Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

A Healthy Remodel

When Jane Yoo and Jason Chuan decided it was time to buy a home, they began their search in communities near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of Los Angeles. With a clear idea about location and price range, they found a house in the community of Altadena, one other homebuyers had completely missed in the tight Los Angeles housing market.

When we saw the house, it met our design sensibilities, says Yoo. We knew the house and property had potential.

Built in 1967, the 2,300-square-foot eclectic ranch home had good bones, but it also had a checkered past. The couple learned that the house had suffered water damage during a flood in the 1980s, and that a bank had performed water-damage restoration after former owners had lost the house to bankruptcy.

Yoo and Chuan were about to learn, however, that they had more on their hands than they expected, and that the water damage of decades earlier had created a serious problem: mold.

The Idea Stage

Like many homeowners, Yoo and Chuan had a number of innovative ideas on how to improve their new home. So to help focus their goals prior to the extensive remodel, they drew up an idea list, which included the following:

* increase the amount of natural light

* open up spaces to create a more contemporary feel

* provide better ventilation

* improve water conservation

* create an indoor/outdoor entertaining zone

* design an environmentally friendly landscape.

With the list completed, the conundrum began: For us, it was really a question of how do we take a home that a lot of people saw no potential in and execute our ideas, says Yoo. Many of the redesign ideas came from my husband, and he's not an architect.

The more the couple talked about how to accomplish the changes, the more it became clear that they needed a professional who could take their ideas and turn them into reality. Once the project manager came onboard, he recommended several architects for the project. Yoo says Isabelle Duvivier, a green architect and principal of Duvivier Architects, based in Venice, Calif., suited them perfectly. She shared our ideals about light, green design and materials that are more earth-friendly, says Yoo.

Problem Solving

Rarely does a home remodeling project proceed as planned. Instead, it often evolves in unexpected ways as the project moves forward, as Yoo and Chuan found out when they began their own renovation.

Not timid in their redesign approach, the couple decided to gut the entire interior of the house to make way for the environmentally friendly transformation. During one particular work session in one of the bathrooms, the contractor removed the bathtub and discovered extensive mold damage. Following the trail of mold, he found that it had spread into two of the bedrooms.

It quickly became obvious that the clean-up of the original water damage had not been thorough enough. Mold requires moisture and warmth to grow, and can be hidden in a home in any number of places, such as the backside of drywall, wallpaper or paneling, inside ductwork, on the top side of ceiling tiles and inside walls around pipes.

The mold was a huge speed bump for us, but we made it work because we got to it right away and got working on the solution, says Yoo. Knowing they were unprepared to handle a mold problem themselves, they called in a local professional water-damage restoration company to tackle the setback.

Once suited up in protective gear and masks, the crew sealed off the work area with polyethylene sheeting to prevent the mold from spreading to the rest of the house. Next, to rid the home of dampness, the company brought in several heavy-duty fans that ran for 48 hours to dry out the interior. After removing the mold, the team applied mold-inhibiting chemicals to exposed surfaces to prevent re-growth.

To counteract the effects of airborne mold spores and any residual airborne dirt, the couple decided to install a high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) air-filtration system with the home's central air conditioning unit. HEPA filters are effective in mold abatement because they're able to capture the microbial airborne mold spores and prevent them from spreading throughout the house.

With the home gutted and the mold problem handled, the couple could now begin the redesign and upgrade phase of the renovation. Walls in the kitchen and bedrooms were positioned to allow a free-flowing feeling that welcomed in more light, lessening the need for artificial light during the day. Instead of just putting up (solid) walls, we created walls with little openings or pockets at the top of the walls, avoiding that boxed-in feeling, explains Duvivier.

To improve the home's overall energy performance, all of the old windows were replaced with low-e, double-pane windows with argon-gas fill. The argon in the sealed insulated glass windows reduces heat loss significantly. In addition, low-e windows have a thin, transparent coating of silver or tin oxide that permits visible light to pass through while effectively reflecting infrared heat radiation back into the room, which also helps to reduce heat loss through the windows.

That's a big benefit for Yoo and Chuans home, which can be a little cooler than surrounding houses, partially because Altadena is nestled in the foothills at a higher elevation than other areas of Los Angeles. In addition, says Yoo, The house doesn't actually get that warm, as we have a lot of trees around the house. A variety of low-e windows are available for different climate zones nationwide.

Another energy enhancement involved upgrading the home's insulation. Exterior walls and ceiling cavities were insulated with wrapped formaldehyde-free fiberglass batt insulation. The insulation, available in flexible blankets, is made of inorganic glass fibers bonded with formaldehyde-free thermosetting resin.

Throughout the home, only non-toxic natural materials were used. Kitchen cabinets were made from eco-friendly plywood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, as well as a formaldehyde-free medium-density fiberboard called Medite II. The floors were finished with bamboo and locally quarried stone. In addition, the homeowners used paints with no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are potentially harmful pollutants that can affect the environment and indoor air quality.

Exterior Upgrades

The home's renovation extended to the exterior areas, as well. An indoor/outdoor entertaining zone was created by installing a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors along the back wall of the house. By opening the French doors, the couple can provide better ventilation throughout the house and bring the outdoors into the home. Solar outdoor lights were used throughout the yard; each light fixture contains a small solar cell and a rechargeable NiCad battery that powers energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

In Los Angeles, landscaping and the need for water conservation go hand-in-hand. I routed all the storm water into the middle of the garden and away from the house, rather than draining it into the street, says Duvivier, who notes that this practice diverts storm water from the city's storm-drain system, so the water can be used on site rather than flowing out to sea. Duvivier also installed a drip- irritation system for watering plants, which helps conserve water in the dry climate.

We really made an effort to do the renovation in an environmentally sustainable way, Duvivier says. Yoo and her husband agree and are pleased with the results. Still, they acknowledge that no remodeling project is ever easy or completely finished. We took on a renovation project that became so much bigger than originally expected, Yoo says. This house is still evolving.

Judith Stock profiled Chef Jeffrey Mora in the March/April 2006 issue. She's based in Los Angeles.