After decades of living in San Francisco, John and Alice Micklewright were ready to grow their own vegetables and soak in the “big sky, vines, hills and vistas” of the wine country north of the city. They were also determined to live sustainably. So when Alice, an EcoGreen Realtor, and John, a graphic designer, found a small 1950s tract house in Sonoma with an eye-popping view over the Sebastiani vineyards, they got to work.
The Micklewrights remodeled the backyard shed into a small (280 square foot) but airy guest cottage, giving them a place to stay while updating the main house. Their general contractor, Peter Tovar of Green Living Sonoma, installed amorphous silicon photovoltaic panels on the new south-facing shed roof, a tankless water heater, in-floor radiant heat, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood cabinets, Energy Star appliances and sustainably harvested wood decking.
But work on the main house presented some design and efficiency challenges, so John and Alice asked Natural Home for help. While the house’s bones are good, the oak flooring is trashed, the kitchen feels dark and isolated, the heating system is inefficient, and the whole place has a shop-worn feel.
1. Raise the ceiling and insulate the roof.
Problem: Alice and John want a cathedral ceiling in the living/dining/kitchen area and must improve roof insulation. But the flat ceiling joists play a structural role. Insulating a cathedral ceiling presents different challenges than insulating an attic. Unvented roof assemblies remedy problems such as moisture buildup and air leakage, but you’ve got to get the details right.
Solution: Tovar, building environmental scientist Bion Howard and I created this solution for a total R-value of 30.
• Remove flat ceiling joists and attach new 2-by-6 boards to existing 2-by-4 rafters.
• Install an exposed ridge beam to support rafters; support ridge beam with new posts within walls and new footings.
• Spray 1 to 1½ inches of foam insulation on roof deck’s underside and around rafter cavity; Howard emphasizes the importance of reducing air leakage, addressed with this layer of insulation.
• Spray stabilized cellulose insulation to fill remaining rafter cavity; test for reduced moisture level before installing sheetrock as ceiling finish. (The foam/cellulose combination costs less and reduces petroleum-based products.) For more information on unvented roof assemblies, and building science in general, check out BuildingScience.com.
2. Replace the heating system.
Problem: The house is heated by an ancient, inefficient gas furnace via ceiling registers. Replacing the heating system is an easy way to save both energy and money. The Micklewrights dislike forced air heating.
Solution: Replace the furnace with a clean, quiet and efficient hydronic (water-based) heating system, in which hot water is distributed to baseboard radiators in each room. A Munchkin boiler (95.1 percent efficiency) can heat water for domestic uses and space heating. For greater effectiveness, a solar water-heating panel can provide hot water; the existing water heater can be repurposed as the solar-heated water storage tank.
Cost: $18,000 for the hydronic heating system; $7,000 more for the solar preheat system
3. Move the kitchen.
Problem: The dark, galley-style kitchen is tucked into the northwest corner, walled off from the rest of the house. The kitchen also has flimsy plywood cabinets, an ancient laminate countertop with a nailed-on metal edge, and inefficient old appliances.
Solution: Alice and John want to move the kitchen to the east side for better morning light and a vineyard view. Moving the kitchen won’t cost much more than it would to remodel it in its current place. The relocation also puts the kitchen closer to the bathrooms, allowing a more efficient grouping of plumbing fixtures. Alice and John chose kitchen cabinets made of FSC-certified birch, zero-VOC paint, Energy Star appliances and countertops made of durable, natural granite.
4. Improve natural cooling.
Problem: This wine-country location gets hot enough to be uncomfortable each summer, but the Micklewrights don’t want noisy air conditioning that would isolate them from the outdoors.
Solution: Emphasize natural cooling by improving ventilation and shading. The house is elongated in the north-south direction so, with prevailing breezes from the west, natural ventilation should be easy to achieve. On the upwind (west) side of the house, a large tree shades the house and front yard, a tall hedge slows and cools the breeze, and a roofed porch shades much of the west side. I advise keeping the hedge pruned to allow breezes to filter through and landscaping the bare front yard with leafy green plants (kept lush by watering with rainwater) that will further cool the incoming air.
The new cathedral ceiling will allow for high, operable windows at the north end, allowing warm indoor air to escape and pulling in cooler air.
We can improve shading by adding trellises and arbors to the home’s exterior, supporting deciduous vines for additional evaporative cooling.
Cost: North wall operable transom windows: $3,500; replacement windows and doors: $12,000 (possibly less with tax credits)
5. Enhance indoor/outdoor living.
Problem: The house feels cut off from the surrounding landscape. Living room windows take in the vineyard view, but the only access to the backyard is through an adjacent room, with tall steps down to a concrete patio.
Solution: Install double-pane French doors in the great room to allow people and breezes to flow freely in comfortable weather. Adding a raised deck to the back (east) side of the house would encourage people to walk easily outdoors, carrying food from the newly east-facing kitchen to the deck.
Building an openwork arbor over the deck will provide shade and cooling for both the outdoor space and the great room. A deciduous, food-producing vine would increase the arbor’s functionality and delight. The Micklewrights can choose sustainably forested wood for the deck floor to match the adjacent guest house deck.
Cost: 900-square-foot deck: $12,000; 600-square-foot arbor: $4,000
At your house: DIY projects
Salvage waste. Builder Peter Tovar doesn’t get a Dumpster for a job site. “Having one makes it too easy to toss stuff,” he says. First, he looks for items to reuse on site. The Micklewrights’ hardwood floors are too damaged to be reused as flooring, but they might be usable as garage shelving, for example. Next, he sorts “waste” materials—clean wood, treated wood, drywall,
cabinets—and holds a “yard sale.” He then recycles unsold items and stores unrecyclables for other jobs.
Structure the plumbing. The plumbing in most homes is an inefficient maze of pipes. The farther hot water travels, the greater the heat and energy loss. Remodeling allows for a more efficient layout, called “structured” or “smart plumbing,” which replaces the pipe maze with a manifold and a distribution system.
Lifestyle changes matter. When his clients install solar water heaters, Tovar advises concurrent lifestyle changes. “Don’t have everyone take a shower, run the dishwasher and crank up the space heat; you’ll end up relying on fossil fuels,” he says.
Carol Venolia is an architect and co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). E-mail her at