The Bellwether of Belvedere

Originally published in 

Sustainable consultant to the stars Jordan Harris convinces Hollywood starlets to go hybrid, but when it came to greening his own home, he enlisted outside help.

Harris Residence

Jordan and Julie Harris’s home in Belvedere, just north of San Francisco, doesn’t look like most of the other houses in the area. What sets this low-slung study in clean lines and uncluttered light apart from the rest of the buildings bordering Belvedere Lagoon isn’t the understated modernist aesthetic. It’s something subtler: the building’s orientation. While the neighboring properties all back squarely onto the lagoon, with views of gardens and docks on the opposite shore, the Harris residence is rotated 30 degrees, drawing the eye down the body of water toward the hazy, 2,571-foot peak of Mount Tamalpais beyond.

Yet for all the beauty of the house and its setting, the feature of which the owners are most proud is—improbably—the electric meter. “It’s running backwards,” says Jordan, revealing the ordinary-looking meter from behind a panel in the wooden fence that encircles the house. “Since last year, we’ve put hundreds of kilowatts of power back into the grid.”

The Harrises had one goal in mind when they purchased the building from an elderly neighbor in June 2003: to make their home reflect their values. As a cofounder of OZOcar, a New York–based luxury car service featuring low-emissions hybrid vehicles, and a longtime environmental and political activist, Jordan wanted the house to exemplify his passion for sustainability. Meanwhile, Julie, who comes from a fashion-industry background, was keen to create an indoor space as light-filled and open as the outdoors. “We renovated the house with a view to proving that style and sustainability are compatible,” says Jordan.

Bringing to mind hemp-floored mud huts and grass-roofed yurts, the green-building movement hasn’t previously had much truck with the architectural haute couture. Aimed at reducing the impact on the earth inherent in standard construction, occupancy, and demolition practices, the steadily growing environmental building crusade has generally focused more on making a hearty ecological statement than on making an arresting aesthetic one.

“Jordan and Julie felt that there was an image crisis with green design,” says Christopher C. Deam, whose San Francisco–based architecture firm CCD collaborated with Jonathan Cunha of Fusion Building Company, a local contractor specializing in environmentally friendly construction methods, on remodeling the Harrises’ property. “Most green architecture is associated with a completely different aesthetic,” says Cunha. “It’s unusual for a project to be both green and modern.”

That the Harrises’ home, in the words of CCD project architect Steven Huegli, “doesn’t obviously announce itself as a green house” is testimony to the designers’ enviable skill in seamlessly integrating sustainable building technology into an elegant architectural language. Aside from the solar panels installed on the roof, there is little about the house that visually hints at its tree-hugging soul.

The house is, first and foremost, a thing of beauty. The experience of wandering through the transparent, glass-walled rooms and out onto the central courtyard or waterfront garden is a bit like stepping into a clear pool. The open vistas between living areas create a sensation of continuous space between the outdoors and indoors. Carefully chosen furniture pieces, such as the expansive Moroso Lowland couch and custom dining table, fashioned by Deam from a wind-fallen elm, seem to float above the pale wood floor like the kayaks bobbing about on the water outside.

“It’s all about bringing the outdoors in; every room has a relationship to the garden,” says Julie, as she supervises her sons Emerson, six, and Lucca, three, as they play. “I love watching the fog rolling over the hills, and the way that the lagoon transforms itself into one big kids’ party in the summer.”

Less obvious to the naked eye, however, are the green principles upon which the home’s renovation has been based. Even though the house was extensively remodeled, original elements such as plumbing fixtures, timber, and cabinetry were—wherever possible—recycled. Old doors and windows were donated to Building REsources, a San Francisco–based reusable construction nonprofit. The old foundation and formwork were repurposed in other building projects. Even the carpet in what was once a boathouse and now serves as a combination office and den, found a second life: It was used to line Bedouin-style tents at the 2004 Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Ninety-five percent of the timber (including ipe, redwood, Douglas fir, and eucalyptus) for the framework and external and internal finishes was either salvaged or sustainably harvested. Low-VOC paint was applied to many of the vertical surfaces, including a lovely exposed brick wall that was formerly hidden behind Sheetrock. One large wall in the main living area was coated with a silvery aluminum laminate applied to a recycled  substrate that captures the light. Most of the floors were made with sustainably harvested bamboo. Meanwhile, the garage floor, as well as the underlay for the paving stones outside, was built from 30 percent fly-ash concrete. “Concrete use and manufacturing is responsible for 8 percent of the world’s [human-generated] carbon dioxide emissions,” says Jordan. “Fly-ash concrete mixes waste from coal-burning plants with regular concrete to make a stronger, less ecologically damaging material.”

The house is also extremely energy-efficient. In addition to the photovoltaic cells, the property boasts a high-efficiency boiler, a super-insulated roof structure, a radiant floor-heating system, insulated glazing and low-e coatings on the windows and doors, adjustable solar shades to reduce direct solar gain as needed, high-efficiency household appliances, and no-PVC blinds. Cunha even went so far as to clad the walls with a material known to building professionals as UltraTouch cotton insulation, and to the rest of us as mulched denim. “When the insulation was added, the house looked like an enormous blue jean,” says Huegli.

Jordan dubs the marriage between style and sustainability “eco-chic.” As influenced by the design practices of architect William McDonough as he is by the power of celebrity and fashion to influence popular tastes, Jordan sees his home as part of a broader vision to use high style as a vehicle for increasing environmental awareness. As a board member of the environmental group Global Green USA, Jordan conceived of the annual Green Car to the Red Carpet campaign. The effort, now in its fourth year, has focused on persuading A-list actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, and Robin Williams to arrive at the Academy Awards in hybrid cars, with a view to raising awareness about low-emissions vehicles. “The house, the OZOcar, and the Oscar campaign are all part of the same drive,” says Jordan. “They’re focused upon finding ways to educate people so that they can make smarter, more responsible choices and live well.”

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