You hear about them all the time now.  LED lights.  Energy efficient.  Cool burning.  10X lifetime of an incandescent light.  1/10th the energy of an incandescent light.  Pricey…but prices are coming down and the shelves of every Lowes, Home Depot and Ace Hardware store are stacked full of LED options now.

Replacement Bulbs

Some LED lamps are designed with screw-in bases to directly replace your incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs.  There are dozens if not hundreds of options like this – from manufacturers as large as Philips and as small as EarthLED or Pharox.

Specialized Fixtures

Unfortunately, if you’re in California, the state’s energy code, Title 24, doesn’t allow you to use these super-efficient bulbs in a regular screw-in socket if you’re required to put in “High Efficacy” (very efficient) lighting – such as the state requires for kitchens and bathrooms.  In those situations, you can use a non-screw-in base fixture that accepts Compact Fluorescent bulbs, or you can seek out fixtures that build-in the LED lamps.

For our project at 1566 Sanchez, we elected to do the latter, incorporating Halo 4″ LED recessed lights as the primary light source in the kitchen.  These fixtures can be ordered with different color temperatures, from Warm White at 2700 degrees Kelvin to a more blue Daylight White at 4000 degrees Kelvin.  Call me a softee, but I like warm environments, so we elected to use the 2700K dimmable downlights.

In these fixtures, there’s no bulb.  it’s an LED light engine tucked into a housing and trimmed out like a traditional recessed downlight.  That little orangey-yellow square below is the LED light source.

Dimmer Compatibility

The challenge with LEDs, however, (aside from initial price concerns that some may have), is that the load that they put on a dimmer – basically the amount of energy they draw – is so much lower than incandescent lamps that sometimes using a dimmer results in the LED light either not working, flickering at low light levels, or sometimes not fully turning off.  The net net is that many dimmers just weren’t designed to handle such a low load.  Sadly, as of March 2012, this includes pretty much every electronic multi-way or motion-sensing dimmer.

Even worse, most lighting manufacturers haven’t done comprehensive testing to tell you which dimmers will work with their LED lights and most dimmer manufacturers haven’t done the testing to know what lights will work with their dimmers!

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The good news is that as LEDs become more mainstream, this testing is starting to happen.  Perhaps the best informational chart we’ve seen comes from Philips – who tested their medium-base and GU10 bulbs with numerous dimmers from the leading manufacturers.

This is what we need from all of the lighting manufacturers until we can start counting on any dimmer working with any light the way we now do with incandescent lights.


We talked in the last post about how we re-used the old concrete patio by breaking it into pieces and building into the new garden’s dry-stack wall…finding treasure in what would once be considered construction waste.

Concrete Patio

Rafter Beams

…and we talked about how we saved the old rafter beams from recycling by ripping them down and using them to face the new roof deck’s planters…

Chimney Brick

…and we also mentioned that we saved the old chimney brick (which wasn’t seismically sound nor needed anymore in our era of metal flues) to use for the lightwell patio…

But what we didn’t really talk about was some silverware that we saved from somewhere else.

etsy to the Rescue

Browsing one of our favorite websites, etsy, a source for handmade and usually one-of-a-kind items from creative folks the world over, we came across a designer who makes custom light fixtures from old silverware. While this has been done before, Jessica Johnson‘s work was particularly attractive, so we reached out to her to make a special piece for our breakfast nook at 1566 Sanchez.

In keeping with the rest of the hardware in the house, we asked Jesse to use polished nickel hardware and cloth-covered traditional lamp wiring plus we said how large it should be to fit the space we were targeting.  After that, she decided everything and delivered this absolutely cute and beautiful chandelier that just says “come on over…this is where you eat!”

While having a great home as a nest is one of the greater forms of comfort in our lives, I’ve always believed that having a connection to nature leaves us more grounded.   Some of this connection can come by living near parks or heading out to hiking trails, but the best is having one’s own home connect the inside world and outside world together, providing constant reminders of life all around us.

