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Home Ecology

For Roxanne and Michael Klein, living well means living in balance with the earth. From the food they eat to the materials they used to construct their home, the Kleins have a lifestyle that reflects their philosophy of honoring nature.

By Bonnie Monte


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.

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