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June 11, 2010

Ed Begley, Jr. is wearing what can most accurately be described as his uniform, a blue dress shirt unbuttoned to reveal a white t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts and Crocs with socks. Not your typical Emmy Award-nominated actor outfit, but neither is his current behavior. He is standing on the sidewalk outside his house, showing recent improvements he made to his parkway, that tiny strip of city-owned land between sidewalk and street. Begley, who lives on a corner lot, removed the resource-sucking swatches of grass and laced new gravel-edged, native plots with efficient drip-irrigation. When he moved into this home in 1988, he says, it was the same story. He tore out the lawn and added  drought-tolerant plants like rosemary, a fragrant sprig of which he rolls between  his fingers as he identifies the trees in his orchard of apples, figs and loquats. "The apples are not quite ready," he says, bounding to the far corner of the yard. "But the loquats are really good! Here, help yourself to a few." Begley will be sharing this same zest for sustainable living with the audience at this year's Dwell on Design.

Corn, broccoli and artichokes are just some of the crops Begley grows in his backyard.
Corn, broccoli and artichokes are just some of the crops Begley grows in his backyard.
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Begley demonstrates how his solar panels are angled to take full  advantage of the sun's path.
Begley demonstrates how his solar panels are angled to take full  advantage of the sun's path.
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In a still from the show Living with Ed, Begley takes a fan on a bike ride.
In a still from the show Living with Ed, Begley takes a fan on a bike ride.
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Begley tore out the grass between the sidewalk and the street and planted a drought-tolerant garden.
Begley tore out the grass between the sidewalk and the street and planted a drought-tolerant garden.
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begley house

Begley's house is no modernist masterpiece. You may have  seen it on his Planet Green show Living with Ed,  which chronicles his quest for extreme  environmentalism,  as well as  his quest to enlist his less-than-enthusiastic wife, Rachelle (whom he berates for things like not composting). Like most of the houses in his Studio City neighborhood, it's a 1936 Ranch-esque bungalow partially swathed in stucco. Inside is a neatly-curated collection of antiques, cushy couches, sturdy natural furniture. Begley prefers old and weathered to shiny and new. "We're like alcoholics bottomed-out on too much liquor," he sighs about our consumerist society. "Too  much stuff." Over the fireplace is Ed Ruscha's iconic print, Standard Station, featuring a midcentury gas station. Ironic, since it's probably the only evidence of  fossil fuels you'll find in his entire house.

Corn, broccoli and artichokes are just some of the crops Begley grows in his backyard.
Corn, broccoli and artichokes are just some of the crops Begley grows in his backyard.

His resourceful ways were instilled early by his father, Ed Begley, Sr.,  a star of radio, film and television. "Yes, he was an Academy Award winner," says Begley. "But he was the son of Irish immigrants who lived through the Depression." Begley was taught to save, scrimp, improvise and improve everything around him, a value system that was further enforced by scouting, where he wrapped his DIY mentality around environmental issues. He became a strong green voice in Los Angeles during the 1970s, becoming involved in groups like the Environmental Media Association and the Tree People. A vegan diet, including his prized broccoli from his own garden, has him looking much younger than his 60 years.

When Begley first became a homeowner he couldn't afford major upgrades, so he started with small, scrappy ones, becoming an expert in cheap, green home tech. He quickly became as addicted to saving money as he did to being sustainable, he says. "The lower bill is the really sexy part of all this." His house has become a living showcase where Begley can rattle off facts and figures about every single feature as well as the complete website addresses of where  you can find it. The surprising provenance of the materials is what keeps guests guessing. White picket fence? Recycled milk jugs. Garden pavers? Old tires. Terrazzo countertop? Recycled green Coke bottles. Insulation in the attic? Denim batting. Is that LED or compact fluorescent light coming from that panel in the ceiling? Trick question! It's a solar skylight!

If getting a tour  of Begley's house feels like being on a green game show it's because Begley has made green-ness into a game (a game in which he actually competes with Bill Nye (of Science Guy fame), who lives a few doors down, and tries to one-up Begley on his show). He has made being sustainable fun. His most famous gadget is an exercise bike generator which he had hooked up to a toaster. It's currently on loan with his friends and fellow environmentalists Jackson Browne and artist Dianna Cohen, who are using it as part of an art project.

