When Judy Adler and her family moved into their Walnut Creek, California, home in 1978, it seemed just right. The 2,700 square feet, 4 bedrooms and large yard were perfect for two parents and two growing children. Over the years, Judy created an oasis of native and food-producing plants in the garden; an avid environmental educator, she has shared it with schoolchildren and the community. Her backyard wildlife habitat is widely celebrated, and her garden produces enough food to sell excess.
The children are now grown up, and she is no longer married. Still, Judy doesn’t want to leave her beautiful house and garden. Instead, she wants to demonstrate how sustainable suburban homes can be by making her own house as green as possible.
Judy’s gas and electric bills are already pretty low, staying under $100 per month for most of the year. The house is reasonably well-insulated and has double-pane windows. In winter, Judy dresses warmly, migrates to sunny parts of the house, and prefers a small, efficient space heater to turning on the furnace. In summer, she uses ceiling fans and natural ventilation instead of air-conditioning; deciduous trees and shrubs shade the house. She sun-dries her laundry whenever possible. Most importantly, she enjoys each season—feeling warmer in summer and colder in winter.
Still, the house has some issues.
1. High water use
Problem: Judy’s summer water bills average $250 a month. She’s turned off several automatic watering stations now that the native landscaping is mature, and she’s replacing grass lawn with vegetables and fruit trees. But her backyard wildlife habitat pond and half-acre food garden still require water. One stormy winter, Judy’s rain gutters rusted through. She put buckets under them to catch the water and began to think about how she could use all that water.
Solution: A rooftop rainwater catchment system will let Judy store volumes of clean, free water. This will reduce her draw from the local aquifer, as well as her reliance on the chemical- and energy-intensive municipal water treatment system. Bill Lasell of Rain Harvesting Systems in nearby Fremont designed a rain catchment system that is on the roof and filters water, then diverts it via gutters and downspouts to storage tanks.
The amount of water one can store usually depends upon the cost of storage tanks. Judy settled on three 3,000-gallon tanks, one 1,025-gallon tank and two 55-gallon rain barrels at downspouts near the food gardens. This will store a minimum of 10,000 gallons each winter.
2. Worn carpet
Problem: Judy wants to replace her hallway carpet with a sustainable floor covering that will complement the existing oak flooring in her foyer and the carpets in the adjacent living room and bedrooms—without spending a fortune.
Solution: Rob Hendricksen of Hendricksen Natürlich Flooring asked: Would intense light make a shiny floor covering irritating? How much traffic does the hallway get?
At $2,000, oak to match the foyer was too expensive. Rob thought less-expensive bamboo or cork would look choppy next to the oak. Wool carpet was a little less expensive at $1,200, but we settled on seagrass, a natural fiber that holds less dust. Judy spent considerably less money and even got some area rugs made from the remnants.
Cost: $600 for seagrass carpet in the 28-foot-long hallway
3. Tired walls
Problem: The interior paint in the bedroom and hallway is looking old, and Judy is tired of plain white walls. She wants more color and warmth, and she wants to use environmentally responsible materials.
Solution: For the hallway, we chose off-the-shelf, zero-VOC paint. For the master suite, we wanted something special, so we called in Janine Björnson, a natural builder who says natural clay finishes “bring nature inside your house.” Their suedelike finish adds texture and reflects light differently than conventional paints.
Clay plaster costs more to apply than clay paint because it requires additional materials and labor. Thus, clay plaster for an accent wall and clay paint for the other walls in Judy’s bedroom made the most sense. Björnson uses custom-mixed clay paint called alis, from the Spanish word alisar, meaning “to smooth.”
Cost: $700 for hallway paint; $900 for plaster accent wall; $2,000 for alis paint in the 350-square-foot master suite
RX at your house
1. Share your space. As energy prices increase and the average number of people per home goes down, sharing a large house is worth considering.
2. Catch the rain. First, find out how much rain falls in your area each month . Then convert inches of rain to gallons of water: Catchment area (in square feet) x rainfall (inches) x 0.623 = gallons of water. This is your maximum potential collected rainfall (multiply the total by 75 to 90 percent for a more conservative estimate). Compare available rainwater to your monthly water use to help determine how much rainwater you want to store. Before designing a rainwater catchment system, Bill Lasell of Rain Harvesting Systems urges homeowners to reduce household water use by putting in dry-adapted plants, fine-tuning the irrigation system, installing low-flow plumbing fixtures and reducing lawn area.
3. Get earthy walls. Clay finishes are soft and natural, but they are also more easily damaged than conventional paints and can be stained by oils, so use a sealer for a child’s room or a kitchen. You can buy clay finishes premixed, make them yourself or hire a professional.
4. Give wildlife a chance. You can create a backyard wildlife habitat like Judy’s by providing four elements: food, water, shelter and territory for raising young. For guidelines on how to do this in your area, go to the National Wildlife Federation’s website.
Rain Harvesting Systems
California designers/ installers of rainwater harvesting systems
gutter protection system
rainwater catchment equipment
nontoxic, low-odor paint
zero-VOC interior paint
Hendricksen Natürlich Flooring
natural floor covering supplier/installer
preformulated earth plasters
Green Planet Paints
nontoxic, mineral- and clay-based paints