A tree-lined street in a friendly Oakland, California, neighborhood drew Daria Schwarzschild when she bought her charming Craftsman bungalow in 1999. The home features a living room with traditional wood trim and a large fireplace and a dining room that’s flooded with natural light. The ample back yard has beautiful lemon, orange, plum, apple and persimmon trees—plus room for a garden.
Daria’s well-worn 1970s kitchen—which has a mustard-yellow stove, burnt-orange countertops and crumbling particleboard cabinets—isn’t quite as appealing. "I’m open to finding out what sustainable materials are needed and even doing some of the work myself to lower the labor costs," says Daria, an office manager for an entertainment company.
At just over 1,000 square feet, this 1917 home is typical of Bay-area Craftsman homes. Though cozy, it feels a bit dark and cramped by today’s standards. The single-pane windows are beautiful but not very energy-efficient, and the plumbing and piping are outdated.
Daria has done some renovating: She remodeled the bathroom as a Zen retreat complete with clawfoot bathtub and candles. She also recently painted the exterior a lovely sage green.
1. Create Kitchen Cabinets
Problem: Pantry storage in the kitchen is scarce—yet an entire wall is unused. Daria hides the flaking, particleboard cabinet doors with colorful concert posters.
Solutions: Few people actually need more storage, just more efficient storage. Daria could start with eco-friendly cabinets from SilverWalker, Neil Kelly or Green Leaf Cabinetry, which have no formaldehyde beyond what naturally occurs in the wood. (Typically used as a binder in particleboard, formaldehyde is a carcinogen that outgases into the air.) These cabinets tend to be pricier, but she can save by selecting doors instead of more expensive drawers.
For fun, colorful accents, she can choose SpectraDécor recycled-content drawer pulls. She could make her cabinets look finished, but keep the character, by putting her posters into vintage wood frames and fashioning them into cabinet doors.
To create new food storage on the blank wall, Daria could insert 6-inch-deep pantry shelving between the existing wall studs. Medicine cabinets are an inexpensive alternative to kitchen shelving; they are already perfectly sized to fit within an existing wall and are the right depth for single items.
Cost: Cabinets: $10,000 to $18,000. Vintage frames: $300. Medicine cabinets for the pantry: $50 each.
2. Add Finishing Touches to the Kitchen
Problem: A tangle of appliances leaves little countertop workspace, and Daria wants a new color scheme.
Solutions: Daria could avoid the high cost of a new countertop by using something salvaged. Most marble and stone warehouses have a "boneyard" where they store unused scraps. She could contact one or two of these; if full countertop-size pieces aren’t available, she could mix and match stones for interesting countertops.
Painting the walls in bright colors to reflect Daria’s personality should be a cinch. Yolo Colorhouse and AFM Safecoat offer beautiful palettes of nontoxic zero-VOC paint that won’t pollute the indoor air. (Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are toxic chemicals that outgas into the air.) She could highlight these vibrant colors by adding a recycled-glass backsplash from Oceanside Glasstile.
Cost: Reclaimed countertops: $150 to $350. Zero-VOC paints: $40 per gallon.
3. Bring in the Sun
Problem: The south-facing dining room receives ample sunlight, but other areas, especially the living room, are dimly lit—and the dark wood finishes don’t help.
Solutions: Sun-tunnel skylights are an inexpensive way to bring in natural light. Their design is simple: A reflective dome on the roof bounces sunlight through a flexible tube down to a small skylight. Daria needs several in the living room, ideally located down the room’s center.
To bring even more light into the living room and visually connect it with the adjacent dining room, she could open up the area above the fireplace (around the chimney flue). The opening could mirror the hearth’s arched shape.
Cost: Sun tunnels: $250, plus installation.
4. Open the Doors
Problem: There are only two rooms that look onto Daria’s beautiful back yard: the kitchen and the dining room. The kitchen’s view is blocked by a utility room. Daria keeps its door closed to hide the washer and dryer, but it’s a headache for letting the cat in and out.
Solutions: Replace the swinging door to the utility room with one that has either salvaged glass (frosted) or a new, translucent panel, such as one by 3form. (The frosted glass lets in light but obscures the laundry area.) Old, salvaged-door hardware will allow this new door to slide back and forth and will take less room than the swinging door. Daria can install a cat door at the bottom so her pet can come and go at will.
In the dining room, she could replace the old, drafty windows with an efficient sliding-glass door. By installing a Juliet balcony across this new door (a railing across the front of the sliding door), Daria will be able to step safely right up to the doors and overlook the garden. Local salvage yards should be a good source for railing.
Cost: 3form panel: $300; Sliding-door hardware: $65; Cat door: $20; Sliding-glass door: $1,200 (plus installation).
5. Restore, Don’t Replace
Problem: The living room reflects Craftsman charm and detailing, but adjoining rooms have been painted and added to over time. The result is a mix of non-matching spaces and inconsistent details.
Solution: Use a nontoxic stripper such as Soy Gel to remove the trim’s old white paint and bring out the wood to match the living room.
In rooms where new trim is needed, select finger-jointed trim (small pieces stitched together) or Forest Stewardship Council-certified (FSC) wood. Finish it with a nontoxic stain; AFM Safecoat offers good ones.
For a visually interesting transition between the cork floor in the kitchen and the dining room’s wood floor, she could cut a 6-inch-wide strip from a scrap of the new stone countertop.
Cost: Soy Gel: $20 per quart. Low-VOC stain/sealer: $40 to $60. Cork tiles: $5 to $7 per square foot.
Saving Water in Your Home
The average U.S. household uses nearly 300 gallons of water a day through washing dishes and clothes, bathroom plumbing use and garden/landscape watering. Here are remodeling tips that can help you save water.
■ Install a rain barrel.Several companies, including Green Culture and Oak Barrel Winecraft, offer attractive ones. Place a barrel under each downspout in your backyard and use the reservoir to water the garden.
■ Equip your kitchen with foot-pedal controls.A tap of your foot releases the water, leaving your hands free to wash dishes without leaving the water running. (Pedal Valves; Fisher Manufacturing)
■ Remodel with water-saving appliances, such as a dual-flush toilet and an Energy Star dishwasher and laundry washing machine, which conserve both electricity and water.
Eric Corey Freed owns San Francisco’s organicArchitect, part sustainable architecture firm, part research think tank. He teaches sustainable design and wrote Green Building and Remodeling for Dummies (Wiley, 2008).