But you do, and the floor-to-ceiling glass enclosing Rosen's den and living room is cool to the touch, despite the blazing weather outside. This is triple-glazed glass filled with argon gas, and it lets in sunlight (which saves electricity and lightbulbs) and insulates against heat in the summer and cold in the winter.
Try a glass of the Rosens' chlorine-free purified water from the low-flow kitchen faucet. Have a seat on the curved blue couch in the sunny living room, built from wheat board and formaldehyde-free foam and upholstered with untreated cotton fabric. Its pillows are filled with kapok, a natural seed fiber.
One glance through the house will tell you that green building isn't the same thing it was a decade ago, when eco-consciousness first began to drift into the corners of the mainstream. There is nothing plain, stark or utilitarian about this 4,000-square-foot house resting on the edge of Mandeville Canyon; instead, sunlight drifting through windows and skylights illuminates an interior landscape constructed of clean, modern lines and infused with vibrant color. It isn't palatial, but neither is it ascetic, not by a long shot.
As the Rosens testify, living green is no longer a kind of countercultural penance in which you must forgo comfort, personal style and your retirement savings in order to give back to the environment. In the last five years, green architecture firms, publications and building materials have leapt from relative niche obscurity to the forefront of culture and design. Even the big home improvement chains such as Home Depot and Lowe's now stock green materials — say, certified wood harvested from renewable sources — and independent green building stores are opening throughout the country.
Five years ago "you would mention green building and get a lot of blank stares," says Alex Wilson, executive editor of the monthly newsletter Environmental Building News, a veritable bible for anybody leaning toward green. "Today it's a known term for an increasingly large portion of the population."
That "known term" is relative, of course. What "green" means to one person is rarely what it means to another. By most estimates, green living mixes varying amounts of ecological sensitivity, social responsibility and concern for your health. These days builders and remodelers can easily put together a diverse palette of materials and techniques that fulfill all three requirements.
A clue to green's newfound popularity lies here with the Rosens. This is their second stab at eco-renovation; their first project, redoing a Santa Monica condominium in 1992, began as a purely aesthetic endeavor. They had heard talk of "sick buildings," Rosen says, "of people who lived in mobile homes which were made out of plywood and were very tightly sealed, and these people were getting sick." So in the spirit of caution they decided to avoid oil-based paints and materials that contained formaldehyde.
Rosen pulls out an article about a 2004 decision by the World Health Organization to upgrade formaldehyde — a chemical found in many household products, such as glues, plywood and furniture foam — from a probable carcinogen to a known one. Once considered junk science, the theory that chemicals in building products tend to "off-gas," or seep into the indoor environment, and thus into our lungs has by now gained significant scientific credence.
"It's that new-car smell," says Monica Gilchrist of the Green Building Resource Center in Santa Monica. "It's the smell of a new carpet. It's that new-desk smell — you bring in a new desk, and the panels are put together with a glue that contains formaldehyde. Off-gassing is the continual emission of the chemicals from the product. And these chemicals are found in blood levels over time."
The Rosens say that finding nontoxic alternatives wasn't easy in the early '90s, but the difficulty only galvanized their intent. They pored over what literature was available and plugged into the fledgling green building community centered at Eco Home, a modest Los Feliz bungalow that since 1977 has been the home and laboratory of self-taught green renegade Julia Russell. And then they met Rick Graham, a Studio City-based designer with an interest in sustainable design. Graham has remained a friend and trusted advisor ever since. When the Rosens wanted their own house, Graham walked with them through the Mandeville Canyon property and began planning its greening.
The health component of green building is intertwined with energy efficiency, with trying to live within our environmental means — after all, a dilapidated planet is perhaps the largest health risk imaginable. Like a growing number of folks, the Rosens believe that our indulgent lifestyle is hardly sustainable. As "ozone depletion" and "global warming" enter the mainstream vocabulary, as hybrid cars begin to frequent our freeways, what was once perceived as a leftist rant is becoming a societal priority.
Buildings, it turns out, use twice as much energy as cars do — and roughly 70% of all electricity in the United States goes to power buildings, says Robert Watson, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City. And much of that electricity comes from the consumption of nonrenewable fossil fuels.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set a goal of 1 million buildings producing solar energy by 2018, with half of all new homes powered by the sun. The Rosens have joined the effort: About a third of their electricity comes from photovoltaic cells installed on the roof, while a separate solar panel heats their hot water.
Systems like these are expensive, but as Rosen sees it, you have to look at the entire equation rather than simply the start-up cost. When the photovoltaic cells produce more electricity than is currently being used, the excess energy feeds back into the grid and the calibrated power meter actually runs backward, reducing the couple's utility bill. By Al Rosen's calculation, he and Myra should recoup their investment in about 10 years — and then start saving money.
Working closely with Graham, "we have done almost everything you can do on the list of environmental and nontoxic construction," Rosen says.
Just look around the living room. The hardwood flooring is certified cherry, protected with a sealer made from vegetable oil and natural waxes. The blue-and-gray throw rug is woven from natural fibers and dyed with plant pigments. The coffee table, designed by Graham, replaces formaldehyde-laden plywood with wheat board — literally boards made from wheat straw, held together with formaldehyde-free adhesive — and it's veneered with cork and painted with nontoxic paint. Graham also designed the couch.
The walls beyond are coated with paint that emits no volatile organic compounds, and if the walls were opened you would see that much of the plywood has been replaced with wheat board and other natural alternatives. The typical fiberglass insulation has been replaced with recycled cotton insulation — and cotton is also embedded beneath floors and above ceilings to increase energy efficiency.