Thursday, January 6, 2005

A natural, inside and out


Thursday January 06, 2005

A natural, inside and out
* Once considered the terrain of hippie holdouts, ecologically sensitive thinking has entered the mainstream of home design, building and decorating. In a special issue, we meet a couple who turned a conventional house into a thoroughly green space, and offer tips, terminology and tools to make your own world greener.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

"Feel my windows," Al Rosen tells you. Feel his windows?

But you do, and the floor-to-ceiling glass enclosing Rosen's den and living room is cool to the touch, despite the blazing weather outside. This is triple-glazed glass filled with argon gas, and it lets in sunlight (which saves electricity and lightbulbs) and insulates against heat in the summer and cold in the winter.

When Al and Myra Rosen bought this house in 1997 -- it then had a darker interior filled with heavy marble slabs -- they began an eco-remodeling effort that continues to this day.

Try a glass of the Rosens' chlorine-free purified water from the low-flow kitchen faucet. Have a seat on the curved blue couch in the sunny living room, built from wheat board and formaldehyde-free foam and upholstered with untreated cotton fabric. Its pillows are filled with kapok, a natural seed fiber.

One glance through the house will tell you that green building isn't the same thing it was a decade ago, when eco-consciousness first began to drift into the corners of the mainstream. There is nothing plain, stark or utilitarian about this 4,000-square-foot house resting on the edge of Mandeville Canyon; instead, sunlight drifting through windows and skylights illuminates an interior landscape constructed of clean, modern lines and infused with vibrant color. It isn't palatial, but neither is it ascetic, not by a long shot.

As the Rosens testify, living green is no longer a kind of countercultural penance in which you must forgo comfort, personal style and your retirement savings in order to give back to the environment. In the last five years, green architecture firms, publications and building materials have leapt from relative niche obscurity to the forefront of culture and design. Even the big home improvement chains such as Home Depot and Lowe's now stock green materials -- say, certified wood harvested from renewable sources -- and independent green building stores are opening throughout the country.

Five years ago "you would mention green building and get a lot of blank stares," says Alex Wilson, executive editor of the monthly newsletter Environmental Building News, a veritable bible for anybody leaning toward green. "Today it's a known term for an increasingly large portion of the population."

That "known term" is relative, of course. What "green" means to one person is rarely what it means to another. By most estimates, green living mixes varying amounts of ecological sensitivity, social responsibility and concern for your health. These days builders and remodelers can easily put together a diverse palette of materials and techniques that fulfill all three requirements.

A clue to green's newfound popularity lies here with the Rosens. This is their second stab at eco-renovation; their first project, redoing a Santa Monica condominium in 1992, began as a purely aesthetic endeavor. They had heard talk of "sick buildings," Rosen says, "of people who lived in mobile homes which were made out of plywood and were very tightly sealed, and these people were getting sick." So in the spirit of caution they decided to avoid oil-based paints and materials that contained formaldehyde.

Rosen pulls out an article about a 2004 decision by the World Health Organization to upgrade formaldehyde -- a chemical found in many household products, such as glues, plywood and furniture foam -- from a probable carcinogen to a known one. Once considered junk science, the theory that chemicals in building products tend to "off-gas," or seep into the indoor environment, and thus into our lungs has by now gained significant scientific credence.

"It's that new-car smell," says Monica Gilchrist of the Green Building Resource Center in Santa Monica. "It's the smell of a new carpet. It's that new-desk smell -- you bring in a new desk, and the panels are put together with a glue that contains formaldehyde. Off-gassing is the continual emission of the chemicals from the product. And these chemicals are found in blood levels over time."

The Rosens say that finding nontoxic alternatives wasn't easy in the early '90s, but the difficulty only galvanized their intent. They pored over what literature was available and plugged into the fledgling green building community centered at Eco Home, a modest Los Feliz bungalow that since 1977 has been the home and laboratory of self-taught green renegade Julia Russell. And then they met Rick Graham, a Studio City-based designer with an interest in sustainable design. Graham has remained a friend and trusted advisor ever since. When the Rosens wanted their own house, Graham walked with them through the Mandeville Canyon property and began planning its greening.

