Architect rides the green wave in home building

For decades, thousands have flocked to the San Diego Historical Society's annual "Designer Showcase" house to see how an old home could be enhanced and modernized while preserving its historic features.

This year, the San Diego Architectural Foundation is taking over the showcase program and is going in a different direction: previewing the future, which has a decidedly green tinge.

This year's featured house, dubbed "Casa Futura," was designed and built by architect Kevin deFreitas for his family in a bucolic, wooded area.

Expected to win certification as the most environmentally conscious home in San Diego, the 3,800-square-foot, $1 million house was put on display to the public for three weeks in October.

"We think it's a great design, and green design really fits our purpose of inspiring excellence in our built environment," said architectural foundation president Paul Buss.

The two-story home is a veritable catalog of innovative design and off-the-shelf technologies that in the first two months have already cut deFreitas' utility bill in half.

The kitchen is stocked with Energy Star appliances. Sensors automatically turn off the lights in the children's bedrooms. The two-car detached garage and studio are connected to the main house by a bridge and incorporate low-maintenance metal siding. And the expansive backyard combines drought-tolerant plants, citrus trees irrigated from water collected on the roof and $10-per-square-foot fake grass that doesn't need water or mowing.

"I do believe we can use less without major changes in lifestyle, without a huge sacrifice in cost or aesthetics," said deFreitas. "You can live in comfort and in a pleasing environment, use less energy and not be considered an Earth Firster or Unabomber."

Architect Heather Johnston, a specialist in green-building design, said environmentally oriented thinking is seeping into many industries.

"Architects are in a leadership position to show the way," she said. "Every day, they make decisions that determine how people live and want to live, and often educate them that there are options out there."

DeFreitas, 40, previously pioneered infill development with several innovatively designed row homes in San Diego.

After watching the slow adoption of innovative design and products by his fellow architects, deFreitas said he wanted to push the envelope and include as many features as possible in his own home on quiet Albion Street.

This noble goal was tarnished somewhat by the three years it took to plan, permit and build the house.

There were neighbors to mollify (one grumbled, "This is an abomination to the neighborhood"); bureaucracies to master (nine permits cost $44,000); subcontractors to subdue (several were sacked over nonperformance); and a family to keep together, including a period in a nearby rental.

"As a family, we're breathing a huge sign of relief," said deFreitas' wife, Kara.

As for Kevin deFreitas, besides getting a new state-of-the-art home, he feels this approach to architecture and development has changed his outlook: "The upside, professionally, is that I learned a lot."

And there's the memorable observation from daughter Madeira, 9, who remarked on the steady stream of people stopping to take pictures, "Our house has paparazzi!"

The project began after the family moved from a downtown warehouse to a 1,500-square-foot single-story house built in 1950 and bought for $412,000 in 2000.

It had three bedrooms and one bath, little insulation and setback restrictions that made major remodeling infeasible.

"We had three children at the time, and I worked out of the home," deFreitas said. "It was pandemonium trying to get through one bathroom every morning."

So the family moved to a rental in late 2005, tore down the single-story structure and moved into the new house in August. The cost per square foot rose from the original estimate of $200 to $265 for a total construction budget of $1 million. DeFreitas attributed about 8 percent of the total to the cost of energy-saving materials and systems.

Inspired by the American Institute of Architects' dictum that architects should lead by example, he was determined to incorporate as many off-the-shelf products and design features as possible that would minimize maintenance and maximize energy savings.

Besides getting a new house and lots of attention, deFreitas also has applied to the U.S. Green Building Council for recognition as the county's first LEED-Gold certified home.

LEED, which stands for leadership in energy and environmental design, offers four levels of green ratings - certified, silver, gold and platinum - in nine categories.

The council's local chapter chairman, Steve Kapp, said three other local homes are in various stages of certification, but deFreitas' will be the county's first LEED-Gold winner.

From the outside, it is not obvious that this modernistic house, set among wood-siding homes built 50 years ago, is ecologically superior.

That's because much of what deFreitas included was passive as well as active energy-saving systems - from orientation on the lot to photovoltaic cells on the roof. For proof, however, a walk to one side of the house, where the electric panels are located, shows how much power is being used and whether it's feeding back to the grid.

In a nod to our capacity-challenged landfills, he recycled construction materials from his old house and packaging from the new one. His assistant in this endeavor was his 77-year-old father, Archie, a retired fourth-grade schoolteacher, who made it a daily hobby to fish out discarded cardboard, wood pallets and other castoffs and send them away for recycling.

"It's amazing to see the amount of construction waste," Kevin said, as he plucked some plants from a landscaper's discard pile.

While marveling at all the knowledge he's gained, deFreitas said he learned that he is not suited to be a general contractor, whose main job is to yell and scream at subcontractors until they get it right.

"This has changed me for the better," he said.

He's also given up his dream to run for a seat on the City Council.

"I'm too thin-skinned," he said.

But he said his politics - he is a self-described "card-carrying Republican" - have not stood in the way of going green.

"I think it's an exciting time - I'm not pessimistic at all," he said, adding a little later, "I'm not a tree-hugger."

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