For the first six years of their relationship, Susan Brooks and John Salzman lived twenty blocks apart from each other on the same street in the funky, up-and-coming Bouldin Creek neighborhood five minutes from downtown Austin, Texas. When they decided to move in together in 1999, both were looking for a fresh start but neither wanted to leave the nearby live music venues or the close-knit community they’d come to enjoy. So like all committed couples, they met halfway—literally—by buying a place exactly ten blocks between their old houses on the very same street.
The location was perfect. But the 700-square-foot 1930s cottage wasn’t. Even though the house had gone through two cosmetic renovations, it was just too small, and the 1950s powder-blue bathtub in the single bathroom just wouldn’t do. “There wasn’t anything special about the place except that it had a sweet cottagey feel to it and the lot had three beautiful, tall pecan trees arching over it,” says Susan, a career coach and corporate trainer. “We wanted a place we could put our own signature on.”
Sarah Susanka’s book The Not So Big House (The Taunton Press, 1998) inspired Susan to create a small but efficient living space. Avid naturalists (Susan is a gardener with a passion for antique roses, and John, whose day job is computer engineering, is a kayaker), they wanted to build in a way that wouldn’t impact the natural environment too drastically. That meant staying within the bungalow-style scale of the downtown neighborhood, salvaging as much of the old house as possible, and using healthy materials such as nontreated woods, zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, water-based glues, and cotton insulation. “We realized early on that we didn’t need an enormous footprint with cavernous indoor spaces,” says Susan. “Also, we love being outdoors so much that we wanted to stay connected to it by using natural materials wherever we could. That’s not a political statement. It just felt right.”
Finding the right help
Renovating an old house rather than building a new one is the most basic form of green building because it reuses existing materials. Turning a sixty-five-year-old, design-challenged house into a well-ventilated, energy efficient structure while using alternative and sometimes hard-to-find materials is the real challenge. Simply finding an architect and contractor with experience and know-how in sustainable building can be tough. Finding professionals who will allow the homeowner to become an intimate part of both the design and construction team is even more difficult.
Yet that’s what Susan and John set out to do. They sought people who were willing to commit to a green renovation and who would be comfortable with the couple’s involvement in the project. “If they weren’t willing for us to take a major role in the process, then they weren’t the best fit for this project,” says Susan.
After talking to dozens of professionals, they settled on architects Mark Winford and François Lévy of Studio Mosaic and contractor Orval Scarborough, a longtime home builder and remodeler in Austin and Dallas and, also, one of John’s kayaking buddies. At the time, Winford and Lévy were very interested in sustainable design and seemed comfortable with the ideas Susan and John talked about. Scarborough was a little less enthusiastic. “I wasn’t used to searching all over the country for cotton insulation and then paying double for it when I could have found fiberglass right here in Austin,” he says. “I went along with it, but there was a lot of kicking and screaming.” Both the architects and Scarborough were willing to cede as much of the project to the homeowners as they wanted to take on.
Susan and John knew they wanted to mimic the architectural detail and compact size of the Craftsman-style bungalows that are so prevalent in Austin. Susan spent hours looking through books and magazines and driving around town, taking roll after roll of film of every 1920s and ’30s bungalow she could find. She decided that the front porches, tapered columns, lap siding, and ornamental brackets under the eaves would play prominent roles in their house, too.
The couple wanted to increase the square footage inside the house, but not at the expense of taking up too much garden space. “They wanted to extend the house but relate the extension to the gardens,” says architect Winford. “Also, it was important to keep the spaces human-scaled and not make anything too imposing.” Combining the kitchen and living areas into one great room and vaulting the ceilings throughout the house would help make the inside feel larger than it actually was.
After months of consulting with Susan and John, Winford and Lévy decided to increase the livable space to 1,600 square feet. Building two long, skinny additions off the original structure created an L-shaped footprint that embraces the backyard gardens. New windows in every room allow constant views of the outside, valuable cross ventilation, and abundant natural light that eases their electricity needs. Claims Susan, “our electricity bills are half of the Austin average.” Deep eaves and porches keep the relentless Texas sun out of the house during the hottest times of the day. “Careful siting, plenty of natural light, attention to waste, and implementing healthy materials are the basics of any good green design,” says Winford.
Seeking out green materials
As in any sustainable building process, careful attention was paid to building materials. To find what they wanted, Susan and John researched relentlessly. They attended green building conferences and plowed through pages of text from the library and the Internet to find cotton fiber insulation, zero-VOC paint, formaldehyde-free plywood—anything that wouldn’t compromise indoor air quality.
At every opportunity they bought local goods to avoid wasting energy and money on shipping things from different parts of the country. The limestone hearth and fireplace were made with rock quarried in Burnett, Texas. The blond pecan wood, which covers the floors and the cabinets and is used for all the trim, was selectively harvested from pecan farms in south Texas and milled an hour outside of town.
Outside, a metal roof with continuous ridge and soffit vents was chosen to deflect the hot Texas sun. Also, low-maintenance fiber cement lap siding went up to mimic the original pine clapboards and reduce insurance costs with a masonry fire rating. “When we were deciding on materials,” says Susan, “we had to balance the cost with what we wanted aesthetically and what was the most green.”
Bringing it all together
During construction, Scarborough’s subcontracting crews got a crash course in sustainable building techniques and materials. Because they hadn’t used most of the products going into the house before, the work was slow and at times frustrating—for everyone. When a crew put down the subfloor, Susan handed a tube of water-based glue to each subcontractor as he arrived at the site. They had all shown up with the same old urethane-based adhesive they’d been using for years. “These products are unfamiliar to these guys because they’re afraid that they won’t be as effective as the stuff they’re used to,” says Scarborough. “Because of that, the project took a lot longer than usual, and it was frustrating for them and for me. But we worked through it.”
Orval and John hauled kitchen cabinets and appliances, old doors and windows, the powder blue bathtub, and any salvageable wood to the local Habitat for Humanity for reuse. “It was important for us not to cut corners on this project,” says Susan. “If that meant we had to do some of the dirty work ourselves, then that’s what we did.”
That same persistence carried over into the construction phase as Susan kept a close watch on every detail, from making sure any waste wood was saved and mulched for future use in her garden beds to ensuring that none of the pecan trees were damaged as workers dug the footings for the pier and beam foundation. “I learned to say, ‘Please don’t cut the tree roots’ in Spanish,” she says. “And they would dig around them.”
When the house was finished, Susan planted native shrubs and grasses in the front yard along with her antique roses. She then painted the house periwinkle purple with olive green trim and rose-colored brackets. The colors—like the details and materials in the rest of the house—are what stamp this place with Susan and John’s creative signature. Inside, the house has a warm, welcoming feel and the couple’s attention to detail is everywhere, from the hand-carved front door and the amethyst crystal interior door knobs to the stained glass in the kitchen cabinets. And, last year, Susan and John received an award from the Austin Heritage Society for Creative Rehabilitation of an Old Building. “For the same amount of money, we could have bought a house that was already finished,” says Susan. “But it wouldn’t have been our house. This house definitely belongs to us.”