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You’ve seen them — glass-walled wonders of shining environmentalism, fly-ash-concrete monuments to the evolution of the home. They have in-floor heating, triple-paned glazed windows, solar panels and low-flush toilets. They’re splashed across architecture magazines, the new batch of high-tech, high-design green homes and sustainable houses. It’s enough to make you want to tear down your own house and start over. But should you?
Tearing down perfectly good homes to build environmentally friendly ones can create more harm than good. Every year 136 million tons of waste from demolished houses makes its way into landfills worldwide.
Pushing the concept of green building will take more than throwing around words like “renewable,” “sustainable” and “eco-friendly.” The terms are on the precipice of becoming meaningless marketing tools like “free range” and “all natural.” And like the farmers-market-driven whole-foods movement, building green is becoming associated with a higher income bracket. But greening your home doesn’t have to be a million-dollar venture. A simple remodel, or just changing a few key elements, can create a more energy-efficient living space.
“What’s happening here in America happened 20 to 25 years ago in Switzerland,” says Swiss-born Roger Kurath, of Culver City’s Design 21. “When I came here, I was shocked.” Sure, Kurath has designed his share of new builds, including the home belonging to Santa Monica’s green-building commissioner, Greg Reitz. But he’s really all about the remodel.
“When I did my first house, I met my client and we were looking at the property, and he said, ‘Okay, we want to knock the house down .?.?.’ I stopped him mid-sentence. ‘Whoa,’ I said, ‘knock the house down?’?” Kurath’s eyes widen at the proposition. “That was a completely different experience for me. In Switzerland, we don’t knock houses down, we remodel, we add on. We don’t knock them down. Some of the houses I worked on were from the 1700s; they were really built to last. I would never come in and tell a client to tear down if the house was in good shape.” He shakes his head, moving his wild mane of hair, making him resemble an 18th-century composer.
But sometimes, even Kurath finds that tearing down is inevitable. That was the case with the Stokman residence in Santa Monica. Kurath had been hired to remodel the home, but after an initial inspection revealed cracked walls, demolition became the only choice. A cost analysis proved repairing was pricier than rebuilding. But in Santa Monica, unlike most cities, demolition permits come with a fee that works a lot like the tax on bottles. You can get most of your money back from the city if you bring in a receipt proving that you brought your materials to a recycling plant.
“Most people don’t do it,” says Kurath. “They go to Home Depot, pick up a few people and tear a place down.”
Ricky Cappe, of Green Built Consultants in Santa Monica, a company that helps architects, homeowners and contractors build more eco-friendly structures, agrees that deconstruction needs to be done more responsibly. “Every construction site has a big Dumpster in front of it,” he says, “where all the waste gets dumped and eventually taken to a landfill. It’s one of the first things I target when I’m hired.”
Cappe recommends deconstruction companies who come in and dismantle houses so that old wood studs, copper, electrical wiring, steel, even drywall can all be recycled. Actually up to 90 percent of a house can be recycled — that’s a large chunk not going into a hole in the ground. Materials are sent to nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity or to resale outlets. “But if conservation isn’t enough of a reason,” Cappe says, “there are huge tax breaks to deconstruction.”
So why don’t more people do it? “Part of the problem,” explains Cappe, “is everyone has this ‘I gotta go, I gotta get it done now’ mentality. It takes a little more time to take apart a house than to bulldoze it and throw it all into a bin — that’s easy. You can do it in a day.”
The ReUse People have rescued more than 200,000 tons of reusable building materials to date from all over California. The group started in 1994 with a few borrowed trucks; now ReUse works with contractors statewide and encourages homeowners to consider the benefits of deconstruction. Materials go to Silver Lake Architectural Salvage, Alameda ReUse Bazaar, Habitat for Humanity and other places around the state.
And what are people building once they’ve torn down an existing house? In America, the average size of a home has grown 50 percent in the past 30 years, despite the fact that families have shrunk. And when you see a 7,000-square-foot “green” house built for two people, the notion of its sustainability becomes ridiculous. To live green also means to live on a human scale — wasted space is wasted materials. For years now, modest homes have been razed to make room for lot-filling McMansions and Lego castles, but Kurath hopes the supersize-my-house trend might be slowing down.
“I think people are beginning to realize you don’t need to have five bedrooms that are always empty,” he says. “I can design a house that feels way bigger than it actually is.” When he remodeled a 700-square-foot house in the Hollywood Hills — putting in huge windows, pocket sliding doors and skylights — the client, who initially wanted a 2,000-square-foot house, couldn’t believe how much bigger her house felt.