A Sustainable "Case Study" House in California

A Southern California architect approaches his family home as an experiment in sustainable design.

When architect Ben Burkhalter set about designing a new house for his family, he decided to approach the task as an experiment of sorts. How far could he go, he wondered, to make the structure’s carbon footprint as small as possible without sacrificing comfort or aesthetics, or blowing out his budget?

The answer can be found in the two-story 3,100-square-foot house in Manhattan Beach, California, that Burkhalter, his wife, Cindy, and their son Clay, an undergraduate at the California Institute of the Arts, moved into in 2010 after 10½ months of construction.

“The project was conceived from its inception as a ‘green’ case study with third-party verified results,” Burkhalter says. “But at the same time, it was intended to demonstrate that a high level of sustainability could be achieved on a budget and schedule equal to or even better than similar projects constructed by conventional means and methods.”

Part of this, Burkhalter says, involved “demystifying” the green-building process. The idea, he says, was to use “only materials, methods, and technologies that are readily available, proven, cost-effective, and relatively simple to implement and integrate.” Sustainable building materials and methods were identified and integrated when the project was in the early conceptual phase, and Burkhalter subjected his design to a rigorous value-engineering process as the project progressed. “Every aspect of the building was vetted for efficiency in terms of both consumed and embodied energy,” he says.

Among the sustainable features and materials that Burkhalter incorporated into his design were low-flow and ultra-low-flow fixtures, a solar hot-water system, low-VOC paint, drought-tolerant landscaping, permeable pavers, concrete with 20 percent fly-ash content, and formaldehyde-free bamboo millwork and flooring. All of the framing material either was Forestry Stewardship Council-certified lumber or was composed of recycled content.

These touches, and others, were enough to earn the house a LEED platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The completed house, which was built on a narrow 30-by-90-foot lot, has an open layout and ample windows with a low-emissivity coating that filters heat and ultraviolet light. It was built for about $290 per square foot, or about $764,000—slightly less than the $300-$400 per square foot that Burkhalter says is common houses in his neighborhood that follow more conventional building methods.

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