Living The LEED Life in the CV

By Kathy & Thom Gottberg of Coachella Valley Green

lance_2.jpgGreen architect Lance O’Donnell, his wife Regina Basterrechea, and son Jonathan have lived in their green LEED Home for nearly one year. The O’Donnell home, located in the Chino Canyon area of Palm Springs, is the only Platinum LEED Certified house in the entire Coachella Valley. Currently only a hand full of homes have been certified at this level throughout the US. But beyond the designation, what is it like to really live in a custom designed, green and eco-friendly home? Surprisingly, what seems to be the most rewarding to the O’Donnells are the ineffable qualities of living in a home that allows them to celebrate the desert that they love, spend comfortable time with each other and friends, and ultimately serve to uplift their souls.

The process of building a home like the O’Donnell house was just that—a process. A lifetime of ideas went into the design elements and then over a year into the actual buildinglance_4.jpgitself. More importantly, the home was not designed to be a LEED Platinum home. Instead, it was created to capture the best of the location and suit the desires of the family in a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle. From the very beginning, the design approached a Gold rating, but once they realized that with a few upgraded modifications they could achieve Platinum, they made choices to move in that direction.

What are the primary elements in the home? Probably the most dramatic feature is that the home has three times more glass than a traditional design. The glass enhances the light and view from every direction making it, according to Lance O’Donnell, “the house is like Stonehenge, marking the passing of time and season. It’s sits on the Earth in a way that’s much greater than a house. It’s really about the sun and our specific place on the planet.” Still, all the glass and the views are strategically placed so that the house utilizes the best of the sun in a passive-solar design. Lance goes on to say, “It’s a comfortable place to live in from a tactical level where the floors are always warm, the views are always spectacular, (and the) overhangs cut down the glare. A passive-solar home heats when you need it, but none of that heat when you don’t.”

More features that added points to the LEED rating include the concrete floors and counters with fly ash, earth sheltering features, bamboo ceiling, special water reduction plumbing features, water recapture elements and no VOC (volatile lance_3.jpgorganic compounds) in cabinets and paints. According to Regina, the home operates 50% better in energy efficiency than other Title 24 (current building codes in CA) houses. Lance said, “LEED was an afterthought. We just started putting in sensible things, more efficient things, and we picked up additional points just by being smart about what we bought.”

The best test of the house’s efficiency comes from the utility bills. According to the O’Donnells, the temperature never went below 65 degrees during this past winter and they never once used the furnace. Due to the sun’s stored radiant energy the house feels 3-5 degrees warmer in the winter than the thermostat indicates. When asked about summertime efficiency, Regina said, “our energy bills during the summer were about $8 at the most—so we are on track to be a net-zero energy building. And we don’t use much gas either because we have a tankless hot water heater.”

Lance likes to use the word “grid neutral” because it more closely refers to the direct offsetting of electrical energy usage. Much of their utilities in their 2,300 square foot home are offset by the 750 square feet of solar panels on their roof, which generates a little over 5kW. Their original calculations were that those panels would cover 90% of their energy needs but they actually generated more like 115% during the last year. The O’Donnells have also recently signed up with SCE to take advantage of the new California AB 510 that allows homeowners to sell back any surplus energy that their system generates, or at the very least roll that over into future usage. This is a new program so the details haven’t all been worked out including how much SCE will pay for the surplus, but it is positive progress for solar energy and the people who invest in the technology.

But what the O’Donnells seem most excited about is what it means to live in a home that was both custom and site designed. As Lance says, “my favorite thing about the house is that I now like tlance_5.jpgo be home. Before, there was nothing about the old home that made my life better…that uplifted my soul. This home does that. I can just be there and enjoy the passage of time and subtle changes in light quality. It’s just doing all the things that grounds me in why I live here (in the Coachella Valley)…the views of the mountain, nature right outside the window—the things that most people have to go on a hike to get—its right there.”

On a practical level, Regina loves the neighborhood so that “we can ride our bikes down to coffee and we don’t have to cross a bunch of cars and traffic.” Her favorite feature in the house is the central kitchen which is described as “the cockpit” of the home where she can see everywhere in and out of the house and feel a part of it. She also appreciated the privacy and security that the site and home design offers. The only disadvantage appears to be that with concrete floors a person cannot be content to merely run a vacuum and be done with cleaning. Also, having a home that a person is very proud of requires a bit more attention to keeping countertops and cabinets in pristine condition. According to his parents, their son Jonathan likes the different levels in the home and the swimming pool. He also likes it that his father is spending lots more time there with them both…

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