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The Green Life: In California, a Big, Modern Home With a Tree House's Footprint

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October 31, 2011

In California, a Big, Modern Home With a Tree House's Footprint

Living roomI stood in Ian MacLeod’s Albany, California, living room and the front door was ajar. We could hear industrial vehicles crushing pavement out in the street. Concrete split open, diesel engines rumbled. Then MacLeod said, “watch this,” and shut the door. With his slate-colored eyes, rolled-up sleeves, and white Calvin Klein Jeans, he'd quickly transported us from a construction site to the inside of an empty auditorium. A combination of heavy wood and blown-in insulation silenced the racket.

This noise-muffling magic is just one perk of MacLeod’s refreshed home, which he upgraded and expanded from a droopy, inefficient 1928 bungalow. “A house is like a car: It’s a pollution machine,” says MacLeod. “Who wants to live in a pollution machine?” Now it’s twice the size of the original, and has about the same eco-footprint as a tree house.

MacLeod, an architect and builder, sought to strike a balance between efficiency and aesthetics. His floors and cabinets are made from textured bamboo, the faucets spray aerated water, and the heatless induction stove is sleek as an iPad. Gems shimmer in unlikely nooks: A bookcase is embedded into the stairwell wall; a pair of ottomans resemble lounging dogs. “Comfort is an architectural concern,” says MaLeod. “I strove to make beauty and sustainability exist in harmony.”

MacLeod, wanting to add a layer of fun to his upgrade, joined up with Build It Green, whose increasingly popular GreenPoint rating program scores homes for efficiency. “I wanted to have something quantifiable, a number that illustrates the progress we made,” said MacLeod. His is one of the 10,000 existing GreenPoint-rated homes that, by the end of 2011, will have saved 112 million gallons of water and 9,000 tons of greenhouse gasses (the equivalent of taking 1,500 cars off the road for a year). Bay Area governments are adopting it as a standard, and every home that Habitat for Humanity East Bay has built since 2006 is rated.

Unlike LEED, a GreenPoint rating can apply to small remodeling projects. The program provides homeowners with a menu of best practices in five efficiency categories. A building racks up points with each standard it fulfills (Macleod’s home scored 231 points; the highest score to date is 303). The goal is to encourage people to go green in realistic increments: An appliance makeover, a solar panel, and a wisely placed window can all up the score. MacLeod still grumbles about his ongoing effort to score for the breezes that course through his home when all the windows are open.

Their remodel was expensive, but with solar-heated water and sun-harvested electricity (the roof boasts a 2.1kW solar array), plus the potential for a $7,000 rebate from Energy Upgrade California, MacLeod thinks a green expansion is cheaper in the long run. “We live with nature’s rhythms,” he says. “It feels cleaner and more comfortable.”

 --Jake Abrahamson / image courtesy MacLeod Design and Construction

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