Eco home tour models sustainable living in style

The design of the eco-friendly homes on the tour balance style, space and function.

JOSHUA TREE — For homeowners and builders looking to leave a smaller imprint on the environment, the 2019 Eco Homes Tour held Saturday showed how to use sustainable design features. Architect George Bennett opened the day with a presentation and didn’t spare the audience from considering the consequences of their everyday choices. 

“You all got up this morning with good intentions. Now for the guilt trip,” Bennett said. 

He detailed how our routines impact the environment. Our heated showers, cups of coffee and all our daily actions matter, he said.

“Even if it was fair trade, organic coffee, it had to be shipped here from thousands of miles away, so it has an embodied energy to it. Then you drove here, most of you in cars that are burning petrol chemicals. And now we are all gathered here breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide and contributing to greenhouse gases just by our very existence. So you can see how the discussion of sustainability quickly devolves into this existential crisis.”

Bennett described the ideal scenario for a sustainable lifestyle while also understanding the audience.

“The best thing you can do is live in an urban area with a high walk score, where you don’t need a car or you can take public transport to virtually any amenity or entertainment that you want. That is the most sustainable lifestyle, because you’re not spreading out in the environment,” he said. “Obviously none of us are here doing that. We want space. We want freedom.”

He offered tangible ways that people can do more in lieu of moving to densely populated cities.

“If you want to choose a site here in the desert, choose something that is already disturbed. If you can find something that has a wreck of a building on it … and improve that, that’s more sustainable then starting on a blank slate. Choose a site that already has utilities on it.”

He stressed orienting the building to maximize how it works with the seasons. A solid design includes a roof that provides solar heat in the winter time and shades the sun in the summer. Doors and windows should be placed to take advantage of the directions of the winds in order to let breezes come through the house for cooling. Fresh water use and black water waste are also key considerations.

A lot of the sustainable aspects that builders like to offer as options are becoming part of building code requirements.

“The technology keeps getting better. The building codes keep mandating a lot of these moves more and more. Whether people want it or not, it’s something that is progressing,” Bennett said.

Co-founders of the design and real estate company Baltic Sands Inc., Ida Alwin and Ewa Marais, discussed what went into designing their sustainable homes in Joshua Tree and their inspiration for getting into the industry.

“The desert really lends itself to that kind of thing, because there is not as much infrastructure,” Alwin said. “It is actually really easy to go off-grid in the desert and I’m surprised there aren’t more homes that are off-grid. We saw this as an opportunity to not only build sustainable homes, but also educate people. You can live in a normal house and generate your own power.” 

They also discussed how the move toward off-grid sustainability can potentially help mitigate the consequences of California’s wildfires.

“It’s a really important thing. Besides being a little business, we are hopefully doing something good,” Marais said.

Baltic Sands organized the tour in association with Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty, B&O and Tesla.

Barbara Thole-Testa came from La Quinta to check out the Eco Homes Tour after seeing it mentioned in the news. She described what she saw as advantages to off-grid living.

“Knowing that you have a place that is going to be existing in a clear, clean, contained way without any need for outside utilities or anything like that. It’s a no-brainer in this part of California to have solar panels. It’s a better way to live for the earth,” Thole-Testa said.

Suzan Fromm, Biija Planes and Janie Cowan also came from the low desert to check out the event. The three women spoke about looking into Earthships and other forms of sustainable housing. The homes on the Eco Homes Tour were fancier than what they anticipated.

“It’s pretty widespread economic levels. You can do it on a large scale or a small scale,” Cowan said.

“I like the small imprint living idea,” said Fromm, who has been in the real estate business for 20 years.

“I’m excited to see community come together around sustainability and actually living on a smaller imprint,” Planes said.

Bennett acknowledged the power and potential of people’s efforts and encouraged them to continue.

“We know that we have an impact, so let’s talk about what we can do to minimize that impact … and offset that impact with something that is positive. That’s what all your good intentions are for,” he said.

“If you’re generating all the power from the sun, that’s running all the systems in your home and it’s charging your electric car to get here, you’re having much less of an environmental impact. Your bills are going to go down, you’re not going to feel as guilty about what you’re doing. If each and every one of you does something, we’re already going in the right direction.”

He also spoke about a future where we attain even higher sustainability goals.

“We can do better than net zero. The technology exists today to build net positive homes so not only are we not consuming energy, but we’re contributing energy back to the grid. So there’s a lot to look forward to.”

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