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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Greenest House

Air Date: Week of

A platinum-green home. (Photo: Lonny Shavelson)

David Gottfried believes that green is beautiful and he has renovated his house to prove it. His 1915 Craftsman home in Berkeley, California is so energy efficient that it has received the highest U.S. building rating for a reconstructed building - a platinum LEED certification. Reporter Lonny Shavelson went to visit this environmental Eden to see if there are eco-lessons for the average homeowner.


YOUNG: The U.S. Green Building Council administers a program to rate the environmental impact of buildings. It’s known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED for short. The top LEED rating is platinum.

And in Berkeley, California, David Gottfried says his craftsman styled bungalow has garnered more points over platinum than any other house in the United States. Lonny Shavelson took a look.

David Gottfried, eco-perfectionist. (Photo: Lonny Shavelson)

SHAVELSON: David Gottfried says he lives in the greenest house in America. OK, all you greenies living off the grid in your straw bale houses, don’t get your “I’m the greenest gal on the block” hackles up. Gottfried admits your house probably does out-eco his.

GOTTFRIED: You know, there are straw bale homes, there are earth ship homes. And I think in some ways they would beat me on ecological impact.

SHAVELSON: But competing in an eco-battle with straw bale houses isn’t Gottfried’s point. A lean middle-aged man in a baggy sweater, he looks more like an ivy-league English Lit professor than an enviro-radical. He says his goal is to show that you can be hyper-green living in any house – in his case, an old renovated craftsman home in a mixed residential commercial zone on the border of Berkeley and Oakland.

GOTTFRIED: The way to really green the homes of the world is to green what we have, the existing stock. You want to have something that the market understands. So we wanted to showcase how to make an existing home not just deep green, but gorgeous.

SHAVELSON: And that’s where some might say David Gottfried went over the environmental cliff. This is a man who read the novel Siddhartha, about the search for that spiritual perfection called nirvana, eighteen times. So when Gottfried got down to eco-perfecting that old craftsman house…

GOTTFRIED: We did solar electric, and solar hot water, and rain water capture, and gray water capture, and all the windows and all the utilities and insulation. We got salvaged wood from the old Sacramento main bridge. We had radiant water and it supplies the hot water as well as our heating. We put 2.7 kilowatts of solar on the house, about 16 panels.

This electric meter runs backwards. (Photo: Lonny Shavelson)

SHAVELSON: And the rainfall on his roof runs into tanks called Rain Hogs, which feed into one toilet in his house so it flushes with rainwater.

GOTTFRIED: And I’m trying to get my girls to only pee in that toilet.

SHAVELSON: Anybody else out there, like me, living in a decidedly on-the-grid energy hog of an old comfy house – who listens to Gottfried’s green house mantra and says, oof, I can’t do all that stuff. Even Gottfried admits:

GOTTFRIED: I do think in hindsight that we went overboard on the house. Maybe more than a little. My green passion poured out in a flood.

SHAVELSON: Which did get Gottfried the highest green score of any house certified in the U.S. But for the rest of us, keeping up with the Gottfrieds seems impossible. So to learn from his home what we can reasonably do with our own, I asked architect Henry Siegel to come with me on a tour of Gottfried’s house. He’s certified in environmental architecture by the U.S. Green Building Council.


Siegel barely glances at the rain hogs, solar panels, gray water irrigation system – tens-of- thousands of dollars of Gottfried’s fancy eco innovations. Then he asks Gottfried about the simplest and cheapest changes he’s made…

SIEGEL: I’m really curious to know more about what you did in terms of air sealing and insulation and all those envelope improvements that are really cheap, but really pay off fast. Because that’s the kind of thing that’s really transferable, really quickly, that anybody can do.

Henry Siegel is certified in environmental architecture. (Photo: Lonny Shavelson)

SHAVELSON: So these two green glitterati touring the prize-winning eco-home wrap themselves in conversation about what they call energy saving’s low-hanging fruit – window caulking, sealing air leaks around doors, insulation. They barely even look at the solar panels. Gottfried waxes nostalgic over the day he had some guys over to blow air into his house and find where it leaks.

GOTTFRIED: They put an air blower on a door so they can track the air loss. And then they run around with caulk and weather stripping and foam, and tighten it up. And in that day we tightened it up by 50%. And it was $600. It tightened it up more than brand new windows, which could be $30,000. So if we just ran around the U.S. doing that.

SIEGEL: It would save an enormous amount of energy.

SHAVELSON: Siegel agrees that eco simplicity is the real eco sexy.

SIEGEL: It only costs four, five hundred dollars to get the guys to come in with infrared cameras and do all the testing to tell you exactly where your worst leaks are and to fix them. And that’s the really fast payback.

GOTTFRIED: And also create the green collar jobs, because it’s low tech.

SHAVELSON: Low tech? You’d think the two connoisseurs of green would get together and talk up a solar storm of techno-eco-babble. Surprisingly, their main message is – don’t sweat the big stuff; take care of the basics. I tell them I’m thinking of putting solar on my old, leaky home. Their faces don’t exactly light up with the idea.

GOTTFRIED: So many folks just want to slap solar on their inefficient homes, and that's really, as we know, the last thing -- even though it's the coolest thing, perhaps.

SHAVELSON: And, says Gottfried, the most ecologically crucial part of his house, isn’t in or on the building. It’s where it’s located.

GOTTFRIED: We’re flat, walkable, six homes from a grocery store and half a mile from the BART. But we were in the Berkeley Hills, and I didn’t REALLY want to green that home because it wasn’t walkable. What’s interesting here since we moved is how little I drive.

SHAVELSON: Gottfried says that if you start at the basics and then climb up to green nirvana on a ladder of ecological gadgetry as he did– each step higher costs more and yields less. And, says architect Siegel, all that green stuff loaded on a house can look pretty funky. What he really liked about Gottfried’s eco-elegant but architecturally straightforward home was…

SIEGEL: This looks like a craftsman house, it doesn’t look like it’s trying to be something other than it is. The sign of maturity is that people realize that green is not a style, that it really can fit with any style of architecture and make it more comfortable and more efficient.

The house where the Gottfrieds live rates platinum on the LEED building scale. (Photo: Lonny Shavelson)

SHAVELSON: But if the message of these green guys is go for the basics and keep it simple – well, maybe Gottfried hasn’t quite yet learned that lesson.

GOTTFRIED: I have to go further. Today I met with a fuel cell company that has personal home fuel cells.

SHAVELSON: So while Gottfried continues his ascent to an environmental heaven – the rest of us might do almost as well with our feet still firmly on earth. For Living on Earth, I’m Lonny Shavelson in Berkeley, California.



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