The health component of green building is intertwined with energy efficiency, with trying to live within our environmental means -- after all, a dilapidated planet is perhaps the largest health risk imaginable. Like a growing number of folks, the Rosens believe that our indulgent lifestyle is hardly sustainable. As "ozone depletion" and "global warming" enter the mainstream vocabulary, as hybrid cars begin to frequent our freeways, what was once perceived as a leftist rant is becoming a societal priority.

Buildings, it turns out, use twice as much energy as cars do -- and roughly 70% of all electricity in the United States goes to power buildings, says Robert Watson, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City. And much of that electricity comes from the consumption of nonrenewable fossil fuels.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set a goal of 1 million buildings producing solar energy by 2018, with half of all new homes powered by the sun. The Rosens have joined the effort: About a third of their electricity comes from photovoltaic cells installed on the roof, while a separate solar panel heats their hot water.

Systems like these are expensive, but as Rosen sees it, you have to look at the entire equation rather than simply the start-up cost. When the photovoltaic cells produce more electricity than is currently being used, the excess energy feeds back into the grid and the calibrated power meter actually runs backward, reducing the couple's utility bill. By Al Rosen's calculation, he and Myra should recoup their investment in about 10 years -- and then start saving money.

Working closely with Graham, "we have done almost everything you can do on the list of environmental and nontoxic construction," Rosen says.

Just look around the living room. The hardwood flooring is certified cherry, protected with a sealer made from vegetable oil and natural waxes. The blue-and-gray throw rug is woven from natural fibers and dyed with plant pigments. The coffee table, designed by Graham, replaces formaldehyde-laden plywood with wheat board -- literally boards made from wheat straw, held together with formaldehyde-free adhesive -- and it's veneered with cork and painted with nontoxic paint. Graham also designed the couch.

The walls beyond are coated with paint that emits no volatile organic compounds, and if the walls were opened you would see that much of the plywood has been replaced with wheat board and other natural alternatives. The typical fiberglass insulation has been replaced with recycled cotton insulation -- and cotton is also embedded beneath floors and above ceilings to increase energy efficiency.

Nearly all of the materials in the house are of natural origin instead of petrochemical alternatives -- wood, granite, slate and other stone, copper, steel, glass and ceramic, cork, linoleum. Virtually all of the paints, sealers, adhesives and coatings are low in toxicity and are environmentally sensitive. As with many green projects, each new material had to go through a "life cycle analysis" before being used:

* Where does the product come from?

* How much energy did it take to create it?

* What does it do during its lifetime -- does it off-gas?

* How does it end its life, at the dump or by being recycled?

The Rosens can trace the life of many products in their house from birth to death, and the renovation won't have ended until they've constructed an environment that they're happy living in. Why look for an ending when you're enjoying the process?

"I just got the permits pulled yesterday for our next project," Rosen enthuses. "It's an advanced water treatment system that uses no chemicals -- it uses aerobic bacteria. If you pour the output into a glass, it would look and smell like tap water. You can use the water for irrigation. This is the first one approved for a residence in the city of Los Angeles."

Most indications suggest that building is going to get greener, and quickly. Industry has already begun to react to the demand for green products at cheaper prices.

"Mainstream building products have become greener in the last decade," says newsletter editor Wilson. "The paints, across the board, have much less off-gassing than had been the case. All fiberglass is 20% recycled content." At the same time, he says, small start-up companies have begun producing innovative products "ranging from shingles made with recycled plastic, to decking materials made from a composite of recycled plastic and wood fiber, to more efficient ventilation systems."

Green values are infiltrating the commercial building landscape too, and for good reason: A slew of recent studies suggest that people learn faster, work harder, purchase more freely and are generally happier in well-ventilated, sunlit environments.

The nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council instituted a green certification program in 2000; called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), it certifies building projects using a four-tier rating system. Since its debut, 167 commercial building projects have been LEED certified, which is about 5% of the U.S. new construction market, says Rick Fedrizzi, president of the organization. Schwarzenegger has mandated that all new California government buildings be LEED certified, and other states are considering doing the same. The council plans to unveil a residential LEED certification in mid-2005, which should help the rest of us agree on a definition for "green."

