Home Ecology


By Bonnie Monte  |  

Roxanne Klein’s mouthwatering concoctions of coconut green curry soup, daikon radish ravioli, and mocha almond fudge ice cream have helped change the way people think about eating. Her raw foods restaurant, Roxanne’s, located in Larkspur, California, and the cookbook she coauthored, Raw (Ten Speed, 2003), are proof that living foods and gourmet cuisine are not mutually exclusive.

Now Roxanne and her husband, Michael Klein, have pulled off a similarly eye-opening feat in the realm of homebuilding: They’ve constructed a house on a knoll overlooking the San Francisco Bay that artfully melds inspiring design with sustainable materials and energy-efficient technology. “We were committed to preserving the natural beauty of the site,” Roxanne says. “We wanted the house to blend in with the
surroundings.”

The house is a wonder of curves and angles, with multiple wings emanating from the main building. Massive earthen columns, cast and dried over a period of months, rise like geological formations to form the backbone of the structure. Cascades of native plants flank the stairway leading to the house, giving way to a pair of fish ponds where the stairs meet the front entrance.

Inside, the space soars, with high ceilings, tall windows, majestic views, and light pouring in from above. The same striated earthen columns used outside reappear indoors, complemented by an organically shaped rammed-earth fireplace in the living room. The professionally equipped kitchen features a built-in waterfall, a nod to the feng shui principle of balancing the elements of fire and water. Other feng shui elements are incorporated throughout the design, such as generous openings into each room to promote energy flow. From walls to floors to furnishings, the color palette is derived from nature, enhancing the overall feeling of serenity.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Prior to the kleins’ taking ownership, the 15-acre property belonged to late rock impresario Bill Graham, who had a modest two-bedroom house on the site. But with Roxanne and Michael each requiring an office, and with four children in their blended family, “the house clearly wasn’t working,” Roxanne says. To remedy that, they turned to the environmentally sensitive team of architect Sim Van der Ryn of Sausalito, California, who served as state architect during Jerry Brown’s term as governor, and contractor David Warner, owner of Redhorse Constructors in San Rafael, California.

The original house was demolished to make way for a brand-new structure. Under the Kleins’ direction, virtually all debris was salvaged. Doors, windows, and other fixtures that could be reused were donated to nonprofits. The kitchen cabinets went to the architect’s new offices. Wood was reused as lumber whenever possible, and when that wasn’t feasible, it was chipped to serve as mulch. Concrete was crushed and used as gravel backfill against retaining walls. Other debris was mixed with cement and sprayed into walls for insulation. And some prized artifacts from Bill Graham’s occupancy were retained, such as his conversation-pit table, which resides in its original spot outdoors.


Just as much care went into the decision about what to bring in for the project. In choosing a material, its “embodiment of energy” was carefully considered—that is, the amount of resources used to produce it and get it to the site. Sometimes it made more sense to buy a product that required long-distance shipping because the overall impact turned out to be lower—for instance, a nontoxic paint from Australia that’s manufactured using a technique that was popular in ancient Greece.

All the wood brought in for framing and trim—much of it from the decommissioned Presidio army base in San Francisco—was either recycled or certified as sustainably harvested under the stringent standards of the Forest Stewardship Council. “The Kleins were very clear that they wanted no virgin wood in the house,” Van der Ryn says. Cabinets are made of recycled Douglas fir and FSC-certified ponderosa pine. Floors are natural stone or tan oak that were culled to reestablish indigenous connifer growth in Northern California.

The house is built largely of earth—rammed earth, precast earth, and sprayed earth. “Building a two-story earth house was filled with challenges,” Roxanne says. “It was a learning process for all concerned.” Earth was selected over concrete for its environmentally friendly nature; Portland cement contributes to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and thus global warming. “Its manufacture is responsible for 6 to 8 percent of global warming worldwide,” Van der Ryn explains, “because it takes so much heat to cook the limestone.”

His design strove to capture as much passive solar heat as possible by positioning the house on the site to soak up maximum sunlight. A radiant geothermal heat system coupled with hefty insulation keeps the house at a comfortable 68 to 70 degrees year-round. A sophisticated wastewater system that uses computerized valves and leaching ponds processes gray water for irrigating the organic gardens. Thanks to low-energy lighting, solar power supplies 60 percent of the house’s lighting needs during the summer.

Living Lightly

Another way the kleins strive to live lightly on the earth is through their food choices. Buying sustainably grown food and following a vegetarian diet help conserve diminishing resources. “It’s the No. 1 thing you can do for the environment,” Roxanne says firmly.

To supply both the restaurant and her own kitchen, Roxanne maintains a three-acre organic garden just down the hill from the house. Raised beds built of the same rosy-toned rammed earth as the house hold a mix of vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers. A greenhouse shelters bananas, papayas, lemon grass, and kaffir limes. In winter, tomatoes and other tender crops take up residence in the greenhouse. Four beehives supply honey. An orchard bears cherries, plums, peaches, persimmons, pomegranates, and figs. Kiwis and grapes twine along a fence. All of this abundance is fertilized regularly by compost and by occasionally allowing four fat chickens to wander the grounds.


Roxanne herself eats only raw food—nothing heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. “Above that temperature, the beneficial enzymes in the food break down, and your body has to work harder to digest it,” she explains. She finds that eating food as close as possible to its living state (what she calls “high-vibration”) is energizing: “When I lived in France, I had to have espresso in the morning. Now I wake up totally ‘on.’ And I have no dip in energy during the day.” She also credits her raw diet with vanquishing her allergies. As a professional chef, though, she has an avid interest in other cultures’ cuisines and will sample cooked foods when exploring them. But she often feels groggy and less sharp the next day—suffering from what she calls a “cooked-food hangover.”

Besides affecting her well-being, Roxanne finds that food heated beyond the enzyme-zapping 118 degrees simply doesn’t have the same intensity of flavor. “I experimented with different settings on the dehydrator. Once the temperature exceeded that number, the food’s essence changed,” she says. “It needed extra ingredients to bring out the flavor. I like to get as close as possible to an ingredient’s pure essence, to let it speak on its own in its natural state.” Still, she isn’t out to convert everyone to an all-raw diet. “I don’t preach,” she says. “I encourage people to try eating one raw meal a day and see how they feel.”

For Roxanne, her way of eating resonates with her yoga practice. “Just like I try to come closer to the essence of fruits and vegetables, my yoga practice is about connecting to my true self,” she says. “Nine years ago, I took my first yoga class and everything started to unfold.”

The crowning touch to the home is the detached yoga building, connected to the house by a covered walkway. It’s here that she studies with Devorah Sacks of Open Door Yoga in San Francisco. Roxanne plans to add a mural to one wall. But even without that, she’s supremely contented with the house and what it represents. “All the pieces have come together,” she says. “This house honors the expression of how I want to live on this planet.”

Green Home Resources

Bauwerk lime-based nontoxic paints www.bauwerk.com.au

Forest Stewardship Council www.fseus.org

Solar Energy International www.solarenergy.org

Solar Living Institute www.solarliving.org

Toxin-free furniture www.furnature.com

Bonnie Monte writes about gardens, homes, and decor from her perpetually under-construction home in San Anselmo, California.