From the owners’ perspective, this home was a long time in the making. Jackie and Scott Wood spent decades dreaming of (and saving for) their ultimate home, wondering if it would ever be a reality in an expensive suburb in Menlo Park, Calif. “We thought we will never be able to afford to build, but we knew if we did, we would do it sensibly, using the sun and light,” says Jackie.
When an oversized lot up the street came on the market, the Woods grabbed it, and not just because it had tear-down potential. To their delight, the lot was oriented southwest and was perfectly sited for them to take advantage of the sun and wind patterns off the ocean and bay.
The Woods tapped name of firm to design the house and the two sides commenced to designing the home. After everything was designed and planned, the team looked around for a builder.
This scenario is the stuff of many builders’ nightmares; they are more often accustomed to be in the process early in the planning so niggling things like cost and engineering feats can be addressed up front and handled. But for Drew Maran, president of Drew Maran Construction CHECK, his high-end green background rendered him equal to the challenge. His job? Take the design and value engineer it into reality.
Green in the Blood
Maran, a 25-year custom home veteran, has been building green homes for 15 years. “We’ve made a decision to stay within the [high-end] niche and to integrate values around environmentalism,” he says of his company’s philosophy.
To get where he is today, Maran took the one-step-at-a-time approach. “Instead of reshaping our entire company and practices and projects, we essentially stay within the species of the [high-end] projects we were building, which had never seen anything green or considerate of the environment. Our initial efforts were using reclaimed material and reducing waste from remodeling,” he recalls.
As projects have come along over the years, Maran has added to his green building repertoire, getting a little greener with the completion of each job. “We were doing about 50% remodeling back then, and we tracked a project that usually would require 10 dumpsters; we used three dumpsters. About 70% of waste went back into the stream. Hemlock siding was turned into jambs and doors,” he tells.
At the time, he recalls, his buyers were disinterested in his recycling notions. “Most of our clients just nodded and said it was fine as long as it didn’t cost more,” he says.
This client ennui was actually a boon for Maran, because it taught him how to make green cost-neutral —an issue that today’s builders, many of whom are learning by using green programs or guidelines often struggle with since they are thrusting green ideas on their building business as opposed to greening organically over time.
Maran made his own checklists. “Most of our efforts were done in tandem to reducing costs and making green components not cost extra,” he explains. “We were documenting as we went, from recycling to cellulose to using solar in different forms, and we showed if there was a first cost that was higher, we could show how it would pay for itself.”
Over the years, Maran’s projects were cost-neutral, or in the worst case, about 3% more than conventional building methods. “And the ones that were 3% more would have been driven by photovoltaics or [or other more expensive systems]. It was difficult to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of PV but we have been doing PV on every project for the past decade. Sure it takes 10 years to recoup your costs, but electricity keeps going up while sunshine stays the same.”
But all that is in the past for Maran. Today, clients demand green, and Maran celebrates the transformation. “The biggest change from then to now is that we are approached by architects and owners instead of having to do ‘stealth green,’” as he calls it. “Now, clients and architects have a high-level green program before they come to us.”
And that’s how he ended up, working up numbers on a sustainable gem in Menlo Park.
The Taiji House—named because of the owners devotion to the practice of Taiji, more familiarly spelled Tai Chi—was born from humble requirements. “it’s a simple house,” explains Dana Motley Zausch, the project architect. “There’s nothing technologically crazy. It’s simple concepts that have been used for as long as humans have been building, which we adopted to modern materials.”
The owners were attracted to Japanese pavilion houses where you go outside to different livings spaces, says Motley Zausch. “Getting up in the night to go outside to the bathroom isn’t ideal. So we closed in the spaces with more open and light-driven hallways.”
The owners didn’t want to heat or cool the house artificially more than necessary, so extra thought was lavished on the ventilation and passive solar design.
The team used the services of a passive solar consultant and did solar path studies and thermal gain studies to determine where to put solar tubes, skylights, and windows. “All that drove the final design,” Motley Zausch explains.
Jackie, who when asked at cocktail parties what she does says she’s a recycler, notes: “We barely put out a trash pail.”
