Sweat equity and creativity make this small urban home more comfortable, practical, and environmentally responsible.
An appreciation of historical houses and a desire to be in a family oriented neighborhood with plenty of walkable and bikeable amenities led Jennifer and Alex to make this 1930s California bungalow their first home, in 2008. The location, surrounded by locally owned businesses, close to beautiful Balboa Park, and only 2 miles from the city center fit their needs perfectly. Their modest budget, strong commitment to environmental stewardship, and, of course, their new daughter, helped define the way they approached the project.
Existing conditions complicate construction
Before Jennifer and Alex took ownership, the bank that owned the property was responsible for repairing the roof and some related water damage. The couple didn’t have much choice in what associated construction materials were used, but Jennifer did convinced the contractors to use environmentally friendly paint (which she provided) to finish the interior in a healthy way.
Because the place was in pretty rough shape, and because Alex’s father, an experienced home builder, offered to do some remodeling as a housewarming present, they jumped right in with some big improvements. Usable space was a serious concern in the 750 sq-ft home, so they removed several non-structural walls inside, particularly around the kitchen. Jennifer admits that was mostly to make the rooms more open and practical, but it also let light and fresh air reach deeper into what was once a dark and stuffy home. Of all the changes, this was possibly the one that had the biggest effect on comfort.
New windows carry cool, fresh air
Double-pane replacement windows were next. New, operable sashes on the side of the house that allowed the the prevailing summer winds to better service the home replaced fixed picture windows. These, combined with blown-in cellulose insulation in the walls and a few ENERGY STAR rated ceiling fans, keep the house quite cool all summer long.
The extensive renovations obviously removed a bit of the original fabric from the old bungalow. Jennifer and Alex had fun with their efforts to balance this out by adding details like period style medallions to complement the home’s original charm.
Bonus room out back
If there wasn’t a detached garage out back, the couple may not have considered buying such a small house. Fortunately, they realized that they could turn a shed addition off the side of the garage into an additional finished space. San Diego’s climate is mild enough that, with effectively installed insulation and some drywall, the space would make a practical office and occasional guest room. New FSC certified French doors open right onto the patio where their young daughter plays—only a few steps away from the main house.
Green building on a budget
Jennifer might have a few things to say to people who think green building has to be expensive. Recycling and bargain hunting played a big part in the success of this remodel. She bought an entire pallet of tiles from the SanDiego Habitat ReStore for the kitchen and laundry room floors, and resold the leftover tiles to recoup 2/3 of the initial cost.
With a solid floor and a big old tub, the bathroom had good bones, so the couple decided to refurbish rather than gut it. A low flow showerhead was one upgrade Jennifer felt strongly about, but she wrote to Kohler for some information to convince her father-in-law (who would be installing it) that it was worth the cost. A few weeks later, Jennifer was surprised to got a complimentary package from Kohler with exactly the type of fixture she wanted.
Improving the outdoor spaces
The original back yard wasn’t much more than a broken old concrete slab. Jennifer and Alex liked having a patio but found that it was one of the biggest contributors to surface runoff from their yard. They came up with a cheap, creative solution: cutting channels along the cracks in the patio solved the drainage problem while painting the remaining slabs of concrete and filling the gaps with gravel left them with a unique, custom paved, permeable surface.
Jennifer packed a lot into the small urban yard, doing her best to keep it low maintenance but very comfortable and enjoyable. Although many of the plants are non-natives, she picked non-invasive African grasses and lilies, and Australian flax because she felt they complement the California landscape and because they require very little water. A zoned irrigation system makes sure that each plant gets only as much water as it needs. Potted herbs, a lime tree, and strawberries give their daughter a sense of home-grown food.
Get the facts before you act
Jennifer and Alex had to do some work to the home early on to make it livable. The new windows and cellulose insulation were inevitable so it made sense to do them while they had the extra help from Alex’s dad. The couple assumed their next step would be re-insulating the attic but, before doing any further retrofits to the building envelope, requested a thorough home energy audit from energy consultant Dadla Ponizil. Based on the audit findings, Ponizil felt that insulating under their subfloor would result in bigger energy savings. The couple followed the recommendation and reports a huge improvement in comfort, particularly during winter months.
With new building products and processes available virtually every day, it’s hard to get all the information needed to make the best decisions. Though Jennifer confirmed that her new bamboo floors contain no harmful chemicals, it wasn’t until after they were in that she found out that they were not as durable as she expected. She is generally pleased with the flooring, but found out that when harvested too early, bamboo doesn’t reach its ideal hardness.
Having lived in the retrofitted home for nearly a year now, Jennifer and Alex are confident that well informed and thoughtful decisions coupled with creativity and cost-effective solutions are key to improving the performance, comfort and health of any home.