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Sierra magazine
Building Better: Nearly Perfect and Almost Painless

One family navigates the green building maze

By Pamm Higgins

On day 706 of living in a tall, glassy, and somewhat green house notched into a steep hill near Half Moon Bay, California, my husband and I were pondering what to plant in our two-story atrium. Steve, a writer, was musing about how cool it would be to domesticate a giant sequoia, to tame it into a wee but still grand tree. "What, no papaya?" I asked.

Sometime early in the five-year slog between our lot purchase and final inspection, a thought had crossed Steve's mind: If our entry space can collect enough solar heat to sustain the resident fauna--us, two big-footed teenagers, several cats, and a dog--then why not tropical flora? The fresh-fruit fantasy soothed him when the architect failed for weeks to return e-mails or phone calls (excuse: His poodle died). It worked to mellow the harsh bid for a fire-sprinkler system from Seize Fire Incorporated (excuse: Sprinkler Fitters Union Local 483). It even got him through the tagging incident, in which our contractor scrawled, in hot-pink spray paint on a public road, a testy directive to a neighbor who had complained about encroaching construction debris (excuse: He started it).

I cannot recall if I latched onto a pacifier like Steve's to get through the project. I do know that I owe any surviving neurons to the green building movement. Here's the thing its many proselytizers rarely mention: Eco-mindedness appeals to lazy, passive homeowners who like the idea of a short shopping list for qualified architects, products, and contractors. Even in these boom years of recycled and sustainable materials, of denim insulation, fly-ash concrete, and compressed newsprint countertops ad nauseum, the options peter out relatively fast. Reducing the number of choices means confining squabbles to aesthetics, including but not limited to baseboard height.

Fear of hard work was the second reason we decided to go as eco as our budget would allow. The first epiphany struck us on a summer vacation in Montana. We were reposing amid grandeur in a cabin the size of our California kitchen and thinking we could replicate the euphoria that comes with treading lightly.

Our site, a woodsy 60-by-150-foot sliver, dictated that we observe eco-edict number one: Keep it small. Pilfering the "not-so-big house" concept popularized by architect Sarah Susanka (see "Itty-Bitty Houses"), our earliest mental sketches incorporated a great room, an "away room"--in our case, the California equivalent of a basement--and three bedrooms in about 2,500 square feet. At one point during the giddy, pre-number-crunching phase, I got what my sons later described as "disturbingly excited" about a secluded "drop zone" for keys, leashes, and backpacks.

We spun our wish list into a brief project summary and dispatched it with a request for proposal to five prospective architects whose online portfolios veered toward our vaguely defined tastes. New-urbanist beach house? Industrial cabin? Steve screened the four respondents by phone. We spent the next several months arranging tours of houses done by the three finalists, then picked the one, it turned out, with the wizened dog.

The One smashed his long legs and flowing hair into a kiwi-colored VW Bug and drove down from San Francisco to walk our site a few times. He examined the plans for adjacent houses. Before long he drew a chevron-shaped footprint that would give almost every room a view, either of the big-wave spot Mavericks or the sticky monkey flower beyond a back sliding door. He configured the would-be papaya habitat--20 grand worth of glass that we may actually live to recoup in energy savings--and steered us toward radiant heating, which, given our passive-solar intake and temperate coastal microclimate, would need to warm the slab concrete floors for only a few months of the year. In the small master bedroom, he pitched the ceiling to evoke the site's slope, creating a right triangle of natural light that at night frames Orion. I love this.

Our contractor knew the One's strengths and weaknesses through two previous collaborations, a fact that all but preordained him for the job. Smart, self-reliant, and stronger than the livestock he rodeo-wrangled on weekends, he worked on-site every day and saved us from having to pay another architect to resolve design issues when the One relocated out of state just as the framing phase was completed. He and his stellar crew, all local, also helped alleviate our guilt over having to ax seven elderly (and, yes, sickly) Monterey pines to make way for the house. The workers' commutes would be short, we figured, saving fuel and emissions.

But before the rented earthmovers could sink their claws into our hill in spring 2005, Tim the Tree Guy had to shinny through rivulets of sap and fire up his chainsaw. As soon as he did, someone with an ear cocked for metal chewing on wood called the sheriff.

Tim called us on his cell, completely calm because he was used to this in a bohemian community where it is not uncommon to see men wearing toe rings. Poor Steve spent the rest of the morning going door-to-door with the county permit and arborist's report, and after he explained repeatedly about the miserable state of the trees ("Really, they're harboring a beetle that's ravaging the West"), Tim got back to business.

It was during this neighborhood circuit, I believe, that the papaya idea popped like a compact fluorescent lightbulb into Steve's head. Two years have slipped by since we moved in, and we're still pecking away at our own punch list of improvements, including excessive but much-beloved closet cabinetry I am fairly certain homesteaders did without. Planting the atrium would somehow bring the end of an era, and, being lazy, we're in no rush.

Pamm Higgins writes and gazes at the Pacific from her almost complete home.

Illustration by Tim Bower; used with permission.

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