At Coyote House, every day is an Earth Day


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Oh, how far we’ve come from Earth Days past — when the phrase “green home” conjured images of straw-bale structures, when solar panels seemed like such an earnest novelty, when “LEED certified” hadn’t yet crept into public consciousness.

With Earth Day 2012 almost upon us, nearly 60,000 homes in the United States are in the process of being certified in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Education and Environmental Design program, according to Nate Kredich, the organization’s vice president of residential market development. Need more convincing proof of just how far we’ve come? Take a peek at the new home of architect Ken Radtkey and landscape architect Susan Van Atta.


PHOTO GALLERY: 26-picture tour of Coyote House

INFOGRAPHIC: How the garden roofs, cisterns and other green elements work

The husband and wife’s three-bedroom house nestled into a Montecito hillside is dubbed the Coyote House, partly after the name of the couple’s street, partly after the howling critters in the area. Beyond its abundance of energy- and water-saving features, however, the house is notable for its utter normality: On the most basic level, it is simply a comfortable and beautiful family home.

“Designing sustainably was a given for us,” says Radtkey, founder of Blackbird Architects, a Santa Barbara firm with an emphasis on sustainable design. “But the most important goal was to make a great home.”

To that end, the house starts with a modern take on the veranda, right. A covered room overlooking the front garden has a sliding screen and front and back sets of glass pocket doors that can open to the outdoors or seal it off in various ways, depending on the season and weather.

A dozen highly flammable eucalyptus trees — by coincidence, cut down just months before the November 2008 Tea fire that swept through the region — were used to build the front door, kitchen table, bookcases, stairs and banister. Other materials used for interior appointments were sustainable too: Cabinets are bamboo, the floors are cork or salvaged stone, most of the walls unpainted plaster.


But the house does go beyond common green materials and approaches, the couple says, “fully engaging the site to reap an experiential quality of life.” (That’s Van Atta and Radtkey in the living area.) On the “mirador” above a second-floor bedroom, for example, solar panels configured as a pergola not only generate nearly all of the house’s electricity but also create a shady viewing deck. “We like to go up and sit on our porch swing and have drinks there,” Radtkey says.

The mirador looks out onto the second floor’s green roof, right, which Van Atta planted with sedum and dudleya. “Instead of looking out across a hot roof, we have a lovely green area to entertain friends,” she says. Combined with rooms that are partially bermed into the hillside, the green roof further merges the house into the landscape.

The main green roof is arced, so rainwater gently flows down to a lower rooftop meadow atop the garage, and from there to a gutter feeding a sophisticated series of cisterns. About 10,000 gallons of rainwater can be stored to irrigate the terraced garden, vegetable beds, fruit trees and a large lawn where the couple’s two sons play.

The water-wise lawn consists of native grass seeded into a 14-inch-deep pan of sand. When it needs watering, irrigation flows across the surface of the underground pan, reaching roots through a wicking effect and minimizing evaporation.

“Honestly, a lawn at a LEED platinum home may not make sense, but there’s a quality-of-life issue that you have to consider,” Radtkey says. “Our sons love volleyball and badminton, and we wanted a lawn for them to play on.”

Also on the playful side: five chickens in the side yard next to the kitchen. The cackling hens, pictured at right with the couple’s son, Kellen, have become family pets that eat leftovers, supply rich manure for the compost pile and produce fresh eggs daily. Near the bottom of the driveway, a new beehive will produce fresh honey for toast as well as pollinators for the orchard.


“It’s a pleasure to go out and pick the eggs, then make omelets for breakfast,” Van Atta says. “Right now we get about one-fifth of our food from the new garden and chickens, but we expect much more as the garden and orchard mature.”

Much of what the family has done can be seen as simultaneously looking forward and back, Radtkey says.

“A lot of the old-fashioned elements are common sense and have been around forever, like green roofs, proper orientation of the house for shade, using trees from the site to build furnishings and interior woodwork — not to mention having your own vegetables, fruit, fresh eggs and honey,” he says. “We take advantage of the latest thinking and newest materials in order to realize values people have had forever.”

-- Barbara Thornburg


Ken Radtkey and Susan Van Atta built a house that expresses their ideas about sustainable living through broad strokes and big gestures. But what about those who want to take baby steps? We asked the architect and landscape architect to share ideas for modest but relevant ways of making a home more sustainable. Five of their suggestions:

1. Create functional shade. A less expensive addition to the home could be a trellis that, in the right spot, not only provides a covered outdoor space to enjoy but also keeps the house cool in summer.


2. Plant deciduous trees. West-facing windows can be big culprits in heating houses and causing air-conditioning bills to spike. “A nice deciduous tree could save so much in cooling,” Radtkey says. The tree can provide shade in warm months but let in more light in winter, when leaves drop.

3. Grow edibles you actually eat. Radtkey and Van Atta are big believers that green habits are more likely to stick if the results are enjoyable. To that end, the landscape architect chose ornamental plants that bear fruit she likes to eat: a native woodland strawberry, a tasty golden currant and a pretty, almost evergreen blueberry called Bountiful Blue.

4. Grow native plants. Butterflies, bees and birds are attracted to native plants, which is why Van Atta, author of “Southern California Native Flower Garden,” follows the mantra: If it’s not edible, it’s native. Think of the yard as natural habitat, and the act of gardening as regenerating habitat.

5. Celebrate rain. Why send water to gutters and storm drains when we love streams and waterfalls so much? The simple addition of a rain chain can be beautiful and functional. At Coyote House, the roof and gutter purposely spill like waterfalls, so rain cascades into gravel trenches or properly drained areas with plants that thrive on winter water. Plant strategically to take advantage of how rain falls off roofs or flows from downspouts.


Sparing trees from the chipper


Refrigerator truck recycled into lofty tower

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Photo credits: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times