In keeping with her thriftiness, Maran deconstructed the site’s existing 1948 ranch house, which put money right back in the owners’ pockets. “You can end up being cash positive,” he notes. “Tax laws allow you to donate to nonprofits. The Reuse People received the bulk of the materials. We set aside the existing Douglas fir framing and remilled it and some was wrapped around the steel posts on the exterior and as 2x2s in a bathroom.”
The design needed some tweaking to make it cost-effective. “When we were introduced to the project it was fully designed except for a few materials,” Maran says. “It was unusual for us because we’re used to being in the preliminary meetings, but it was a fabulous design with strong intentions, so our focus was putting a budget to the project and to reduce the budget [because] it was a lot more than they wanted to spend.”
Value engineering the house put some of the green ideas to the test. And some got nixed in the process. The insulating concrete forms were replaced by less expensive masonry blocks combined with extra insulation. “We were looking for mass and density so as not to resist the sun’s heat on walls. So we eliminated something that was green and made it ‘greener’ by saving money,” he says.
That effort alone shaved about 2% from the project’s cost.
Other cost savers included making walls simpler to reduce framing costs, keeping the more expensive plaster on the walls but using drywall on the ceilings, and switching the stucco from hyrdraulic lime to standard stucco.
In addition, the owners didn’t include all the green features they could have employed—such as a rainwater harvesting system, solar hot water system, or geothermal. “It wasn’t about the return on investment of these green products,” Jackie says. “It’s that the money wasn’t bottomless, and we had to decide what to spend. So we focused on getting pretty much 100% natural materials.”
At the end of a back-and-forth process on the design, the owners got a new bid that was about 20% lower than the original. “They weren’t exactly happy with it,” Maran laughs, noting that construction costs in [this area] are “unbelievable,” but they were willing to start construction.
Wind and Sun 101
“We got lucky with this site,” Motley Zausch says. “It’s long and skinny, which gives us a long north-south orientation giving the house a large southern exposure. “We were ale to use non-UV glazing on the windows and doors and use overhangs to keep the summer sun out but the winter sun in.”
In terms of natural ventilation, during the day the breezes, which run in an east-west pattern, are let in through the lower windows, and as the air heats up, leave the house through the mechanically controlled clerestory windows. “There is air movement on site, and it’s ideal to get windows across from each other with 8’ or higher on opposite elevation, in a swooping effect.”
As a backup, the architect spec’d a radiant heating system in the poured concrete slab which in its colored and polished state doubles as the floor throughout the house except for the kitchen [?] and hallway which is bamboo overlay. “They don’t use it that much,” she says, “Just enough to keep the floors slightly warm.” The house does not have air-conditioning.
The concrete block on the walls soaks up the sun through the non-UV-coated windows. As the space gets colder in the winter, the heat leaves the walls and warms the air.
The passive solar consultant who helped the team design the home’s glazing placement, predicted that the house would stay between 70 F and 74 F all year, which, the owner confirms, it does.
Motley Zausch spec’d just one ceiling fan for the house and that, she says, is simply to move stale air if the house has been closed up. “If the house has a proper ventilation design, it’s not necessary to have a ceiling fan in every room—anywhere in the country— she insists.”
The house is a success according to each of the groups that brought it to life. First, it came to life within a budget that Maran, who was asked by the client not to divulge costs, describes as “not the most expensive home in the area—sort of the low end of the high end.”
The owners are thrilled with their new space. “It is so beautiful,” Jackie says. “The colors, shapes, forms, volumes, windows, and the way it is layed out is designed for us. The materials and the feel and spaces flow into each other.”
All three believe the most memorable point about the house is its peacefulness. “When you come off the street and you see the courtyard you feel peaceful, and as you enter the breezeway, you feel more peaceful. Then, you come in the house and you feel completely at peace,” Wood says, crediting the thick walls, natural light, American Clay plaster (see sidebar), and bamboo floor for the serene interiors.
For Motley Zausch, the most exciting thing about this project wasn’t the house. “It’s how much they love it,” she says. “They say all the time that this is their retirement/vacation house. They don’t need exotic European retirement. For us, that’s a complete success.”