Helping an Ugly Duckling Mature into a Graceful Swan

By Olesya Drozdova

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was an ordinary 1977 tract house in desperate need of a makeover. Attracted by its location backing to a natural trail and overlooking Serrano Creek, new owners agreed to buy it on short sale, faults and all. Somehow, they sensed that, with time, money, and imagination, they could help this ugly duckling mature into the graceful swan it was meant to be.

Their first project was a new air conditioning system. Removing asbestos and installing new ducts was only the beginning. During the process, they realized that the old air return vent, which had been placed downstairs, was inefficient because it sucked the cooler air that collected on the lower floor into the system rather than gathering the warmer air that naturally collected upstairs. By moving the air return upstairs, they enabled the system to operate more efficiently.

It also became apparent to these new homeowners that it would not be necessary to heat the entire 2,500 square feet of their home equally all the time. And they realized that the north side of their house did not require as much cooling as the south side did. Thus, they came up with the idea of splitting their house into four separate climate zones rather than taking the much more common two-zone approach. Addition of a smart home thermostat enabled them to heat and cool these zones individually as needed.

They added a whole house fan to complement the air conditioning system, put new insulation in the attic, and installed a better-insulated front door and garage door.

Probably the easiest transformation they made was to replace older incandescent lighting with LED lighting throughout. And they added a smart light switch. While this might seem like gadgetry overkill, it is not. Imagine coming home late at night and being able to turn on the lights in your house before you touch your garage door opener or put your key in the front door lock. The safety and convenience are priceless, but not costly.

They replaced old windows with windows that have both ultraviolet- and infrared-protective coatings. These windows are not only aesthetically more pleasing but also play an important role in preventing sun damage, keeping heat out, and helping to stabilize the indoor environment.

To generate electricity, these homeowners installed two solar systems, one for the house and one for the swimming pool, which has reduced their electric bills by an average of $25 each month.

These homeowners also took a “zoned approach” to landscaping. Both the front and back yard are served by a smart drip irrigation system, which they can program according to their needs and preferences and operate with their smartphones. The front yard has both a traditional green-grass zone and a drought-tolerant zone, surprisingly with blooming and fruiting blueberries, strawberries, and oranges.

The back yard features a covered paved patio with drop-down screens and a ceiling fan, and a zone for fruit trees. (By the way, the patio cover not only provides shade but also serves as a base for the solar system that heats the swimming pool.) One side yard proved to be ideal for an herb-and-vegetable garden. The other side yard houses the “utility” units needed to filter the pool and air condition the house. And finally, there is a compost bin in which the homeowners develop natural fertilizer to feed their lawn and plants.

Because security and safety are important, these homeowners installed motion detectors and a security system that can alert them to any open doors. A Ring electronic doorbell allows them to see, hear, and communicate with visitors remotely and, if necessary, check later to learn who visited their door.

A Schlage smart lock makes it possible to open the door with a smartphone or with a voice command rather than fumbling for a key. And this lock will automatically lock itself after a few minutes, a feature that comes in handy when the homeowners return home with groceries or children or dogs, haven’t enough free hands to lock the lock immediately, and might forget to do so later.

An ugly duckling older house can mature into a graceful swan home if its owners are willing to spend the time and money to make it happen and if they understand that “going green” is not only about preserving precious resources but also about solving problems, increasing convenience, and making a home truly serve the needs of its residents.