Would you like a new kitchen at a fraction of the cost? How about bathroom fixtures, Energy Star appliances and solar panels -- for free?
Some savvy Southern Californians have figured out how. An increasing number of entrepreneurs have persuaded companies such as bathroom fixture maker Kohler, appliance manufacturer Dacor and cabinet designer Bazzeo to provide free or discounted materials for newly built or remodeled homes. Nearly a dozen such houses have sprouted around Southern California. Virtually all are in the $1 million-to-$2 million range, though the freebies enabled owners to spend significantly less.
Why would a manufacturer be willing to donate as much as $100,000 worth of products to a home owner? This story is a hint to the answer: publicity. Think of it as swag on a grand scale. Just as a fashion house may give away its latest handbag so it can be seen attached to the arm of a much-photographed starlet, manufacturers of home appliances, fixtures and finishes are giving away their goods in hopes of being noticed in high-profile modern homes.
The catch: The homes have to showcase environmentally friendly design. Some manufacturers are going after projects with the U.S. Green Building Council's highest rating for sustainable design and building practices. Others go for green homes with celebrities attached to them. Regardless of who owns the place, manufacturers expect the homes to open for occasional public touring -- sometimes for a whole year -- and owners to discuss the virtues of the products in question, be it a CaesarStone countertop or General Electric appliance.
"There is a lot of interest in energy-efficient products right now," GE representative Allison Gatta said. "So we get involved with projects that are certifiably green and with high potential for education."
Kohler supplied high-efficiency, low-water fixtures in developer Tom Schey's new Venice house. (See related story.)
"Tom has been a great partner for us," Kohler spokesman Mark Mahoney said. "And we've looked to him for innovations as much as he has looked to us. His home is also a chance for us to learn."
Such arrangements are nothing new. Traditional show houses, often sponsored by a magazine or a nonprofit organization raising money for charity, call for designers to make over a residence for free, often using products that are donated in exchange for a promotional push. What makes the new green show houses different is not only the emphasis on sustainability, but also the fact that they often are, first and foremost, private residences owned and inhabited by the builders themselves, whose living space essentially becomes a billboard for sponsors.
Rick Byrd had little trouble convincing 35 companies to donate products to his remodel of a 4,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival home in Los Feliz last year. That's because the entire process was the subject of the television show "Alter Eco," starring "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier and airing on Planet Green, part of the Discovery Channel empire.
Byrd, a green development consultant, said the idea for the house originated from the show's producers. They gave him 14 weeks to complete an extensive remodel on a five-bedroom house that would earn LEED certification. Byrd recycled 96% of the construction waste and called on sponsors to install environmentally sensitive fixtures, appliances, cabinetry, flooring and a rainwater storage tank.
"We had over 100 guys working on it every day," said Byrd, who bought the house and moved in shortly after the show wrapped. His solar-power system, also provided for free, generates enough energy to heat the pool, run the air conditioner and power motorized blinds and a home theater.
"My cable bill is more than my electric bill," Byrd said.
Toto spokesman Allan Dallatorre said the Japanese luxury bath company looks for projects that are high-profile in other ways. One recent partner: Fernando Feldman, president of Go Green Construction, who is building his house in Westchester.
Three stories high with 4,300 square feet of living space, the house will attempt to lower its environmental impact by using recycled materials, minimizing waste and exceeding California's Title 24 energy standards by 63%.
There are no celebrities attached or any TV coverage planned, but Toto still agreed to donate dozens of water-saving devices, including high-end toilets and low-flow faucets. In exchange, Feldman will conduct educational programs for the public after the house's scheduled completion in October, Dallatorre said.
"He's also connected with a number of associations, such as ASID [American Society of Interior Designers]," Dallatorre said. "So we're guaranteed that people in the industry will be exposed to the product."
Manufacturers believe that kind of word of mouth may pay off more than traditional advertising or the old-school design show houses, which usually close within a month.
"We look for projects that will benefit the community they're in," said Isabelle Christensen, spokeswoman for San Luis Obispo-based installer REC Solar. "That's partly why we're working more with private individuals as opposed to design showcases, which tend to be more temporary."
Developer Timothy Braseth remodeled a midcentury residence in Beverly Hills called the Pasinetti house, which was designed by Modernist Haralamb Georgescu in 1958 and featured in Home in January. Dupont donated energy-saving glass, Walker Zanger provided countertops and flooring, and Modernica restored a vintage lamp for free -- though none of those companies got mentioned in the article. Braseth said sponsors still get exposure. "They recognized the importance of the house," he said. "So they will use it for events, tours and photographs."
Dallatorre said his company donated dozens of high-end fixtures to Chris Paine's recent remodel in Baldwin Hills because of its "artistic value."
Paine -- the filmmaker best known for his 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" -- approached the project like one of his productions and spent months chasing sponsors. Because of the recession, he lined up only five. He spent more than $500,000 of his own money but still received more than $100,000 in products that raised the energy efficiency of the house, a 1950s-era Modernist manse turned into a Moroccan oasis.
"We really didn't want to advertise it as being green per se," Paine said. Rather, his pitch to manufacturers: "This would also be a piece of theater with a very unique design, which would be great for events."
Toto provided bathroom fixtures, and REC Solar and Mitsubishi provided panels that produce nearly enough energy for two average houses.
"Chris opens his house every month to bring in the neighborhood," said REC Solar's Christensen, explaining why her company agreed to the deal. "That allows us to conduct regular solar workshops for the neighborhood."
Schey also will open his new Venice house for events, although he's not bound by contracts to do so. Visitors will see materials donated by 20 companies: GE's Monogram appliances (including an outdoor cooking center) and tankless water heater, a fully integrated sound system with Klipsch speakers and a Dirt Devil home cleaning system.
"Most of these products are brand new," said Schey, who also has green consulting and law practices. "And no one wants to go out and buy them all. But here they can come in, see what they like or dislike, and hopefully turn around and apply it to their own home."
Though some may object to the sponsorships as distasteful, one need only look to the heyday of the landmark Case Study House program in the 1950s and '60s to realize builders have long sought sponsors in their quest for innovation. And though they benefit personally, owners of these green showcases said the wider effect is to advance sustainable design among mainstream consumers. At a time when banks are reluctant to grant loans for spec homes, some builders also said corporate sponsors are the best way to finance projects with a strong -- and expensive -- green component.
But not everyone gets freebies. Steve Blanchard is aiming for the Green Building Council's top rating but has given up on hunting down sponsors for his Costa Mesa home.
"Kohler gave us a great discount," he said. "But in this economy there are a lot of suppliers who can't afford to give away products."