It would be easy to say that Paolo Scardina didn’t fall far from the family tree when he chose to become an architect.
After all, the Youngstown, Ohio native’s father, grandfather and great grandfather were all in the building and construction trades.
But it is a grandmother that Scardina -- designer of the gut-rehab that became Portland, Oregon’s first LEED for Homes Platinum recipient -- considers the mentor of his “green” sensibility.
“She was probably the most frugal person who ever lived on the planet,” he said, tracing the arc of his personal and professional life from Ohio to eight years in commercial design in San Francisco and ultimately to Portland, where he founded the Paolo Design Group in 1990.
“She was an Italian immigrant. She lived through the Great Depression. And she was extremely practical minded,” he said, adding, “It’s funny, the people who influence you early on in your life, that you identify with.
“She was a homemaker. She did not come from the world of architecture at all. She was coming from the world of life and her philosophy was much bigger picture. It was all about living life and being frugal, growing your own food and reclaiming everything that was around you in one form or another,” Scardina said.
“I think that transfers quite well when you start to talk about architecture and dwellings and sustainable spaces, and so on, and that perspective is exactly the core reason we have greed building – to reuse, reclaim and recycle… and not waste,” he said. “My focus, even though building is in the blood, is on design and getting it right and getting it designed to be sustainable. Then we partner with builders who create what we design.”
Open space, sealed envelope
Scardina said his much acclaimed project – besides LEED certification, it has also won a 2010 CotY NARI Green Award presented by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, and an ORA Outstanding Remodeling Achievement award for a Green Building Remodel from the Oregon Remodelers Association – found him at a better living show.
“This gentleman met us and after we spoke for awhile he said, ‘I have this split-level ranch home that was built in 1957, and I want you to make it as green as you can possibly get it,’” the architect said. “Those were his actual words, and I said, ‘Well, how about LEED platinum?’”
“He also said he wanted to make the house as market savvy as possible because he wanted to sell it. You know, mid-century ranch homes don’t have master suites on the main floor, and they don’t have open spaces for dining and living – they are kind of like, chopped up tiny rooms. So he wanted us to reconfigure it to five it some market value,” he said.
At first, some thought was given to adding an extension to the southern portion of the home, but studying the studying the possibility, putting it on paper, and considering the costs, that option proved to be a nonstarter.
As it stood, the 2,700-square foot house had two-by-four walls, very poor insulation, windows that were leaking energy and cold air “left and right”, Scardina said.
In the end, after a six-month design process, the Paolo Design Group opted to stay with the building’s original footprint and to tear its interior down to the studs and re-insulate the structure from the inside-out.
But instead of keeping the two by four studs, we actually create another, entire, almost four-inch thick wall on the interior of the footprint, and then wove the insulation between the old studs and the new,” Scardina said.
“That created a very thick, very efficient envelope and prevented the thermal transfer of heat through the off-setting of the studs,” he said.
The first somewhat significant change to the home was claiming an unconditioned space adjacent to the garage in the lower level of the house. Previously, the space had served as a kind of combination cold storage space, wood shop and closet.
Scardina realized that if he pulled the space into the thermal envelope, he would able to move a bedroom into the lower space and create the master suite with bath on the upper level that the homeowner had requested.
But a far more radical – and green-inspired – change was in the offing. In a traditional, split-level ranch, the geography of the home is divided by a staircase that effectively divides the living space of the house from the sleeping space.
Scardina’s idea was to move the staircase to the southern side of the structure, creating a large central space that would then serve as a blank canvas and give him the flexibility to transform a three bedroom, two bath home into a five bedroom, three bath new-century sustainable dwelling within the existing footprint.
“It was a remarkable transformation,” Scardina said. “There were no more hallways and it allowed us to open the kitchen up into the dining room, and then we took the insulation up into the roof pitch, so we had this giant thermal envelope, including the attic, thereby optimizing the energy efficiency of the whole thing.”
