron fence in the magnolia tree in the front garden, turned an old water heater from the project into a rainwater catchment, and laid bricks from the old foundation into the garden patio.

When reuse wasn’t possible, the pair bought sustainably harvested wood, including oak, bay, and walnut slabs sliced from storm-downed trees. The only conventional wood they used was for the kitchen cabinets. “Making choices of materials is a really hard thing,” says Karl. “You have to wrestle with what’s available, what you want, what’s ideal, what’s the cost, what will work.”

It’s hard to say how much money Cate and Karl saved by salvaging and recycling, given the extra time and care involved. They hired a welder to customize fittings for the car parts, for example. Being their own architects and general contractors, however, the couple didn’t have to worry about labor costs running up the budget, which gave them more room to play. Karl spent many a Saturday with his toolbox at local car yards, combing through acres of junked cars for good finds.

Cultivating a sense of place

The couple connected the project to its place on many levels, working with local craftspeople, companies, and materials as well as the local ecosystem. Berkeley-based Counter Productions, for example, supplied a terrazzo tile kitchen counter from old bottles, windshields, and dinnerware. Even their choice of auto parts was site-specific—many came from Volvos, which are the “badge of Berkeley,” Karl jokes.

Cate and Karl also worked with the site’s sunlight and weather patterns. In the new commercial unit, for example, they cut a trapezoid into the floor, mimicking the sun’s stream through the window near the Summer Solstice, and stained it with Livos, an organic, earth-based pigment. They also put more windows onto the home’s south side, orienting them to views whenever possible.

In keeping with the local ecology, the couple planted their garden with drought-tolerant natives, including sages, bunch grasses, and a coast live oak. Leaves from the plants were pressed into the concrete paths as a tribute to nature’s designs. All the rainwater is kept on-site to feed the plants and percolate into the groundwater, defying local building codes, which require a pipe to carry the water out to the street. (They drew the pipe in the architectural plans but never put it in, knowing that the runoff wouldn’t be a problem, as it had been flowing into the site for the past 100 years.)

Letting the rain fall freely is just one example of how the architects let nature dictate the project’s design. Cate is now participating in an effort to incorporate ecological measures—such as using salvaged parts, energy-efficient materials, and native landscaping—into the City of Berkeley’s design guidelines. “The challenge is getting over the status quo,” says Karl. “In the meantime, be persistent, optimistic, and patient—don’t let people tell you you can’t do it.”


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