The latest earth-friendly trends in homes and gardens
By Kamala Kirk
Many designers and builders are turning to more sustainable options in order to preserve natural resources, protect our ecosystem and improve the quality of our lives. A sustainable home has the least possible negative impact on the environment by being energy-efficient and using resources and materials in a responsible manner.
“Americans, and society in general, are spending more time in their homes,” says Renee Wolfenson, CEO of Casa Stilo Inc., a luxury full-service interior design studio whose projects include Pasadena Terraces and Pasadena Villas by etco Homes. “The health and well-being of the buyer is more important than ever. Builders and designers are rethinking of how to design, use and occupy a space. We think of future benefits for the environment. Designers are looking for ways to improve the way people feel inside a building by using materials of reusability, recyclability, waste reduction, energy and water savings, how a product is made, where it is made, how it gets to us and the life cycle of a product. The benefits of living in a sustainable environment are helping to accelerate climate solutions and improve our environmental footprint by reducing waste, saving water and energy, using recycled materials and cutting down on pollution. Longevity is the goal for next generations, not just ours.”
From going solar and recycling water to using energy-saving appliances and incorporating sustainable and recycled materials, there are many different ways that one can transition to having a more sustainable home.
“One of the roles of designers is to be mindful of the effects of our aesthetic decisions and how they might impact the environment, our daily experiences and our mental/physical health,” says Sarah Barnard, founder of Sarah Barnard Design, a leading designer of personalized, sustainable and restorative spaces that are deeply connected to nature and art.
Barnard says that sustainable home design creates opportunities for multiple positive outcomes, from improving indoor air quality by specifying natural products to reducing dependency on municipal services by integrating solar panels and supporting communities by utilizing local and recycled materials.
“Sustainability has always been a huge part of my life, even outside my job as a designer,” adds Jhoiey Ramirez, co-founder and creative director of The Sycamore Collective, a Los Angeles-based bespoke design studio. “I was aware very early on in life that there are finite natural resources and that we must do what we can to conserve them, so in my practice as a designer, I try to implement it as much as I can with my clients. When I was building my own home, I became aware of the possibilities of making my home my very own design lab of how far I can go with sustainability, how to make it visually appealing and how to make it financially make sense. This way, I can design and live by example. Naturally, it became a showcase as well. The benefits are its visual appeal and a guilt-free feeling in certain aspects of my lifestyle and my savings in gas.”
Some of the popular sustainable materials that Ramirez recommends for homes include bamboo, recycled glass, recycled metal, aluminum, decomposed granite and recycled concrete. She also uses pervious materials on the ground and cedar siding wherever she can.
“Cedar is a renewable resource, which means it takes much less energy to produce it compared to other manmade siding materials,” Ramirez says. “Cedar is also an insect repellant and a good insulator, and it produces a nice scent, especially when it gets wet. It can also last a long time with the right maintenance, and maintaining it is not a huge impact to the environment. The natural insulation that the cedar siding provides and a white smooth stucco exterior, which reflects light and heat, helps insulate the home as well, which limits the use of air-conditioning systems within the house.”
Wolfenson says that builders and designers are looking for fire-rated, energy-efficient, touchless and environmentally friendly materials. Examples include reclaimed wood flooring; recycled textiles; recycled countertop materials like Caesarstone; and cork, which is highly sustainable and can be used for décor in many different ways.
“Don’t use VOC paint,” Wolfenson warns. “This type of paint contains volatile organic compounds that are toxic to humans and animals.”
Barnard often recommends smart home systems to help with automated energy reduction, from regulating lighting and temperature settings to motorized window coverings that help with light and temperature regulation.
Wolfenson shares that changing lightbulbs to LED helps save energy in a home, along with energy-efficient appliances.
“You will see a difference in your electric bill,” Wolfenson says.
Ramirez also installed a solar roof and battery backup system in her home and says that if she plans her energy use well, she is self-powered (solar powered) up to 75%, which includes charging her electric cars at home.
“Having the app for the solar roof and batteries helps us understand our energy uses as well,” Ramirez says. “We installed both the Tesla Solar Roof and the Tesla Powerwall.”
“Water conservation is at the top of everyone’s priorities,” says Karen Miller, owner of Sacred Space Garden Design. “Drip irrigation and smart controllers are both important for helping to achieve this.”
Wolfenson says having the right irrigation system will help save money and energy, and circulation tanks for irrigation and a drip system on timers are important features.
“Wash your clothes in cold water; 90% of washing machine energy comes from heating the water,” she says. “Skip the dryer, and hang your clothes outside in the sun.”
