Uncompromising Elegance

Tiburon Bay, Marin County, Calif., Home is Beautifully Sustainable

by Lewis Butler, Butler Armsden Architects

(Editor’s Note:  Lewis Butler is a co-founder of Butler Armsden Architects, a San Francisco firm that follows a personalized design process as model for collaboration between architect and owner.)

From Architectural West Mar/Apr ’12

Characterizing the incorporation of sustainable design and building principles as important to Helene Marsh would undersell her commitment to environmentally conscious living.  As Marsh’s vision for a new Bay Area home unfolded over a 14-month journey of meticulous deconstruction, deliberate design, and thoughtful construction, sustainable living had clearly become a lifestyle goal.  

         A passion, developed by nearly a decade working and exploring Central Europe and refined by graduate studies in environmental science and management, manifested itself in a house that had two mandates:  meet the highest of environmental standards, and deliver an aesthetically interesting and pleasing home, both within a budget that was clearly defined at the start.  Marsh wanted to achieve high environmental specifications for energy, water usage, materials, air quality, and waste while incorporating the “best of modern architectural design.” 

         Marsh, a California native who worked and traveled through the Czech Republic, moved her family home to Santa Barbara in 1997.  The natural beauty of her hometown stood in stark contrast to the exposure to intense smog, forests devastated by acid rain, and people affected by workplace pollutants she experienced while traveling in Central Europe, and helped crystalized her vision for environmentally conscious living. 

         So, when Marsh settled in Marin County several years later, she went looking for a home that embodied everything she had come to know about green building.  She chose a site later named Tiburon Bay over 100 other properties for its proximity to U.S. 101 and for great solar orientation.  The site, which had a dilapidated house that needed to be removed from the sloped lot, faced northeast over the San Rafael Bay in the north San Francisco Bay area. 

         Green building practices and the quest for LEED-H Platinum designation guided everything from deconstruction of the existing home to building a new one that incorporated recycled materials, made best use of heat from the sun, captured and re-used waste water, and was finished with locally sourced natural materials. 

         “As there are many aspects that go into good environmental decision-making and often a compromise has to be made, I determined my own criteria for the project,” Marsh said.  “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.  I used these criteria to guide me in choosing products that went into the house.” 

         Deconstruction crews took the existing house down manually, preserving 95% of the materials for re-use or recycled, including ten tons of lumber.  All the framing lumber, bricks, floor materials, windows, doors, bathroom fixtures, cabinets, water heater, and other smaller items were salvaged and donated for re-use elsewhere. 

         Marsh challenged the design team to come up with a contemporary, innovative approach for the new house that set an example of how far energy-saving architecture could be pushed as a model for great design and great performance on a budget.  The result was a floor plan centralized around a vertical stair to minimize circulation for people and utilities.  Rooms spiraled away from the core to take advantage of the views of the bay and the garden, and minimize excavation. 

         Strategically placed glass and overhangs compensated for what the sloping site lacked in passive exposure, and addressed the path of the sun during every season.  The 3,973-square-foot home was designed and built to interact smoothly with the retaining walls and outdoor spaces while allowing year-round natural lighting in every room. 

         An exterior bridge served as an outdoor living space that connected the garden to the house, and solved the difficult problem of entering a house on a fairly steep uphill site.  All of the materials used in the project were recycled or sustainable and in some cases, like the retaining walls, salvaged from the driveway and foundations of the original house.  Electricity and hot water were solar powered, and a sophisticated water reclamation system that exceeded local building code requirements fed the irrigation system. 

         Incorporating natural materials, like the Western red cedar cladding, was another homeowner requirement.  Beautiful and durable, the cedar siding, a renewable resource with the transparency that comes with third-party certified environmental performance, was sourced from the Pacific Northwest and FSC-certified.  Proven performance data provided assurance that the information about long-term environmental impacts was accurate and verified as a sustainably managed resource. 

         In fact, environmental properties played a large part in sourcing all of the materials in the house.  Lime-based stucco, which absorbs CO2 as it dries, finished the home’s lower level.  The windows, doors, and cabinetry were sourced within a 500-mile radius.  The engineered-lumber beams, used in the living room ceiling, and framing lumber came from recycled content.  Non-toxic stains and zero VOC paints were used throughout the home.  The concrete foundation used a minimum of 30% fly ash and recycled aggregate.  

         Inside, the sustainable living elements were just as intentional.  Smart-house automation features minimized energy use and maximized convenience.  Thermal mass floors facilitated passive heating and cooling.  A system was designed to harvest rainwater for use in toilets and washing machine.  A solar hot-water system provides 100% of domestic hot water needs.  Counter and wall surfaces were made from recycled stainless steel and glass.  Low-energy LED and fluorescent lighting and Energy Star appliances and fixtures were also installed.  

         A permeable exterior landscape was finished with native, drought tolerant landscape and a high-efficiency irrigation that re-uses gray water from showers, lavatory sinks, and the washing machine. 

         McDonald Construction & Development, Oakland, Calif., managed construction of one of the first LEED-H Platinum certified custom homes in Northern California, the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.  Like everything else about the home and its partners, McDonald was selected for its green building experience and expertise.  Construction site management practices included reduction and recycling of construction and demolition waste and erosion control. 

         Budget was also a very important consideration.  Marsh worked from a prioritized list of must-have environmental elements for her home, though she was pleasantly surprised that most could be accomplished without significant markup.  “Energy, water efficiency and materials usage drove design and construction,” Marsh said.  “We emphasized performance value and evaluated the overall environmental costs when selecting systems and materials.  Durability and looks were also essential.  It was important that the home was done right both sustainably and aesthetically.” 

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