On a Budget, Compromise Affords Indulgence

On a Budget, Compromise Affords Indulgence

Jonathan B.
May 6, 2009

When we looked for a house, I had three simple criteria: it had to be small, close to work, and I would not stand a lawn that needed regular mowing and watering — truly silly in soggy Portland. It was to be our first house, which meant we weren't afraid of a project. Our eager naivety resulted in what we thought would be a simple 3-month basement renovation turning into a gut renovation that's now pushing three years.

When we found the house, I knew it was the one. It sure was small: the footprint measured only 22 feet by 28 feet. There was a wedge of a front yard, measuring five feet at the narrowest point. It had not been touched since it was built as worker housing in 1937. It was a 20-minute walk through a forest preserve to downtown Portland, ten minutes' drive by car to my work, and on a bus line that went directly to my partner's office. It had a view.

And it was green. It was also cramped and crumbling...

The front yard was an early project: it sloped towards the house, so we dug a drainage swale and planted low-maintenance grasses, hostas, and bamboo that don't require mowing or fertilizer.

Our budget did not allow the übergreen renovation of our dreams, but we still wanted a house we could feel good about, so we made a few strategic decisions. First, we decided to work within the existing envelope of the house: adding on costs money in the short term and the environment in the long term. Second, we decided to maximize energy efficiency whenever possible. And third, we took on much of the work ourselves.

These decisions created challenges. Working within the existing shell meant less waste and lower energy bills, but I was determined to create a modern sense of spaciousness in a house with tiny, chopped-up rooms and a footprint the size of a double garage. I have since become a passionate believer that small space necessitates good design... and smaller spaces are also green — or at least greener — by default.

Rebuilding the ladder-like, 18-inch wide staircase to meet code left little room for the bathroom. Covering walls and floor with porcelain tile and installing a Caroma sink and water-saving dual flush wall-hung toilet let us shoehorn a full bath into only 33 square feet. We recessed a bank of medicine cabinets and an ample counter into the opposite wall.

We solved other space challenges with furniture, putting in a bank of deep, long cabinets that serve as storage space and as extra seating for big dinner parties. By borrowing an extra table, we can seat up to 24 for dinner.

Energy efficiency on a budget meant using vinyl windows and sliding glass doors to replace the existing dry rotted wood windows — my most painful compromise, but a third of the price of wood windows, and with low-E coating and argon fill, more energy efficient to boot. It also meant foregoing recycled denim insulation for super insulating fiberglass with a higher R-value.

The design strategy was simple: we dropped the floor in the existing walk-out basement and increased the ceiling height to 8 feet, effectively doubling the size of the house without adding to the footprint. On the main level, we combined a small living room and an even smaller bedroom and opened the kitchen up to the new space, replacing rotten windows with a bank of sliding doors opening on to a new deck. And we reconfigured a staircase and bathroom to increase access to all three floors of the house.

Taking on the work ourselves (and getting rid of a terrible contractor) means that we're still putting the finishing touches on parts of the house.

I confess: our renovation was not as green as it could have been, but almost everyone — regardless of budget — has to make compromises when remodeling. The ones we chose fit our budget and gave our outmoded, neglected house a new, spacious feeling and helped it to use less energy than before.

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