A fire spinner wows the crowd at one of Jennifer Duff's monthly community gatherings for friends and neighbors.
Photo By Carol Venolia
From her 1,240-square-foot, 100-year-old Craftsman bungalow, Jennifer Duff can walk downtown and to her favorite coffee house, yoga studio and wine bar. “It feels like Mayberry within a big city,” she says. Once a month, Jennifer throws a party to encourage community and self-expression among old friends and new acquaintances—the likes of which Mayberry’s never seen. Musicians play on her front porch, fire spinners perform on the lawn, and people from divergent backgrounds share libations and conversation. Jennifer wants to spruce up her backyard for these events, build a guest house and garage, and make her home more efficient and less resource-heavy in the process.
In Jennifer’s hot desert climate, overheating is a big issue. A porch shading the south-facing front of her house and a pecan tree that shades the roof until noon help cool the house considerably. An African sumac tree partially shades the backyard, but the west side of the house—the hottest side—is unprotected. The hot afternoon sun hits the west-facing single-pane windows all day, baking the interior.
Don Titmus of Four Directions PermaCulture suggests several ways to minimize the heat sink:
■ Replace some of the concrete driveway with compacted decomposed granite, allowing water to percolate into the soil.
■ Add taller, denser plantings to the existing west-side oleander hedge for more afternoon shading.
■ Build a trellis over the driveway to shade the house and parking area.
■ Add tall, dense trees northwest of the house, where the hot summer sun sets.
“Stacking functions” is a permaculture term for accomplishing several things in one gesture. Titmus put this to work in Jennifer’s backyard, where a proposed western shade trellis could also act as a welcoming gateway to the backyard social space. The existing African sumac tree in the backyard provides both shade and a space-defining umbrella for partiers, and placing the rainwater storage tank near the entrance to the social space shows off a clever rainwater-collection system.
After she gets rid of some of the concrete driveway, Titmus proposes Jennifer use the broken-up concrete pads (tinted with liquid iron for an earthy look) to build raised planter beds with built-in seating, which can define sub-areas within the larger social space. The backyard’s open areas, including the decomposed-granite driveway and the areas covered with salvaged pavers, could be used for mingling or for tables and chairs.
A trellised gazebo near the house would offer a cozy shaded space—and a great al fresco eating area. A new stage and patio in the corner of the backyard could provide a performance spot and dance floor when there’s music; a place for tables and chairs; and a flat sculpture made of salvaged bits of pavers, stones and other lovely objects.
When Jennifer builds her guest house and garage, she could use the excavated soil to build earthen benches and a bread/pizza oven in the backyard. A row of citrus trees would create privacy between the backyard social space and the guest house yard while providing food. Titmus suggests planting mesquite trees, which provide beans that can be milled into flour, and palo verdes, which grow edible pods that taste like edamame.
Rain from Jennifer’s front roof goes directly into planter beds. She could collect rainwater from the back roof as well, just by adding gutters. To better use rainwater, Titmus suggests contouring the ground surface in Jennifer’s lawn to direct rainwater to planted areas. When she adds gutters, Jennifer could also pipe some rainwater directly to trees and shrubs, and add salvaged drums to collect stormwater for use during dry spells.
Jennifer could easily collect graywater from the two bathrooms and laundry room grouped on the east side of the house. Graywater from the bathroom could water the oleander hedge on the east side, and washing machine rinses, propelled by a pump, could water Jennifer’s more distant trees and shrubs.
Easy Energy Fixes
Steve Shinn of Homework Remodels found four cheap, easy ways for Jennifer to save energy.
1. Seal air leaks.
2. Improve insulation levels and coverage.
3. Add solar screens to unshaded windows.
4. Replace the oversized, inefficient, 12-year-old heat pump with a high-efficiency, correctly sized unit.
Four Directions PermaCulture
Earth-Friendly Desert Gardening by Cathy Cromell, Jo Miller and Lucy K. Bradley
Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster
Carol Venolia is a California architect and coauthor of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House. She believes it’s crucial that we broaden the context of green remodeling to include community and larger ecosystems.