[The first in a series of articles spotlighting eco-topics of interest to GOINGGREEN viewers. This article was written by Julia Russell, featured host of GOINGGREEN and Founding Director of non-profit Eco-Home™ Network (www.ecohome.org). EHN’s Open House Forum program organizes tours of environmentally friendly homes of all descriptions and budgets in the Los Angeles area. Reprinted from "Ecolution", Spring, 2009, the Eco-Home™ newsletter.]

Julia:    What were your reasons for greening your home?

Owner:    I believe that it is the thoughtful thing to do.  I have also had adverse reactions to formaldehyde in some non-green products and believe that we are all part of one earth.

J:  Did you choose your architect for his expertise in green building design?

O:  Yes.

J.  Did you know what needed to be done beforehand, or was it an ongoing learning process?

O:  We knew the major elements in advance, like roofing, insulation – the standard renovation elements – and we knew we wanted it to be green, energy- and water-efficient, and non-toxic.     But there were many surprises, like live wires in the walls, bathrooms without proper water proofing, and my favorite, broken water pipes coming to a "Y" in the backyard!

J:  What do you love about your new green home?

O:  Unseen things, like insulation, because it keeps the house at an even, comfortable temperature.     And added windows, skylights, and a solar tube make it wonderfully light and bright without electric lights in the daytime.  And, although there's nothing particularly green about it, I like the sunken effect in the living room.  

J:  Do you have any green plans for the landscaping?

O: We have to put in a lap pool in the backyard that I need for exercise.... I'm planning a dry streambed in back – I've already started collecting rocks – and California native plants.  In the front, I want fruit trees and a vegetable garden.   I'm already growing herbs in pots.

J:  Do you have any regrets?

O:  So far my only regret is things cost so much.

J:  Any advice for other homeowners considering an eco-renovation?

O:  Find a contractor who knows his stuff!

And that leads perfectly into our interview with
Larry Byrnes, the home’s eco-savvy contractor:

J:  Hi Larry!     How and when did you get involved with this project?

L: The owners were given my name by Livingreen, as I had done work for other clients in the past and was on their list of green contractors.  

J:  Did it start out as a green project, or did it evolve into one as you worked with the owners?

L:  I was chosen for the job because the owners specifically wanted an eco-renovation.  There was a full set of architectural plans for me to work from that specified certain green materials, including:   no-formaldehyde-added wood (Pure Bond Sierra Pacific), bamboo flooring, true linoleum, and low/no VOC paint (Dunn-Edwards and ICI Dulux).  I say "no-foraldehyde-added" because all wood has some formaldehyde in it.  What little formaldehyde-added wood we used, we sealed with AFM Safe-Seal.    

J:  Was it all planned out in advance, the design, construction, systems, materials, costs, etc., with a budget?

L:  A full set of architectural plans were provided that specified no-formaldehyde-added wood, bamboo flooring, true linoleum, and other green materials.

J:  Was the total square footage increased?

L:  No, the house remained at 2677 sq. ft.

J:  Were rooms added?   How about bathrooms?

L:  No additions were made to this four-bedroom, three-bath house. The family will occupy two of the bedrooms (one master bedroom and one child's bedroom) while the other two will be used as a home officeand a guest room.
The only new construction in the house was the replacement of an old covered back porch with a new dining room.   Changes made in the construction of the new room included the vaulting of the ceiling and the addition of an operable skylight to take advantage of natural light and the “stacking effect” for cooling.  The skylight can be opened to release rising hot air, creating natural ventilation.    
To prevent the water damage that affected the old porch from recurring in the new room we raised the new floor and added a double polyethylene vapor barrier, along with R19 formaldehyde-free insulation.

J:  When did physical work actually commence?

L:  April 1, 2008.

E.  Did the first work consist of deconstruction?

L:  Yes.  Primary deconstruction took about 10 days.   In all my deconstruction work, I use a portable 200 cfm HEPA filter clean-air machine to keep excess dust and particles from becoming airborne.  

J:  Do you know what percentage of the deconstruction material was recycled?  

L:  The owners wanted to recycle and reuse as much as possible.   We found it a bit tricky to recycle some of the deconstruction materials because Culver City requires construction debris to be placed in a city bin, and they do not do any diversion.   Some of the materials I recycled myself by loading them in my truck and taking them to a recycling center in Santa Monica, and anything we could donate to Habitat to Humanity, was.  
And, some of the doors and hardware have been obtained from Habitat for Humanity. The owners have been very active in finding used doors. To save the clients money and to preserve what works some of the materials that have gone into this renovation are reused from the original house including: one bathroom cabinet; the ceramic tile on the kitchen and family room floors; one bathroom counter; many of the dual-paned vinyl windows and sliding glass doors; hardware; and the tub in the master bathroom.  The oak flooring found in 3 rooms of the house is also original.  We just refinished it.  The only materials that had to be landfilled were from the old water-damaged porch.