Outside and around back is the star of Begley's sustainable compound: His solar array—one static panel, one that moves with the sun—depositing pure California sunshine into a row of black-box batteries that line the wall of his garage (just under boxes of Begley's Best cleaner). These run through a DC to AC inverter to convert the electricity so he can charge up his electric car, or power the house:  solar energy also heats his water tank as well as a forced air heater. But this is one set-up he does not recommend, says Begley. Why? It works great, but his system is totally inappropriate for today's technology: It's from 1990.

Begley demonstrates how his solar panels are angled to take full  advantage of the sun's path.
Begley demonstrates how his solar panels are angled to take full  advantage of the sun's path.

Since Begley's retrofitted all the basics, his latest obsessions are some more high-level water hacks. His biggest improvement recently has been replacing a rainbarrel with a custom-built greywater system that puts  runoff through five filtration cycles including a blast of UV light, perfect for storing more water for a longer period in a cistern below  the ground. For the rest of his water needs, he recently purchased a water purifier made by LifeSource that naturally  filters and softens city water for drinking, showering, and laundry. This  completely eliminates any kind of secondary filter and it tastes  better, says Begley, but he's more impressed by the pronounced  improvements to his skin and hair.

He may have made advances in green living, but for those seeking advice at Dwell on Design, Begley will defer to his roots, recommending only the simplest, affordable improvements. "Cheap and easy," he says. "I tell people, I don't want you to get solar panels. I want you to make your home as energy-efficient as possible."

Actually, Begley doesn't want you to start with your house at all. First, reconfigure your transportation, says the man who once arrived at an awards show party on his bike—in a tux. "Always take public transportation when you can."

In a still from the show Living with Ed, Begley takes a fan on a bike ride.
In a still from the show Living with Ed, Begley takes a fan on a bike ride.

In fact, that's why he chose not to live in a subdivision atop a winding canyon road in the Hollywood Hills but in a modest house in an urban environment. It's why he moved to a highly dense area where most of what he needs is a  short walk or bike ride away. "Quite deliberately," he says of his choice. "I like to be right here, in the middle of it."

As Begley espouses the benefits of hand-painted bike lanes, L.A.'s plans for more subway and light-rail, the benefits of walking, I realize that the surrender of the car is the one place his fellow celebrities—those supposedly environmentally-minded folk—truly fall flat. A Prius, the ultimate Hollywood accessory, is fine, but it's not enough. Compare that to Begley: His 2003  electric Toyota RAV4 is powered exclusively from his own sun-fueled  garage power plant. So he's actually driving a solar-powered car, which, due to his bike-riding, bus-riding nature, he doesn't even drive that much.

To him, it's a no-brainer. "There's an insanity you can not explain about  why people get in a car and drive to a gym to ride a bike," he says. The same thing with public transit, he says, which basically hands you time and cash. "What if I told you you could do your sudoku puzzle or read a book uninterrupted all the way downtown for only a few dollars—you'd try it." he says excitedly. "We just need to give them a taste for it!" For a moment I begin to think Begley's enthusiasm itself is powering  that AC inverter in his garage.

Begley tore out the grass between the sidewalk and the street and planted a drought-tolerant garden.
Begley tore out the grass between the sidewalk and the street and planted a drought-tolerant garden.

After I leave, I walk down his street. As Begley described it, when he moved into his house in 1988, all the houses in this neighborhood looked like his once did: wide water-dependent lawns, expanses of  impermeable concrete. But today, I noticed some subtle changes. Someone had ripped out their grass. Someone had planted vegetables. Someone had added solar panels. You could almost see Begley's earnest, energetic influence feathering out into the community. He gave them, as he would say, a taste for it.

Maybe all we need is one Begley on every block, I thought later, as I waited for the 750 bus on Ventura Boulevard, eating a bright orange loquat from Ed Begley, Jr.'s garden.

Ed Begley, Jr. will be sponsored by LifeSource Water Systems when he speaks on the Sustainability Stage on Sunday at Dwell on Design, happening June 25-27 in Los Angeles. Register now!

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