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A Natural, Inside and Out

By Steven Barrie-Anthony
Los Angeles Times
January 6, 2005


Once considered the terrain of hippie holdouts, ecologically sensitive thinking
has entered the mainstream of home design, building and decorating.

"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:


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."

 

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