To accomplish that at 1566 Sanchez, we knew that the back yard would be amazing – very light and open, but just in need of some great landscape design, a few trees, and a great patio to connect the home to the garden and allow for outdoor entertaining and dining.

Choosing a Landscape Architect

After looking at the work of dozens of landscape architects around the Bay Area, we finally stumbled upon Scott Lewis of Scott Lewis Landscape Architecture.  While trying to find a landscape architect who understood how to deal with San Francisco’s narrow and sloping lots, we came across Scott’s gorgeous Parkside Garden in a list of awards by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The subtlety of the mix of plants and trees and their connection to the home made it feel like that home was situated in an Arboretum or Botanical Garden and didn’t suffer from having a dozens of competing colors but rather more a blend of textures with a few complementary colors.  Very peaceful.  Very soothing.  Something you’d want to sit and look at for hours as the breezes play with the trees.

So Scott Lewis it was.  And what a great choice.  Scott is easy to work with, creative, and responsive.

Given that we were doing so much excavation, we had to get the trees for the back yard early in the construction process so that we could get them in the back yard without requiring the use of a crane to carry them over the house since once the house was all walled-in, there’d be no way to get a 36″ box Olive tree through there!

Front Roof Deck

Our biggest challenge in the home, however, was the upstairs front bedroom.  It was going to have a large front deck since the top story is set back 12′ from the front of the house, but the deck was behind the original Victorian parapet wall…nearly 7′ tall and eliminating most any view other than that of the spires of St. Paul’s.  Here’s how it looked just after framing – definitely at risk of feeling like it’s an alleyway.

Even after putting on siding and the cool roof waterproof membrane, it had the feeling of a box.


But, working with Scott, we came up with a space that made it feel like a private garden, gave it some enhanced views from a raised deck, and incorporated the home’s original roof joists as facing material for planter boxes…making it both green and Green.

The original roof’s 120+ year-old wood had some serious character!

So these were ripped down and re-used to make…wait for it…these:

Which look alright until you plant them and get…

We designed the tops of the planters to be low enough to sit on and the warm wood of the original roof beams gives it a cozy feel.  For the patio surface, we found a beautiful porcelain tile from Ceramica Atlas Concorde at a great local stone and tile dealer – Spec Stones.  The tile is pretty Green itself, saving us from using real stone and including a high percentage of recycled content while looking just like stone.

And from inside the bedroom, you get more of a garden view – something that will look even more amazing once the red-leafed Japanese maple leafs out in the Spring.

Up on the raised deck area, there’s a lovely seating area with a view of the bay where one could imagine sipping their morning coffee.

That’s no alleyway.

Light Well Garden

The other area where we were concerned was the little stair lightwell outside the rear bedroom on the ground floor.  Below grade some 10′ to 12′, it could have been very dark and dismal.  To counteract that, we made the patio out of brick from the homes’ original chimney and built a planter using aromatic cedar and planting it with shade-tolerant plants and a lovely and large Japanese maple.

And planted it makes this a retreat, not a basement bedroom…

Main Garden and Patio

While up the stairs, the largest garden area provides for indoor-outdoor living, siting a 36″ box fruitless Olive tree in the middle of the patio and offering a border of red and green Japanese maples with drought-tolerant turf and wild grasses creating a space for kids and dogs.

We used separately poured concrete pavers to lay out a patio and softened it with pebbles in between, with the Olive tree centrally-located so that there would be a rich green view right outside the Family Room.

While here you can really see the dry stack wall we made by breaking up the old (and ugly) concrete patio and giving it a new and much more attractive life.  Again, we used pebbles on the landings of the steps to soften the setting.

Thanks, Scott.

Platinum, actually.

While we certainly want to have a house that’s well insulated and try to do things right, the ultimate approval of our insulation came during our LEED pre-drywall inspection last November by Sharon Block of Bright Green Strategies.  Walking the house and verifying that the insulation was properly cut and fit to every stud and joist bay, Sharon was impressed with our batt installation and gave 1566 Sanchez a passing grade, leaving us on track for our LEED Platinum rating.