Ramirez adds that storm water management and water-saving efforts are also essential. Examples include rain water collection, recycling rain water and extremely low-flow smart toilets.
“A system I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t find the right one until now (that) is joining our arsenal of sustainability maneuvers in a ‘better late than never’ move is the Hydraloop,” Ramirez says.
“It’s smart water recycling that recycles gray water from sinks, showers and laundry to use for flushing toilets or irrigation systems.”
According to Ramirez, strategic window placement enables one to utilize cross-ventilation throughout the house so that it’s never too hot inside when windows are open.
“Cross-ventilation is important for me,” she says. “The layout of the space may be overlooked as being part of sustainability, but it all starts from a good layout, a good flow. Good flow is function and circulation almost always equates to air flow. If a space feels natural to flow from one area to the next, then it’s safe to say that air would flow quite naturally as well. If air flows well in a house, then ventilation is good, temperature is regulated, and the house looks, feels and smells fresh as well.”
When transitioning to sustainable home design, Barnard suggests reusing or repurposing existing materials or furnishings as is feasible.
“For example, reupholstering an existing sofa or headboard can inspire a fresh aesthetic while requiring minimal new materials,” Barnard says. “The first step in an environmentally responsible remodel is utilizing ‘un-building’ techniques rather than traditional demolition methods to salvage the building materials for reuse. In past projects, our clients have used materials from an old kitchen to make a potting bench, repurposed wood for new garage shelving, and donated cabinets and plumbing fixtures to charitable organizations like Habitat for Humanity. “
Barnard also advises sourcing new materials and furnishings from suppliers that prioritize sustainable practices. Try to look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood products, Greenguard-certified wallcoverings and organic textiles as a start.
According to Barnard, terrazzo is an excellent sustainable alternative to quarried stone because it typically utilizes recycled materials (like broken ceramics, stone fragments or even crushed beer bottles) and can be manufactured locally rather than carved out of a mountain a continent away.
“Design that celebrates the grain of the wood and the hand of the artist is growing in popularity as folks increasingly appreciate the value of heirloom-quality goods,” Barnard says. “Slow-made textiles, furniture and accessories are an investment worth making, knowing that our choices will serve us for many years to come. Because it can be challenging to find or source sustainably produced items that meet exact needs, personalization and customization are often popular for sustainable design. Working with local artisans or craftspeople may offer more autonomy and control of the construction process, from selecting sustainable base materials to low or no VOC adhesives or finishes. It also gives more control over the outcome, making it easier to customize items to your exact aesthetic tastes and needs.”
She adds that while not all biophilic design is inherently sustainable, biophilic principles are often embraced in sustainable design. Embracing natural materials and using sustainably produced textiles and wallcoverings with natural prints create an interior relationship with nature that reflects environmentally conscious decision-making.
“Post-consumer recycled fibers, like those made from plastic bottles, are celebrated for durability and sustainability,” Barnard says. “Recycled fibers can be used to produce indoor/outdoor rugs and in some furnishings. These offer a durable option while minimizing the waste often associated with the production of synthetics.”
Porcelain pavers are very popular in outdoor spaces, according to Mark Meahl, president and founder of Garden View Landscape Nursery & Pools.
“Some of the advantages of porcelain pavers as opposed to standard concrete pavers is that there are a very wide selection of styles and they actually can simulate other materials like wood or cut stone very closely but have much better durability than wood or concrete pavers,” Meahl says. “They are also very hard surfaces, so they do not stain as easily as concrete pavers. The one disadvantage to porcelain pavers is that they are considerably more expensive than most concrete pavers, but they can be substantially less expensive than real stone or other expensive materials.”
Meahl points out that concrete is another popular sustainable building material due to its clean, uncluttered look and lower cost.
“Concrete paving is very popular for simplistic modern and midcentury design,” Meahl says. “The main disadvantage to concrete as opposed to pavers is that concrete fissures. If the ground moves the concrete will crack. Poured-in-place concrete stepping pads can be very attractive when surrounded by grass, gravel or ground covers, and because they are not one congruent large area they can move with slight ground movement, reducing the fissure issue.”
When sourcing materials for outdoor countertops, Barnard says porcelain slabs are a sturdy option durable enough for outdoor use. Porcelain avoids mining from quarries while offering increased stain, scratch, freeze/thaw and UV resistance.
“Vintage furnishings have maintained popularity throughout interior design and are increasingly sought for outdoor use,” Barnard says. “Midcentury modern patio furniture from designers like Bertoia for Knoll, John Salterini and Woodard Brothers offer enduring designs still loved today, made from long-lasting materials like metal and spun fiberglass.
