‘Pushing the limits of green’

Please don’t call it the greenest home on the planet,” says Steve Glenn of his house in Santa Monica, California. “A yurt or a mud hut in Africa might be the greenest home on the planet – not this house.”

One can understand why he’s reluctant to boast about the place, which he built in April 2006 and has inhabited for the past year. Critics are quick to pounce on claims relating to environmental achievements and, since this is not only a home but also the prototype for Glenn’s company, Living Homes, there’s more than his personal reputation on the line.

Still, last summer, the house did receive unprecedented validation from the US Green Building Council, becoming the first residential project to receive the group’s highest Platinum rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Another accolade came last month when it was the only non-institutional building included in the American Institute of Architects’ annual list of Top Ten Green Projects. And Business Week magazine has, in fact, called it “the greenest house on the planet”.

“You have to embody a spirit of market transformation to do this – it’s not just a case of finding a different kind of flooring,” says Ann Edminster, former co-chairman of the LEED For Homes initiative, who was Glenn’s point of contact in the certification process. “There was a lot of learning along the way but the end result is uncompromised.”

William Browning, an expert on green building and a partner at Terrapin Bright Green, which provides consultation on sustainable building to governments and companies, agrees. “What you are looking at is still rare. There are only a handful of houses that are working on these ideas.”

Sustainability was Glenn’s primary focus from the very start of the project, even factoring in his decision about where to build. He chose Santa Monica partly because he liked the area but also because he found an infill site that was within easy reach of public transport, shops and open spaces; in this case, a beach is just a short walk away. Low site impact, the preservation of open spaces and the importance of community are all integral to the green building movement.

The two-storey, 2,500 sq ft structure was not built so much as “installed”, with local residents treated to the spectacle of 11 factory-assembled modules being lowered on to a concrete slab by a 350-tonne crane over just eight hours. A somewhat mesmerising time-lapse video of the entire installation can be seen on the Living Homes website, www.livinghomes.net.

Prefabricated or modular homes are more efficient than traditional homes because they produce less construction waste; about 2 per cent of materials end up in a landfill versus 40 per cent. They’re also more adaptable. Glenn, for example, could create an extra bedroom, open up a living space or add an outside deck just by putting in a new floor plate, moving an optional wall or changing the position of a sliding wall panel. The cost – financial and environmental – compares favourably to remodelling or building an extension.

Yet the house is far from a bog standard series of boxes. Built on a frame of largely recycled steel and wrapped with swathes of plate glass and cedar wood cladding, its contemporary style stands out on a street of unassuming bungalows and stucco cottages in a quiet neighbourhood west of Los Angeles. Designed by Ray Kappe, founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture and a highly regarded modernist, it is made up of intersecting planes with an open-plan layout and views to the upper level from the ground floor. The play of sunlight across the straight lines and the plentiful use of wood lend warmth to the interiors.

“This is a green home that doesn’t look like you need to eat a bowl of granola when you walk in the door,” Browning says. “It’s a beautifully designed contemporary home.”

After living in the place for a year, Glenn says the elements he appreciates most are the same ones that any owner of a luxurious modern home might cite: the levels, the light and the openness. “I interact with these when I get up every day and I get very moved by them,” he says. “The fact that the house is green is not really overt.”

People driving by sometimes slow down to gawp at the design, he says. Braver ones knock on the door. A tourist from Vermont, who had heard of the house, recently stopped by to enquire about its state-of-the-art electric composter.

That’s only one of the cutting-edge green features at Glenn’s fingertips. On the roof, there are photovoltaic cells, which produce power that feeds into the electric grid by day, turning the electric meter backwards; a system that uses the sun’s energy to heat water; and a garden that provides insulation and sequesters carbon. Grey water from the home’s sink, shower, dishwasher and washing machine irrigates the garden.

This is a home that comes with an instruction manual. But Glenn says he hasn’t been required to make any significant changes in his lifestyle. “The [eco-friendly devices] are not in-your-face at all,” he explains. “I like the fact that the indoor air quality I breathe is healthier than in conventional homes and I keep an eye on the energy monitoring system so I’m probably more conscious of turning off lights and fully powering down the TV. But I would do these things anyway. Having it monitored just gives me greater clarity on the impact I’m making.”

