A New Lease

What happens to all those old Volvos once Berkeley drivers are done with them? They’re transformed into building materials for this funky home crafted from old car parts and other recycled goods.

| July/August 2002

  • The architects knocked out six walls and added nine windows to create a bright, open room that blurs the boundaries between dining, cooking, and lounging spaces.
    Photos by Cesar Rubio
  • The house’s trademark Volvo railing greets visitors as they climb the wool-carpeted stairs.
  • Old truck tailgates and windshields make surprisingly elegant awnings and railings, in this case for the back balcony.
  • Pendant lamps hand-blown from old vinegar bottles dangle above an elm-top table, creating a “dining zone” between the kitchen and living areas.
  • Seven months after their daughter, Chloe, was born, Cate and Karl moved from the Berkeley hills to their new home on a lively commercial street. Their central location makes it easy for the family to shop, dine, and visit friends by foot and bicycle. The couple moved their architectural office into the house’s addition, formerly an antique shop.
  • The architects knocked out six walls and added nine windows to create a bright, open room that blurs the boundaries between dining, cooking, and lounging spaces.
  • Marmelino, a mixture of Venetian plaster and marble chips, turned the office bathroom into a sculpture the couple call the “Botero egg.” Inside, two Volvo side windows are the perfect size for mounted wall shelves.
  • Kitchen counters were crafted from recycled glass and wood sliced from a storm-fallen bay laurel. A window doubles as a shelf, filling wine glasses with light.
  • A window and a deep skylight amplify the sense of space in a small bathroom. Aluminum was bent into sleek, curved sinks throughout the project. Karl uses an old Volvo mirror for shaving.

The windshield from a 924 Porsche juts over the plate-glass storefront door, bouncing light onto the walkway. Volvo hatchbacks brace a stair railing. Red, yellow and green road signs tile a bathroom wall.

The gas-guzzling automobile may not seem like a fitting theme for a home renovated by two Berkeley, California, eco-architects, but it makes sense if you know Cate Leger and Karl Wanaselja. Given the couple’s penchant for creative experimentation and commitment to ecological design, it’s no surprise they’d spend their weekends rescuing cars from the junkyard and recycling them into a fixer-upper project. “Karl always dreamed of creating a ‘crushed-car’ house,” says Cate.

Nearly four years ago, Cate, Karl and their yet-to-be-born daughter, Chloe, moved their home and business from a small redwood cottage in the Berkeley hills to a Victorian-era house and adjacent shop on Adeline, one of the city’s bustling commercial streets. They had a lot of work to do—the two-and-a-half-story home was “basically a wreck,” says Cate. From roof to foundation and wiring to plumbing, the building had barely been worked on since it was built in 1900. “But the place fit our budget, and it had a good mix of potential and charm,” she adds.

While tending to the house’s ailing structure, Cate and Karl took the opportunity to modernize its aesthetics, materials, and function. They jacked up the house and built a new commercial space below, replacing the brick foundation with reinforced concrete, adding 25 percent fly ash (waste from coal burning) to reduce the use of energy-intensive Portland cement. The result was a compound of two street-level commercial spaces (the annex and the bottom story) and two residential units (on the second and third stories).

The couple sold two units and kept two for their home and business. The annex, formerly an antique shop, is now home to the couple’s architecture and general contracting firm. Leger Wanaselja Architecture has designed, constructed, and remodeled about twenty-five projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a rammed-earth art studio. The couple’s own home and office exemplifies their design objective: to make architecture functional, beautiful, and ecological. “With this project, I would like people to really consider the impact of remodeling a house or building an addition—or even just buying cabinets or staining the floor,” says Karl. “It’s getting people to think about the big picture in every little thing they do.”

Karl spent many a Saturday with his toolbox at local car yards, combing through acres of junked cars for good finds.

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