Eco-Home, Indie Budget

Eco-Home, Indie Budget

Green home renovations can be expensive, but they don't have to. A Seattle couple bought a more modest sized late-Victorian bungalow close to a transit line, and made numerous other dollar-wise decisions that proved they could make their high-minded ecological principles hew to an ultra-low budget. By Francesca Lyman

The sun makes its way through the open slats of their back porch as Julie Grant and her fiancé, Mike Daugherty, lean against their all-purpose chop saw. When these urban homesteaders bought their 1904 one-story, 900-square-foot, wood-frame house a few months ago, they realized it needed a lot of work. But then, says Julie, with a wry smile, "All the houses we looked at that we could afford needed a lot of work."

Being a graphic artist and a jazz drummer by trade didn't stop them from plunging into a full-scale renovation of their late-Victorian bungalow in Seattle's Rainier Valley, a former lumber-mill town. And instead of a conventional Great American dream house in a new suburb, their more modest choice bought them $40,000 to invest in a remodel. The house was solid for its age, and its worst problems were add-ons, like the 1970s vintage electric baseboard heat, which, says Julie, was "hideously ugly and notoriously inefficient." After ripping out the baseboard, they corrected other funky features too—doorways that were never plumbed and partitions that broke up already smallish rooms. "The hallway into the kitchen was so wavy it looked like a funhouse," she says, laughing.

As if the task wasn't daunting enough, they wanted to make the house eco-friendly too. Unfortunately, Julie's copious research yielded little good advice from shelter magazines and home-supply stores. "All the stuff we found was so laughably out of our price range—and not by, like, a little stretch," says Julie. "I mean, they were all beautiful, but the gorgeous recycled glass cost $6 per four-inch tile!" Julie mentions one article in which a couple spent $30,000 on tile just to surface their bathroom. Such a move would have wiped out most of their budget. For their bathroom they plan to use a small amount of slate tile at $5 per square foot.

Nonetheless, Julie and Mike were determined to prove that they could make their high-minded ecological principles hew to an ultra-low budget—by choosing a small, efficient house close to a transit line, using a tankless water heater and gas heat and employing salvaged and recycled materials.

Strategic Budgeting

Green building advocates admit that installing some green products, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood from well-managed forests, can cost up to 10 percent more. The Environmental Home Center in Seattle has received so many questions about cost that it has responded with a green-budget brochure.

But Derek Long, of Sustainable Connections in Bellingham, Washington, which promotes local green building, notes, "Very often you will find that a number of 'green' features for a home have a strong financial payback over time that makes them right for anyone with any budget." Long points to groups like Habitat for Humanity, which helps its low-income clients by installing efficient appliances and lighting and super-insulating homes that are usually smaller and demand fewer resources to begin with.

Savvy Salvaging

"Recycling is the key to eco-renovation on a budget," says Julie, who brags about the vintage back door that she found browsing through a salvage warehouse. "It's solid and came with real brass weather stripping that's expensive and difficult to find nowadays."

They saved hundreds of dollars by salvaging doors and windows from places like the Second Use store and thousands more by using the "sweat equity" of their own labor. "Then we hired a contractor for things we couldn't do, like reframing the attic, moving the back door and rewiring and plumbing," says Mike. For the kitchen, too, they scrounged from another remodel a Corian countertop and sink that were destined for the dump.

They discovered beautiful, wide-planked nineteenth-century fir flooring throughout the house that they could refurbish, instead of laying down new wood planks. Upstairs, they turned the unused attic into a sunlit master-bedroom suite, adding an old dormer window found on Craig's List and a skylight looking out on Mount Rainier.

Heating Choices

Downstairs, though, "It looks more like a bomb went off," says Julie, gazing at the hundreds of feet of polyethylene plastic tubing, uncoiled across the yard, the bowels of the new energy-efficient radiant-heat flooring they will soon install in the crawl space under their house.

Because the house lacked ductwork and a basement, they placed a wall-hung, tankless water heater, which warms water on demand, in the kitchen. In the crawl space beneath the first floor, they fit the tubes for a radiant-heating system that would save energy for the whole house. "Our house was small enough for one unit to do the job," says Julie of the water heater. The cost, including installation: less than $4,000.

Having already removed their electric heat, they switched to natural gas, which the city converted them to for free, making it even more cost-effective. Meanwhile, radiant-heat flooring below the house will offer them energy savings of up to 40 percent over a forced-air system, while being quieter, cleaner and more efficient.

Energy- and Water-Saving Appliances

A small, stackable ASKO washer-dryer came with an Energy Star rating that garnered Julie and Mike a $100 city rebate off the $2,300 price tag. That higher cost was offset by a gas range they got free through their county's waste-management hot line. A $700 Energy Star-rated Whirlpool fridge rounded out the kitchen. And the house came with a low-flush toilet.

Since the roof faces south with no big trees shading it, the couple says they are "definitely serious" about one day installing solar panels. "Probably we will start small—by getting outdoor solar lights," says Julie.

Framing, Trim Work, and Walls

By opening up the attic for a third bedroom, the couple was able to turn a small bedroom downstairs into a music practice room for Mike's drum kit and another bedroom into Julie's studio space. Their second-floor attic remodel didn't require another heating unit because it was designed with a spiral staircase, which cuts through the middle of the house, venting heat upward.

Although they couldn't afford FSC-certified wood for framing and had to take what the local lumber yard provided, they did use eco-friendly trim in the form of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) with high recycled-wood content. They haven't done much painting yet, but Julie has purchased Rodda low-VOC paint for two rooms. To repair walls after removing partitions, they used drywall made of recycled materials.


In the kitchen, Julie and Mike are installing no-adhesive, no-VOC cork flooring. For the attic remodel, they also bought Interface Flor carpet tiles made of recycled carpet. And they used low-VOC finish on their hardwood floors (see Resources).

The couple looks forward to their Housewarming Bash, at which Mike's jazz band will entertain out back. For now, though, they're knee-deep in the new cork flooring they just bought for their kitchen space—an expense they saved for by scrimping elsewhere. As for the housewarming, "It's perhaps a month away!" vows Julie, and after that the wedding.

Additional reporting by P. W. McRandle. This article has been reprinted courtesy of The Green Guide. It was first published in the May/June 2005 edition of that publication.