For homeowners with a green conscience and a pot of gold

Times Staff Writer

IF you think consulting a feng shui expert on the design of the monkey enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo was a reasonable expense, this book might appeal to you.

“Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House” by Carol Venolia and Kelly Lerner is zealous in its promotion of “green” living. It’s also full of ideas for, as the cover blurb says, “bringing your home into harmony with nature.” But it downplays the costs and building skills required. Many of the testimonials in the book are from architects, green-building designers and builders expounding on their own projects -- enhancing their portfolios as well as their homes.

The authors take a holistic approach: the home as part of an ecosystem. Climate is the first consideration in designing a structure or rehabilitating an existing building.


For instance, the design of a traditional East Coast saltbox maximizes sunlight and minimizes heat loss by having windows on the southern side and a steep, sloping northern side with less space to heat.

The authors present a section within each chapter of projects that can be done with little expense to lower energy costs and enhance beauty, such as planting deciduous trees and vines on south-facing walls in our hot, dry climate, creating shade in summer and letting in sunshine in winter. They argue that green remodeling is preferable to building from scratch with eco-friendly materials, and that redesigning an existing structure to use space more efficiently may be the best solution.

But this rambling book -- with quotations from the likes of quasi-Zen writer Richard Bach (“Jonathan Livingston Seagull”) and homeowners who see opportunity where someone on a budget might see calamity -- is likely to frustrate the reader.

For example, Portland, Ore., homeowners Anna Debenham and Charles Kingsley’s discovery that their home’s furnace “was ancient and had no ducting to the second floor left them free to install a hydronic radiant heating system.” Left them free? Some homeowners would be sticking their heads in their energy-efficient ovens when told they were facing a cost of $10 per square foot before installation.

“It’s a luxury,” said Bryan Morris of Warmzone, a distributor in Salt Lake City.

Missing are “before” pictures of most of the projects, including an 800-square-foot outdoor “green room” in New Mexico where the homeowner installed a composting toilet and a wetland to recycle and purify gray water -- wastewater emitted from the dishwasher, bathtub or washing machine. It’s a neat idea, but just coincidently, the homeowner is an associate professor of architecture and planning at the University of New Mexico. Perhaps one shouldn’t try this at home without a degree in architecture or a related field.

The book includes some good resources, such as websites for green building materials and pesticide reduction, but other sources date to 1974.

Green building and remodeling is a worthwhile issue and there is a lot of valuable information in this book. You learn that buying locally saves fossil fuel, how to find salvage materials and the best materials for each job. But the book jacket’s promise that “you’ll have the tools you need to create a beautiful green haven that’s uniquely your own” should be followed by the caveat: probably not without a contractor, a carpenter and an equity line of credit.