Cabin Features


 1907 Victorian Cabin

The cabin was built just after the 1906 fire. Most of the houses in the neighborhood burned, so the owners built cabins in the back yards until they could afford to re-build the main house. On this particular lot, the main house was never re-built. I wanted to tear the cabin down, but apparently it’s historic.The cabin has a number of re-introduced historic pieces. The thinking is along the lines “The greenest building is the one that’s standing…”

This article is organized as follows:

  • NEW



We saved all the usable material that came out of the cabin, including the original lumber, stored it in the yard, and re-used it if possible. This included 2×4 and 2×6 studs, headers, rafters, etc.

We kept the Doulas Fir 1×4 T&G subfloor upstairs and refinished it. Patching was difficult as the flooring was 7/8″ x 3-3/8″, modern flooring is 3/4″ x 3-1/4″. The floor has gotten wet at various point in the last 100 years causing the boards to swell. When they dried out, it left gaps between the boards. It took 4-1/2 gallons of seam fill to take care of the gaps!Fir Floor

The 1×4 Redwood of the porch roof was carefully recycled from a building on Hawthorne St. in Alameda.

The laminated 3×14′s that make up the ridge and the main longitudinal floor beam came from a demolition project at 55 Sheridan in San Francisco.

Cast Iron RiserCast Iron stair risers are from the stairs of a 1907 SF office building at 83 McAllister, SF.





Red Marble2The red marble kitchen countertops are from slabs which lined the entry of an old SF office building. We cut the counters out with a diamond blade in a Skilsaw and polished the edges with diamond wheels in a special variable speed baby grinder (running on the slowest speed).


It’s likely that the Carrera marble came to San Francisco in a sailing ship. Blocks of marble were used as ballast, then fabricated in the stone yards in California. Faster, coal-fired steam ships were used for impatient passengers. So in ecological terms, the net embodied energy of the old stone is considerably lower than any new stone could ever be, because the transportation was powered by carbon-free wind.

The 3×6 ‘subway’ tiles are new, but they were available in 1907.Union stamp marble(3)

All of the windows have grey marble sills, if a window gets left open and it gets wet – no harm done; also potted plants, coffee cups, etc. can sit on the sills with no damage.


The bath lav tops are white marble with grey veins. Carrara marble with oval sink cut-outs and under-mount porcelain sinks. Made in SF in 1907 stamped with the Marble Cutters and Finishers Local No 38.


The paneling on the ground floor is from office closet doors from an old San Francisco office building. The old-growth Doug Fir doors were cut down to make the wall paneling.

Eastlake DetailI’ve been collecting 5 panel, redwood Eastlake doors for years. The doors in the cabin came from a mansion at 2127 Washington St. The Washington St. house was pink the whole time I was growing up; when the old lady died, it was sold and the new owners completely remodeled it (and painted it white), but they also got rid of all the Victorian touches. I was lucky enough to show up the day their builder was clearing out the garage.

Originally, the doors were grained to look like Oak, a popular idea for transplanted Easterners, and a very specialized skill among painters. I’ve never found graining in such good condition, so we kept it and just clear coated over it.

Cast Knob3The door hardware came from the same house on Washington St. They are mortise locksets with cast bronze knobs and escutcheons. I took them apart, soaked them in TSP, replaced springs where necessary, buffed them, and lubed them with graphite so they should be good for another fifty years or so.



Cabinet Pull CroppedThe Victorian cabinet pulls came from the Alameda antique faire. The seller only had 20, and I need twenty-two!



Claire in Door3The porch columns came from an 1896 Victorian cottage in Benicia. My friend Joy says that, barring the smell of baking cookies, there’s nothing like a Lab to give a feeling of warmth to a piece of real estate. Claire says chocolate chip are her favorite.






Gas_Elec Fixture2The three stairwell fixtures are original brass gas-over-electric fixtures from 1907. I rewired the fixtures; this is important because antique fixtures don’t always have the polarity correct.  The old timers installing knob and tube weren’t overly concerned about polarity anyway. I found the correct etched glass shades on Ebay.




