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

  • Virtually unchanged since the house was built, the kitchen was small and cramped. It was difficult for more than one cook to use, and it turned its back on both the living room and the outstanding view of San Francisco Bay.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • Kelly’s first project was turning this front bedroom into a home office. She made a built-in desk from bamboo plywood and new wall shelves of formaldehyde-free Medite medium-density fiberboard. Here, too, she began to experiment with wall finishes; over a coat of light-colored acrylic paint she used a dry brush to apply tinted acrylic glaze. Salvaged French doors open the room to the cozy front patio.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • Kelly’s first project was turning this front bedroom into a home office. She made a built-in desk from bamboo plywood and new wall shelves of formaldehyde-free Medite medium-density fiberboard. Here, too, she began to experiment with wall finishes; over a coat of light-colored acrylic paint she used a dry brush to apply tinted acrylic glaze. Salvaged French doors open the room to the cozy front patio.
  • Kelly’s first project was turning this front bedroom into a home office. She made a built-in desk from bamboo plywood and new wall shelves of formaldehyde-free Medite medium-density fiberboard. Here, too, she began to experiment with wall finishes; over a coat of light-colored acrylic paint she used a dry brush to apply tinted acrylic glaze. Salvaged French doors open the room to the cozy front patio.
  • This quiet corner of the family room displays several of Kelly’s natural remodeling choices: a window to let in sunlight, wheatboard cabinets with a bamboo countertop and bamboo matting on the doors, and earth-plastered walls with a decorative pattern pressed into thickened plaster around the doorway.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • Kelly’s first project was turning this front bedroom into a home office. She made a built-in desk from bamboo plywood and new wall shelves of formaldehyde-free Medite medium-density fiberboard. Here, too, she began to experiment with wall finishes; over a coat of light-colored acrylic paint she used a dry brush to apply tinted acrylic glaze. Salvaged French doors open the room to the cozy front patio.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • The remodeled kitchen opens onto the new deck via a salvaged French door. Kitchen cabinets, made by Tom Harrison of Alter-Eco, are of wheatboard; cabinet doors and drawer fronts are of reclaimed Douglas fir (note the character marks from old iron-nail stains). The countertop is Richlite, a durable composite of wood fiber and resin. The walls have a coat of gypsum plaster over sheetrock, and the final coat is a translucent casein glaze tinted with mineral pigment.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • The kitchen, which was closed off behind a wall, is now open to the living room. Low built-in bookshelves and lowered beams define the space while letting air, light, and conversation flow. Beyond, the eating-nook addition also opens the formerly dark kitchen to light and expansive views. The kitchen’s prefinished cork-tile flooring blends well with the refinished white oak floor in the living room.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • When Kelly, Deb, and Jennifer bought this 1940s bungalow, it suffered from substantial deferred maintenance and was “the worst house on a great street”—in other words, pure potential. From the street, the home barely resembles the original bare white bungalow with spare landscaping. The lush drought-tolerant yard now draws compliments from passing neighbors, and the home-grown bamboo fence provides privacy and creates a sunny, wind-protected entry courtyard.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • Kelly gave the original living room fireplace a new look with a plastered surround and an adjacent display shelf. She plastered with Structolite—a durable gypsum plaster—then painted the walls and fireplace surround with a light-colored clay containing bits of shiny mica, and finally applied a translucent casein glaze.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • Kelly Lerner relaxes and takes in the view of San Francisco Bay from her new deck. The deck’s posts, beams, and joists are made from a cypress tree that was milled by an urban tree recycling company. Kelly used Epoch Evergrain decking, a plastic and wood-fiber composite, and designed a railing of copper plumbing pipe that can be reused or recycled if the structure is ever taken apart.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • Earth plaster allows for fun moments such as this medallion. Kelly applied a thick layer of earth plaster, then let it set up slightly and pressed in the pattern with a shaped piece of 1/4-inch-thick Masonite. She used a hammer to create the scalloped edge, then colored the medallion with clay-based paints.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • In the garage-turned-dining/family room, Kelly tried out many of the systems and finishes she planned to use later in the rest of the house: hydronic radiant heating in a topping slab over the garage floor slab; saltillo tile flooring; earth-plastered walls with a decorative pattern pressed into trim bands; and a bamboo-mat ceiling. Salvaged French doors open onto the new front patio, and the swinging garage doors admit abundant fresh air and light when needed.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • A smaller downstairs bedroom (made possible by the two-story addition and the redesign of the staircase) is rich with earth plasters and decorative detailing.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne
  • The home’s original fireplace still lends a cozy glow to the living room, while the shapes and finishes around it improve beauty and utility. New built-in bookshelves (topped with salvaged wood) improve spatial definition and provide storage/display space. The walls are gypsum-plastered and casein- glazed, and the original white-oak floors were refinished with a water-based BonKemi sealer.
    Photos By Barbara Bourne

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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