Eco-friendly home reveals ‘greener’ pastures ahead [SLIDESHOW]


As scientists continue to warn us that our over-consumption of natural resources is putting too great a strain on our planet, the idea of sustainability — of reducing one’s carbon footprint, recycling and finding a cleaner, greener future — has never been more popular. And while the green trend has been picking up steam in the home-building world, there aren’t many places where it’s been more evident than at the new Vision House in Pacific Palisades, and in the work of its interior designer, Jill Wolff.

The Vision House is a concept of Green Builder Media, a leading national North American media company focused on green building and sustainable development, who previously constructed Vision Houses — state-of-the-art, environmentally conscious dwellings — in cities such as Orlando, Fla., and Aspen, Colo. Two years ago, Robert Kleiman, one of the co-founders of Los Angeles-based Structure Home, was looking to become more green in his own home designs. He noticed Green Builder’s leadership in the area and contacted the firm for help.

“It’s easy to learn individually how to build green,” said Kleiman, speaking by phone from his offices, “but it’s hard to teach a whole culture.” Kleiman knew that with Green Builder’s help, Structure Home could learn from the best, and so the Vision House Los Angeles was born. 

Wolff, the owner and founder of Jill Wolff Interior Design, has worked on more than 300 homes in the Los Angeles area over the past 25 years. The Vision House, however, presented a new challenge for her, and a learning experience. “I learned so much about green design and sustainability on this project,” Wolff said. 

Touring the home, which sits on a gently sloping residential street in Pacific Palisades, offers a master class in the use of space. The house sits on a long, narrow lot that “was actually the swimming pool for the house next door,” according to Wolff, who tailored much of her design, in concert with the architects, to make “it feel like it’s not just a skinny, narrow, bowling alley kind of house.”

The main entrance is at the center of the home, leading on one side into a spacious living and dining area with tall, movable glass walls that open onto a carefully landscaped back yard. On the other side, a downstairs office sports huge glass doors that let in ample natural light. Nothing about the home feels cramped or narrow. 

“From the exterior you have an anticipation of what it’s going to be,” Wolff said. “But when you walk through the door and you see the comfort level and the coziness and the warmth of the materials that are used, it takes you on a different trip.” Much of the home’s colorful and often-whimsical art was made by graduates of Otis College of Art and Design.

Wolff said she got her start in design at an early age. “I decided that I wanted to be an interior designer when I was 8 years old,” she said, laughing. “I decided that because my mom’s best friend was an interior decorator, and she had decorated our house, and I had loved the whole process of it. I thought it was so fun and so creative.”

After high school, she studied at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “I was lucky enough to intern with a big-time Hollywood designer named Barbara Lockhart, and that just clinched the whole deal,” Wolff said. “I had all these great women that influenced me in my career, and I’ve been working ever since.”

The Vision House was an unusual project for Wolff, she said. “Since it’s a spec house, and I didn’t really have clients, I created a faux family … a kind of fantasy of who the family is going to be.” The house abounds with recycled materials, including a wagon wheel that has been turned into a mirror and corrugated cardboard shaped into surprisingly beautiful light fixtures.

The home also showcases technology such as hydronic radiant heating, solar panels and a gray-water system with ultraviolet disinfection. “The Vision House has the latest in technology, but I want people to see that if they’re clever and if they think about it, they can bring a level of sustainability into their own homes,” said Wolff. “Anything is a start.”

Most of all, Wolff shows that green living can be fun and fashionable: “I really want people to see that it can be comfortable, it can be cozy … and it can be unexpected,” Wolff said. “It’s not just green to be green. It’s green to create a better life for someone.”

Making one day’s worth of consumption last for eight


And on the fifth day, I learned how not to compost.

It was a sunny mid-November morning when I found out that potato peels, celery tops and other vegetable pieces — in other words, most of the 7 pounds of organic matter I had been saving in my refrigerator’s crisper drawer for the past four days — were, in fact, still food.

“What’s wrong with that carrot?” Danila Oder, the manager of the Crenshaw Community Garden, asked. She looked down, horrified, at my contribution to her garden’s compost bin and plucked the floppy, slimy orange root off the top of the pile. “What you’re throwing out here — that’s vegetable stock.”

I took the carrot from Oder’s hand, picked the least yucky-looking bits of vegetable matter out of the black plastic drum and stuffed them back in my blue plastic bag.

What began as a simple, circumscribed idea for an article — reducing oil consumption on Chanukah — had somehow morphed into an all-encompassing challenge: To make a single day’s worth of the stuff we consume last for eight days. The experiment was loosely inspired by one of Chanukah’s miracles in which oil that was to have lasted for one day instead burned for eight. I intended to reduce my consumption of petroleum, electricity and water by 87.5 percent. Since transporting food from farm to table also involves burning fossil fuel, I decided I would buy only the most local, least-processed food I could find. I also committed to cutting out the trash I would produce by seven-eighths, as well — which helps explain why I was keeping decomposing vegetable scraps in my refrigerator in the first place.

All this is not exactly in my nature. I am a very particular kind of environmentalist — a lazy one. I buy reusable shopping bags and then forget to bring them to the store. I found author Jonathan Safran Foer’s environmentally based argument against eating animals wholly convincing but haven’t been able to kick meat from my diet. A bit of Web searching showed me that “hypermiler” drivers can get more than 40 miles to the gallon driving their 2001 Honda Civics; I don’t remember the last time I checked my tire pressure.

