A House for Spaceship Earth
An environmentalist builds a home that gives as much as it takes.
By Jennifer Martin
Traveling through Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Helene Marsh saw two different worlds. On one hand, the Velvet Revolution had created a new, energetic free market. On the other, the environment was degraded from many years of industrial activity.
“I experienced intense smog, walked through forests that were devastated by acid rain, saw the grime of factories on buildings,” Marsh said. “I met people affected by the pollutants in their workplace.”
The experience was a sobering one. After moving back to her hometown of Santa Barbara and earning a master’s degree in environmental science, Marsh intensified her environmental advocacy … and resolved to build an eco-friendly home like no other.
She made her dream come true in 2008, after moving to San Francisco with her family. Choosing a home with views of the North Bay, she converted the residence into a building that would receive accreditation from the renowned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating Systems.
“We deconstructed the old house by hand,” Marsh said. “Ninety percent of the house was donated, recycled and/or reused, including 10 tons of lumber.”
Marsh worked with architects and general contractors who were well-versed in LEED standards. The architect designed the roof and eaves to maximize solar gain in the winter and minimize it in the summer. Well-positioned solar panels provide electricity and power to water heaters.
The floor plan of the house is centralized around a vertical stair to minimize circulation for people and utilities. The rooms spiral away from this core to take advantage of the views and the garden.
Most materials used in the project came from suppliers within 500 miles. Western Red Cedar, known for its sustainability and low environmental impact, was used as siding. A sophisticated water reclamation system diverts rainwater to washing machines and toilets; meanwhile, “gray water” from washing machines, lavatory sinks and showers is used to irrigate the yard.
The house took only 18 months to complete, from excavation to move-in. “We were thrilled to be able to do it so quickly,” Marsh said. “It requires a lot of focus and a determination to keep things on track.”
Marsh’s energy bills have dropped by 80 to 85 percent. “By having the solar panels, we’re giving as much back to the grid as we’re using,” she said.
The home earned 114 points under the LEED rating system, going well beyond the 92 required to achieve LEED’s platinum certification (the highest rating possible). For Marsh, the extra measures were a personal choice, as was the LEED achievement. “You don’t have to get a LEED certification to build a home that’s well-insulated, well-designed and takes into account the passage of the sun,” she said.
Marsh has opened the house to “green building” tours in her local area. She credits McDonald Construction and Butler Armsden Architects for the experience and insight to make her vision a reality. “It’s one thing to look at plans on paper, and another to have the house physically present,” she said. “My family is very happy.”