Now on to sheetrock and making the home feel like a home instead of construction site!

For our last couple of projects in Cole Valley, 394 Frederick Street and 173 Downey Street, we wanted insulation that was effective and tight yet VOC (volatile organic compound) and Formaldehyde-free.

At the time, back in 2008, our best choice for the exterior was to use a concretious foam insulation called Airkrete that is shot in between the studs through a metal screen mesh to completely fill the voids and make an airtight seal.

In between floors and in the interior walls, we selected the Ultratouch recycled denim insulation – a non-toxic, non-flammable, pest-resistant cotton, really.

Both of those products worked great.  No complaints…except perhaps that both are pretty darned expensive compared with Fiberglass insulation.

Now, a couple of years later, we looked again and found numerous formaldehyde-free Fiberglass options for our 1566 Sanchez project that cost no more than the old toxic fiberglass insulation yet are very very cost effective.

We chose to use the Knauf EcoBatt product – an unbleached formaldehyde-free insulation batt with R21 in the outer walls, R38 in the roof and R30 between floors.

It looks more or less like raw sheeps’ wool and installs quickly…without busting the budget yet keeping the toxins (and the heat or cold) out.

Green is on it’s way into the mainstream!


We knew that there was a reason we focused on San Francisco for our Green building projects!

This week, at the United Nations COP17 Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, the World Green Building Council awarded San Francisco as the city with the best Green building policy.

Why?  Well, you can read the release yourself, but here are the key factors that were called out:

  1. Monetary benefits: Incentives and rebates for retrofits to improve energy and water efficiency, as well as lower operating expenses such as reduced utility costs
  2. Recognition: LEED and Energy Star certifications are now recorded by the city’s Assessor Recorders office; the city’s official record system
  3. Information: Knowing how a building compares to its neighbors, a direct result of the Existing Commercial Building Ordinance
  4. Tools: Collaboration between public and private sectors result in the Green Tenant Tool Kit
  5. Capital: GreenFinanceSF is a commercial PACE program in place to provide secure capital for energy efficiency, water conservation, and renewable energy retrofits
  6. High Standards: The Green Building Ordinance ensures that new building and large renovations are built to be sustainable and that obsolete inefficient equipment is replaced

We can certainly attest that these factors are true…well, mostly true.

The new Green Team in the San Francisco Planning and Building process did approve our 1436 Sanchez project for expedited processing since we were targeting LEED Platinum, saving us perhaps 3-4 months in the Planning process.

We have also benefitted from GoSolarSF‘s incentive programs for offsetting some of the cost of adding photovoltaic solar panels to our projects at 173 Downey and 1566 Sanchez.

And it is gratifying to know that our LEED status for both the 1566 Sanchez and 1436 Sanchez projects will be recorded on their titles when those homes are sold, lending a truly official imprimatur to their Green nature.

At the end of the day, it’s nice to know that we live in a city where the official policies are, in general, driven by trying to do what’s right, both for today and for the future – despite the country’s inability as a whole to get behind strong regulations to drive us towards a less toxic, more sustainable and smaller carbon and water footprint future.

In keeping with the eco mantra of Reuse – Recycle – Reclaim to avoid waste, we broke up the old and ugly aggregate concrete back patio of the home at 1566 Sanchez (at the suggestion of our landscape architect, Scott Lewis)…


…and re-used the chunks to build a dry-stack wall that looks like stacked stone.

The new wall is not only attractive, but keeping the concrete on-site saved us dumping charges, materials costs which we would have had to incur to build a brand new wall, and reduced our carbon footprint by avoiding all of the fuel consumption for the trucks that would have had to haul it off.

Back in April, we finally got through the foundation work and rain and started framing the project at 1566 Sanchez.  Framing – or putting up the rough lumber that establishes the structure of the home and layout of the rooms – is usually a homeowner’s favorite stage because it happens FAST.

