Affordable Efficiency

Recycling and restoring 100-year-old materials costs time, makes money

September 30, 2004


Three years ago, Washington, D.C.-based architect Hito Martinez and his wife, Serena, purchased a ramshackle Victorian townhouse built in 1907. Dilapidated, inefficient and downright ugly, the house needed a major overhaul. Martinez's dream was not just to restore it but to bring it into the 21st century - and to do so in an environmentally sustainable way.


A custom-built metal frame holding 1-inch thick, low-E, argon-filled glass replaced nearly the entire south wall of the three-story rowhouse.

"It was difficult to convince the lender that the value of the renovated house would be higher that the total amount of the loans," says Martinez. "The exterior had been defaced and the interior had been trashed. Over the years, the rooms had been divided into small rental units."

His passion for recycling everything possible lengthened the time on the project. On the other hand, it reduced costs and waste. Martinez says his wife, who works in the energy-efficiency field, persuaded him to try an energy-efficient approach to design. Now a convert, he recommends it to any client - not only for the cost savings, but also for the style. "Nowadays many energy-efficient household products are sleek, simple and artfully designed," says Martinez.

A recent appraisal showed that the Martinez's house has more than quadrupled in value.

The glass house

Martinez was especially concerned about the lack of sunlight throughout the house, a narrow, bowling-alley-style rowhouse with windows on just two sides. After removing most of the interior walls and the entire south wall of the 2,700-square-foot house, Martinez brought in Northeast Ironworks and Single Source Welding to install a 9 x 30-foot metal frame holding energy-efficient-filled glass. The glass wall lets the sun shine in, achieving Martinez's objective of bringing nature indoors.

The design of the house, Martinez says, is more about subtraction than addition. Because the entire load is on the outside walls, the interior walls could be removed without compromising the structure. "The idea is to bring out the substance of the building by exposing the brick walls and the ceiling joists," he says.

A 16 x 14-foot skylight not only allows more light into the living room, it accentuates four 9 x 5-foot vertical slabs of 3/4-inch thick white onyx. The onyx creates an almost translucent wall of marble that separates the living room and kitchen, and allows more light into the interior of the house.


Martinez rebuilt stairs from the ground level to the first floor with wood recycled from the home.
Energy Costs Compared
Annual energy costs of conventional appliances and HVAC (refrigerator, dishwasher with gas water heating, clothes washer with gas water heating, heat pump, and gas furnace)
Annual energy costs of Energy Star appliances and HVAC with same functions
Annual energy savings

Remove, restore and recycle

Authentic and all-natural - these criteria drove a Herculean effort to preserve every plank and brick Martinez could. Each brick of the three-story south wall was carefully removed, loaded into a bucket, roped down to ground level, then stacked for future use. Every one required cleaning, brushing and dipping in an acid bath to restore the original color. Martinez used the restored bricks, and others he rescued from a Dumpster at another construction site, to build walls for a south-facing courtyard with patio and garden.

To preserve the wood in the floor joists, stud walls and roof rafters, the crew removed, de-nailed, planed, joined, sanded and cut over 3,000 linear feet of Southern heart pine, much of which Martinez made into furniture for the home.

Plaster and paint were stripped to reveal the brick and wood that lies underneath. Martinez and his crew chipped the plaster from the two party walls to reveal 4,000 square feet of brick. The walls were sprayed with muriatic acid, then soaked with fresh water.

A local stripping company stripped the home's pocket doors, which were reused for the master bedroom closet.

The energy story

With an eye toward the future, Martinez planned a home that would not only be visually appealing, but flexible in design and inexpensive to operate.

Martinez chose an innovative building practice promoted by PATH: placing the HVAC system, water pipes, ducts and electrical work in a central core. Having all the major utilities located in one place affords easy access, and makes adding data cables or new wiring to accommodate innovative technologies in the future fairly easy. Since pipes and ducts are no longer located in non-load-bearing interior walls, these walls can be moved and new walls can be added far more easily. With "moveable" walls, Martinez has gained a whole new range of new possibilities in floor design to accommodate a growing family.

To help achieve his goals of maximum efficiency, maximum comfort and reduced energy costs, Martinez demolished the uneven hollow concrete slab, and then laid in 2 inches of rigid insulation before pouring a new concrete floor. To reduce dependence on a forced air heating system, he set in a small heating element below the finished floor, which created a low-voltage solution for chilly floors in the mornings and evenings. He then installed an Energy Star heating and central air conditioning unit.

Having to install 17 windows, plus a skylight, Martinez thought carefully about comfort and quality as well as style. "We wanted good-looking windows that would reduce heat loss in winter and reflect heat in summer," says Serena. "The idea was to make the house more comfortable and lower our energy bills. We've installed 17 Weather Shield windows - all Energy Star-qualified. They look great, and we save about 15 percent on our total energy bill."

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