“When considering materials for outdoors, it’s also essential to consider the durability of a product for an outdoor space. In some cases, a material made with synthetics may be beneficial for its endurance over an organic material that may need to be frequently replaced. It’s crucial to consider elements like sun exposure when selecting materials to determine longevity needs.”
When it comes to home gardens, Wolfenson points out that native plants are easier to take care of. She recommends using high-tolerance, low-waste plants.
“Build organic fences from wood waste or cut materials,” Wolfenson says. “And make your leftover vegetables into organic fertilizer.”
“There is an increasing desire to create gardens that can endure our climate’s increasingly warm and dry conditions,” Barnard adds. “One of the best ways to do this is by incorporating plants local to our region, which often require less maintenance and irrigation. Reclaimed or repurposed materials are becoming increasingly popular because of their imperfect beauty and inherent history. I love reusing bricks, pavers and broken concrete as a simple way to honor the home’s architectural history and keep unbuilt (demolished) materials on-site.”
According to Barnard, outdoor daybeds made from sustainable materials like FSC-certified hardwoods or bamboo are a rewarding choice for cozy landscape lounging. Double chaise lounges provide ample space to rest, work or socialize and are versatile furnishing options for outdoor needs.
“Many homeowners are also looking for garden spaces that reflect and sustain local wildlife,” Barnard adds. “To attract a greater variety of bees, planting flowers with diverse shapes and sizes will accommodate more types. Birdbaths can be a beautiful water feature that offers a space for birds to cool off. When providing water for wildlife, it’s essential to use a shallow vessel and refill and clean it regularly, to provide a safe and reliable water source. “
According to Miller, many people are interested in growing their own fruits, vegetables and herbs, as well as bringing birds and bees into the garden and providing food for them.
“Citrus trees are wonderful in Southern California, and we especially love agaves,” Miller says. “There are such a wide variety of sizes, and they are prized for their beauty and architectural form as well as their extremely low water use and maintenance.”
Miller also recommends just about any variety of salvia (sage), as well as ornamental evergreen grasses such as Lomandra “Breeze” or Carex tumulicola to replace traditional lawns.
“These can be mixed with wildflowers or achillea (yarrow), among others,” Miller says.
In Ramirez’s home garden, she has planted flowering bushes and vines that attract bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and other birds.
“We don’t really think of this as being part of sustainability, but making sure that the pollinators have an urban oasis helps the balance of our very fragile ecosystem, especially in the urban environment,” Ramirez says.
The Addison by etco Homes, a boutique luxury home community in LA, launched a partnership with urban beekeeping company Alveole, BeeHome, which will house thousands of bees on the rooftop terraces of the designer model homes. Urban beekeeping programs like BeeHome educate city dwellers to the crucial roles of bees in food production and the sustainable preservation of large populations of bees, butterflies, bumblebees and other pollinators that are in rapid decline around the world.
The bees from the rooftop apiary pollinate the local urban flora by gathering nectar and pollen from flowers within a 3-mile radius of the hives and bringing it back to ensure the colony’s development. At the end of the season, beekeepers harvest the bees’ honey and share it with residents and local community members.
Ramirez plants plenty of fruits and trees that she enjoys all season, including avocado, apple, lemon, lime, orange, strawberry guava, blueberries, cantaloupe and pineapple. Ramirez also has a seasonal vegetable garden with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, arugula, eggplant, mint, oregano, cilantro, rosemary and zucchini.
To fertilize naturally and organically, Ramirez has her own worm compost, which takes care of doing a full life cycle for 100% of her organic waste.
“To me, having a sustainable garden means going through a full life cycle with your garden, meaning you plant it, you grow it organically, you consume it, and any waste after consumption goes to your compost bin, which generates that organic fertilizer you use to grow a healthy garden,” Ramirez says. “I use subpod worm composting systems.”
Ramirez also shares another example of how the fresh produce from her home garden is 100% sustainable in its life cycles.
“I harvest my citruses, either juicing them or dehydrating thin slices, and preserve or cook with them,” Ramirez says. “If I don’t use the peel, I collect them in a recycled jar, add vinegar and let it ferment for at least two months, and it becomes a citrus cleaning solution. I sometimes add lavender for an extra scent sensation. I pour it in a reusable spray bottle.
“My carrots are full cycle as well. I juice them, use most of the pressed carrots to make carrot bread, and the rest goes to my compost. I’ve dehydrated herbs from my garden, and apples, too. When I make other pressed juices, nothing goes to waste. Because of this, my worms are happy creating compost to fertilize my garden.”