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Elegant Solutions in Eco Dream Home

Coyote House, a living design lab, offers beauty as a way to solve design challenges.
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Located on a thin slice of land between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, California's Montecito is home to a few movie star mansions. However, most of the homes in the area are a modest mixture of closely spaced coastal homes and more remote — and as it turned out, flammable — mountain homes, some not much more than improved-upon cabins.

That used to be the case for Ken Radtkey and his wife, Susan Van Atta, who for 10 years lived in an un-insulated 800-square-foot cottage on a wooded mountain lot. Just before last year's Tea Fire burned a 2,000-acre swath of Montecito and adjacent Santa Barbara (the home of Miller-McCune), ravaging the homes of many of their neighbors, they demolished and recycled the rustic house to make way for what has become the first residence in the area to be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program as LEED Platinum, the organization's highest level of certification.

The couple are the founders and principal architects of Blackbird Architects Inc. and Van Atta Associates — an award-winning landscape architecture firm — respectively, and have used the combined forces of their talented design teams, as well as their own creativity, to conceive a replacement for their tiny old home.

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The implications of their project run much deeper than merely building a new house for the couple and their 9-year-old son. According to Radtkey, the design process has served as a living laboratory for innovation, combining cutting-edge green building techniques with interactive site design that he hopes will not only make the house a pleasant place to live, but will also serve as an example of how a building can be designed with a strong connection to the land on which it stands.

"It's an example of what we wish more people would do, and that's why we've done it," he said, noting that a back-to-basics approach was used in order to keep costs reasonable and to avoid relying upon expensive mechanical solutions to design problems. "The project is a research avenue for us. We see it as a functional set of cycles, and the more of those you can get to work together, the more interesting the project."

Far different from the nearby mansions of billionaires Oprah Winfrey and Beanie Baby creator Ty Warner, Coyote House, appearing large at first, is a modest affair achieving the effect of having a cavernous interior while maintaining a bag of energy efficiency tricks designed to be monitored from a home computer. During the design process, the bottom line has been "keep it simple," Radtkey said.

Nearly complete, the modern-looking home is called Coyote House, after the long, winding mountain road that leads to it. Ensconced among coast live oaks, the house is situated about halfway up the mountain slope, offering a dramatic view of the coastal plain below, as well as the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. Many of the neighbors, living in recreational vehicles and trailers, are still rebuilding homes lost in the fire.

Considering the benefits that can be had by including useful aesthetic elements — such as onsite fruit trees, natural lighting and fire-resistant native vegetation, Radtkey and Van Atta have come up with a space that is open, flexible and comfortable. "The visual identity may be forward-looking, but the function and performance of the building relies upon basic principles that people have been using for thousands of years," Radtkey said.

At a time when many Americans live in mass-produced homes that were, in some cases, arbitrarily placed upon a grid pattern devised to fit a certain number of homes on an equally arbitrary tract of land, situating a home on a lot based upon the site's characteristics isn't something that most people are familiar with. For Radtkey and Van Atta, a property's natural components are, literally and figuratively, the foundation upon which each building they design is configured.

"A connection to land and outside is essential. The more complex the interaction between a site's systems, the more rich the experience, and the more potentially sustainable and appropriate the project. Good design has a lot of performance benefits, but it's also experiential," Radtkey said.

Coyote was designed with the same big-picture view, but since the timetable hasn't been rushed by customer demand, more time could be taken to assess the site and experiment with different ways to work with its characteristics. "We're having an opportunity to see firsthand how these things work," said Van Atta, adding that they used drip irrigation on one part of the roof garden, and overhead spray irrigation on another to see what results they come up with.

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Beginning with a detailed study of the site's natural processes — water, sunlight and plant growth cycles (they were also fortunate enough to observe the fire cycle before construction began) — the design process undertaken by Blackbird's and Van Atta's architects was a team effort that culminated in a stout list of innovative features. Most of the lot is sloped, so the house is built into the hillside, addressing most of its insulation needs as well as providing a way to blend roofline — which is planted with a variety of native plant species — into the landscape.

Large windows on the south-facing exposure of the house provide a versatile sunlight collection area — the main room on the ground floor has a large area that can be isolated with sliding glass doors in order to trap the sun's heat in the winter, or increase circulation during the summer, as well as keep out insects during summer — while its configuration allows for a natural thermal stacking effect to create ventilation.

Radiant hot water heating elements in the floor are heated by a solar electric power, but also have 96 percent efficient auxiliary gas-powered flash boilers, eliminating the dry, allergy-exacerbating air created by conventional forced-air heating systems. "People also like the comfort of it because it gives you warm feet," said Radtkey.

Photovoltaics, with a battery backup, provide electric power, and a distributed onsite cistern system has a 10,100 gallon capacity, including a 5,000-gallon, aquifer-mimicking sand bed beneath the lawn and bocce court in the front yard. The hope is that the water in the sand bed will irrigate the lawn more efficiently than conventional sprinklers, but it can also be pumped for immediate access to water to fight fires.

The actual structure of the house — the non-combustible concrete shell, steel cross beams, and wooden stairs and cabinetry — is made largely of recycled materials. The concrete is 50 percent fly ash, eliminating much of the carbon-intensive Portland cement usually needed for material strength. The steel comes from mills in Southern California that get 90 to 95 percent of their steel from recyclers. With the exception of the doors, which are made from wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, wood used in the house comes from eucalyptus trees felled on the property to allow more direct sunlight for the photovoltaic array and to create a defensible fire protection space around the house.

While the LEED certification is an obvious selling point for the project's positive qualities, Radtkey said that the design elements they considered for Coyote House went beyond its requirements.

"LEED, as we see it, is an evolving points/checklist approach, and the first versions were rough guides to increase the projects' performance and make them less toxic. The versions that have come along have been geared toward a whole system approach, and that's where we've tried to be ahead of LEED," he said.

One of the challenges the couple faced was finding appropriate lighting sources, as not much that is all at once efficient, attractive and dimmable is currently available. "When you set out to do this, it's not as easy as it sounds. It will get easier as more people do it and learn from what we and others have done," said Van Atta, comparing the lighting situation to her initial foray into using native plant species in landscape design years ago. Back then, they were very difficult to find, but she said using native plants has become much more mainstream.

A recent visit to the property showed Coyote House very close to completion. The photovoltaic panels are already functioning and producing power, with the electric meter running backwards as proof. Complete building systems monitoring has, until now, been a phenomenon reserved largely to commercial and institutional setups, but Radtkey hopes that his design team will be able to find a cost-effective approach that can be more universally used by people looking to make their homes more efficient and comfortable.

While the house is very different from what most of us have come to expect from home design, it has been a trial-and-error process the couple said will pave the way toward more ergonomic, more sustainable living.

"We want to make these solutions beautiful, because that's a way to popularize them," said Van Atta. "This house isn't about sacrifice, it's all about abundance. We want to build a more beautiful home that's more livable and more pleasing because it works with its environment."

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