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Free appliances? For a price

Sponsors occasionally donate thousands of dollars in high-end goods to builders and designers. In exchange, manufacturers expect owners to open the homes for occasional public touring.

August 01, 2009|Paul Young

Would you like a new kitchen at a fraction of the cost? How about bathroom fixtures, Energy Star appliances and solar panels -- for free?

Some savvy Southern Californians have figured out how. An increasing number of entrepreneurs have persuaded companies such as bathroom fixture maker Kohler, appliance manufacturer Dacor and cabinet designer Bazzeo to provide free or discounted materials for newly built or remodeled homes. Nearly a dozen such houses have sprouted around Southern California. Virtually all are in the $1 million-to-$2 million range, though the freebies enabled owners to spend significantly less.

Why would a manufacturer be willing to donate as much as $100,000 worth of products to a home owner? This story is a hint to the answer: publicity. Think of it as swag on a grand scale. Just as a fashion house may give away its latest handbag so it can be seen attached to the arm of a much-photographed starlet, manufacturers of home appliances, fixtures and finishes are giving away their goods in hopes of being noticed in high-profile modern homes.

The catch: The homes have to showcase environmentally friendly design. Some manufacturers are going after projects with the U.S. Green Building Council's highest rating for sustainable design and building practices. Others go for green homes with celebrities attached to them. Regardless of who owns the place, manufacturers expect the homes to open for occasional public touring -- sometimes for a whole year -- and owners to discuss the virtues of the products in question, be it a CaesarStone countertop or General Electric appliance.

"There is a lot of interest in energy-efficient products right now," GE representative Allison Gatta said. "So we get involved with projects that are certifiably green and with high potential for education."

Kohler supplied high-efficiency, low-water fixtures in developer Tom Schey's new Venice house. (See related story.)

"Tom has been a great partner for us," Kohler spokesman Mark Mahoney said. "And we've looked to him for innovations as much as he has looked to us. His home is also a chance for us to learn."

Such arrangements are nothing new. Traditional show houses, often sponsored by a magazine or a nonprofit organization raising money for charity, call for designers to make over a residence for free, often using products that are donated in exchange for a promotional push. What makes the new green show houses different is not only the emphasis on sustainability, but also the fact that they often are, first and foremost, private residences owned and inhabited by the builders themselves, whose living space essentially becomes a billboard for sponsors.

Rick Byrd had little trouble convincing 35 companies to donate products to his remodel of a 4,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival home in Los Feliz last year. That's because the entire process was the subject of the television show "Alter Eco," starring "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier and airing on Planet Green, part of the Discovery Channel empire.

Byrd, a green development consultant, said the idea for the house originated from the show's producers. They gave him 14 weeks to complete an extensive remodel on a five-bedroom house that would earn LEED certification. Byrd recycled 96% of the construction waste and called on sponsors to install environmentally sensitive fixtures, appliances, cabinetry, flooring and a rainwater storage tank.

"We had over 100 guys working on it every day," said Byrd, who bought the house and moved in shortly after the show wrapped. His solar-power system, also provided for free, generates enough energy to heat the pool, run the air conditioner and power motorized blinds and a home theater.

"My cable bill is more than my electric bill," Byrd said.

Toto spokesman Allan Dallatorre said the Japanese luxury bath company looks for projects that are high-profile in other ways. One recent partner: Fernando Feldman, president of Go Green Construction, who is building his house in Westchester.

Three stories high with 4,300 square feet of living space, the house will attempt to lower its environmental impact by using recycled materials, minimizing waste and exceeding California's Title 24 energy standards by 63%.

There are no celebrities attached or any TV coverage planned, but Toto still agreed to donate dozens of water-saving devices, including high-end toilets and low-flow faucets. In exchange, Feldman will conduct educational programs for the public after the house's scheduled completion in October, Dallatorre said.

"He's also connected with a number of associations, such as ASID [American Society of Interior Designers]," Dallatorre said. "So we're guaranteed that people in the industry will be exposed to the product."

Manufacturers believe that kind of word of mouth may pay off more than traditional advertising or the old-school design show houses, which usually close within a month.

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