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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.

Living Homes has also tried to incorporate as many eco-friendly products and design techniques into the construction as possible to further cut down on environmental impact. All of the wood comes from managed forests. In Glenn's home, there is also no floor in the traditional sense: the floor is actually the cement foundation slab. This cuts down on additional materials. (Glenn, however, said the company will likely include more traditional floors in commercial models). Like a lot of cement these days, it includes fly ash harvested from smoke stack scrubbers.

Building the home from factory-built modules, meanwhile, also reduces waste, and cuts construction time and transportation.

But forget the eco-friendly part. What will likely attract buyers is the origami-like feel of the home. Pull open a blond wood wall panel/door next to the kitchen and there's the bathroom. I expected a broom closet. That's the next stylish wall panel/door down. The home is made up of 11 separate modules, but there are about 4 to 5 different module shapes. Thus, the home avoids a boxy, predictable structure.

Upstairs, Glenn shows me one of his own inventions: movable, floor-to-ceiling closets. It takes two or more people to move one, but in a few minutes you can completely reconfigure your household storage.

Then there's the bathroom, complete with sinks made from recycled glass, and silent de-humidifiers. Fabrics hang on the ceiling to give it a tent-like ambience. The light, the glass, the inside tents: academics call this postwar modern, but those who grew up in California know it as Nut Tree Dining Room.

And on the roof there is a rooftop garden populated with native plants. The home's solar panels serve as shade for a patio.

Living Homes has also tried to keep costs down. Cinder blocks compose the walls of the first floor. This isn't to cut down on harmful drywall chemicals. Instead, cinder blocks are cheap, he said.

Overall, the homes cost about $300 a square foot, including building costs. That's more than a standard home, but less than the $450 and $500 a square foot one would pay in a home based around an architect's design.

But the home doesn't seem to be the most kid-friendly place in the world. Glenn has all sorts of Lego structures in his living room and a collection of tastefully arranged toys. But how stylish would the living room look if those toys belonged to someone under 30 years old? First-graders could take some of the modernist sheen off this place in a few days.

Then there are the wall dividers. Each bedroom can be closed off by a telescopic wall. Nonetheless, it's a moving wall. If you lived there as a family, you would have to get accustomed to a higher level of feeling another person's presence. You could imagine it would be like living in adjoining rooms at a hotel: separate but together.

One of the company's primary goals is to make its homes more family-friendly. "We need to make them flexible to deal with people's lifestyle needs," he said. Still, putting those principles into effect may take practice.

Living Homes also doesn't plan on just selling you a home and saying goodbye. Each home comes with a battery of sensors that monitor your power and water consumption. By logging onto a Web site, you can check how you've reduced your carbon footprint. You don't have to log onto the site, but the sensors go in your house regardless.

What if you don't want the sensors, I asked him. What if you're worried about people studying your daily habits via your utility consumption?

Glenn fixed me with a stare as if I'd asked him if I could move in a La-Z-Boy recliner.

"We haven't had that come up," Glenn said. But he said the company could consider it.