For certain things there was no way around it: we had to buy new. These included the shower pan, vinyl windows in the bathrooms, some of the 1/2″ CDX plywood for the shear walls, sheetrock, copper pipe, paint (Benjamin Moore “Aura” which is low or zero VOC), ceramic tile, sealer, etc.

The kitchen cabinets are from Accent Manufacturing in Morgan Hill, made from no-formaldehyde-added particle board core with pre-finished Maple veneer. The pre-finshed Maple is a product of States Industries in Eugene OR. Eugene is close enough that the cabinet materials qualify for the LEEDS notion of ”local manufacturer”. States Industires is an innovative, woman-owned business that has gone through some hard times in the recent downturn. We are keeping our fingers crossed that this great company can continue to produce panels.

The overhead reccessed lights are LED’s. 8 watts apiece vs. 50 watts for the MR-16 halogens we’ve been putting in for years. There isn’t quite the selection of color temperature and spot angle that there is for MR-16′s… yet.


A lot of good usable material is usually left over from construction jobs, and unfortunately, our jobs are no different. The material we saved included: the all thread and hold downs for the seismic system, the under-slab rigid insulation, exterior pavers, the 3×8 redwood for the porch roof structure, the bath fans, washing machine box, light fixtures, boxes of bolts, screws, nails, hangers, etc. spiral ducts for the range hood and dryer vent, and the tile used for the first floor baseboard. The Hardie protection board on the outside of the stem wall insulation was left over from a project on Lancaster St. in Oakland.

I also had quite a bit of metal framing material left from jobs. I like to use metal framing in conjunction with old dry wood framing typically found in Victorians. My experience is that if you insert new green lumber into an old wall, it will shrink unevenly and you get screw pops.

All the electrical supplies, wire, panels, boxes, etc. were left from jobs; I did have to buy the devices – one reason is the code changed! Regular plugs and GFI’s are now tamper-proof.

Most of the cast iron waste and vent piping for the plumbing was left from other jobs, but I did buy new no-hub bands. The stainless steel kitchen sink is left from a job, but there is a new low-flow faucet.

Art Sink2The stainless steel art sink and mixer on the second floor was an extra from a forty unit condo project we built several years ago.

The galvanized threaded fittings for the gas line I had, but I bought new pipe.

The slate floor in the second floor powder room came from a big pallet of broken slate I bought for $50.00 from Etchegruen in SF. I set up the tile saw and spent a day cutting smaller usable dimensions out of the broken slates. This is the fourth bathroom to come from that pallet.

The kitchen overhead shelves are from E-Z Shelving Systems in Kansas. We’ve been installing E-Z Shelving for years for office interiors, so I had most of the parts; standards, shelves, clamps and nuts and bolts, but I had to buy new brackets.


Is re-purposed the right word? Cast-offs? Re-used? Salvaged? Whatever, there were many components that came from Craigslist: the windows, carpet squares in the loft, the stair treads (note they’re a combination of Red Oak and Brazilian Cherry). The steel balcony on the second floor came from an old friend Tom Belvini, and was made by other old friends 30 years ago, Arnke Ironworks. The recessed light fixtures and hot-water fan coil unit came from a mansion in Pacific Heights. I bought the overhead ceiling fan on Craigslist, but I had to buy a new speed controller. The appliances are Energy Star, but they were removed form service at previous locations and re-installed in the cabin.

My logger friend Parker Mills called and said he had a truckload of Sugar Pine logs that the mill wouldn’t take. The trees had been dead for a couple of years and the blue stain had set in. Self-loader

We had the logs hauled to Chris Burton’s mill – Willits Redwood Company – which sawed them into 6×6′s and 1×6′s. Since the logs were essentially worthless, our only investment was the sawing and planing. I stained or painted the 1×6 to hide the blue streaks and used it for all the interior trim.


