Eichler Remodel – Healthy & Efficient Home
Why write about an Eichler remodel? Because my family is lucky enough to call this our first home, and remodeling has almost completely absorbed me for the past 3 months! This isn’t just a remodel, it’s a green Eichler remodel.
What is an Eichler?
Joseph Eichler was a very unusual man. He built more homes than almost any other production builder of the time. Eichler was heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wrights architectural style, and equally passionate about minimizing material costs and maximizing construction efficiency. He was among the first volume builders to hire architects and incorporate now-common concepts of urban and neighborhood planning, such as including space for community centers and schools, and having wide sidewalks where pedestrians can stroll safely and pleasantly while viewing his buildings and the lovely settings he chose for his developments. For more about Eichler, the most comprehensive collection of facts and pictures are included in Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds The American Dream.
Eichler built over 10,000 residential units, with the vast majority in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are large Eichler communities in San Rafael, Terra Linda, San Mateo, Redwood City, Walnut Creek, Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, and San Jose. Once you’ve been in an Eichler neighborhood, you’ll know the next one! The floor plan with an atrium and post-and-beam modernist style is instantly recognizable.
Eichler Home – Original
In 1965, almost exactly 50 years ago, Eichler Homes built a home designed by Claude Oakland & Associates for a lot in Marin. It’s a spacious home that abuts protected open space, and every window lets in light and views of the surrounding hills. After WWII, in the 50s and 60s, Eichler Homes marketed to the middle class and offered designs with architectural flare generally reserved for custom single-family homes. While some investors and realtors worried the designs were too radical, almost all of his developments sold out quickly and now their unique architectural style is coveted. Ask a Bay Area resident about an Eichler home. You may be surprised at the story you hear. It is bitter irony that these lovely suburban homes so close to San Francisco – once attainable for the middle class – are now only within reach for the 5%. Location is probably the biggest reason for the price inflation, but the unique style and cachet of Eichler must have an impact.
It’s a 2×4 stick frame house, with large 4×12 beams running the length of the home. Cost was a huge driver in Eichler’s designs, and he challenged his architects relentlessly to reduce costs of materials and construction. Eichler homes were cheap to be build and went up fast. Exterior sheathing and siding are one-piece and made of engineered plywood. Eichler homes are slab-on-grade, don’t have an attic, and often incorporate flat roofs. In addition to these cost-saving measures, at the time it was less expensive to have in-floor radiant (hydronic) heating. The uninsulated slab and expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass do pose an energy efficiency challenge, but in Marin’s mild climate it’s not too significant and most Eichler homes still have the original glazing. Ours even had the original 1965 boiler nicknamed “R2D2.”
As an Environmental Inspector, I appreciate not having a crawlspace or attic where problems can hide and linger. And now the trend for custom homes is toward radiant heat because it’s a superior form of heating. From a Green Building Consulting standpoint, I prefer radiant heat because it doesn’t require blowing warm dry (negative ion deficient) air though dirty duct systems.
Energy Efficient Remodel
Many best practices were followed during our green Eichler remodel, but due to budget and time constraints – real limitations felt by most of our clients – some of our dream upgrades will have to wait.
- Roof – The original roof was tar and gravel over a 2×6 tongue and grove roof deck. Someone has come back later and covered the whole thing with closed-cell spray foam. I’m not a fan of foam in general because of health concerns over flame retardants and extremely high embodied energy costs, but in some applications and on a budget it’s the best solution available. The old roof was removed and we fixed any dry rot boards. 1″ rigid foam boards were cut around the new electrical and data wiring on the roof. 2″ rigid foam covered that, so we have a continuous 3″ of foam across the entire roof surface. And on top of that we installed a tapered rigid foam to create a 1″/4’pitch to minimize pooling. This means that portions of our roof near the middle have up to 9.5″ of foam. The foam was then covered by DensDeck to protect the foam, and lastly by a white GAF 60 millimeter TPO membrane with a high Solar Reflectivity Index (SRI). This roofing system will help retain interior temperatures in the winter, and reflect unwanted solar heat gain in the summer. It’s lightweight, durable, and has a 20 years parts and labor warranty from GAF.
- Plumbing & Heating Systems – Heating and domestic hot water are now provided by one combined, super-efficienty, gas-fired system. The Versa-Hydro combination appliance offers up to 96% thermal efficiency, 93% combustion efficiency, and is ready-made for solar hot water integration. It required significant additional plumbing and is a real whooper in the garage, but it’s quiet and efficient and now provides both domestic hot water and heat for the 1965 home. All the plumbing runs in uninsulated pipe through the uninsulated slab, so we also installed a motion activated TACO On-Command Hot Water Recirculation Pump at the farthest bathroom fixture. This helps ensure that we have hot water quickly at any tap or bath all the way across the house, and it reduces water waste.
