The Eco-Home that Julia Russell built


Julia Russell has had the great fortune to live out her passion: treading ever more lightly on the planet, making her home a laboratory and herself an example.

For 22 years, she opened her Eco-Home to anyone interested in seeing what she’s done at her 99-year-old Los Feliz bungalow: solar panels, composting, a front yard she waters maybe twice a year and that looks like a little woodland clearing, a backyard overgrown with edible plants.

Hundreds of tours later, the idea of greening one’s home and yard is nearing mainstream, and this summer Russell retired. She jokes that she’ll no longer need to be such a conscientious housekeeper, always aware that guests would be arriving.

“I definitely made a contribution to a movement that is affecting cultural change. That is what I dreamed,” she said one recent afternoon, sitting on her front porch with a mug of peppermint green tea. “I thought maybe it was a little beyond what was possible. But it’s happening.”

Russell and a group of Eco-Home supporters published their first newsletter in 1985. The last was published in June, the month of the last scheduled tour. The Eco-Home Network, a nonprofit organization, will go on.

The network intends to move to educating contractors and other professionals in making homes more energy efficient, to create a lending library of diagnostic equipment and to teach a “whole house” approach, said Judy Rachel, president of the network board and principal (“chief energy sleuth,” as she puts it) of Green Archers Sustainable Solutions, a North Hollywood firm whose services include home energy audits.

The landscape has changed considerably since Russell set out on a path that many people saw as eccentric, or worse. Composting classes are easy to find, lawns are being replaced all over L.A. and terms such as “low-flow” and “LED” are common.

“Eco-Home was the first in the country where a living, breathing human being began to retrofit an old home and open it up as a public demonstration for living differently. She was really the pioneer,” said Lois Arkin, who in 1993 founded Eco-Village, a community in L.A.’s Koreatown that’s focused on living sustainably.

“Julia ran herself out of existence, because a lot of the ideas she proposed have become commonplace,” said Jane Collings, the senior editor of a series of oral histories that make up “Environmental Activism in Los Angeles” at the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research. The series includes Arkin and Russell.

“When she got started, these were political positions. To not water your lawn was a political position, just as when people didn’t eat meat. You were taking a stand.”

While Russell lobbied for a city recycling program and fought a South L.A. incinerator, among other things, she also decided it was critical that her work be her home.

“I had to embody what I wanted to convey because that’s the only place from which you can have moral authority,” she said.

Added Collings: “She wants her entire life to be consistent in every way.”

And that, Arkin said, made her all the more inspiring.

“When people would experience that sense of wonder she had around the compost or growing her vegetables, they would want to do that too. It felt so good,” Arkin said.

Russell, 74, is beautiful. Her silver hair is simply but elegantly styled, and she speaks in the slow, clear cadence of someone who has explained her life and her decisions countless times. Her clothing suggests a bit of earth mother: blue cotton turtleneck under a flowered jumper and black cardigan; sturdy shoes and socks.

An East Coast native, Russell felt she’d landed in paradise when she arrived, at age 30, in Los Angeles with her husband, who had been hired to write for “The Monkees” television show. Their divorce was in some ways a midwife to Eco-Home, and Russell credits her former husband as its father because he gave her the financial support to find and follow her course in life.

Around the time that Russell and her two sons moved into the house that became Eco-Home, Russell started learning about the environment, particularly about where L.A. got its water and how much of it went to lawns.

At the time, Russell was a beginner and not all that interested in gardening. (“I grew up with a Victorian garden. That was not an experience to inspire me to garden,” she said. “I had to weed it.”)

But she took a class in native plants and looked at abandoned lots to see what was growing without attention. She subscribed to Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening. She joined the National Resources Defense Council. She concluded that most of “our environmental problems stem from our modern urban lifestyle.”

The late 1980s brought the Exxon Valdez oil spill, reports of medical wastes washing up on beaches and a barge full of garbage that left New York but couldn’t find a dumping spot. All of those contributed to Russell’s determination — and inspired other people.

“Our activities threaten the life of all life on Earth. That was pretty motivating,” she said.

“Sustainable” has become ubiquitous enough that its meaning can be obscured. But Russell knew what she meant, even if she didn’t realize all it would take, and certainly not all that it would lead to.

Her sons also were not always keen on their mom’s behavior. Russell said that they’d ask: “Mom, why do you have to be so weird?”

But she doesn’t doubt that she did the right thing. Her house didn’t make her wealthy; it did make her life rich, she said. “I was finding that I was benefiting myself so much. I was healthier, happier. Far from being a sacrifice, it was a great enrichment in my life.”

Once through the gate to Russell’s brown bungalow, her visitors (15,000 over the years, according to the Eco-Home Network) find themselves in a small clearing surrounded by sapote, mahonia, manzanita, pittosporum, lemonade berry. They all subsist largely on Southern California’s scant rainfall. The ground is covered with what drops there, and it crinkles underfoot, before it decomposes to feed the trees, protect the soil and keep microorganisms around to do their work.

Through a red door into the 1,100-square-foot house, there are ceiling fans, a composting drawer cut into a counter in the kitchen, which is lighted by a “sun pipe.” Out back, laundry hangs on a clothesline. There are rain barrels, solar panels and a gray-water system. Motion-sensitive lamps turn off automatically; insulation and window films save energy; low-flow faucets conserve water.

In a small shed is her three-wheeler, with a big basket on the back; Russell hasn’t owned a car for 20 years. She was the first person Arkin knew who chose to go carless.

“I remember trying so hard to understand why she was doing that. I didn’t get it. I used to think, Julia, if you feel that way, if you don’t feel like taking advantage of the city and all the extraordinary things we have, why stay in L.A.?” Arkin said.

But she learned how connected Russell was to her piece of Los Angeles, and came to share her view.

Russell grows grapes, apricots, almonds, blueberries, apples and many vegetables. In summer, she gets 60% of her food from her garden, down to 35% in winter, she estimates.

In retirement, she hopes to devote more time to her garden and to spend time with her children and their families. She also intends to take time again to consider what’s next, doing as the poet Walt Whitman put it: “loafing and inviting my soul.”