Design for Life: Seeking a Diamond in the Rough

Picking a good locating and rating its green potential will help with your green renovation.


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After decades of designing homes for other people, this year I finally was able to create my own home. Because all those years left me questioning just how green it is to tear up undeveloped land to build an "eco-home," I looked for an existing home that would benefit from my touch-one I could uplift into the realm of ecological sanity. It took lots of thought and searching.

The most productive work begins before you even start looking at houses, and it helps to start by deciding what greening a home means to you: Declaring independence from the power grid? Surrounding yourself with low-water, edible habitat gardens? Healing a fixer-upper with serious problems? Improving daylighting? Creating a healthy oasis? With unlimited time and funds, you can do it all. However, most of us have constraints that give each eco-remodeling project a particular character. And different priorities mean different scouting criteria.

Start with a plan

If you begin without a vision, doing a little of this and a little of that, you may or may not actually improve the quality of life in your home. You might even end up in trouble. A woman I know bought a little house in the country and started replacing tired materials with greener alternatives. Bamboo took the place of old carpet, salvaged granite edged out ruined laminate countertops, natural paints and earthen plasters brought life to the walls. Unfortunately, something else was bringing life to the walls: mold. Her house was in a moist, forested canyon that received little sunlight; it wasn't built to discourage moisture buildup, and ventilation was poor. She ended up abandoning the house and still suffers from health problems as a result of mold exposure.

My own interest was in transforming a simple home into an environmentally responsible paradise. I wanted to show the world that it's possible-with a modest budget and small steps over time-to turn a context-ignorant home into a place that restores human oneness with the rest of nature. My intentions included:

™ Blurring the indoor/outdoor boundaries by opening the house to naturally heated and cooled outdoor rooms, surrounded by solar-powered fountains and wildlife-friendly gardens.
™ Observing local breezes and patterns of sun and shadow, then making simple modifications to increase the house's daylighting, natural ventilation, winter solar heating and summer shading.
™ Selecting finish materials-such as flooring, wallcoverings and countertops-based on my natural heating and cooling strategies, emphasizing the lush beauty of earthen plasters as thermal mass.
™ Using rainwater in the landscape, conserving water in and around the house, reusing graywater and recharging the aquifer.
™ Growing food in a garden near the kitchen, composting food scraps and feeding the garden with compost.
™ Choosing materials based on low toxicity, low embodied energy, salvaged content, durability and beauty.

I also didn't need to be a hero. While I was content to remediate minor problems, I didn't want to take on a house with major problems such as mold or structural flaws.

Tap nature

The most cost-effective way to live sustainably is to make use of freebies from Mother Nature: light and heat from the sun, cooling from shade and breezes, water from the sky and nourishment from the earth.

Assess what's possible and desirable in your region based on climate, topography, local resources and culture. Is passive solar heating important to you? Then don't buy a house on a north-facing slope in a deep forest; no amount of remodeling can help you there. If you're in Alaska, you need a different strategy; there just isn't enough winter sun for it to be a primary determinant. In the South, your focus might be the potential for shading and breezes instead.

I knew that I wanted to stay in Santa Rosa, California, which has a mild Mediterranean climate where it would be easy to improve a home's energy efficiency with passive solar heating, daylighting and natural cooling. I also could develop outdoor rooms to extend living space and increase comfort. So my early criteria included good solar gain, access to breezes (without major pollution sources upwind) and outdoor spaces around the house with potential to become living areas.

Pick your place

The location of a house determines a lot about its green potential. Can you get to work and stores by foot or bike? This simple step probably reduces your ecological footprint more than anything you'll do to the house itself. On the other hand, you might want to avoid being near sources of air or groundwater pollution and to distance yourself from noise pollution. Outdoor rooms are a lot less fun when you can't hear each other talking, and it's hard to enjoy natural ventilation when you must keep the windows closed.

In my case, these location factors were in conflict. I wanted to avoid noise pollution and have fresh air and quiet when I sleep; unfortunately, living near downtown-which would put most of my daily errands in walking distance-would mean living near major highways with their noise and air pollution. I ended up choosing good sleep over a central location-but my new house is near a bike path, and a little shopping center is an easy walk away.

Rate the green potential

Finally, there's the house itself. In theory, one can change almost anything, but tearing out and replacing things can waste resources. So it's a good idea to decide what features the place should already have, and which ones it's reasonable to change. I decided I could add windows if a house had none on its south-facing walls, but I wasn't interested in rebuilding the structure to change its orientation.

I also wanted to demonstrate that we don't need a huge house to enjoy life. Many small houses feel cramped and inconvenient because of poor floor plans. A little thought and redesign can rescue a floor plan, eliminating the perceived need for an addition. My mantra became "big lot, small house."

Other local factors become obvious once you start looking. Area realtors estimate more than half of Santa Rosa homes have standing water under the house because the water table is high and the soil contains a lot of clay. Typically, homeowners install a sump pump, which requires electricity, and I'd rather not rely on the power grid in the face of diminishing fossil fuel reserves. So for me, a reasonably dry crawlspace became a major criterion.

Do your homework

As we looked at house after house, I was surprised to find how little realtors and homeowners knew about the features that mattered to me. Even as energy prices soared, they rarely knew whether a house was insulated, much less with what type of insulation. Nor was much information provided about moisture issues, past utility bills, noise, air pollution or the history of vegetation and pesticide use on the property. For most people, house hunting is apparently a visual thing.

For me, it was the opposite. If a house had most of the features I wanted, ugliness was a plus. It just meant I could really show how much a house can be transformed with a few elegant strokes.

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She is the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), and she codirects the EcoDwelling program at New College of California. Share your experiences with her at