Designing a greener future: Local architect builds net-zero energy homes with salvaged materials

an illustration of a blueprint of a house like those made by Karl Wanaselja
Nishali Naik/Staff

Go big or go home. That has always been the American way — supersized indulgences and seemingly infinite expansion, often involving the exploitation of Earth’s natural resources. Excavating and consuming our way across the planet, we have left a trail of massive, energy-hungry structures craving yesterday’s fossil fuels.

With climate change circulating political and social spheres as an issue of great concern, local architect and UC Berkeley alumnus Karl Wanaselja is addressing this issue by designing and building homes that are smaller, greener and, most importantly, more sustainable.

“If you can have a comfortable, but very efficient home, why wouldn’t you?”

—Karl Wanaselja

“We see that there’s a lot that can be done, so we’re excited and motivated by that,” Wanaselja said, describing the rising potential of a green movement in architectural design.

Wanaselja and his wife Cate Leger, also a UC Berkeley alumna, are leaders in green design, with several awards and publications for their innovative designs aimed at shrinking our ecological footprint. The focus of their works is to create sustainable homes that can merge the desire for urban ease and energy efficiency by reusing existing materials, integrating natural weather patterns and using renewable energy.

Their seemingly ordinary house, located in one of Berkeley’s oldest residential neighborhoods, at first appears to blend in with the surrounding homes. The unsuspecting passersby would never have guessed that this delicately crafted structure is a net-zero-energy home, curated with unconventional materials and thoughtful consideration on nature’s behalf.

“First you want to reduce consumption — so we made our house small,” Wanaselja said. “(We) made it very efficient before we put any systems into it like heating, cooling and etc.”

They also integrated reused materials in the making of the space by intercepting scrap metal before it was melted down during recycling. The process of recycling actually uses energy input, and by maintaining the original forms of the materials, energy usage can be reduced. Formally named the McGee Salvage House, this project seamlessly integrates salvaged materials into its eco-friendly design.

Kiera Marie Condrey / Leger Wanaselja Architecture / Courtesy

Kiera Marie Condrey / Leger Wanaselja Architecture / Courtesy

 

This innovative ecosystem’s every intricacy was devised with the mindset of reducing, reusing and recycling scraps into an urban yet energy-efficient home. Standing in the front lawn, there are recycled rain barrels ready to collect rainwater to irrigate the food garden that feeds the family. Solar panels that provide solar electricity and hot water cover the roof. Inspired by fish scales, the roof of the house is also plastered in shingles in various shades of silver, all salvaged from the roofs of cars waiting to be demolished in a junkyard.

The careful design of the tilted roof, which strategically utilizes reflective material, allows for the reflection of sunlight into the neighbor’s yard and home, capturing the natural light and heat the sun provides. Not only are the shingles made from cars, but the awnings of the balcony are composed of carefully chosen windows from Dodge Caravans, also awaiting their death at junkyards.

“More people are salvaging materials when they do renovations and demolitions, but I’m still shocked at how much builders just throw away without even thinking about it. … I don’t know how that’s possible at this point,” Wanaselja said.

The curved nature of the house — the front and back are more narrow than the middle — both provides aesthetic appeal and harnesses light from the sun to make the cozy home appear open and spacious. The strategic orientation of windows in the south, east and west provides natural heating that the plaster on the north wall and floor absorb as heat batteries.

The furniture inside the home is also made from recycled materials, such as recycled redwood. Poplar bark, also commonly a waste material, laces the outside of the home.

“A lot of these things are easy to do. A lot of people are going about their lives — they don’t really think about it,” Wanaselja said. “One of the biggest things we push is to build smaller. I, personally, don’t think this (house) feels small at all. The average American house is something like double this. Why is that?”

Wanaselja is not alone in his opposition toward the typical American infatuation with excess. Many express dismay with American politicians’ hypocritical tendency to point fingers at developing countries for being responsible for high carbon emissions, while persisting in their own lavish lifestyles. While our cities grow outward and upward, Wanaselja is pushing for a contemporary, minimalistic style of design that fosters inward growth.

“Is this house comfortable? It’s a comfortable house. Is it pleasant to be in this house? Then why wouldn’t you do it? What are our energy bills? Zero,” Wanaselja said enthusiastically. “I don’t feel we’re making a lot of sacrifices. … If you can have a comfortable, but very efficient home, why wouldn’t you?”

Subconscious habits and predilections for overconsumption are compounded by marketing tactics aimed to fool common sense and have led many down a path of choosing more, wanting more and feeling as though they need to live in excess to achieve happiness and comfort.

Kiera Marie Condrey / Leger Wanaselja Architecture / Courtesy

Kiera Marie Condrey / Leger Wanaselja Architecture / Courtesy

But as Wanaselja proves, comfort and efficiency are not mutually exclusive, but instead can coexist to create a work of beauty. He explained that traditional design typically embodied human needs while keeping nature at its epicenter, generating spaces that optimized resources and materials. There was no wastefulness, but only resourcefulness.

Wanaselja is reminiscent of a time when milk came in reusable glass jars, ice cream sandwiches came in paper wrappings and packaging design was simple; now, plastics reign over landfills and chemical toxins pollute our air.

“I think this essentially laziness about design became ingrained in the dominant culture,” Wanaselja said.

Buildings also now account for 47.6 percent of energy consumption in the United States. But Wanaselja is hopeful that others will follow in designing net-zero energy homes and commercial buildings to crush this daunting percentage to zero.

Wanaselja’s thoughtful designs suggest that mindful consumption of items can leave a smaller impact on the world and that enough designers crafting with intent can help reduce the potential ramifications of urban development.

With this mindset, the United States might turn back on its oversized ethos and instead adopt a trend of going small by going home.

Contact Nelly Lin at [email protected].