Many of the construction materials used in the house are recycled, including the reclaimed stone used for the patio, the kitchen countertop, which is made of old newspapers and beer cartons, and the GreenFiber recycled denim insulation. Some features, such as the low-flow toilets, are mandated by the state of California, which is ahead of the curve in legislating for building efficiency and sustainability. Most appliances are from Bosch’s Energy Star range and even the fireplace, the most traditional symbol of home and hearth, has low environmental impact as it burns denatured alcohol rather than wood. “The fireplace was a near-miss,” Glenn says, since finding one that would meet his desired waste reduction standards was nearly impossible.

His larger aim is to make sure that future owners of Living Homes’ prefabricated, architect-designed models know how to maximise sustainability. Buying a house is just the starting point, after all; the choices made while living in it are equally important. So in southern California, for example, where certain creature comforts tend to be taken for granted, one might decide to eschew air conditioning or a high-energy-consuming hot tub.

Although his house ticks more eco-friendly boxes than most other residential buildings around the world, it is not alone in striving to meet new standards. Germany, which installs more solar power systems each year than any other country, boasts a disproportionate number of high-performing green homes, including the so-called “passive houses” or Passivhausen, first built in Darmstadt in 1990, which adhere to a rigorous voluntary standard for energy use. In the UK, the Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in Surrey, built in 2002, is the largest carbon-neutral eco-community; the country’s first net zero carbon home, named Lighthouse and designed by Sheppard Robson with Kingspan Offsite and Arup engineers, will be showcased at an Offsite 2007 exhibition in June; and Gordon Brown, who is expected to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister, unveiled a proposal for five new “eco-towns” this week.

But ranking these homes for their “green-ness” is problematic not least because context is key. Echoing Glenn’s comment about yurts, Browning points out: “You could argue that an 800-year-old cottage in the English countryside is as green as the Living Homes house.”

Huston Eubank, executive director of the World Green Building Council, adds: “The Living Homes house is a good example of the way forward, particularly if you happen to live in California and make a good income. It is indeed very green but it is a uniquely American solution and, in particular, a southern California solution.”

The lack of a universal standard for green developments also makes direct comparisons difficult. One of the earliest measuring tools was provided by the UK’s Building Research Establishment’s EcoHomes system, launched in 2000. It is now being superseded by England’s new Code for Sustainable Homes under which new houses will be given a star rating to indicate their environmental impact. In the US, there is the LEED system, which has been successfully adapted in countries such as Japan and Canada. The World Green Building Council, meanwhile, has 10 members and operates five different ratings systems. “Our current policy is to encourage members to adopt, or adapt, whatever rating tool they feel is most appropriate to their country’s climate, economy and culture,” says Eubank. “Eventually, we will get to some unified global standard but it’s in the future.”

Since Glenn’s house was built, three other residential projects in the US – in New Jersey, Texas and Maine – have been awarded a LEED Platinum rating, although they haven’t been officially announced yet by the USGBC. Living Homes has pledged to reach at least a Silver LEED rating for all its homes. But the company is candid about how difficult it is to achieve high standards. “We learnt that building a green house is all about making trade-offs,” says Erich Volkert, Living Homes’ director of product marketing. “Speed, durability and cost were all at issue.”

For instance, when Glenn applied for the requisite permit to make his house grey-water enabled, he discovered there wasn’t one. Nor were there precedents for using certain building materials, such as composites, bamboo or aluminium. Such obstacles led to significant delays.

In some cases, it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. The most durable materials are not necessarily the most sustainable, for example. “So you have to decide whether to use something that has a 30-year life-span but which may contain formaldehyde or whether to use another material that is so biodegradable it is almost edible but which only lasts three years,” says Volkert.

The home cost about $300 per sq ft, not including the foundation or the installation, which for other houses might push the overall price to more than $1m. While this is not especially high for some parts of Los Angeles, it is out of range for the average homebuyer. “Doing what we’re doing is expensive. Homes with steel and glass cost more than conventional houses,” Glenn acknowledges. “Some day we aspire to create affordable homes but we have to walk before we can run.”

Living Homes has seven Ray Kappe homes in development and more than double that number under contract, all in California. A community of homes on 20 acres near Joshua Tree State Park is also in the planning stages. In the future, the company lans to work with other architects, such as David Hertz, who is already known for his climate-responsive, sustainable homes.

As for owners who might follow in Glenn’s footsteps, “shy clients should steer clear,” Volkert says. “We will work to make it a good experience but clients need to go in with open eyes. We are pushing the limits of green and sometimes it’s going to get sticky.”

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