This was my third remodel in 14 years. First one was a transformation of a cottage in Old Palo Alto into a modern. It ended up looking great thanks to my architect dad. It was also over budget, and a year late thanks to my contractor.
Next was a successful update of a 4000 sq ft Victorian in San Francisco. Great contractor helped finish this one on time & budget. The gotcha was that expensive double pane windows did not stop the chill or sound from drifting into our master bedroom; heat remained on continuously for the next 5 years, and 6AM trash trucks were our alarm clocks.
I did not want to move for the 3rd time. I did want my son to play on the street like I did, and my fancy neighborhood was not that street. “Streetplay daily” was our new criteria. After a long search, and lucky break we found a street in Palo Alto with many kids that played outside, straight out of 60’s. This playful street was full of Eichlers, and one of them was for sale. We were off onto our 3rd remodel.
Initially we just wanted to touch up a few things. Then old things started looking drab next to new things, and we ended up with a full-scale remodel. This has been the most successful and non-traditional remodel so far, and I’d like to share what we have done. We choose many less known options, and made them work.
The driving ideas behind the remodel were comfort, storage, and energy consumption. Our initial list of improvements was:
- replace the single pane windows – old windows were inefficient, and unsafe
- expand the master bathroom – bathroom was tiny, with a single sink, and sharing space with a walk-in closet
- enclose the atrium – atrium was too small to be used as a room, and too large to be decorative
- redo pergo floors – the floors were inefficient, and yucky
- many minor fixes: take out some extra closets, put in new ones
By the time we were done, we also:
- redid the whole kitchen
- redid another bathroom
- painted the house
- updated all the pool technology: solar heat, new pumps
- replaced the water heater with on-demand
- replaced all the closet doors
- installed new lighting everywhere
- replaced shades on the windows
- repainted everything
- redid the garage
- upgraded electrical
We bought the house in November, started work 2 months later, and moved in in June. Major work continued until September, and my house to-do list went to zero in January, 13 months after the purchase.
I decided to coordinate the remodel myself. If I hired an architect, most of the decisions would have to be made before the work started. We had strong ideas about what we wanted, and would be changing our minds a lot. On the recommendation from our realtor, we hired Palo Alto Home Improvement. They were local, knew how to get the permits, and did not mind our lack of complete plans before starting work. They were not a high-end outfit, but they tried their best, and were accommodating. Most of the time, this worked. Few times their lack of fear of doing stuff they know little about backfired badly.
The drawback of coordinating the work yourself is that you have to visit the job site almost every day. Your plans are not exact, decisions get made all the time, and many times they are not what you want.
Unlike the rest of my architect family, I have a hard time visualizing what something would look like before I see it. For this remodel, I did all of our plans in Google Sketchup. The work you put in to learn it pays off in mistakes avoided.
Every time I remodeled, I tried and failed to make my house “green”. Insulation, new windows, new furnace, no go, those power bills stayed high, I was hot in the summer, and cold in the winter. Luckily, in 2009 there were companies who would do this work for me. I hired a couple for an initial consult, and was very happy with Sustainable Spaces. They are now called “Recurve”. Which naming consultant came up with that name?
Recurve takes your $500, comes in, measures and models your house, and gives you a list of recommendations for cutting your energy/water use. Their recommendations made sense. Some were a bit too efficient for me, I would have happily installed 8GPM instead of 6 GPM water heater, and added a few more solar panels for the pool. They’ll also get subs to do the work if you’d like. I am not sure would I recommend their installers. They hire from all over Bay Area, and non-local contractors are tough to get a hold of once something goes wrong. But the stuff they recommend is usually cutting edge, and your local guy will happily take on the job, without having any idea how to actually get it done.
I followed most of their recommendations, and used their contractors. They also suggested a recirculating air pump because our house was so airtight. That was just silly, our doors are open all the time.
Double pane windows: I knew I wanted them, and the fact that we lost 50% of its heat through the windows made my decision to replace them all make engineering sense. This work was performed by Palo Alto Glass. Loved them, the windows went down and up in two days, ~25K for everything.
