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Novato family keeps its cool as energy wars heat up

Liz Harris, Special to The Chronicle

Saturday, June 9, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


You're walking on recycled milk bottles," says Lora Dinga as we ascend the 180-foot driveway toward the house that she and her husband, Mike, call home. Glancing down at the little circles of plastic embedded in the ground and covered with gravel, you'd never guess.

The Dinga residence sits on a sunny, south-facing slope at the end of a Novato cul-de-sac, above a sea of traditionally built suburban homes. Their adobe-colored home - framed by patios and gardens of nursery castoffs that have been nurtured to vitality - looks the picture of conventionality. Low- slung and unobtrusively set into the hill, the house belies its history and ongoing purpose as a comfortable place to nest that will "impact the earth as little as possible," says Lora.

With Californians alternately sweating out blackouts and shuddering at the prospect of high energy bills for air conditioning their homes this summer, Lora said last week, "I'm sitting here in a 72-degree room, without air conditioning, and it's 100 degrees outside."

In fact, the Dingas' "recycled house" is a prototype: a shining example of how - by thinking outside the box, using sound architectural and engineering principles and available building supplies and technology - one can construct a residence, cost-effectively, that is extremely energy-efficient and recycles existing materials. Fine touches such as solid-oak doors, antique glass sconces, redwood beams, maple stairs, French doors, and various other accoutrements were all purchased for a song - rescued from their destiny in the dump.

The Dinga home is also proof of the couple's tenaciousness in sticking to their tenets during a drawn-out, often frustrating bureaucratic process fraught with roadblocks, mostly thrown up by doubters and nay-sayers.

The former North Berkeley residents conceived the idea of building their own, earth-friendly home back in late 1989. It took four years to find a lot: After searching for a buildable, affordable, south-facing site in the East Bay proved fruitless, they pushed northwest to Marin, where Lora grew up.

The planning and building-permit phase took a couple years. Twice, Mike was ready to give up and sell the property. That didn't happen, says Lora, because "we propped each other up through the process."

"In Novato, they were very conservative and they still are," says Mike, a Cal Poly graduate and contractor specializing in seismic and foundation work. He designed the house, but it definitely wasn't a textbook model. "It's a different way of designing, first of all. I wasn't thinking in the way that I was taught in architecture school. The concentration was more on the materials, the method of construction, the energy issues."

They finally broke ground on the project in October 1996. "I remember," says Lora, who often telecommutes to her job with U.C. Berkeley's Cal Monthly, "because it was such a huge celebration. It almost didn't happen."

The couple and their two children moved in on May 25, 1997. Since then, they've garnered splashes of publicity in the media and hosted visitors from near and far. Theirs is a demo house for Real Goods, which promotes renewable energy alternatives and sells products for an "ecologically sustainable future. " They also give workshops on construction of their home, appearing at Real Goods annual Solfest at its Hopland Solar Living Center.

It is not unusual for the couple to welcome groups of local schoolchildren to their home. One day in May, two fifth-grade classes walked over from nearby Olive Elementary School. "We served them fruit and had them put (the garbage) in the compost," Lora reports. "We asked questions about what they think happens with garbage, and generally tried to get them to think about where things come from and where they end up after we're done with them."


Recently, the Dingas received a request from a Dutch TV station for an at- home interview, which will be fed to members of the European Union broadcast system. Given California's energy crisis, interest in their home has spiked.

While many Golden State residents are dreading the dog days of summer and shudder at the thought of blackouts or, alternatively, sky-high air conditioning expenses, the Dingas remain cool. Though the temperature outside their home can climb to over 100 degrees, Mike says, on the inside it'll stay a temperate 78 degrees.

That's not a fluke. West- and south-facing walls are 18 inches thick and made of solid earth. The structural walls on the north- and east-facing sides are composed of a post-industrial, polystyrene and cement wall system with veneer.

Though hardly recognizable as foam, tiny chips of the stuff can be seen in some of the exterior retaining walls off a bedroom patio. The Dingas eagerly point this out to visitors and, when children come, "we tell them that (polystyrene) never, ever becomes anything else for the life of this planet," Lora says. Polystyrene foam happens to have high insulation value, which is one reason it was used in the "cold" walls.

Interior floors are concrete slab, actually slough from the walls. But they are fashioned to look like Mexican pavers - smooth to the touch and washed in earth tones thanks to an acid-based stain. Achieving the right look was a matter of trial and error, a method the Dingas used on finishing touches throughout their home.

The floors stay cool to the touch in the summer and warm in the winter, when a subsurface radiant heating system is turned on. (The cost of operating the gas-powered radiant heat rose nearly 250 percent in the last year, says Mike, fueling his determination to hook up a salvaged, hot-water heating system of solar panels that's been sitting in the yard.)

Exterior overhangs above the windows were designed to maximize exposure to winter sun and minimize the impact of direct sun during the summer. Also, clerestory windows set high near the ceiling "suck cool night air through the house," notes Lora.

