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Best Green Houses:

Lasting Impressions: Memory inspires a homeowner to demand sustainability.

Butler Armsden Architects
Marin County, California

By David Sokol
April 2012
Photo © Matthew Millman

Working in Prague in the 1980s, first as an assistant to the Czech Republic’s finance minister and finally as a textile importer, Helene Marsh assisted in Central Europe’s historic transition to capitalism. She also witnessed the grime collecting underneath economic engines. Over eight years, she recalls, “I experienced intense smog in the winters, walked through forests that were devastated by acid rain, saw the grime of factories on buildings around the country, met people affected by the pollutants in their workplace, and confronted environmental degradation on a daily basis.”

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Upon returning to her native Santa Barbara, California, Marsh began exploring ways to combat these scenes, by studying environmental science and sustainable building. Yet when it came time to migrate again, to San Francisco Bay with her partner and two daughters, the homes for sale seemed more part of the ecological problem than the solution. In fact, properties like one neglected 1,500-square-foot building on the north side of Tiburon Peninsula neither embodied green values nor met the family’s basic needs. Marsh decided to redevelop that house with San Francisco–based Butler Armsden Architects, and set her sights on a LEED-Platinum rating.

“Teardown” would be a misnomer in this case. A crew deconstructed the 1940s-era house by hand, salvaging 90 percent of it—which included 10 tons of redwood framing lumber as well as all bricks, flooring, windows, doors, bath fixtures, and cabinets that were then donated locally. Additional lumber stayed, to be turned into fencing, and concrete rubble from the former driveway and foundation filled gabion retaining walls or was turned into pavers.  

Marsh determined that the house should also make big strides toward Platinum through energy and water efficiency, so in addition to making the most of construction materials already on site, Butler Armsden’s scheme takes advantage of natural features. “The site is a down-sloping lot that faces northeast over the San Rafael Bay,” says the firm’s president Lewis Butler, explaining, “This is not an ideal passive exposure for a house, so we had to compensate by adding glass and overhangs to specifically address the path of the sun during all seasons.” The design team considered the gradient and position of retaining walls to ensure year-round daylight penetration; solar studies also determined roof pitches and the installation of a 5-kilowatt photovoltaic array.

Butler calls the result a “dynamic relationship between house and site.” Taking advantage of the milder weather patterns that characterize Tiburon Peninsula’s north side, for example, the design team created living space on the hillside and connected it to the house by a pedestrian bridge. Inside, in addition to rarely requiring the flick of a light switch, rooms radiate from a central stair that also functions as a thermal chimney. By organizing the house around a vertical core, Butler adds, “all distances, and therefore materials needed to cover those distances, were reduced. This translates to shorter runs for water supply pipes, waste pipes, ducts, hydronic heating pipes, and wiring, thereby reducing energy loss.” Among other signs of efficiency: The house includes no air-conditioning and rooftop PVs supply all electricity, beating projections by 20 percent.

Distance was one criterion in choosing the new materials for the house. Focusing on a 500-mile radius led to the choice of Western Red Cedar cladding as well as windows, doors, and cabinetry. Local materials with recycled content or no VOCs were valued even more highly. Overall, Marsh says, “What matters for me is the reduced use of energy and water in the home, correct management of forests, reduced use of virgin materials, domestic and preferably local manufacture, reduction of transport, and minimization of toxic materials.”

Nor did sticking to her principles maximize cost, she adds. “Most key environmental aspects did not represent a significant markup or they offered a decent payback.” To be sure, it will be the one hundredth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution before the savings from graywater irrigation and rainwater harvesting (for toilets and the washing machine) equate those systems’ upcharge, yet Marsh wanted to make good on a personal vision that dates to that 1989 political event. “I was looking to build a home that represented the best of modern architectural design, while also meeting the highest environmental specifications for energy, water usage, materials, air quality, and waste.”

And as a reminder of just how far sustainable residential design has come, old nails removed from the former redwood lumber are now encased in glass. The memento is embedded in an interior wall for display.

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