On-demand water heater/ radiant heater combo: How exotic! The steampunk looking device replaces water heater and radiant heat heater with one compact heater. It is a Trinity NTi 150. Recurve recommended a 6 gallons/min model, which I thought was a little skimpy. It barely drivex 2 showers at the same time. It turned out to be sufficient, but only after I replaced all my high-flow faucets with lo-flow versions. Another drawback is lack of knowledgeable service guys.
Update Apr 2011 I was getting tired of water rationing: “Ingrid, are your running the dishwasher when we are trying to give baby a bath?”. While installing my earthquake gas shutoff valve, JustTankless.com guys mentioned that they can install an 8GPM tankless heater for about $3.5K, and fit it into existing heater space. Getting a new heater meant I was admitting defeat, and that I’ve blown $20K on a POS appliance. But that’s what I did, there was no getting away from it, and $20K was sunk cost. Quietside ODW-199A got installed, and now it pumps HOT water at 8GPM, 92% efficient, I love it so far. It is supposedly low-maintenance, have it looked at every couple of years, and if you are out of power, you can use your computer UPS to get hours of hot water. My installer was awesome, highly recommended to anyone in the bay area.
On-demand recirculation pump: Metlund D’Mand S-70T this was my favorite suggestion by far. If your faucets are far away from the heater, you need this. You install a pump that pulls hot water to you without wasting any water.
Efficient pool pump: Pentair Intelliflo VS-3050. Argh, pool tech.
Solar heater for the pool: Gull Sun Coil No brainer if you have the pool, and the sunlight. Install is easy, and it pays off fast. This triggered a redo of all our pool systems, more about that below.
One question Recurve was not able to answer was what floors I should get. They could not tell us what the numerical difference in efficiency between concrete and cork was. We were a bit scared of cork. I knew Eichlers originally had cork, but there were very few cork floors left. Why were they all replaced? Supposedly, cork was easy to maintain, pleasure to walk on, and beautiful. What’s the catch? It turns out there were none. We went to Sue Olson Designs in Menlo Park, who lives for cork. She is a bit abrasive, has great cork selection, and a top-notch installer, Perry Cordova. We picked Solida cork. Installation took a week. It is very important that the floors are perfectly level, and achieving that is the longest part of the install. The cost for cork+install was ~20K. We’ve had the floors for a year, and they are the best floors I’ve ever been on.
To match the cork, we installed rubber-cork flooring in the bathroom. I’ve never liked tiled floors, the tiles would get slippery, and grout messy. Cor-terra by Capri Cork is a rubber/cork tile blend that is thin like cork, grippy, and easy to maintain. We found these in Reclaim Home in Menlo Park. It is a great store for a green remodel. The couple who runs it are true believers, and super sweet.
Another purchase from Reclaim was recycled glass counter tops. I’ve been a huge granite fan, and did a lot of reading trying to understand why would granite not be green. We are not running out of rocks. It comes down to the distance travelled, and extraction methods. I’ve tried and failed to source California granite. Instead, we ended up with kitchen counters made out of Vetrazzo, aka recycled beer bottles. Great conversation piece. I am not as confident in their longevity as I am in granite. So far, we’ve had one nick, and it is sharp. The cool thing is that these are produced 50 miles away, and we got to go to the factory and see them being made.
Operation “Greening” was a success. Our energy usage is:
|Gas||between 10 (summer) and 110 (winter) therms|
|Water||5 CCF. This will go up when we start irrigation.|
Just for fun, I’ve installed The Energy Detective. You can see our daily electricity consumption graph on the right. The 10AM bump is the pool pump, 4PM is the induction range, late night is TV.
The house came with a pool, a pool that sucked energy. Ducking the “fill-it-in” trend, we decided to keep it, and see if it is worth the trouble. On Recurve’s recommendation, we upgraded our pump (Pentair Intelliflo VS-3050), controller Suntouch Auto Controller), and put in solar heat. The the trouble started. Pools need to be maintained weekly, and you want a maintenance guy who knows your controller. We went through 3 different companies who were misconfiguring the system, before getting a recommendation from the manufacturer for someone who can operate this. And those guys only serviced commercial pools regularly. Their controller’s has one of the worst UIs ever. 4 buttons that control 100 options, and an unreadable manual. It is so bad that you’d think that they run their training classes as a profit center. One of the failed guys admitted that he did not understand half the stuff they were talking about in training, and thought that variable speed pumps are just fashion. By the time we were done, we ended up replacing the whole system, booster pump, filter, and adding on a salt water chlorinator. This stuff will have to get ripped out and reinstalled when we redo our yard, as the chlorinator is installed in the wrong place along the pipe. Pool is still a sore topic here.
