Inside the green designer home

Living Homes has built an affordable, architectural marvel. But is it ready for two kids and a golden retriever named Brandy? Photos: Home, green home

SANTA MONICA, Calif.--Do you ever feel like you're being watched?

It's one of the first questions that pops into your head when talking to Steve Glenn, founder of Living Homes, one of a number of start-ups creating factory-built green homes. Glenn lives in the first home built by the company, and, as you can see from the pictures, most of the walls are windows. The windows allow owners to cut down on electric light usage and give the home an airy, expansive feeling.

The rooms, meanwhile, mostly blend into each other. Bedrooms can be closed off with sliding, folding wall panels but, overall, the home is open.

Despite its transparent nature, the house feels private, Glenn said as we stand in the kitchen. The house sits on a hill, and only one neighbor has a direct view into the home. And that view goes into the kitchen.

About 30 seconds after Glenn tells me this, a bicyclist riding by on the street, maybe 80 feet away, makes eye contact with me and pedals on. If this were my home, the bicyclist would have seen me standing in boxer shorts eating cereal out of the box.

Is it a house and a home? That's the lurking dilemma for green builders. Glenn's home, designed by architect Ray Kappe, is far more stylish and surprising than your average modern house. Green homes can even rival the homes from the 1920s and 1930s for character. You find yourself asking questions and being intrigued by architectural nuances.

The question, though, is whether they will mesh with how the average American family lives. The prognosis looks good, but there will likely be hiccups along the way. Living Homes has completed 2 homes and is working on around 16 more. Khosla Ventures, along with a few others, has invested in the company.

"I'll be disappointed if we don't have hundreds of homes in the next few years," Glenn said.

Competitor Michelle Kaufmann Designs, meanwhile, has completed more homes and is now building small subdivisions. Others include Xtreme Homes, which mostly specializes in custom homes. The Solar Decathlon, a competition among university engineering departments, tackled green homes this year.

Like the Tesla Roadster or the Toyota Prius, the residences from Living Homes are designed with the goal of cutting down on greenhouse gases as well as making a fashion statement. Roughly 50 percent of all of the energy consumed in America goes into running buildings, according to the Energy Information Agency. Seventy-six percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. gets consumed by buildings. Most of that power gets used to keep lights on and run the heating and air conditioning systems.

Passive cooling and lighting, combined with solar thermal water heaters and solar panels, can make a big dent in a person's carbon footprint, according to Glenn and others. The home also comes with gray water systems that process water coming from the shower and recycles it for irrigation.

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