A Tour of the First LivingHome or, My Trip to Santa Monica, CA

September 29th, 2010 by Cathy Rust Leave a reply »

When you think of Santa Monica, California, you most likely think of the Santa Monica Pier, or may the 3rd Street Promenade, eating at the Ivy (over-rated, ahem), or the possibility of bumping into a celebrity of some sort, but for me it’s the site of the first LivingHome, Steve Glenn’s brainchild, the super duper green prefab home company that he started a few years back. Since I was going out that way for my sister’s wedding, I thought that while I was there, I’d take the opportunity to see if I could get a tour of the place, and lucky me, LivingHomes said yes!

Let me back up a little: in May, 2010, I was invited to the press launch for a community of four homes that are being built at Yonge and Sheppard by Nexterra Homes. You can read about the project more in-depth, here, but basically,  the group of homes is dubbed an “eco-enclave.” They’ll have a spacious feel, yet won’t be over-the-top large — through the use of excellent architectural design. The first rule of a “green” home has to be superior design. After all, if it isn’t nice to look at or functional to live in, then it isn’t green because no one will want to be there. These four homes will have, or be ready for, the most current green design features available including solar panels and gray water recycling. What’s exciting about these homes is that they are prefabricated in a factory and then assembled on site. And guess who is supplying the designs? That’s right, LivingHomes!

So, back to present day. I met Aldo from LivingHomes outside of the Santa Monica house on a gray and chilly Monday. (It was 29C in Toronto and 17C in Santa Monica — there’s something wrong here.) We toured the house and Aldo went over its green features, and introduced me to a few green building products I hadn’t heard of before. We talked about each of our goals of helping to demystify green building to people and also show that it’s not so hard or expensive to do.

The Santa Monica LivingHome has some great green features: first it’s an efficient use of space incorporating about 3500 square feet of living space into a tight land area. Materials are selected as locally as was reasonable and are recycled, recyclable or renewable where possible.

The structure: the home is made from 11 prefabricated boxes that were built in a prefab home factory and assembled on site in 8 hours. You can watch the assembly video here. The boxes consist of a steel frame with wood siding. All wood used in the framing in the house construction is FSC certified American Cedar. The steel is an energy intensive product, but has the qualities ofbeing long lasting, and can be recycled at end of use. The insulation in the house is Greenfiber, a blown cellulose product used in the roof, and Ultratouch cotton insulation in the walls. The design of the home by Ray Kappe, known as “the architect’s architect,” took into account the moderate coastal climate of southern California. There is plenty of natural light that comes in through south facing floor to ceiling windows, skylights in the second floor washrooms, and even on the north side of the home, which is butt up against its neighbour, light is allowed to shine in through plastic sheeting that allows for privacy, but also lighting (more on the product below). Kappe also designed the home to capture and use the coastal breezes. Windows and doors open wide and the stairwell that goes to the roof also acts as a heat tower, trapping the heat until it’s expelled by the ceiling mounted fan, or more simply, opening the door to the roof top garden.

Naturally, these design features, so great in California, will be modified in the homes being built for the harsher Canadian climate.

One of the other neat things about this house was the consideration of flexibility of room use. For instance, there are floor to ceiling sliding panels on two of the bedrooms that can open them up or close them off depending on the room’s use. One could be an open area TV or play space, the other a bedroom. The “floating” office/guestroom above the media room could also be enclosed easily for more privacy. Aldo told me that LivingHomes has some home designs that actually grow with the family, so you can add on with little inconvenience as your family or needs change.

Main floor features: The main floor’s flooring is a poured concrete floor which incorporates 18% fly ash, a waste product from burning coal for electricity. As mentioned, a wall of Polygal — a material made of composite plastic sheeting that can be recycled at end of life runs along the north facing wall allowing light in, but maintaining privacy.  Polygal allows almost the same amount of light as glass, however it has a U value that is twice that of a double glazed, low e argon gas window, while still allowing natural light into the space. (The U value is the inverse of an R value and is used to measure the heat transference efficiency of windows. The lower the U value, the better the insulation.)

HVAC system: The radiant in-floor heating which is the heat method used throughout the house is provided by the evacuated tube solar thermal panels on the roof. The back-up system is a conventional natural gas system that only goes on on the cloudiest day in the winter when the solar thermal panels can’t produce enough heat. The solar thermal panels also provide hot water for the house.

Water conservation: Santa Monica and Los Angeles are inherently a dessert climate, so addressing water use was an important point for the LivingHome. Landscaping is done with indigenous, drought-tolerant plants while a 3500 gallon (US) (approx. 13,200 litres) underground cistern captures rainwater, and gray water from showers, washing machine, dishwasher and sinks is captured and reused in toilets. In addition, all faucets are Kohler and shower heads are Bricor, and are low-flow, decreasing the amount of water consumed. Toilets are from Sterling, are dual flush (3 litres and 6 litres).

Wood: All wood used in construction of the home is FSC-certified American Cedar. In addition, the home is designed for flexibility. The second floor consists of rooms with walls made of panels of wood that can be closed off or opened up to enjoy the views. Wood panels are Europly, a combination of FSC-certified Baltic birch and Alder, glued together with an FSC-certified veneer applied (note: website for Europly says formaldehyde adhesives are used in amounts of 0.3ppm — amount required by the EPA). Millwork throughout the house is also FSC-certified and can be relocated to different rooms if required as it is modular.

Lighting: Lighting throughout the house is a combination of LED spotlights and CFLs, in addition to the abundance of natural light available during the day. Note: In the lighting industry, LED lights are still “not quite ready for prime time.” That is, while they are uber efficient and use 4-7 Watts per light and last 100,000 hours, the amount of lumens they emit is still not quite there for general lighting purposes, and the beam tends to be a straight tube instead of in a cone shape as CFLs and incandescents cast….but they are improving all the time. Currently, however, they’re still best left for decorative lighting.

As mentioned, natural daylight is not just added through windows, but skylights in every bathroom provide plenty of natural daylight for getting dressed in the morning, and walls on the north side have areas of Polygal that provide light, while doubling the insulation value of windows, and providing privacy at the same time.

Speaking of natural lighting, the curtains are made of Mechoshade Ecoveil fabric, a fabric that is endlessly recycleable. This fabric is not only used for bedroom blinds, but also, as blinds for the skylights (operated by remote control). Without the shade, the washrooms would become uncomfortably hot during the heat of the day.

All finishes can be found on the tour of this home (narrated by Steve Glenn) with links to the individual manufacturer. The homes being built in Canada will try to use as locally sourced manufacturers as is reasonable, because, really, isn’t that part of building green?

Monitoring system: In the kitchen there is a computer that’s hooked up to electricity and water monitors so you can always see your consumption rates and patterns. Also, it monitors the effectiveness of your solar PV panels so that you can see how much electricity you are generating for one day, week, month and year. It can even forecast your useage patterns and generation patterns for the future. This house generates about 1/3 of the power it consumes. But it only consumes about 8500KWH per year (the average family of 4 uses about 12000KWH per year).

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