The Venice Beach Eco Cottages: The Building Process


Images courtesy of Eric Staudemeir

We continue our series looking at the Venice Beach Eco Cottages, a set of 3 homes built sustainably from the ground up. In this post, we will examine the cottages' building process, as told to us by the entrepreneurial duo behind the project, Karel J. Samsom and Cynthia Foster.TreeHugger: How did you approach the concept of sustainability? Where did you get the wood to build the cottages?

Karel Samsom: Look closely at the issue of quality and you start to notice that especially in building, sustainability not only covers issues of building "green" but also durability decisions. Under the label "green" we decided to go with reused wood which became available from deconstruction of parts of the original cottages.

All wood that was removed in the upgrade and found in good condition was retained, refinished and, later in the project, used for repair, framing, shelving etc. To this supply, we added FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified sustainable wood. The former takes extra labor to ready it for re-use (adjustment, repair as well as (re)painting). The latter is truly sustainable inasmuch as FSC certification verifies that the wood was grown and harvested with minimum or no damage to the environment and the forest in question was harvested at a sustainable rate as opposed to clear-cutting.

Of course, this explains that FSC wood also runs at about double the price of regular
wood. But it is getting more popular and even some Home Depots now sell it! We made our new fences at the cottages from this wood grown in northern California. We tried to source reclaimed wood from buildings taken down but the price was prohibitive as was the transport to Venice. Additionally we used plyboo, a bamboo product which is urea and formadehype free, for kitchen tops and shelves. This material is easy to use in surfaces, requires no painting, and cleans well.

TH: Where did you get the windows? How did you refashion them?

KS: Beautiful architectural salvage windows which we bought covering the period of when our cottages were originally constructed, were carefully restored and re-glazed and the modern conveniences of screens, locks and turn handles added. It took quite a bit of searching to find matching windows and doors in the 1920-30 ties style. Door and window hardware were upgraded to today's quality, for handles and doorknobs, again architectural salvage items were used.

TH: How did you go about building the roofs for the homes?

KS: The middle cottage, now named Aunt Zoe's Cottage, had a new roof, the other two units needed new roofs badly. Again, in the ecological theme of reduce, reuse, restore, we decided not to redo the middle roof and have its remains dumped as it was in perfectly good condition. However, we had wanted to insulate the roofs using a new
system which retains warmth in winter and allows cooling in summer. In the event, we placed the solar panels on this middle roof which mimics, be it to a lesser extent, this new approach.

On the other two cottages we implemented, from scratch, a new roofing insulation
approach. Here, after removing the roofing materials and restoring the wood where deteriorated, we mounted 1.5 inch, none off gassing insulation foam panels of the roof after repair, leaving a 1.5 inch space between the roof and the bottom of these panels. We then mounted plywood on top the the insulation and shingles over the plywood.

Indeed, as predicted, we found the cottages cool in summer as the space between inside of the roof and the insulation panel ventilates and the external heat is kept at bay by the foam panels. While in winter the warmth remains under the ceiling of the cottage due to this insulation approach.

TH: How did you design the cottages' floors?

KS: In each of the cottages, the original kitchens had tiled sinks and countertops. We retained these tiles of various colors and later reused them in the bathrooms as colorful of white borders of broken tiles of the floors. For the floors themselves we used a product made of sheets of horizontally sliced wine corks, filled these in with grout and then finished the floors with several layers of a water-based clear coat. The floors also have radiant heating in them. All in all a very warm surface.

TH: Tell us about the costs, labor and upgrades involved with this project.

KS: Regarding the materials, we had various components from the structures which we deconstructed and later reused. Examples include the wood, tiles and roof beams. This was of course very efficient in terms of cost of the materials. However, labor was often required to make these materials reusable. Then there were the used materials which we had to buy: bathtubs, kitchen sinks, stoves; all part of the design effort. These
items all needed to be redone, be it re-glazed as in bath tubs and sinks or completely restored as in the stoves. All these processes to take salvage items and bring up to new standards ended up with costs that were mostly, but not always, higher than buying contemporary new replacements.

As far as the costs of upgrading the three cottage structures were concerned, we made quite some detailed changes. First, we removed the ceilings and created cathedral type ceilings, using the same beams. All exterior window and door opening were changed along a design that was implemented in all three units. This took considerable time in terms of relocating door and window positions and, subsequently, adding the contemporary features such as window locks, turn handles, screens and often new glass to replace broken panes. Only one wall was moved, that was the bathroom wall in all 3 cottages as the original bathroom was too small.

Total upgrades and remodeling ran, roughly estimated, at $300/sq ft of which the single largest portion was labor. In the reuse, restore and recycle mode of sustainable building, one does make significant progress in avoiding land filling so much of construction waste. The cost is, greater labor time investment. By the way, we used a local construction waste hauler, Looneybins, which guaranteed that 75% of the contents were being separated for reuse purposes. Rather unique!

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