When Greg Reitz was ten years old, he was already so worried about the state of the planet that, without prompting from his parents, he spent his allowance to join Greenpeace. Twenty years later, after an unfulfilling foray into management consulting, he turned his passion for the environment into a profession. Reitz became the green building adviser for the City of Santa Monica, advising colleagues and local property owners on how to apply green building measures to new and existing structures. At the same time, he decided to build a house that would showcase the very principles he encourages.
In Roger Kurath, the Swiss-born founder of the firm Design 21, Reitz found an architect whose ideals and approach meshed with his own. Together they created a 1,700-square-foot house on an 8,100-square-foot lot on a quiet, tree-lined residential street in Culver City, just east of Santa Monica.
At first sight, the steel-frame box with its large expanse of glass would seem to defy energy conservation. But through a combination of passive energy-saving measures and advanced insulation materials, the pair claim to have achieved energy efficiencies that exceed both California’s Title 24 requirements as well as the minimum requirements demanded by Santa Monica.
The house consists of a south-facing, loftlike kitchen/dining/living room with three bedrooms and two baths on the rear of the house. "Probably the most effective measure," says Reitz, "was just to look at the placement of the house on the site and then the windows on the house, so as to take advantage of passive solar heating and natural ventilation." The majority of the glazing is on the south façade, which allows for "solar control and for winter sun to penetrate."
By raising the house over the shady parking area, the collaborators were able to provide additional cooling air from below, and eliminate the need for air-conditioning. "The stack effect cooling, the ventilation through the skylights, and intake from the ground floor are the things that are free," explains Reitz. "And they are something we forgot how to do when we found all the cheap fossil fuels."
Reitz and Kurath’s contemporary design melds time-tested temperature-control methods with advanced materials. It was possible to have such a large expanse of glass by using high-performance, double-glazed windows imported from Switzerland—an added expense, says Reitz, that was offset by the long-term energy savings. The home’s in-floor radiant heating is a more efficient form of heating, says Kurath, because "if your feet are warm, you feel the increased temperature quickly and don’t need to run the heating for so long or so high." The thick concrete floors provide thermal mass, moderating dramatic heat swings and storing heat for when it is cool and vice versa. The stud-and-drywall walls are highly insulated, stuffed with blown-in insulation material made of recycled newsprint.
In addition, Reitz and Kurath selected materials according to their environmental properties: rice straw core doors, recyclable steel, and concrete partly made of fly ash. But Reitz went a step further and conducted a life-cycle analysis of the wood, steel, and concrete they planned to use, discovering which materials used the most (and least) energy in their production. He found that wood and steel came out even, both ahead of the concrete. He chose steel, on the grounds that it would last longer, and would not harbor termites or mold.
Construction of the house came in at a relatively low cost of around $200 per square foot, excluding the expense of the site, thanks in large part to Reitz himself taking on the "headaches" of functioning as contractor. He says that the additional cost of making the home green was less than 1 percent. "Some things, like the elimination of A/C, reduced costs; many things were cost neutral; and only a few of the strategies—like the demand hot water circulation system—added cost."
Despite these cost savings, Reitz invested substantially, in time and money, to create his showpiece green house—so much so that for a while he had to rent it out, and live in the 900-square-foot 1922 bungalow already on the lot. Now he occupies the house by night and on weekends, and rents it out to a friend for use as an office during the day. But he considers the investment wholly worthwhile. He’s not only proven "you can build green and contemporary and make it affordable," but by doing all the research to design and build the house, he feels more credible when giving advice to others. His efforts have also paid off in helping spread the faith a little further. The City of Culver City is now, with his input, developing green building policies of its own.