Ranch House Revival: A Green Renovation from the Ground Up

A land conservation specialist and her husband walk the talk as they green their California home, quite literally, from the roots up.

| May/June 2007

When former scientist Suzanne Jones, a land conservation specialist, and her husband, Rob Elia, a mathematician, bought a home in Northern California’s rolling hills near Oakland, a green renovation was simply a no-brainer. “For several years I studied global energy supply, climate change and renewable energy as an academic, so I wanted to do something tangible that implemented the concepts behind my research,” Suzanne says.

The two had their work cut out for them: The 1970s ranch house had plywood siding, single-pane plate-glass windows with rotted-out frames, shag carpet, sheet vinyl and original appliances. Poor insulation kept the house cold in winter and hot in summer.

The pair spent a year getting a feel for the place and planning changes. “We got a better sense of where nice breezes blow on a warm summer day and where we needed windows to take advantage of them,” Suzanne says. “After being on the fence about where to locate the kitchen, that year of living there helped us understand how it should flow.”

When they were ready to manifest their plans, Rob and Suzanne contacted Cate Leger and Karl Wanaselja of Leger Wanaselja Architecture, a Berkeley firm that specializes in ecological design. “After meeting them and realizing how committed they were to aesthetics, we got excited,” Suzanne says.

“Our challenge was to integrate Suzanne’s and Rob’s ideas with the reality of the situation,” Leger says. She and Wanaselja were excited about installing solar hot water and photovoltaic panels. They used an energy-modeling program—a computer program that allows green building professionals to model a variety of energy-consuming systems and scenarios to optimize energy-efficiency—to help design the remodel.

Through the course of the project, the house was almost completely rebuilt. Suzanne, with no construction experience, acted as general contractor. “Working with subcontractors stretched my management skills and was psychologically demanding, to say the least,” she says.

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