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Consider the alternatives

October 02, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

A lot of what's new in eco-friendly homes has been around awhile: milk-based paints, sunflower-oil sealers and natural stones. The products are just more accessible now. A non-methylene paint stripper that smells like oranges is on the shelves at Home Depot, lumber cut from managed forests is sold at Lowe's Home Improvement stores and more electricians are installing residential-size solar panels, especially those that produce surplus energy to sell.

When Alison Pollack started Earth Friendly Interior Design in West Hills a decade ago, clients had to be persuaded to go green. Now, she says, "They know what we're talking about, they know they have choices and they want to learn more."

Pollack says it costs more to install some environmentally sound products, but they pay off over time. Natural, untreated wool carpet has a price tag that's double that of synthetic nylon but it lasts more than twice as long and doesn't contain polluting adhesives.

"Think long-term," counsels Pollack, who designed an Earth-kind nursery on display through Nov. 2 at the Assistance League of Southern California's Design House in Hancock Park. Hand-painted silk panels drape the nursery's windows; fast-growing alder wood was carved into cornice boxes; and nontoxic, baby-safe finishes were brushed onto furniture. The crib has a hemp fleece blanket that's as soft as cashmere and a mattress filled with organic cotton and wool clipped from free-range sheep.

"Decorating this way is a prescription for health but it doesn't have to look like a hospital," says Pollack. "A lot of people are surprised that a room can be natural and have high-end design elements."

Here's a rundown of some of the products being used by people concerned about toxins, man-made chemicals and the Earth's depleting resources:

* Solar energy: It didn't take a blackout in the East to remind people that depending on the utility grid is not only costly but sometimes unreliable. Californians have been drawn to solar power since the 1970s, long before the digital traffic boom raised demand. But electrician Max Balchowsky of Solar Electric Energy Systems in sun-baked Palm Springs still sees a surge in serious callers whenever there's an energy crisis.

Californians are fortunate because there are energy rebates for cutting back on power use, lowering prices for materials and offering the option to sell excess solar electricity back to the utility from rooftop solar systems plugged into the electrical grid. These "zero-energy" homes are constructed and positioned on property to make them as energy efficient as possible. They also have a photovoltaic, or solar-electric system, that makes more power than needed.

The cost is about $30,000 for the system before rebates for a 2,500-square-foot house, says Cecile Warner of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. Information on rebates, which vary by city, is at

Installer Balchowsky says the system he sells is best for power-sucking mansions with 7,000 square feet or more. It costs from $40,000 to $80,000, but rebates and utility bill savings get owners to the break-even point in seven to 11 years. The Appraisal Journal says that every dollar cut from annual utility bills by an added energy system bumps up the value of a home by $20.

Also emerging are co-generation systems that use solar and a natural gas or a propane-fueled engine to make electricity, cool the air and heat water. Vector CoGen in Carson City, Nev., makes a $15,000 unit that is small enough to be tucked behind shrubs. While not completely eco-friendly because it still slurps up fossil fuels, it reportedly cuts utility costs about 50%.

In the future, homes will have systems that use electricity from solar cells to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. When it's needed, the stored hydrogen will be sent to a fuel cell, where it will recombine with oxygen from the air to make electricity to power homes and cars, says Warner.

For more information, (303) 275-3000;

* Building materials: Builders, nudged by clients and conscience, are using more materials that are sensitive to the land. They're working with lumber harvested from "managed" forests that preserve tree and brush cover, streams and animal habitats. They're putting in formaldehyde-free fiberglass insulation, cotton insulation made from denim scraps saved from landfills and particle board of wheat straw.

Eco-Products in Boulder, Colo., through its Web site ( sells roofing made from recycled plastic and rubber that looks like slate or shake, recycled plastic pellets and wood chips transformed into decking, and insulated concrete blocks that replace wood and reduce heating and cooling costs.


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