I don’t want to give the impression that the cabin is a haphazard collection of used parts. The cabin is extremely energy efficient.

The cabin has a new concrete foundation and floor. The concrete is not low-cement / high fly-ash, an unfortunate oversight. The concrete is stained with a water-based stain and sealed. The foundation is insulated on the exterior of the stem wall, so all the concrete is part of the thermal mass. There is PEX radiant tubing cast into the ground floor slab. The floor slab is thermally isolated from the compacted soil with 3/4″ of rigid foam. We’re firmly in the Uponor family of PEX, the most expensive, but never a problem.

Heat from the radiant slab works it’s way up to heat the whole house. After a week or two, the whole interior of the house is soaked at 68 degrees, and it just stays there all winter. For an extra boost, there is a fan/coil unit on the second floor controlled by a built-in aquastat with a switch override.

The radiant heat source is a gas-fired A.O. Smith Vertex 50 gallon highly efficient modulating/condensing water heater. The cabin is not zero-carbon, but it creates a minimal amount (see “Utility Bills” for a calculation of carbon produced). The same water heater is used for the domestic hot water. The radiant circulation equipment is manufactured by Taco in Rhode Island - at a substantial discount via Ebay – and fits into a very compact package – actually within the 24″ x 24″ footprint of the water heater. It’s a proprietary product we call “Radiant Core” (look for an explanation of this elsewhere on this site).

Plumbing Fixtures

The hot-water-using fixtures; the shower, bath sinks, clothes washer, are all within five feet of the water heater, using a design we call “Wet Wall”. The kitchen sink is far enough away that a circulation pump was in order. By careful attention to detail, we were able to use the fractional horsepower open loop pump of the radiant system to circulate hot water to the kitchen, essentially doing double duty. The circulation function is controlled with a switch mounted under the sink, so it requires a slight change in user habits – the switch has to be activated a couple of minutes before hot water is needed at the sink – but water isn’t wasted waiting for it to warm up, the pump only runs for a minimal time and it saves running out several gallons of water waiting for it to get hot. A further optimization: in the winter months, the conventional thermostat is set to call for heat at 6:00 A.M., this coincides with the need for hot water at the kitchen sink, so the under-counter activation switch is seldom used in winter months.

The shower and sinks have low-flow fixtures, and the downstairs toilet is a dual flush Caroma Sydney  – .85 gallons for the 1/2 flush function and 1.1 gallons for the full flush. The upstairs toilet is a $140.00 Toto which qualified for the SF Water Department $125.00 credit.


The existing wall consisted of, studs, a layer of vertical rough 1×12′s for sheathing, and horizontal 1×8  V rustic lap siding on the outside, and lath and plaster on the inside. We removed the old lath and plaster, but we did not take the siding off. We elected not to remove to the siding because it is Douglas Fir and extremely brittle; we would not have been able to re-install it, and we couldn’t have afforded to buy comparable material. The options seemed to be install new Hardi-plank over plywood or leave the existing. In operating energy terms, it would have been better to remove the siding and provide a tight exterior envelope. In embodied energy and financial terms, leaving the existing was the way to go.

The problem was that you could see daylight through the cracks in the boards. When we ran the blower door for the test-in, we couldn’t even get to the required -50 Pascals at 8,000 CFM! We were getting  something like 30 Air Changes per Hour (ACH). Putting fiberglass batts in would have been almost worse than useless; they wouldn’t have reduced the air leakage, and they might have retained moisture and rotted the framing.

We decided to use closed-cell spray foam, a very expensive proposition. Typically, closed-cell foam runs around $4.00 per sq ft. and we had 2,500 sq ft. The answer came in the form of an invitation to a meeting sponsored by SF Environment. With “Energy Upgrade California” money, PG&E rebates, and SF Environment contributions, the foam was essentially free. The only caveat is that it took five months. The people that negotiated through the maze of rebates for the project were David and Sarah Hamburger of Building Efficiency. Even though we’re General Contractors, we could not have worked through the details of the rebates without David and Sarah.