Within a couple of weeks, the whole structure of the home can go from how it used to be (for the last 132 years) to how it soon will be.

Here, before start of deconstruction of the original roof, we see these beautiful and long pieces of the original redwood.  Rather than dumping or recycling them, though, we kept them on site and will be making our new planter boxes from the wood that was originally in the home.

The garage gets framed out (with a bedroom behind plus a stair to the rear patio)

When the wall’s right next to the neighbor’s, you build the wall on the ground, finish and waterproof it, and then tilt it up into place

The new third story takes shape

The interior stairs to the new third story go in (but like with any project, the builder missed that the stairs were not supposed to have a wall underneath…luckily a quick and easy fix at this stage).

Here in San Francisco, though, Framing is not all woodwork.  To make structurally-sound homes that can withstand the impact of earthquakes, there’s almost always some steel I-beams involved, usually welded into a frame that will help keep the whole structure together when the shakin’ starts (and it will start…someday).  These beams are big, they’re expensive, they make it a pain to run plumbing and electrical (since you can’t drill through them) and they’ll probably save your home when the big one hits.

So how do you know that the new foundation you’re putting under your historic home is strong and up to snuff?

Well, following current building codes and building with permits that assure that an inspector will check them out at every step of the construction process helps.  As noted before, we’ve also used concrete with a high percentage of fly ash which makes the final hardened concrete harder while simultaneously requiring less water.

But another key process step is testing.  Yes, you have to test the concrete you’ve poured.  There are a number of companies that will do this for you, but the basic steps work like this:

  1. Build your forms
  2. Tie reinforcing steel bars (rebar) in forms
  3. Decide on the concrete mix (i.e. % fly ash?)
  4. Pour the concrete into the forms and…
    ALSO pour into a few cylinders for testing
  5. Send cylinders to a testing lab
  6. Wait standard curing time – usually 2-3 days
  7. The lab crushes a cylinder and records the pressure needed to do so (i.e. 5000 psi)
  8. If the number’s good, crush a couple of more and record the average
  9. If the number isn’t what you need, you can wait another day or two and try again

What’s the worst case scenario?  The concrete never reaches the needed strength and you have to pull it out and try again…ouch.  Believe me – you do NOT want that to happen.

Normally, the foundation pour for a small home like the one we’re working on at 1566 Sanchez could be done in a week.

Unfortunately, homes in San Francisco (and many other dense urban environs) are typically built as what are known as Zero Lot Line homes.  That means that the homes are built right up to the property line on each side, leaving anywhere from no space at all (for attached townhomes, for example) to an inch or two between the homes.

With a zero lot line home, your foundation is immediately adjacent to that of your neighbor’s.  When excavating down to add square footage and to build a new foundation, you’re most likely exposing your neighbor’s foundation where before it had been supported by your foundation or soil.  To protect the structural integrity of the neighbor’s home, you can use various proven techniques from rock to temporary wood walls to shore up their foundation and provide support so that it remains stable while you set up the wooden forms and the reinforcing steel bars (rebar) to prepare to pour your own foundation.

Unfortunately, this means that you can also only remove small sections of the shoring at a time to provide them with maximum protection while you pour the foundation in sections.

For 1566 Sanchez, we’ve done at least a half dozen pours of sections rarely more than 8 feet long at a time.   Unfortunately, you have to wait for the concrete to cure between pours, so the pours are a minimum of a week apart, but thanks to a super-duper-ultra-rainy winter, rain delays dragged that out further.

Nevertheless, we’re just about there!  We’re completely done with all of the walls adjacent to the neighbors on both sides and there’s just one foundation section to go and we are done with all of the structural foundation walls!


eco+historical founder, Josh Mogal

We created eco+historical homes to remake historic houses using healthy, sustainable and innovative building techniques and materials. Our goal is to move our homes towards having a near-zero carbon footprint while honoring their heritage and enhancing them for contemporary family life.