J:  Did you subcontract any work?

L:  Generally I use subcontractors for roofing, electrical, plumbing, tile, and stucco.  And it varies depending on the scope and specific requirements.  When I am working with chemically sensitive people, I do more of the work myself and with my employees to make sure the work is done properly.

E.  Was any remediation work needed?

L:  There was some asbestos surrounding the original heating ducts that we removed.  

J:  Was that known up-front, or did the need for remediation only become known as the                deconstruction proceeded?

L:  The asbestos was discovered as the walls were opened up.

J:  After deconstruction, what were the first steps?  Can you outline for us all, or most, of the steps you took, in sequence, so we get a idea how a project like this unfolds.

L:  As this was a whole house remodel with special features, there were many layers in the construction process.  In general, the first priority was to get the walls, windows, doors, siding, and roof completed in case it rained—which it did only 2 hours after the roof was completed!  Concurrently, interior walls were moved, [and] electrical and plumbing were installed.  Then walls were replaced, cabinets installed, tile was installed, and on and on.  A project of this scale involves thousands of measurements and precise placements so that when completed everything works and looks beautiful.  It is not something I recommend for a novice.

J:  Have solar hot water and photovoltaic systems been incorporated into the greening of the house?

L:  We have installed a new 2.7 KW photovoltaic system with a Fronius IG inverter, and a solar hot-water system will be installed for use with the new exercise pool.  Hot water supplying the kitchen and bathrooms comes from two new Norwich tankless water heaters that have been installed on the exterior of the house.  
                       Additional measures taken to increase the energy efficiency of the house include: Energy Star appliances; dimmable fluorescent lighting in the kitchen; use of natural light and passive air circulation through manually controlled Velux skylights; a solartube in the entry with backup LED lights requiring only 3 watts of power to run; recessed halogen lighting in the living room; skylights in the kitchen, living and dining rooms; and timer-controlled bathroom exhaust fans.  
                       We have also installed a high-efficiency Aprilair filter on the Trainaircentral air handler.  This re-circulating system filters, heats, and cools the air for the entire R30 insulation has been used throughout the house, as cellulose blown into the ceiling, and as formaldehyde-free fiberglass panels laid into the exterior walls.  
                       The new roof is an Elk Cool 40 Energy Star-rated roof with shingles that use a high-emissivity pigment that reflects solar-radiant energy, and all sheathing is backed with an aluminum foil to further reflect infrared radiation.  The roof is rated at 40 years and costs about 10% more than traditional shingles.   The owners will receive a rebate from their electric utility, Southern California Edison, for installingthis highly energy efficient roof.

E.  Has a rainwater catchment system or systems been part of this eco-renovation, or do the owners have plans to incorporate rainwater catchment in the future?

L:  We have installed new gutters and downspouts that run into drains leading to the storm-water recovery system.  The system will be buried and the water will be pumped out for landscape irrigation.  

J:  What were some of the setbacks, delays, disappointments you encountered, and what compromises did you find you had to make?

L:  The biggest setback was the sewer. The slope of the sewer is toward the street, but at the kitchen it turns upslope toward the backyard causing backups.  In addition, the piping was old ceramic that had been penetrated by roots and was leaking.   A new plastic pipe was installed using the trenchless method.

J:  What is the "trenchless method"?

L:  It is a method of pulling a new waterproof liner through the existing damaged sewer line so the whole sewer does not have to be dug up.  

J:  Were there some creative work-arounds you or your team or consultant came up with when faced with obstacles?

L:  The previous owner was a do-it-yourself type whose work was a little unorthodox, and trying to accommodate these fix-its has been a constant aesthetic challenge.  For instance, in the entry hall there are five doors that were at four different heights.  When we put the wood trim in, we had to add shims, cut doors down, and raise doors up to make the trim,— even as you look down the hallway.  He even installed bathroom tile without a waterproof barrier, so we were surprised to have to redo the entire master bathroom.

J:  Were there any aspects of the job that went better than you expected?

L:  I am extremely pleased with the way the project has come together.  The quality of the subcontractors has really helped to make a beautiful product.

J:  What about this project are you most satisfied with, proud of, or excited by?  

L:  I am excited at being able to integrate both solar-electric and solar hot-water systems into this eco-renovation.  

The comprehensive eco-renovation of this house provides a look at the result of teamwork between environmentally committed owners and a contractor who has been a pioneer in green building and has made it his vocation.