- Renewable Energy – For photovoltaics (PV) we collaborated with another Certified B Corp, Solar Works out of Sebastopol. Due to some unforeseen issues we changed the system design to incorporate numerous “micro-inverters” by Enphase. The system was sized without having historical use data, so we assumed our efficient lighting and use patterns… and assumed we wouldn’t keep the pool… and came up with a 3.0kW system. There is extra racking and solar standoffs on the roof in case we find we undersized the system. We also installed two 4’x8′ solar thermal (hot water) panels that tie directly into the VersaHydro. This is the first time I can say I’m eager to get our PG&E bill! We’re really curious how much energy we’ll use above and beyond what we’re creating onsite.
- Paints & Coating – We specified low-VOC paints and primers throughout the home, and scheduled 3 weeks of dry time for the paint to cure and off-gas before we moved in. Even though it might not have fit with the architectural style I would have loved to utilize a clay plaster, but time and budget didn’t allow.
- Flooring – We chose a laminated hardwood floor product, and an untreated wool carpet pad and carpet for two rooms. Carpet is generally a no-no in a healthy building design, but as a husband I must chose my battles. They do feel good on the foot. Rowena Finegan at Pine Street Natural Interiors was a great resource for healthy flooring and coatings. Despite all my planning and caution, the flooring contractor ended up using an adhesive for the carpet pad. I feel like such an idiot for missing this detail during installation, but I couldn’t catch every detail. So – windows are open and we continue to try to off-gas the carpeted rooms. This was a big mistake in my opinion. If it still smells in October I may rip up one room and replace the pad. I didn’t do any air quality testing as I’m afraid what I’d find!
- Ventilation – To provide outside air ventilation and minimize humidity indoors we installed more robust and efficient exhaust fans over the kitchen and bathrooms. The bathrooms are outfitted with Panasonic Whisper Green Select fans. These are super quiet, have LED lighting, and are programmed to run continuously at a low CFM even when not switched on. When turned on the fans ramp up and are programmed to run on high for 20 minutes after they are switched off. This combination ensures efficient delivery of outside air via cracks and gaps in the envelope of the home. In a super tight building, or a home with an attic or crawlspace, I wouldn’t recommend this approach to ventilation. But for our leaky Eichler it is appropriate since we know where the makeup air is coming from (directly outside) and we’re in a temperate climate zone (no risk of condensation or extreme energy loss). The folks at Beanstalk Energy were super helpful in sizing and installing the exhaust ventilation systems.
- Safety Film – The 1965 glass is not tempered and therefore poses a safety risk in case someone walks through a window or a window breaks during an earthquake. Toddlers with rocks and teenagers with BB guns also pose a threat! We’re installing a window safety film and I was disappointed that the there doesn’t seem to be an energy efficient (“low-e”) window film that also serves as safety film.
- Smoke and Carbon Monoxide (CO) – We hardwired a security system and smoke/CO alarms in all bedrooms and the hallway. I was pleased to learn this resulted in an approximate 10% discount to our homeowners insurance.
- Whole-House Water Filtration – Michael Davis from US Pure Water helped specify and install a whole-house water filtration system that meets our needs. It’s a relatively low-tech system that doesn’t require power or waste water with flushing, but the filters do require replacement every 6 months. We haven’t had a need to do any water quality testing, but the water in the house doesn’t smell like chlorine and the toilets get dirtier more quickly than our last rental. I take that as a good sign the THMs (chlorine byproducts) have been adequately removed.
Future Green Eichler Remodeling Projects
Someday we’ll do some more to this darling Eichler…
- Landscaping – native, allergy-free, animal friendly, and low-water plants with drip irrigation
- Windows – upgrade to energy efficient windows
- HRV – install one or two Heat Recovery Ventilators to ensure sufficient air exchanges and delivery to bedrooms
- Pool Conversion to Rainwater Cistern – cap the pool and convert it into a rainwater cistern and emergency water supply
- Walls and Air Sealing – pull the exterior siding, air seal, and replace fiberglass insulation with dense packed cellulose
Please call us if you’re mindful of energy efficiency or healthy building and have an opportunity for remodeling.
We’re blessed to have such an amazing roof over our heads and I have you and Eichler to thank!