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SUNDAY BRUNCH | The Stuff

Little House in the Wilds

March 08, 1998|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Question: What's tan and white and green all over?

Answer: The Ecolodge--a new model mini-home designed to be self-sustaining in the most remote rain forest or mountain canyon. It may be the ultimate environmental house, with promise for scientists on wilderness assignments, eco-tourists and those who dream of their own little cabin far from civilization.

Designed by a group of Southern California contractors, the Ecolodge brings along its own electricity, sewage, gas and water systems. And with optional features such as carpeting, fireplace and microwave, it sets a new standard for cozy living in rugged places. That was the idea, says Jim Kennedy, president of KenCom Inc. in San Diego. After years of working in exotic locations where typical housing consisted of a cramped trailer with a generator roaring outside, "we wanted to break out of that box, and do it in a way that was ecologically sound."

The solution--the Ecolodge--was named by Popular Science Magazine in 1997 as one of the year's 100 greatest achievements in science and technology.

Despite its cutting-edge look, there is nothing radical about the Ecolodge, says the designer, Bob Galbreath of Los Angeles. It was more a question of combining existing systems in a new way. "Nobody seemed to be assembling a complete package," says Galbreath, an expert in water control systems. His Garden Technology Inc. is the other partner in the project, known as Geo-Lite Systems.

The cylindrical building with a conical roof is patterned after a yurt, the portable circular tent of felt or skins on a framework of poles used since ancient times by the nomads of Mongolia. Ecolodge parts can be bolted, screwed and snapped together quickly, and it can be easily moved.

The unit has a steel framework, with wood walls and floor and a fabric roof. "The solid panelized walls interlock," says Galbreath. "They're steel-framed with wood paneling and insulation in the center." The panels are either solid or have a door or window, and can be used in any combination, with additional panels enlarging the dwelling.

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There are four models. All provide the dwelling unit solar electrical generation, a freshwater storage and pumping system, and a composting toilet system. The least expensive, the basic Nihoa (180 square feet, $16,950), stops at that point, says Galbreath.

"Moving up a model, we have more electricity, hot water and a simple gray-water system" (waste water that isn't sewage), he says. The most fully developed model, the Bonaire (730 square feet, $55,950), provides enough electricity to watch movies on color TV and microwave the popcorn. Optional features such as carpeting, fireplace and stereo further boost the price and comfort level.

"People either ask why they are so expensive or why they are so cheap, depending on their knowledge of what it costs to truck in water and power and for waste handling," Galbreath says.

Popular Science particularly praised Ecolodge's environmental sensitivity. No excavations or utility hookups are required. The structure, with its solar-electric panels, sits on a lightweight steel platform that shelters components including the batteries for storing solar-produced energy, tanks for waste water, drinking water and propane fuel, and composting filters.

Although the Ecolodge was originally conceived as housing for remote work areas, the endeavor took on more possibilities as they developed it, Galbreath says. "The logical next step was for scientific development sites, then eco-tourism was such a good dovetail we decided to focus on that."

Eco-tourism is a fast-growing field, but most tourists who want to see a rain forest in its natural state or a tiny unpopulated island also love to find flush toilets. But "developers have discovered if they put up a hotel, it can destroy what the tourists came there to see." Galbreath says.

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Who wants an Ecolodge?

After readers saw it in Popular Science, "we have gotten 500 inquiries from people, mostly fantasizing about a little cabin in the middle of nowhere," Galbreath says. "But it costs as much as a nice car. So they have to think about it for a while.

"We are making a product that people didn't even know existed, so if they have been thinking about building a cabin in the mountains, this is a whole new concept."

Geo-Lite Systems is just getting geared up for production and will have a model on display April 18 at Santa Monica Earth Day in Clover Park. For more information, call (310) 216-0410.

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