There’s a video elsewhere on this site of installing the foam. Before we installed it, my idea was that the closed cell foam would solve all the problems. After foaming, I borrowed the blower door from PG&E’s Pacific Energy Center lending library (a fantastic resource by the way – the only caveat is that you must have some sort of certification to borrow their tools) and tested the house again. It now easily achieved the -50 Pascals, but the calculation was that the Air Changes per Hour were around 2 to 3; typical of new tract house construction, but a far cry from the .6 required to meet Passive House standards!

The spray foam can’t be installed in the full thickness in one pass. The manufacturer recommends several 2” passes (each manufacturer is specific), and this is the truth. When the foam went on too thick, it split open, and I had to go back and fill the splits with the hand foam gun.

Note about hand spray foam – we used a Hilti CF-DS1 FOAM DISPENSER,  $100.00 on Ebay, considerably more from Hilti – with cans of Dow Great Stuff Pro. The blue cans, orange foam, Window and Door, is the way to go. The Hilti gun gives infinite control so you get great mileage. This combination is not even comparable to the rattle cans.

Also, the big spray foam rig could not seal between studs nailed together – for example a trimmer nailed to a king stud, and it couldn’t seal in the corners. I started testing with a clever little bottle that squirted fine dust into the air to find air leaks. That was too time consuming, so I switched to incense sticks as smoke generators. Again too convoluted, so I wound up licking the back of my hand and holding it near the suspected air leaks. The little hairs are amazingly sensitive to air movement, so I spent the day with a caulking gun and spray foam plugging every accessible leak.

The wood casement windows performed really well in terms of air infiltration, but I could not get the vinyl sliders to stop leaking air. These were new windows with Energy Star stickers installed plumb and square; disappointing.

After the effort by hand, I got the ACH-50 down to about 1.1. This was still with no drywall, door or window casing installed. The point being, if you wait to test until after the interior finishes are on, it’s too late.

In terms of air sealing, one of the most intractable problems is the lower corners of the doors where the vertical weatherstripping stops and the sill begins. Any bit of foam there is subject to kids and dogs and the wear and tear at the bottom of a door. The Europeans solve it with a high sill, you actually step over their sills, not quite like a hatch in a submarine, but close. Thanks to George H.W. Bush’s finest hour, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates smooth wheelchair access across door sills. A case of conflicting mandates.

With the drywall and interior finishes in place, the ACH is down to _____. This is about as good as you can get without removing the exterior siding. The proof is in the pudding, the house stays a steady sixty-eight degrees day and night.

Cool Roof

The white painted standing seam roof is from Bruce and Dana wholesale in Medford OR. There’s a video elsewhere on this site of installing the metal roof. The steel panels contain 30% recycled steel and have G-90 galvanizing. The white color is a Duropon 70 coating  with 70%  Polyvinylidine Flouriude (PVDF) with a Thermal Solar Reflectance (TSR) value of  67.8. High solar reflectance is important to reduce the ‘heat island effect’.

Clean water comes off the roof, suitable for irrigation.

The standing seams make it easy to install solar panels with clever clips from S5! Solutions (no kidding – the name of the company is “S5! Solutions”), either solar thermal or PV; a future project.


The interior is wired with RG-6 for the cable, and CAT 5 for the phone and data. The low voltage wiring comes to an easily accessible terminal block located in the mechanical room.

Where possible, the cabin is wired in Romex with 14/3 and 15 amp breakers. This allows two circuits to share a neutral and a ground. The circuits are carefully worked out to minimize wire. Gone are the old days when we just pulled miles of 12/2 Romex for everything. Two circuits sharing a neutral and a ground saves 33% of the investment in copper wire, not to mention drilling fewer holes, etc.

The bathroom lights and closet lights are equipped with motion detectors so that any light left on accidently get shut off automatically.


Mechanical room

Galley kitchen with open shelves

Easy access to the BBQ

Sleeping loft

Plugs at counter heights