Noe Valley Voice April 2006

The 'Greenest' House in Noe Valley

By Corrie M. Anders

Upon first inspection, the newly-built house on Clipper Street has more than enough amenities to make you drool. There's a gourmet kitchen, a half-dozen skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows, richly-stained hardwood floors, even a get-away wine cellar and sipping room.

But this three-story residence is not merely luxurious. It's also, according to its creators, the "greenest" house in Noe Valley, and maybe even in San Francisco.

Instead of cedar or redwood, the exterior siding is made from concrete and a junky coal residue, the kind that normally ends up in a landfill. The hardwood floors are century-old reclaimed railroad ties from Southeast Asia. The house is insulated with recycled blue denim, rather than problematic fiberglass. And the building uses solar energy for heat and power.

Throughout the home, the designers have utilized salvaged materials and wood products that are environmentally friendly. But the pièce de résistance is a water system--the first ever approved by the city--that collects rainwater from the roof and uses it to flush toilets, clean laundry, and wash the car.

Three friends passionate about sustaining the environment built the contemporary-style home, which sits on a narrow lot at 520 Clipper Street near Diamond Street. The trio includes 21st Street resident Mike Kerwin, 40, a former engineer and owner of a design firm during the dot-com boom; Eureka Street local Pat Loughran, 46, who grew up in Noe Valley and worked as a technology sales executive before becoming a contractor; and Joel Micucci, 40, a contractor who lives nearby in the Mission District.

Their four-bedroom, four-bath paean to the environment was completed last month and is currently on the market with a $1,899,000 price tag. San Francisco architect John Maniscalco designed the home, which has panoramic cityscape and bay views.

Inspired by the Lorax

Partners (left to right) Pat Loughran, Mike Kerwin, and Joel Micucci are eager to show off their house of the future. Photo by Corrie M. Anders

The partners set their company in motion five years ago over beer and a handshake at the Valley Tavern, a watering hole on 24th Street. Then they gave their firm the catchy moniker LORAX Development, in honor of the Lorax, a lovable Dr. Seuss character who "speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."

"My passion comes from a desire to protect the environment," says Kerwin, who for 15 years has been a volunteer for San Francisco Baykeeper, an on-the-water environmental watchdog group on San Francisco Bay. And Loughran says his two children are the principal reason he wants to build houses with a conservationist philosophy. "We need to make changes now so future generations do not have to suffer for our consumption," Loughran says.

The partners, who've served as contractors for two Home and Garden Television shows, know that environmentally-friendly homes are expensive to build--and to buy. At about $350 per square foot, the construction cost is 15 to 20 percent higher than that of traditional homes. But they say they aren't building green just to reap profits.

"This was never about just making money," says Kerwin. "Building green costs a little more, but the quality of the materials, energy savings, and what it gives back to the natural world are worth it. If I couldn't build like this, I would do something else."

In fact, the company didn't make any money in its first green effort. That venture lost $200,000. "We each put in $72,000, and it returned nothing to us," Kerwin says. "It just allowed us a stepping stone to the next project."

LORAX Development has completed four developments, all concentrated in Noe Valley or the Mission District. Their latest, a five-story residential-commercial complex, is under construction at 22nd and Valencia streets.

For the LORAX founders, the decision to focus on their home turf was easy. People who live in Noe Valley have an elevated consciousness about environmental preservation, the partners say. In addition, the neighborhood's sunny microclime is ideal for using solar panels on the roofs.

The Warmth of the Sun

The solar panels at 520 Clipper Street are tied into the water heating system, which provides 80 percent of the home's hot water. The panels also provide warmth throughout the 2,600-square-foot property, by heating recycled water that flows through radiant tubing underneath the subflooring. They also generate electricity.

The solar system cost $39,000, a stiff upfront expense, but the developers recovered $19,000 through state and federal rebates. The system is set up so that excess energy automatically is sold to PG&E, though that may not be a significant savings if past LORAX developments are a guide.

"On a sunny day, we're selling power to PG&E, and on a cold night we're buying it back from them," says Kerwin. It's pretty much a wash.

Many residential and commercial buildings in the city use solar panels to harvest the sun's energy. But the house on Clipper Street is the first dwelling in San Francisco to harvest rainwater, according to the developers. It's a feature that will make a meaningful dent in the estimated 5,000 gallons of water the typical San Francisco household uses each month.

The water is filtered for domestic use and stored in three huge tanks that hold 10,800 gallons of water. In late March, after several big rainstorms, the gauges at a command-center console in the basement showed that the containers were at 91 percent capacity. The holding system is "the solution to water shortages in the coming years," says Loughran. "We will always be able to harvest and regulate a portion of our own water supply."

Though things look rosy now, the partners came close to making an expensive, bonehead mistake. Midway through construction, they found the $18,000 rain-catching system at a building trade show and made an impulsive decision to purchase and install it on Clipper.

"We were setting it up when we went down to [City Hall] to get permits," recalls Kerwin, noting that he and the crew thought it would be a routine request "They said no. We were so disheartened. What do we do with the tanks? Cut them in half and put in koi ponds?"

The partners lobbied hard, however, and the city ultimately agreed to create a special permit for the water-collection system.

Recycled Wood, Paper, and Milk Cartons

The LORAX trio is also proud of the way they used wood in the home. Built-in bookcases in the living room were made with materials harvested from "responsibly-managed" forests and certified by the non-profit Forestry Stewardship Council. So was the cherry-laminate cabinetry, which was manufactured by Zwanette Design, whose owner is Alvarado Street resident Karin de Gier. The decks were made from a mix of reclaimed wood and plastic. The developers also utilized another tree-saving option, choosing a fiber-cement exterior siding. The material is a composite of Portland cement and fly-ash, a byproduct of coal combustion.

There are no granite countertops gracing the Lorax kitchen. Instead, there's a surface made of old milk cartons and recycled paper that was treated with resin and compressed into solid sheets.

"It looks like natural slate that's been left a little rough," Kerwin says of the countertop, which he maintains is impervious to heat, scratches, and red wine.

He also contends that the green house has few maintenance issues. "You may need to wipe off the solar panels every couple of years," Kerwin says.

The house took 10 months to complete--about the same turnaround time as for construction of a non-green house--and large crowds of home shoppers and the curious flocked to several open houses last month. "A lot of people came through just to see the green features," says Kerwin with a smile.

He has no doubt that the Lorax, the Dr. Seuss environmentalist, would approve of the Clipper Street home. "He would say we wish everyone built this way."

Green House Resources

Here is a list of environmentally-friendly products, suppliers, and contractors involved in the construction of 520 Clipper Street.

Kitchen cabinets

Zwanette Design

San Francisco


Rainwater catchment system

Wonderwater, Inc.

Mt. Shasta, Calif.


Photovoltaic (solar) panels

Declination Solar

San Francisco


Hardwood floors

Terra Mai

McCloud, Calif.


Kitchen countertops



Fiber cement siding

James Hardie


Exterior trim boards



Decking and fence boards

Trex Company, Inc.


Radiant floor heating

Declination Solar

San Francisco


Marvin Low E windows and doors


Low VOC paints and caulks

Eco Spec® Interior Latex Eggshell

Developer and General Contractor

LORAX Development LLC

KLM Builders, Inc.

San Francisco



John Maniscalco

San Francisco