Green building comes of age: LAH house, Hidden Villa shelters on Build It Green Home Tour

Earl Killian believes he was first infected during college. In the mid-1970s, his roommate's class in the school of architecture designed an energy-efficient home as a project. The house needed to be heated only five days of the year - in Massachusetts.

"That bug sat in my bloodstream until 2000 and finally emerged to bite," Killian said.

That year, he and his wife, Waidy Lee, decided to raze their 1950s home in Los Altos Hills and start over. Feeling that demolition and rebuilding were "inherently very wasteful," they deconstructed the house rather than bulldozing it to salvage what materials they could.

Killian and Lee went to a green-building firm, Dan Smith & Associates Architects in Berkeley, to ask for a passive solar design that would minimize the need for supplemental heating and cooling and provide power for their two electric cars. Smith talked them into adding "straw-bale construction" to make the home even more energy efficient. Vickerman Construction supplied the building know-how.

Killian and Lee are moving into their new four-bedroom home just in time to open it to the public Oct. 1 as part of the first Build It Green Home Tour in Santa Clara County. Their home is one of 11 structures - including the Wolken Education Center and the property manager's earth-berm home at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills - that will give people a chance to "kick the tires" of some of the inventive green design in the area, as Killian put it.

The tour, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is accompanied by a free Solar & Green Building Fair from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the De Anza College Kirsch Center for Environmental Studies, Cupertino. At the fair, tour goers can buy a pamphlet with a detailed listing of the homes, their locations and their building components for $15 per person 16 and older. The tour is self-guided.

Brian Gitt, executive director of Build It Green, said there has been "dramatic, exponential growth in green building" since his group was founded 1999. "Homeowners are flocking to this because it's just common sense," he said. "It's just a better-quality home that is protecting your pocketbook."

As technologies improve and costs of installation diminish with more widespread knowledge, homebuyers and remodelers can recoup the extra cost of a green home within a year at most. Escalating energy prices are making efficiency an excellent investment.

"Products and materials are becoming more accessible, and prices are going down," said Susan Davis, who runs Spectrum Fine Homes Inc. of Mountain View with her general contractor husband.

Trace Kannel, an architect with Harrell Remodeling in Mountain View, said that using low-emission paints, recyclable materials and sustainable products are becoming mainstays of doing business. Such mainstream paint companies as Sherwin Williams are producing products with so little "outgassing" that, Kannel said, "You can paint a room and sleep in it the same night." Harrell is one of the sponsors of the green home tour.

Killian and Lee aimed much higher. "One of the goals of the house is to get fossil fuel use out of our lives," Killian said. To that end, not only the house roof but also that on a large former horse barn are equipped with enough photovoltaic cells to generate 14 kilowatts of electricity - enough to power the electric cars, heat and cool the home and supply some leftover power to the utility grid.

Batteries on the barn ensure that when trees are blown down in winter storms, the Killian family will have enough power to run lights during even 25-hour blackouts.

Two-foot-thick bales of rice straw line the exterior walls, insulating the home and creating a window seat for every window. Plaster covers both sides of the bales. Water-filled tubes supply radiant heat in the floors.

Not yet complete are "living roofs" over the master suite and a family room that will be planted with sedum and grasses to insulate, slow rainwater runoff and absorb carbon dioxide. Dietmar Lorenz of Smith Architects said this system has been in common use in Europe for 20 years. First, a roof membrane is installed, then a roof barrier, a water reservoir, filter fabrics and a thick layer of volcanic material.

The couple's two sins in the green design are Killian's cherry wood library and a propane stove "because my wife didn't want to give up her gas oven," Killian said.

The Wolken Education Center and an earth-berm house at Hidden Villa carry out the nature preserve's mission of environmental instruction just by being on the 1,600-acre grounds.

"With Hidden Villa being progressive thinking and dedicated to sustainability, of course, if we're going to build a building we would make it sustainable and state of the art so that we've not only built something for ourselves but something that is a model and a teaching tool," said Audrey Wong, interim development director.

The San Luis Obispo Sustainability Group designed the center to use 73.5 percent less energy than a traditional building of its size. "Daylighting" and passive solar heating and cooling were used in construction, as was the straw-bale insulation. Visitors can get a glimpse of those bales through a "truth window" near the main entryway. Skillful Means of Junction City was the contractor.

The center exemplifies how proper siting and orientation of a building can bring great energy efficiency to a home. There is no shade around the building but rather a large southern exposure. In the winter, low-angle sun streams into the windows and is captured as heat by the "thermal mass" of concrete floors. When the sun sets, the collected heat radiates into the building to provide warmth. In the summer, when the sun is high in the sky, large overhangs over the windows provide shade to keep the heat from entering the building.

The building also uses "trombe walls" to draw heat during the day for storage. Inside the walls are black water tanks that absorb heat and then emit it when the building gets cold. Photovoltaic cells on the roof create enough electricity for daily use. All the wood inside the center's library is walnut from trees that had already been felled in the area, Wong said.

A three-bedroom, two-bath earth-berm house had to be built up 3 feet because it sits on a flood plain. For insulation, earth from the site was rammed up on two sides of the home. "It really is a beautiful place because it blends right into the landscape," Wong said.

It, too, has a passive solar design with thermal mass concrete walls, floors and countertops. Clerestories and skylights provide daylighting.

Much of the material for the inside of the home was reused salvage, Wong said. The Douglas fir exterior siding came from the dismantled deck of an Eichler house. Vertical redwood siding came from an old water tank at Hidden Villa. Cabinets, appliances and plumbing fixtures were salvaged from a house.

The architects were Cartmell/Tam Architects of Palo Alto. The contractor was Enterprise 4001.

Among the other homes on the tour are restaurateur Jesse Z. Cool's Palo Alto home and an extensive ranch remodel in Cupertino, both designed and built by Spectrum Fine Homes.

In Cool's 1928 bungalow, Spectrum Homes built a new outdoor kitchen so Cool would have space for classes and entertaining. The Reuse People of Oakland deconstructed parts of the interior so that materials could be reused in the new construction.

For the 1965 Cupertino home, Spectrum hired contractors to perform an energy audit to determine how the house functioned as a system. One result was replacement of all the windows. The interior space was reconfigured so the home is flooded with daylight and there is no need for electric lighting during the day.

"Every finish and every material was selected for its green character, Davis said.

"People can make a difference," Davis said, "and we can make a difference in our family and community on a local level that will impact the whole world."

For more information on green building techniques and the Build It Green Home Tour, visit

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