Once the envelope was right, the Paolo Design Group turned its attention to the window pattern of the house. The basic building had a long southern exposure, so Scardina enlarged the windows along the south wall – installing energy efficient systems as he went -- to create a passive solar heating system for the house.
A large window was placed adjacent to the stairwell, and the design incorporated porcelain ceramic tile directly inside to capture heat that would then be radiated into the rest of the house.
“But it wasn’t all about heat and taking advantage of the thermal mass property of the tile,” Scardina said. “Having the space unobstructed by the old staircase allowed light to fill not just the upper level, but also reach down into the basement space as well.
“Previously, because of the way the house was configured, the basement was basically the black hole of Calcutta,” he said. “Now you actually wanted to be in and use that space.”
Satisfied that a few architectural changes had made a huge difference in how the house performed, Scardina next turned his attention to its mechanical systems.
“As a practical matter, it’s a case of doing everything passive that you can possibly do to boost the efficiency of the house, and then looking at its more active systems,” he said. “In light of the great southern exposure we had, we placed a solar panel on the rood to bring some additional energy into in. Then we added a ground source heat pump system and tied that into a new energy efficient furnace.”
Although he acknowledged the expense involved – installation of the ground source heat pump cost about $8,000, mostly related to the drilling involved in the yard, while the solar panel ran closer to $25,000 – Scardina said the benefits would more than pay for themselves and the initial costs would be more than compensated for over time.
“[In terms of heat pump] once you get down below about six feet, the temperature of the Earth is a steady 55 to 60 degrees, year round” he said. “Now if you transfer that up to the ambient part of our world, and want your rooms to stay, say, a constant 70 degrees, you only need to correct your temperature by 15 degrees. That’s a tremendous energy savings, especially when you consider Portland’s climate – where temperatures can range form the 90s to freezing over he course of a year, and the amount of energy it takes to heat or cool the air from those extremes.”
Another energy-saving strategy employed in the home was locating the hot water distribution tank, the three bathrooms and the kitchen in close proximity, thereby reducing the distance heated water needed to travel over insulated water lines and reducing the need to reheat the water.
All of the lighting in the house is either compact fluorescent or LED, and much of it is on motion sensors for ease of use and sure-fire energy savings.
Work on the inside of the house was rounded out by installation of formaldehyde-free cabinets made of FSC-certified wood products. The backsplash in the kitchen was made of reclaimed glass, and a mantle around one of the home’s fireplaces was made of reclaimed counter top parts from a local granite fabricator.
“We went to his shop and picked four or five really beautiful pieces and create a giant granite quilt, if you will, that is really quite eye-catching, really beautiful,” Scardina said.
“In addition, the flooring is all refinished, and we even used some of the flooring material removed from the upstairs to create the bathroom to patch the former location of the staircase,” he said. “Also, we used low-VOC paint and water-based stains to prevent off-gassing, and added a heat recovery ventilator to bring fresh air in and expel bad air without expelling the heat as well.”
Not content to stop there, Scardina and his staff next addressed the water consumption, installing low-flow faucets and toilets inside the house, and structures outside the house to capture rain water from the roof for irrigation.
The backyard landscaping is populated by drought-resistant plants, and pervious pavers that allow water to drain down to the aquifer.
Scardina said during construction 98 percent of all the construction material on site was diverted from the landfill with contractor and subs sorting the material and making sure it was either reused in the project or sent “to some other eco-friendly place”.
“I think I’ve always been a sustainable designer,” Scardina said after more than hour of talking about the project and all its details – and joking he could easily talk for 45 minutes more. “I know there was the period when people’s consciousness was raised and we got on this slow curve to where we are today, but like I said, thanks to my grandmother, I always had this approach as part of how I design.
“Everything I’ve done has been compact, space efficient, energy efficient and motion efficient,” he said. “I’ve always been there.”
To see this article as it appears in our January 2011 issue, with additional photos and a floorplan, visit our Magazine Archive.