The bottom-floor living room and second-level kitchen and family area are bathed in natural light, with French doors opening onto adjoining patios. "The idea," explains Mike, "was to get the most southern light as possible."

"Otherwise," Lora adds, "this place could have been a cave." The master bedroom also opens onto a patio, and interior lights throughout the home are either large or compact fluorescent.


The roof tile is a composite of cement and recycled wood fiber, a readily available, Class A fire-rated material. Insulation between ceiling and roof is provided primarily by recycled newsprint - 12 inches of shredded newspaper mixed with fire-retardant borax. Like the roofing material, the insulation is "pretty common," and not difficult to obtain, according to Mike.

The ceiling is conventional Sheetrock, though the walls are a composition of Sheetrock with veneer plaster and a sprinkling of dirt, for color. Wanting to avoid the use of paint, "we played around with dyes," Lora says, "and threw in fine dirt." Voila. The walls have a pinkish, warm cast that pleases the family.

With Mike doing most of the construction work and supervision four days a week over a year's time, and including taking substantial measures to prevent drainage problems and earth movement, it cost about $260,000 to build the nearly 1,800-square-foot home. Typical monthly utility costs ranged around $80 until the recent hike in natural gas rates.

The house is wired for a photovoltaic system that, once installed, "will take care of all the electricity," notes Mike. At present, the Dingas are not quite ready to foot the estimated $12,000 needed to complete the job. In the meantime, since their electricity use is minimal, they've saved plenty of money on utilities.

They've also saved thousands of dollars on building materials and furnishings, by foraging for salvage. At first, Lora concedes, it was challenging. Like the time Mike decided he must have maple for the steps connecting the home's three levels. Lora called one of her best sources, Urban Ore in Berkeley, only to be told, "We never get maple."

But 90 minutes later, she got a call back about some maple flooring from an old Oakland roller rink that was available. Apparently, the planks had been stored in baseball slugger Reggie Jackson's sister's garage, and she wanted to get rid of them. Now re-cut and refinished, the maple planks make up the three short stairways.

That's just one of many interesting finds. The old-growth redwood ceiling beams came from the Oakland Raiders' former training camp, which was razed several years ago. Hemlock wood trim started out in a Los Altos home designed by noted Bay Area architect Joseph Esherick.

The large, wooden desk for Lora's office was discovered in the U.C. Berkeley salvage yard, and the Dingas scored copper metal orbs from a Bay Area scrap metal yard. The 1920s-era glass sconces in the living room represent another coup; same for the clawfoot bathtub and other heirloom pieces in the bathrooms. The couple snagged a set of solid oak doors with brass locks for $12 each.


Locating the perfect front door was a stickler, but that problem was solved purely by luck. "We were moving out of our North Berkeley house, and this thing was sitting in the crawl space under the house," says Lora, referring to the refinished gumwood door.

And so it went. Over time, Lora developed a keen eye for salvage. "Pretty soon it's kind of fun, because you see your house everywhere you look."

Even the drought-tolerant plants surrounding the house reflect her search- and-rescue efforts. "Probably 90 percent are garbage plants" which she picked up outside her favorite Berkeley nursery. Some look so sickly or shriveled, she notes, "half the time I don't even know what it is." Most, however, recover and thrive.

Lora uses hay for mulching, and the bricks for the terraced side and back gardens of vegetables, flowers and low-growing shrubs all came from old housing foundations.

For outdoor areas, the Dingas consciously steered away from wooden decks, primarily due to their required maintenance and inevitable need to be replaced. In choosing all the building materials from roof to floor "we were shooting for the 100-year house," Mike says, only half-joking.


Though they built their home to fulfill personal dreams and objectives, they also had one ulterior motive. "We went into this thinking it would be a model home," he says, "that I would do more of them."

But their timing was off. Completed during a booming economy, when thoughts of energy conservation were far from people's minds, the "recycled house" set off a buzz of interest, but little more. "I began 10 to 15 years too late in my life-span," says Mike, who is in his 50s. Anyway, he was worn out. During the construction phase alone, he says, "I basically worked every day for a year, except for Christmas."

Still, the couple has no regrets. They, along with their 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, love their three-bedroom home, and enjoy telling people about all its interesting features. "We did it because it was something we believed in," Mike says.

But they wouldn't consider a second try, Lora says: "It was too deep, it was too artistic, it was too emotional to ever think about doing it again."


-- Berkeley Architectural Salvage, 1167 65th St., Oakland; (510) 655-2270.

-- Builders Booksource, 1817 Fourth St., Berkeley; (510) 845-6874.

-- Real Goods, 1324 10th St., Berkeley, or

-- Urban Ore, Sixth at Gilman, Berkeley. (510) 559-4450.

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page WB - 1

-- Swissrose (, June 09, 2001

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