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.
For a green makeover of a 600-square-foot house in Culver City, Kurath applied the same ideas he would for new construction. He installed insulation made from recycled materials, moved windows around and used fume-free paint. “I don’t call them ‘tricks,’?” says Kurath of his methods. “It’s just common sense.”
He says the most important thing to look at is the orientation of the lot — “where is the sun going?” Well-placed windows can eliminate the need for electric lights during daylight hours and create enough cross ventilation to make air-conditioning unnecessary. Windows also can open up a small house, making it feel much larger. Moving and replacing windows can make a big difference and doesn’t cost that much.
Same with removing walls — walls block heat and air from flowing, and that means you have to use more energy to heat or cool your home. Removing corners can save you money on your utility bills.
“Let’s face it,” Kurath says, smiling, “most doors are open anyway, right?” For bedrooms or other areas where a little more privacy is required, he recommends installing walls that don’t go all the way to the ceiling. Insulation can make a big difference too. Many houses in Southern California were built without insulation; adding something like a new cellulose product made from 100 percent recycled materials can save money on energy bills. Holes are punched in the walls, and the cellulose is blown in; pressure is used to pack in the material, filling every crevice to make everything airtight (unlike the old fiberglass variety, which leaves gaping areas, contains cancer-causing formaldehyde and can release tiny glass particles into the air and scratchyour lungs).
Depending on the extent of the remodel, Kurath would recommend in-floor heating, where a series of pipes carrying hot water zigzag through the floor. He says it can save lots on energy bills. “The concept is simple,” he says. “If your feet are warm, you feel warm; if your feet are cold, you feel cold. Most developers put the heating vents on top near the ceiling, because that’s where it’s easier to install. But heat rises — it just doesn’t make sense.”
A green house is also a healthyhouse. Cappe says he received a phone call from a client who wanted to “green her life.” He went to her home and evaluated it room by room, making a list of things she could do that wouldn’t cost a fortune — everything from changing her shampoo to using energy-efficient light bulbs. Replacing cabinets that contain formaldehyde, or chairs, couches and beds that “off-gas,” or pollute the air in your house, even using cleaning products made from natural ingredients are all relatively cheap ways to green your home. But where can you find an organic cotton mattress? “Most places carry organic, or recycled lines — they just don’t advertise it,” says Cappe. “The consumer really has to ask the questions. There are alternatives for every product. Whether remodeling or building, if you stop and think about it, you can come up with an alternative. When you go looking for something, say, tiles for your bathroom, the salesperson will try to sell you something in your budget and in your color. It’s up to you to ask if they carry any tiles made locally from 100 percent recycled materials. You’ll be surprised at how many products exist.”
In the end, Kurath says, green building is more about time than money. “People still talk about green houses and all that stuff,” he laughs, “but right now it’s more of a selling point. It should be thought of automatically.Developers and architects should take the responsibility to show people that you don’t have to spend more money. It’s all out there.”