We did not opt for "eco-conscious" design to appease our preservationist neighbors. We did it to lighten the decision-making load and lessen our guilt over axing seven elderly trees.
Before earth movers can sink their claws into our future home site on the north tip of Half Moon Bay, guys with chain saws must whack down a thicket of 100-foot-tall Monterey pines. We're told that they're sick, infested with beetles. An arborist confirms the diagnosis, and a county planner agrees.
Knowing that the felled trees will crush untold numbers of banana slugs that reside on our hillside, we nonetheless apply for a tree removal permit, tag the trunks with yellow tape that signals their fate and wait for trouble. The real estate agent who sold us the lot had warned us that we would face some sort of save-the-tree drama. "The locals are loco that way," she said matter-of-factly.
It's true. Many people along our stretch of coast despise the tidy appearance of clipped lawns and flower beds. This isn't to suggest that they skip yard enhancement altogether: They'll hammer abalone shells to their redwood fences or fill their yards with assorted boats, some on trailers and some not.
Understandably eager to protect the still plentiful pockets of green that define the area's character, these same people flatten or steal "for sale" signs on undeveloped parcels. In public forums, they run off developers who dare to unfurl plans for "luxury homes starting in the 900s," even if the proposed tract of starter castles includes the enticement of land for a new middle school. When an arsonist torched the four-story skeleton of a beachfront hotel, some anti-development hard-liners applauded the crime.
But we tell friends that laziness, not fear of a charred frame, motivated us to apply an eco-filter to the house-designing process. What may seem like extra work actually winnows the list of choices — in qualified architects, in construction materials, even in contractors — and thus reduces the overall odds of domestic conflicts.
Our sliver (roughly 60 feet by 150 feet) of land already dictated that we obey eco-edict No. 1: Keep it small. After spending the first in a series of summer vacations in a three-room cabin with our two midsize sons, we returned to our 3,000-square-foot house full of contempt for its shoebox shape, its formal rooms and its squandered space, including a double-wide upstairs hallway that never sees the sun and a kitchen with 21 mostly empty oak cabinets. Who owns that much stuff?
We started to imagine a contemporary place with the kick-back atmosphere of that Montana vacation spot, minus the mice and bats. Borrowing from the "not so big house" concept popularized by architect Sarah Susanka, our earliest mental sketches incorporate one big kitchen-eating-living room, a multipurpose "away room" — the California equivalent of a basement, for head-banging teenagers — and three bedrooms. At one point during the conceptual phase, I also get disturbingly excited about the prospect of custom built-ins, such as hinged and hollow (for suitcase storage) window seats and a well-placed "drop zone," a depository for car keys, mail and backpacks.
Our San Francisco architect, John Halley, delivers all that and a passive-solar system in about 2,800 square feet by notching four levels into the steep slope. He steers us toward a tightly edited palette of building materials that means fewer exhaust-spewing delivery trucks will visit our site. Despite the narrow lot and the often baffling county constraints on building height and footprint, Halley also manages to give almost every room a view, either of the big-wave magnet Maverick's, which breaks out past the fishing boats in Pillar Point Harbor, or of the sticky monkeyflower and vigorous young pines beyond the backdoor.
The up-front energy investment — $20,868 alone for the purchase and installation of heat-sucking atrium glass — will pay off in the long run with lower Pacific Gas & Electric bills. But hiring a local contractor and local subcontractors to reduce commuter traffic to the site helps only the air quality and the local economy, not our costs. Most of our future neighbors selected a builder from a larger pool of inland competitors.
As for the sickly trees, those unlucky seven displaying what the certified arborist called "sparse foliar canopy and branch and twig dieback," nobody steps forward to plead for clemency during the public notice period. We're suspicious but hopeful of avoiding a showdown. We book the services of a guy named Tim whose truck we had seen around town. He and his crew live on the Oregon coast, but he says they will swoop in for our job.
On the appointed day, Tim watches from below as one of his men shinnies through rivulets of sap, fires up the saw and lops off a treetop. Before it hits the ground, someone with an ear cocked for the sound of metal chewing on wood calls the sheriff. Tim calls us on his cell, completely calm because he's used to this.
We spend the rest of the morning going door to door with the permit, and after much explaining about the miserable state of the trees (really, they're harboring a beetle that's ravaging the West), Tim goes back to work, paving the way for work to begin this spring on the house.
In less than a year we'll be stepping over a boat to get to that coveted drop zone.