All credit goes to Al Gore. Around the same time that the former vice president’s 2006 global warming manifesto, An Inconvenient Truth, was released, Josh Mogal moved to San Francisco and bought a 1922 Edwardian home, looking for a new career. “I decided right then that I had an obligation,” Mogal says. “Once I knew about the problems, I couldn’t just ignore them.” Mogal left behind a 15-year career in high-tech product marketing to start building technology-driven homes that responded to the reality of climate change.
But that’s still only half the story—and half of the name of his company, Eco+historical. As a newcomer in the building industry, Mogal began analyzing the technologies and materials he could incorporate into his projects. Through his research, Mogal noticed a trend: Most sustainable buildings featured contemporary architecture. Having grown up in the Northeast, Mogal missed the warmth and comfort he felt came from New England’s simple Colonial homes with their wide-plank, heart pine floors. This style of home offered spaces where people could connect and, for Mogal, conveyed a sense of being cradled by the home. It felt personal, whereas modern felt cold and corporate.
As a result, Eco+historical focuses solely on gut rehabs that introduce modern technologies while still invoking the soul of the historical architecture. “I’m not that interested in building a set of specifications so that I can hit the sweet spot in the market with the right number of bedrooms, baths, and appliances,” Mogal says. “Instead, homes need stories.”
Such stories are bound up in a home’s history, in where it was built and who had lived there. In San Francisco, homes from the Victorian age in affluent neighborhoods like Presidio Heights still perform well today because of their large size. Mogal’s work in the Noe Valley tackles much more affordable Victorian homes in the 900- to 1,200-square-foot range. These former workers’ cottages were typical in the late 19th century, and almost all of them include only two bedrooms and one bath. In fact, although these historic homes feature elaborate façades in order to keep resale values up, their interiors are simple and far less grand.
And yet, part of the goal is to keep these homes’ stories alive, even if it is mainly in their façades. Mogal recognizes this, as does the San Francisco government. The city mandates that historic homes undergoing major rehabs receive a historic report that identifies when it was built, who owned it, and when the lot was sold—elements that make up the “story” of the home. For Mogal, the stories have a little more character; for his project at 1566 Sanchez, a Stick Victorian built in 1889, he reused old rafter beams as roof-deck planter boxes to help the home adapt to the 21st century while retaining some of its 19th century identity.
The most common architectural style in San Francisco is known as Queen Anne Cottage, a Victorian-era style also referred to as “Painted Ladies.” These homes were often painted in three or more vibrant colors to help highlight their detailed architecture. (San Francisco was a Gold Rush city, with its major growth in the mid to late 19th century, leading to its many Stick Victorian and Italianate designs.) Mogal’s two LEED Platinum homes in Noe Valley, the aforementioned 1556 Sanchez and nearby 1436 Sanchez, are, respectively, Stick and Queen Anne Victorians.
The structure at 1566 Sanchez, like most small workers’ cottages, was a single-level, 1,000-square-foot home that Mogal expanded into a five bedroom, 2,605-square-foot, single-family dwelling. When Eco+historical began the project, much of the original interior was already gone, outside of some of its trim and doors. The home was built into a lot that sloped upwards as one went back into it, which left room for a full lower level. To make it more suitable to contemporary family living, Mogal excavated the full depth of the house on the lower level to create a lower living space and a garage. He also added a third story, which he set back from the front so that the historic façade of the house appeared largely unchanged from the sidewalk.
Challenges abound in this type of work. Compromises, for instance, were required by San Francisco’s Planning Code, which stipulates that an owner cannot build back further than his or her two adjacent neighbors. For 1566 Sanchez, Mogal ideally wanted three bedrooms and two baths on the top floor, but because the home’s neighboring houses were shallow, the limited depth of the new floor forced Mogal to settle for two bedrooms and two baths.
Pushing the envelope sometimes creates extra hoops for design teams to jump through. The 1566 Sanchez project was the first San Francisco residence to use a polypropylene pipe called Aquatherm Green Pipe for its plumbing. The green pipe uses less energy to manufacture, is non-toxic, non-leeching, non-conductive, and is completely recyclable. But because of the precedent-setting nature of its use, Mogal had to work with the city’s chief plumbing inspector to get proper approval for the building material.
For 1436 Sanchez, built in 1903, Mogal used many of the same techniques, again reaching LEED Platinum certification. The project faced fewer lot-line issues by being one of the few homes in Noe Valley with a three-foot side yard. Like many Queen Annes, this home had a garage that had been added in the 1920s. Because it was deteriorating, however, it was removed and replaced, extending under the home to allow the floor plan to be expanded and comfortably fit five bedrooms and four baths into the tiny footprint.
“Historic homes are the soul of the city,” Mogal says, admitting that although he could make more money by not going for LEED Platinum, he feels that it is important for the long-term health of the home, as well as for writing a new chapter in the story of the home. To keep these important, historical structures alive, and the city they make up, San Francisco needs individuals like Mogal, who are compelled by a need to preserve the past by using the best techniques the present has to offer.