Acting as contractor put this owner on top

“I wanted my kitchen to be as green and affordable as possible,” says Mary Richerson, a marketing-event producer. She remodeled her 1920s Berkeley bungalow and achieved her goal by researching materials herself and acting as her own contractor.

One feature best captures the inventive but cost-conscious spirit of the building process: the 2-inch-thick cast-concrete counters. Architect, friend, and cobuilder David Milner says, “We built our own molds out of melamine-faced particleboard in the backyard, used sacks of fence-post concrete, and reinforced the counters with a grid of threaded rod.”

By asking friends for recommendations, Richerson was able to find subcontractors with multiple skills, such as an electrician who was also a plumber. She did all of the painting herself.

The effort was worth it: “I had a construction bid of $65,000 from one contractor to do just the kitchen, and I was able to do the entire project―which included refinishing all the floors, rewiring, and painting―for about $40,000,” Richerson beams.

DESIGN: Adam Barton and David Milner, Form Design Workshop, Berkeley; 510/524-5090


What Makes It Green?

Recycled wood. The new floors in the kitchen and dining room are made of 10-inch-wide by 19-foot-long planks cut from beams that were recycled from the Lockheed Martin factory in Los Angeles ( Black’s Farmwood; 415/454-8312).

Cotton-fiber insulation. Batts of recycled denim―instead of fiberglass―serve as insulation (UltraTouch from Bonded Logic; 480/812-9114).

Improved interior air quality. Paint with low VOC (volatile organic compound) content was used on walls and cabinetry (Eco Spec from Benjamin Moore & Co.; 800/672-4686). The cabinet shells are made of wheatboard, which does not emit formaldehyde or other toxic fumes. A water-based finish covers the flooring.

The kitchen ceiling was opened up to reveal the joists. To create a broader overhead volume without reframing the roof, every other joist was removed. Heat enters the kitchen through holes drilled into the island’s end panels rather than through floor registers. 

Aesthetics and Efficiency

Reused glass. Mary Richerson crafted hanging lights from glass shades found at a salvage yard.

Energy-conscious appliances. An Energy Star-rated dishwasher and refrigerator replaced old equipment.

Double-glazed exterior doors. Despite a larger opening to the deck, double glazing the doors keeps the room energy efficient.