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A New Lease
Published in July/August 2002 issue of Natural Home

Car parts ended up all over the house. A windshield from a 924 Porsche juts over the plate-glass storefront door, bouncing light onto the walkway. Volvo hatchbacks brace a stair railing. Red, yellow and green road signs tile a bathroom wall.

The gas-guzzling automobile may not seem like a fitting theme for a home renovated by two Berkeley, Calif., eco-architects, but it makes sense if you know Cate Leger and Karl Wanaselja. Given the couple's penchant for creative experimentation and commitment to ecological design, it's no surprise they'd spend their weekends rescuing cars from the junkyard and recycling them into a fixer-upper project. "Karl always dreamed of creating a 'crushed-car' house," says Leger.

Four years ago, the couple decided to move their home and business from a small redwood cottage in the Berkeley hills into a century-old, Victorian-era house and adjacent shop on Adeline, one of the city's bustling commercial streets. They had a lot of work to do first, though -- the two-and-a-half-story home was "basically a wreck," says Leger. From roof to foundation and wiring to plumbing, the building had barely been worked on since it was built in 1900. "But the place fit our budget, and it had a good mix of potential, charm and room for our own creative input," she adds.

While tending to the house's ailing structure, Leger and Wanaselja took the opportunity to modernize its aesthetics, materials and function. They jacked up the house and built a new commercial space below, replacing the brick foundation with reinforced concrete, adding 25% fly ash (waste from coal burning) to reduce the use of energy-intensive Portland cement. The result was a compound of two street-level commercial spaces (the annex and the bottom story) and two residential units (on the second and third stories). The couple sold two units and kept two for their home and business.

The addition, formerly an antique shop, is now the couple's architecture and general contracting firm. Leger Wanaselja Architecture has designed, constructed and/or remodeled about 25 projects in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a Feng Shui house, a rammed-earth art studio and garden, and two "treehouse" guest cottages.

The team's own home and office exemplifies their design objective: to make architecture functional, beautiful and ecological. "With this project, I would like people to really consider the impact of remodeling a house or building an addition -- or even just buying cabinets or staining the floor," says Wanaselja. "It's getting people to think about the big picture in every little thing they do."

Doing More with Less

Remodeling provided the team with creative challenges and opportunities, particularly in trying to maximize the use of light, space and energy. Double-pane windows and blown-in cellulose insulation made from old newspapers and phone books not only conserve energy but also block out street noise. "We barely turn the heat on in the winter -- we get a lot of solar gain on the south, and the bottom unit has an insulated slab floor that helps keep heat in the building," said Wanaselja. "If we were designing this from scratch, we could have used a passive solar strategy with all daylighting, but you have less control over things like that with a remodel."

The 1,000-square-foot top unit, now the family's home, was originally chopped into several small rooms. The couple took out six walls, added nine windows, and raised the roof, merging the living room, dining room and kitchen into one open space. (A local glass-blower turned old vinegar bottles into orange pendant lamps, hung above an elm-slab table to create a "dining zone.") The former bathroom became a deck: the railing is a collage of red, white, yellow and black truck tailgates; its awning, a Mazda RX7 windshield.

Small gestures went a long way in making the place sunnier and more spacious. The architects flared a bathroom window jamb to bring in more light; to expand and brighten a tight entryway, they carved out a nook and added a bay window. In the former attic, the couple raised the ceiling and put in a deep, curved skylight to create a small but light-filled bathroom. A new window above the tub looks out onto Marin County's crown emerald, Mount Tamalpais; Wanaselja uses a former Volvo rearview mirror for shaving. The couple also constructed an adjacent mini-bath (3' by 5') with a skylight, cutting floor tiles lengthwise to elongate the space.

The unit's compact size helps the family keep their "stuff" in check, says Leger. "Our society is so focused on accumulating stuff, and houses are getting bigger to accommodate it," says the architect, who is now designing units as small as 300 square feet.

Renovate: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

In renovating the project, Leger and Wanaselja put the three Rs to work, using recycled products and reusing components from the old building to minimize the need for new materials. While it was much more time-consuming to take the building apart, "our approach was to disassemble rather than demolish the building and then save all the pieces," says Wanaselja.

The couple and their construction crew sorted and reused or recycled several tons of debris, which would normally end up in the dump. All the Victorian trim, fixtures, windows and doors were salvaged and reused; old redwood wainscoting became built-in bookshelves and cabinet doors.

The couple found creative ways to honor the property's history through reuse. They nestled a piece of the old wrought-iron fence into a magnolia tree in the front garden, turned an old water heater from the project into a rainwater catchment, and laid bricks from the old foundation into the garden patio.When reuse wasn't possible, the pair bought sustainably harvested wood, including oak, bay and walnut slabs sliced from storm-downed trees. The only conventional wood they used was for the kitchen cabinets, as they couldn't find sustainably harvested maple. "Making choices of materials is a really hard thing," says Wanaselja. "You have to wrestle with what's available, what you want, what's ideal, what's the cost, what will work."

It's hard to say how much money Wanaselja and Leger saved by salvaging and recycling, given the extra time and care involved. They hired a welder to customize fittings for the car parts, for example. Being their own architects and general contractors, however, the couple didn't have to worry about their own labor costs running up the budget, which gave them more room to play. Wanaselja spent many a leisurely Saturday with his tool box at local car yards combing through acres of junked cars looking for good finds.

Cultivating a Sense of Place

The couple connected the project to its place on many levels, working with local craftspeople, companies, and materials as well as the local ecosystem. Berkeley-based Counter Productions, for example, supplied a "terrazzo tile" kitchen counter from old bottles, windshields and dinnerware. Even their choice of auto parts was "site-specific" -- many came from Volvos, which are the "badge of Berkeley," Wanaselja jokes.

Wanaselja and Leger also worked with the sunlight and weather patterns of the site. In several bathrooms, for example, a trapezoid was cut into the floor, mimicking the sun's stream through the window near the Summer Solstice, and stained it with Livos, an organic, earth-based pigment. They also put more windows onto the south, orienting them to views whenever possible.

In keeping with the local ecology, the couple planted their garden with drought-tolerant natives, including sages, bunch grasses and a coast live oak. Leaves from the plants were pressed into the concrete paths as a tribute to nature's designs. All the rainwater was kept on-site to feed the plants and percolate into the groundwater, defying local building codes requiring a pipe to carry the water out to the street. (They drew the pipe in the architectural plans but never put it in, knowing from experience the run-off wouldn't be a problem, especially since it had already been flowing into the site for the past 100 years.)

Letting the rain fall freely is just one example of how the architects let nature dictate the project's design rather than trying to subdue it. Leger is now working with the City of Berkeley to weave such green measures -- including using salvaged parts, energy efficient materials, and native landscaping -- into its design guidelines to make it easier for homes like theirs to be built in the future.

"The challenge is getting over the status quo," says Wanaselja. "In the meantime, be persistent, optimistic and patient -- don't let people tell you you can't do it."


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