If Fedrizzi is custodian of the green movement, then Charlottesville-based architect William McDonough is its prophet. McDonough might be considered a hopeless idealist -- except that his uncompromising vision for a sustainable society is being embraced not just by green-for-lifers, but by politicians and industry alike. McDonough pairs his own stringent interpretation of green philosophy with a stream of new prototype projects demonstrating their practical applicability in the world of today.

Who would have thought that when Ford built a massive new plant in Dearborn, Mich., the company would hire McDonough to top it with the world's largest green roof? "It's 10 1/2 acres of roofing that's also a habitat for animals," says McDonough, who also convinced Ford to install "parking lots that absorb water, which then goes into a giant water filter and gets run through constructed wetlands. By the time the water gets to a river three days later, it's pure."

Other projects include a building at Oberlin College that's designed to eventually make more energy than it needs to operate; an eco-sensitive shoe (Nike), chair (Herman Miller), corporate campus (Gap), line of carpets (Shaw) and concept car (the Ford Model U); and a fabric called Climatex Lifecycle, made from wool and ramie fiber, that is fast becoming a material of choice for airplane seating -- "if you find yourself at 40,000 feet with a fiber deficiency, you could eat your chair," McDonough quips.

As science begins to validate the underpinnings of green philosophy, and as trailblazers lead the way toward sustainable engineering that's aesthetically pleasing and affordable, greenies are no longer just the Birkenstock-clad, granola-munching contingent. They are also real estate investors (Al) and retired business owners (Myra). They green their homes and their lives not out of a desire to climb a soapbox but rather because, as Al Rosen puts it, "you have a choice, and one way is responsible. Why not do the responsible thing?"

Before you leave, come outside -- there's something Rosen wants you to see. He's proud of his worms. There are something like 15,000 of them, digesting food leftovers and bits of newspaper, wriggling around in a brown plastic compost bin. He pulls up the top of the bin and points to the layer of soft, fine black soil that will fertilize his herb and vegetable garden and the California native, drought-tolerant flowers and foliage beyond.

"Anything that can be composted, we put in here," he says. Recyclables wind their way to the other side of the house, into their corresponding containers. "For a whole week, we only have about 6 inches of trash," says Rosen, grinning. "Over here. I'll show you."



Step by step to a healthier home

So you want to live in a more ecologically sensitive environment, but you don't have the wherewithal for a complete remodel? Don't fret, says Alex Wilson, president of BuildingGreen Inc. ( -- there's a lot you can do short of opening up the walls. Here are six easy steps you can take to "green" your house without breaking the bank:

Lighten up: Replace incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents. We used to think of fluorescent lights as being cold and flickery -- like cheap grocery store lighting -- but advances in the technology mean that you likely won't be able to tell the difference. And you'll be saving energy.

Fill in the gaps: Address the leakiness of your home. Very often, more than half of winter heat loss and summer heat gain comes from leaks that can easily be sealed. Bring in a weatherization specialist who pressurizes or depressurizes your house and can plug leaks with caulk and gasketing materials.

Be water wise: Install water-efficient shower heads and faucet aerators in bathrooms. This saves both water and energy. Most showers have screw-on fixtures, so you can buy and easily install a high-quality low-flow shower head (about $20) that provides a satisfying aerated stream while using much less water than before. If you want to test the efficiency of your current shower head, position a large bucket to catch the flow, turn on the shower and time it for a minute. If it produces more than three gallons of water, a two- or two-and-a-half-gallon shower head would be a good investment -- with the savings on your water bill, it'll usually pay for itself in a matter of months.

Lose the fumes: The next time you paint anything, choose paints that produce no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Most major paint manufacturers now offer lines that are zero VOC. If a zero-VOC paint doesn't fit your design scheme, look for one with extremely low levels -- less than 20 or 30 grams of VOC per liter.

Don't waste heat: Tune up your heating and cooling equipment. Replace filters on air conditioners and heat pumps on gas furnaces. If you heat with oil or natural gas, bring in a technician to check the burner efficiency. You can often boost the efficiency of the heating system by 5% or 10% if it hasn't been tuned up and cleaned recently.

-- Steven Barrie-Anthony

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