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No Longer Just Hippie, Green is Finally Chic

With the city of Santa Monica leading the way, Southern California homeowners are turning to ecologically sound design as an alternative to soaring energy costs

September 25, 2005|David Lansing | David Lansing last wrote for the magazine about '60s-era cocktails.

Don't look now, but the '70s are back. Not disco, thank God, but the energy crisis. Gas not only costs an arm and a leg, but consumption is peaking toward that dreaded point where demand may outstrip supply. California's electricity crisis of 2000-2001 may have been orchestrated by corporate bad boys, but rolling blackouts and brownouts could become as much a part of our summers as record-breaking temperatures and water rationing. And speaking of water, we have a problem: There's not enough of it.

So get ready for another round of dreadlock-wearing, hemp-clothed, tree-hugging moralists wagging fingers and imploring us to abandon our homes and live in treehouses, right? Well, yeah, those people are always going to be there. But what's really interesting--startling, really--is that the real "green" movement in California these days is coming from the most unlikely sources. Like utility companies. And the home-building industry. And even our Hummer-loving governor. In fact, the whole "green building" phenomenon pretty much has been kidnapped from hard-core environmentalists, spruced up and given a new suit by corporate America.

Which raises the question: Is green chic?

The green building movement "has moved way beyond the hippie era," says Eric Shamp, an architect and "Sustainability Champion" for HMC Architects in Ontario. "It's become a very savvy, bottom-line response to current economic conditions. Builders are going green because it's finally starting to make sense economically. And if we can save the planet at the same time, so much the better."

Southern California developer Steve Edwards concurs: "I'm not doing [green developments] because I'm a tree hugger. I'm doing them because, first of all, there are economic benefits. The fact that there are also environmental and social benefits makes it just that much more logical."

How mainstream has it gone? Consider this: Shamp's architectural firm currently is involved in a project with the Cucamonga Valley Water District to design and build a 9,000-square-foot demonstration building, called the Frontier Project, whose sole purpose is to demonstrate to Inland Empire homeowners, contractors, developers and businesses how energy- and resource-efficient technologies work, what's out there and where to find it. For instance, there are gray water recovery systems that recycle waste water from sinks, showers, bathtubs, dishwashers and washing machines for landscape irrigation. The water district figures the average homeowner could save $100 to $200 a year with such a system.

But aren't water utilities supposed to encourage us to drown our lawns and gardens and let the excess run down our driveways and into storm drains to the ocean, algae bloom be damned? Robert DeLoach, the chief executive of the Cucamonga Valley Water District, admits it's a confusing idea. "We've changed our mind-set," he says. "Conserving water was an oxymoron for us five years ago. But as water has become more political, we've changed our thinking. Now we see ourselves as stewards. And we need to get serious and put our money where our mouths are."

That's all well and good, you say. But probably not very practical, right? I mean, who wants yucky gray water going into their cactus garden? Or those hideous-looking solar panels on the roof? They're nice ideas, but not very attractive. As Kermit used to say, it's not easy being green.

Actually, it is. And if you live in a house that was built in the last 30 years, it's already twice as green as an older home, thanks largely to a slew of energy regulations established in 1978 and known collectively as Title 24. New California standards, which take effect Oct. 1, tighten the screws even more. Residential replacement windows need to be high efficiency, kitchen hot water pipes in new construction must be insulated, outdoor lighting must be high-efficacy or include motion or light sensors. And that's just the start. If the Million Solar Roofs Initiative passes the state Legislature next year, California's use of solar power would significantly increase during the next 13 years.

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