I love redoing bathrooms because I know what like: showers for two, wall-to-wall mirrors, bright lights, and Toto toilets.
Our original master bath was awful (see left image). Tiny, dark space, with a walk-in closet right sharing space with it. It took many revisions of the plans, and a suggestion from my contractor to move the door until I was happy with it. The transformation feels miraculous now. On the new plan (right), you can see the spacious shower, and above picture shows you how nice it feels.
Lesson here is that moving walls and doors in an Eichler is easy and cheap. We removed another low wall in the kitchen, and even putting a new metal beam did not seem like trouble.
For the hardware, we picked Toto toilet, Pegasus 8 In. Sunflower Showerhead from Home Depot, and Hansgrohe faucets. I like picking quality faucets. When I was a kid, faucet maintenance was my chore. StarCraft Custom Builders: Faucet Reviews and Ratings is an awesome resource for picking the right one.
On the other side of our master bathroom is our new closet. We got the doors from The Sliding Door Company. They are beautiful, and smooth. We replaced all of the original doors with these. When you place your order, double-check. We got the wrong doors twice in a row.
I love redoing kitchens too. Here we repeated the old favorites, Miele dishwasher and a SubZero fridge (we tried getting a GE, it just did not do what we wanted). We ran into a lot of trouble with the contractor. He knew a guy who could bang a kitchen out in 2 weeks, cheap. What we got looked nothing like what we ordered, and it took another 6 weeks, and more money to clean everything up. Next time, I’ll listen to my instincts. Shiny new things we really like:
|Pull out pantry
|Extra wide drawer for silverware. We’ll never wonder “Where is that utensil?” again.
|Induction range. Gas or induction, that was the question. Induction won, love the speed and ease of cleaning. No regrets. Ok, maybe I miss the wokability.
Our atrium was too small to sit in, and too large be an indoor garden. We thought that the sliding roof would be ideal. It turns out that there is a company, Rollamatic Roofs, that makes exactly that. They were a pleasure to work with. A few months later, it was here. We cooked underneath our first summer, and installed a rolling shade underneath. The only guys willing to take on the shade installation were Blinds & Designs. We bought the rest of our roller shades from them too, they look pretty, and work well. The roof is now it just right, it’ll get us warm when it is cold, and cool us of in the evenings.
We bought most of our lighting at City lights. Wide selection of the stuff we like.
Our favorite furniture store is Room & Board. We like Ikea & Land of Nod too.
For paints, we hired a colorist. It is the best $400 we’ve spent. We’d have never come up with this list of colors, with many subtle differences, and they look great:
Ceiling: AF-70 Battenberg 508-1X Dresser frames: AF-545 (Solitude), 528-1X Dresser Drawer: 50% AF-20 528-1X Front door: C2-392, Vicuna Hall + master bathroom: AF-70 Battenberg 526-1X Guest hall bath: AF-700 (Storm), 528-1X Kitchen accent: AF-420 (Agave), 522-3X Boy room walls: AF-485 (Crystaline), 524-1X Guest bedroom accent: AF-700 (Storm), 524-1X Family room accent: AF-225 (Firenze), 524-3X Master bed and bathroom: AF-470 (Flora), 532-1X Living room accent: AF-720 (Sparrow), 522-3X Main walls: AF-70 (Battenberg), 508-1X Bath ceilings: AF-70 (Battenberg), 508-1X Interior trim: AF-70 (Battenberg), 528-1X Exterior body: AF-720 (Sparrow), 634-3X Exterior trim: AF-720 (Sparrow), 632-3X Exterior fence: NO89-3B Eves: AF-70 (Battenberg), 634-1X
I really wanted to install a graywater system, rain catch system, but was unable to find the right person to design them.
We still have not gotten around to redoing our garden.