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.

| September/October 2004

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.

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