The greenest little house in America
It’s been a long journey to an unexpectedly green destination for a modest, Craftsman-era bungalow in Oakland, California. In 1915, the year it was built, Gustav Stickley was still editing his magazine, The Craftsman. In more recent years, the house had been badly neglected and had even gone into foreclosure. Then, in a startling reversal of fortune, in 2007 a purposeful young family bought the bungalow, which was reborn last year as the ultimate urban eco-retrofit. As measured by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Homes standards, the house scored a record 106.5 points, far surpassing the 80 that were required for the highest level, platinum, thus making it the greenest private home in America.
As you’d expect, the house is outfitted with the latest energy-saving appliances and windows, as well as with 16 solar panels to provide electricity and hot water. But owners David and Sara Gottfried didn’t stop there. In a region whose water resources are stressed, the couple created a highly sophisticated conservation system that recycles wastewater from sinks and baths for landscaping. And thanks to permeable layers of gravel and stone under the driveway and in the backyard, rainwater replenishes the earth instead of running off into storm sewers.
But the couple’s greenest move of all took courage: When they settled in the bungalow with their two young daughters last August, after a five-month makeover, they left behind a house that was almost twice as big. David even managed to include a highly innovative home office on the property, eliminating his former commute to work as (what else?) a green building consultant.
“We decided not to take up more resources than we needed, starting with space itself,” says David. “We also wanted to show that you don’t need to build a new house to hit record LEED platinum. You can do it with the embedded energy of a rehab.” For homeowners looking for the latest in adaptive greening, the Gottfried home is a trove of possibilities.
In an earlier phase of life, as a twentysomething, hotshot real estate developer, David paid not a whit of attention to greening his projects. Then, at age 32, he met William McDonough, the visionary architect of sustainability, and his conversion began. An overachiever by nature, David didn’t stop until he’d founded the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993, followed by the World Green Building Council, whose LEED standards are now widely followed. Yet by the time he was in his 40s, David felt a hitch in his own lifestyle: his family’s house in Oakland’s Berkeley Hills lacked key green aspects, starting with its location.
“We’d have to drive a couple of miles to get coffee or go to the farmers’ market,” David says. “Even owning a Prius, that was not energy efficient.”
Relocated now to Oakland’s lively Rockridge neighborhood, the family is just a quick stroll away from great coffee as well as a farmers’ market, not to mention an array of other foot-friendly services, including a BART rapid transit station. Not that their dramatic reduction in living space (from 2,600 to 1,500 square feet) has been easy, starting with the problem of an old house with only one bathroom. The upside of downsizing, however, was that it “really made us sharpen our design pencils,” David says. Project architect Daniel Smith, of Daniel Smith & Associates, took on the challenge.
“David and Sara really did want more space. But if you’re going for platinum, you get extra points for keeping a low ratio between your bedrooms and total house size. They got that,” Smith says.
At first, the Gottfrieds intended to enlarge the bungalow, either by extending it in the rear or by “popping open” the existing low roof. Either solution, their architect warned, would have broken the couple’s tight budget. Besides, says Smith, “I thought it made sense not to over-improve the house, so we redoubled our efforts to make the existing structure perform much better.” The bungalow’s cramped middle was opened up by eliminating interior hallways. Down came the wall between kitchen and dining room, turning a dark little alcove into a family hub.
Since the solitary original bathroom was in the master bedroom, a half bath was added for Gemma, 9, and Maya, 4. But with only one bath and shower, morning gridlock was sure to ensue, so David installed an additional shower, screened for privacy, on the rear deck. It’s not an ideal year-round solution, given Oakland’s far from tropical climate, but dramatic downsizing doesn’t come without its compromises. David admits that persuading the rest of his family to use the outdoor shower is an ongoing campaign. His own showers are short, thanks to a four-minute hourglass.
A successful answer has been found to David’s wish to shift his environmental consultancy from downtown Oakland to a home office. What architect Smith calls the “wealth of the big backyard” beckoned. There, David created his office by erecting a one-room, 120-square-foot LifePod that he co-designed with Smith, using materials from Envision Solar.
At first glance, the LifePod looks like a marooned ice-fishing hut, but it’s a beehive of advanced sustainability. Eight solar panels on the slanted roof help to cut the family’s electricity bill by half. (Eight more panels on the bungalow’s roof are designed to bring the bill down to net zero, in part by sending electricity back to the grid on sunny days.)
One glitch was that despite the LifePod’s broad overhang, the all-glass south facade overheated the interior on sunny days. David remedied the slow-baking feeling by installing Mylarlayered shades, which deflect the heat.
What’s most green about his new office is least obvious: “By getting rid of my commute,” David crows, “I’m saving $1,500 monthly and cutting my hydrocarbon wheel print.” Sara, a physician specializing in integrative medicine, also hopes one day to establish her practice within walking distance of home.
The way to LEED for Homes platinum starts with energy savings. But “water is hugely important too,” David says. Gray water from the bungalow’s bath and sinks, along with captured rainwater, are funneled into nine, 50-gallon storage tanks called Rainwater Hogs. Seven feed one of the toilets, as well as providing water to the mostly native plantings. The other two contain gray water that is filtered prior to supplying an automated watering system for the grounds.
“Sensors are linked to a computer that checks the weather forecast every morning,” David explains. “If rain is predicted, the system won’t use any gray water. On cold days, it will use 85 percent of normal, and if it’s hot, it’ll use 115 percent of normal.” Any surplus replenishes the groundwater via a shallow basin lined with stone and gravel in the backyard, rather than simply running off into the street. The basin is flanked by four large, flat stones meant for seating, making it a place for socializing. Surplus runoff replenishes groundwater via a shallow basin lined with stone and gravel. Eight solar panels help cut the family’s electricity bill by half.
So many green elements in this home are unseen, such as cellulose insulation, recycled from newsprint, which was blown into the existing walls through small holes drilled in the wood paneling. Many other features too are unidentifiable as recycled, like the front porch’s wood stairs, which come from a century-old bridge in Sacramento. “David was so excited to discover bullet holes in them,” says Sara, who obsessed over cabinet knobs on her bungalow blog
Strong-willed Sara’s conversion to her husband’s green absolutism wasn’t without resistance: “One of my jobs as his wife was to figure out where there’s some stretch and give—not to compromise the green but to make it aesthetically fulfilling.” In the color wars, victory was hers. “David thought that five colors would be extravagant, but he had no idea what I had in mind. Finally, he threw up his hands. Now he thinks we’ve got 27 colors, but it’s more like 33.” Rather than a color riot, Sara’s spectrum is a relaxed modulation of mostly calming tones that favors jade, mustard, pale lemon and browns (all are zero-VOC paints by Mythic).
The triumph of this modest bungalow is also the triumph of a marriage. David met his self-imposed challenge of creating America’s highest-scoring platinum-rated house. Sara met a more subtle challenge: “I was determined that we were going to honor, not compete with, the simple Craftsman style.” Indeed, the family’s home looks just as it did in 1915. Gustav Stickley would have surely approved.