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A Green Dream

An environmentalist's lengthy remodel tries his family's patience, but he maintains his resolve and creates a home that conserves natural resources.

October 11, 1998

When newlyweds Ted Baumgart and Cathryn Williams drove around La Crescenta in 1978 with dreams of buying a home, their timing couldn't have been better.

Just minutes before the couple drove by, the owner of a two-bedroom, 1940s tract house put out a for-sale-by-owner sign. After the couple walked through the home to the backyard and saw the small forest of century-old olive trees, they exclaimed: "This is it."

Only later did they go back in to see how many bedrooms and bathrooms it had. Williams, a physical therapist, was very happy. Her philosophy was "get a house and enjoy your life."

On the other hand, Baumgart, a Hollywood set designer and budding environmentalist, saw in the house an opportunity to make an ecological statement. He hoped one day to remodel the house to use solar and other alternative energy sources.

Little did Baumgart and his family know that his quest for an environmentally friendly home would still be going on more than 13 years later, with the family living for most of that time in a construction zone.

The saga started in 1985 when daughter Heather, then 6, and Daniel, 2, begged their dad for a swimming pool. Seizing his chance to demonstrate alternative energy in action, Baumgart planned a natural-looking grotto with inlaid stones, waterfalls, rock barbecue and model-train set, all powered with solar panels.

In 1988, construction on the pool began. Working with Tony Marquez Pools in Sylmar, Baumgart hauled 50 tons of rocks from the Tujunga Wash in his Volkswagen bus, hired two laborers for a year to set the rock and ended up spending more than $40,000. Heather, then 9, said: "Dad, all we wanted was water to swim in. We don't care where the rocks are placed."

The pool and backyard turned out to be gorgeous, and were featured in a 1991 Times' article headlined "Living on the Solar Side of the Street."

Even back then, Williams was weary of the remodeling process. "There were many sleepless nights," she told the reporter, "and much worry about why it wasn't getting finished."

Baumgart, who was making plans to transform his house into a "solar chalet," said back then: "[The pool] has tested the whole family. We joke that when the house gets finished, I will come home and find the locks changed."

In Baumgart's plans, the key element of the house would be a central thermal wall, 18 inches thick, 24 feet high and 24 feet long, and made of steel and concrete.

The wall would absorb the heat of the day and disperse it at night through tubes underneath the floors. Conversely, the wall would absorb the night chill and disperse it during the day. In winter, large, south-facing skylights would absorb solar heat.

In 1992, the home remodel began in a grand way, with the half of the house containing the two bedrooms sheared off and hauled away to make way for the addition, which included a garage and kitchen on the ground floor and three bedrooms and a bath above.

By 1993, the addition was still in progress. Stone steps were built leading up to the front entrance, which is itself surrounded by massive boulders. California Masonry in Sylmar performed much of the stone work.

Friends called the fairy tale-looking house "Gaudi meets Disney," and wondered aloud if the Seven Dwarfs had moved in.

For a while, before Baumgart built the arched wooden front door, the opening was covered by a flap of canvas. "Anyone could have walked in," Williams recalled. "But no one wanted to because it looked so weird."

During this phase of construction, the couple, their two children, two dogs and an iguana hunkered down in 800 square feet--the living room, den and original kitchen.

Baumgart likened it to living in a college dorm and joked that when people get their permits for remodeling, the planning department "should recommend family counseling." Increasingly, the family's conversations began with: "When the house is done. . . ."


By 1994, the home was more done than not and was included in the annual "Homes for the Future Tour" sponsored by Eco-Home Network, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group that promotes environmentally responsible urban living.

A centerpiece of the house is a two-story stone waterfall. Installed over the thermal wall, the waterfall acts as a backdrop to the circular stairs and adds cooling sounds and moisture to the interior.

The wall-waterfall system works. During the heat wave in July, when the temperature hit 108 degrees, the interior of the house remained at 80 degrees.

Other "green" building features include recycled beams made of old-growth, pre-World War II Douglas fir that span the interior. Baumgart installed an electrical outlet at the curb for electric cars.

Actor and Eco-Home spokesman Ed Begley Jr. became an occasional visitor. However, Williams left the house for the day during the 1994 tour, embarrassed to be living what she calls "an odd life."

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