When undertaking a Green rehab of a historic home, there’s a challenge in deciding what to keep and what to remove.  What we want to keep, in general, are the things that give the home its character…its floors,

Downey Floor

woodwork and tile,

Downey Fireplace


Downey Original Tub


But what we want to remove are the toxins that our predecessors (mostly unknowingly) put into the house…like Mercury, Lead and Asbestos…and sometimes Mold.

What to take out for sure?

Mercury-switch Thermostats

Mercury-switch Thermostats


Found in old thermostats and fluorescent lamps, Mercury is a powerful toxin that is a serious danger to animals and humans, directly linked to brain, lung and kidney diseases.

The mercury vials in the switches were used to make electrical connections when tilted to turn a furnace on or off.  If broken, the mercury could be ingested.


Prior to its banning in the US in 1978, wall and trim paint was often infused with lead.  Lead is also a powerful neuro-toxin and is particularly dangerous for children whose developing systems could be severely impacted by a build-up of lead in their systems.  Lead paint has the unfortunate characteristic of being somewhat sweet, so old cracking paint on window sills represents a significant danger to young children who will put just about anything in their mouths.

Lead Paint Chip Yummy

Lead paint must either be abated (i.e. get it the heck out of there) – ideally by professionals to minimize risk of lead dust floating up into the air and settling around your home – or sealed under a new coat of primer and paint.  If fully-sealed, it can be safe, but only until the new layer of paint starts to crack, chip or peel.  Best to bite the bullet and really get it out of there.


We’ve all heard about lung issues from asbestos poisoning – although mostly from people in mining or trades that dealt with it all the time.  Fine asbestos fibers are a significant health hazard – particularly for the lungs – so if you have it in your home, it’s a good idea to get it out.  The EPA has a great section on where to find it and what to do about it here.

Typical culprits?

  • Exterior shingles (very common in San Francisco)Asbestos Shingles
  • Duct insulationAsbestos Duct Insulation
  • Old Linoleum TileVinyl Asbestos Tile Ad
  • Also, some old gas heaters (early in the century) used Asbestos insulation – it would look very woolly if you opened it up and looked at it now

Net Net?

Old houses, like those that blanket San Francisco, have style, charm and a sense of continuity with the history of the city and its communities.  They also have lots of elements that need to be addressed before any rehabilitation or restoration to make them safe and healthy homes for our families.  It’s all about awareness.  If you know what you’re facing, you can approach the process with a clear sense of its scope and of its opportunity.

Some things just go

  • i.e. the asbestos-wrapped ducts (like we did at 173 Downey)

Other things may stay

  • i.e. a great fireplace mantel or Douglas Fir flooring (ditto)
Original Stair Arrowheads Reproduced

Original Stair Arrowheads Reproduced to Code

Some other things may just be worth a tribute

  • Those great moldings and window casings may be beautiful…but they may also be covered with lead paint…or that stair rail may not be up to code.  Sometimes you just have to have new railing made to match the old – using nice new, sustainably-harvested and FSC-certified lumber or have new molding milled to match the original, keeping the home’s original detail, but with new, sustainable materials

At the end of the day your home will reflect old and new, original details and new details…and some that are new but were derived from or pay tribute to the old.  Regardless, if you pay attention and abate the bad stuff, the home will forever be a healthy one for your family or any that follow.