I believe I’m not alone in wishing that environmentally friendly living were easy, in wishing it didn’t require much thought. Unfortunately, as I found out when I decided to take my own personal environmental impact seriously — some might say altogether too seriously — choosing to live more lightly on the land does take some thought, and re-enacting the miracle that took place in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period in 21st century Los Angeles required equal parts creative thinking and hard work. For eight days, I commuted by bike. I captured half of the water from every highly efficient shower and used it to flush my toilet. I checked my electric meter every morning. I weighed the contents of my garbage can every night.

By the Numbers

What We Use in a Day:
Water: 83 gallons per person per day (for apartment dwellers, LADWP)
Electricity: 16.9 kilowatt hours per residential customer per day (2009, LADWP)
Food (average miles from farm to table): 1,500 miles
Trash: 3.3 pounds per person per day (includes refuse, recycling and yard trimmings, Los Angeles City, 2009)
Petroleum (miles driven): Average weekday car commute in Los Angeles County: 25 miles round trip (Southern California Association ofGovernments 2008 Regional Transportation Plan)

What the Author Used in Eight Days:
Water: 100 gallons*
Electricity: 30 kilowatt hours
Food (average miles from farm to table): It’s nearly impossible to measure.
Trash: 24 pounds (10 pounds recycling, 7 pounds compost, 7 pounds refuse)
Petroleum (miles driven): 36.5 miles *Or thereabouts. And he didn’t do laundry that week.

And when the experiment was over, I found that I had overshot my target numbers in every one of the five categories of consumption — in one case by more than 600 percent. Still, what I learned along the way was more than worth the effort.

Chanukah is more often associated with gift giving than with conservation. But Adam Berman, who has been working at the intersection of Judaism and the environment for 20 years, has long known that environmental messages can be found in every Jewish holiday, and Chanukah is no exception.

“There was this obscure part of the holiday, that there was a race against time that had to do with running out of oil,” Berman said. “We don’t use oil lamps anymore,” Berman continued, but with only 14 percent of our electricity coming from renewable sources like hydroelectric plants, wind farms and solar panels, the miracle’s lesson could still be made applicable. “The light that we use in our homes comes from a finite resource,” Berman said.

In 2006, the documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” inspired activists concerned about climate change across American communities to action. Green Jews have been using Chanukah as an opportunity to organize their communities around issues of sustainability and renewable energy for years. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, first drew attention to the holiday’s “conserve-oil aspect” in 2001. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) runs an annual program to increase environmental consciousness through actions around Chanukah nearly every year. In 2006, Liore Milgrom-Elcott drew on Waskow’s work to devise COEJL’s campaign to get Jews to switch from incandescent to more energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). This year, COEJL director Sybil Sanchez has used the organization’s Web site to promote a number of programs, all of which are dedicated to getting Jews and Jewish communities to “use less oil, rely less on fossil fuels, [and ] emit less greenhouse gas emissions.”

Eco-stunts like mine are not original. Any writer embarking on such a path is, at some point, going to come across Colin Beavan, the writer better known as No Impact Man.

Briefs: Kosher grasshoppers and eco-Torah


Kosher Animal Kingdom

Is giraffe kosher? What about peacock? Or bison? (What is bison anyway?) Find answers to these mysteries of the edible animal kingdom next week at the Orthodox Union’s (OU) “Halachic Adventure” in Los Angeles, which will present the traditional perspective on all different types of species. The first day of the Aug. 5-7 conference is open to the public (the other two days are for rabbis and kashrut professionals).

Sunday, Aug. 5 will begin with an all-day session at the OU (cost $15), with speakers such as Rabbi Steven Weil discussing growing up on a cattle farm and the “two Aris” — Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan, who have devoted years to investigating which species are kosher. They hope to restore kosher status wherever possible to animals, fish and poultry that at one time might have been acceptable but whose status is now in doubt, or have been considered kosher only in a limited area.

“Kashrut is something that’s very popular,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, director of community and synagogue services for the OU West Coast. “Many people are concerned with what they’re putting on their table and are interested in what animals are kosher.”

The public is also invited to a 15-course meal Sunday night at Prime Grill (cost $175), where plates of quail, red deer, bison, udder, partridge and yak will be served. For more information, call (310) 229-9000, ext. 200 or e-mail westcoast@ou.org.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Torah With a Green Lens Jews have long been involved in saving the world — especially when it comes to the environment — so they should be happy to know that’s what the Torah commands. “Bring Torah Down To Earth,” a three-hour seminar, will explore the Torah-based approach to activism and ecology.

Sponsored by the Happy Minyan, a Shlomo Carlebach-style synagogue, the outdoor workshop will be led by Israeli rabbis from Yeshiva Simchat Shlomo, the Carlebach yeshiva in Jerusalem, which recently began the Eco-Activist Beit Midrash.

“We hope to become a serious center for a deep Torah ecology, connected to our ancestral land and our modern people, cultivating a cadre of rooted, informed and inspired activists to bring lights of tikkun [fixing] into our own communities and the world,” the program introduction reads. Yeshiva Simchat Shlomo (www.shlomoyeshiva.org/eco/) leads Torah ecology seminars in Israel for Birthright.

“A lot of people wouldn’t put Torah and green together in a million years,” said David Sacks, a member of the Happy Minyan. “Most people see it as a good thing to do, rather than as part of the Torah’s vision of the world — not just taking care of people in the world, but the world itself.” The seminar will take place July 29 from noon to 3 p.m. at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills.

— AK