Q&A With Robert Kleiman

This is your first green project. What made you decide to take on VISION House?
Bob: My partner Mark is really the technical side of the company. I might call him a building scientist because he really studies how buildings perform... he wanted to figure out a way to teach all the people that work on our projects how to do it better. There are 50 or 75 trades that work on a house. And then each one of those trades has anywhere from 2 to 20 people that might work on the house at different stages. So how do you teach all those people was the question.

The people behind this project - GreenBuilder Media - they're pioneers in the green building industry in this country for 35 years. This is a crew of people that care about the world. They're passionate and authentic. We [Kleiman and partner Mark Sapiro] went to the editor and CEO of Green Builder magazine and asked them ... would you make us a case study so that other builders could figure out how to implement a green strategy. We've built plenty of LEED homes, green homes, healthy homes... But it didn't necessarily change the way a whole culture approached homes. So they said to us, we do vision houses around the country. We've done 6 or 7 of them to date, we've never done one on the west coast, you guys seem like nice guys, why don't we do one together. That's how it happened.
What's different about the process of building a green house vs. standard new construction?
Bob: Every inch of the way we talked to [GreenBuilder] and got their input on the different systems and ways we could make it a better building. To increase its performance, durability, energy efficiency, water efficiency, water and air quality... This project required a huge amount of collaboration because there were so many moving parts. It wasn't just build a house the same old way you've done it over and over again. Every single component was looked at a little differently to get to a place of building something that would demonstrate, educate and raise awareness to a different way of building -- a visionary way of building a home that might start to look like the things you would expect to see in a home of the future.

I think the people who worked on the project came away with a different understanding of how to do their trades. Are we protecting the building, are we enhancing the way the building's going to perform by the way we're sealing it ... or insulating or framing it. We framed using a new method where there's less lumber used. It's called Advanced Framing Technique. It's just a matter of thinking a little differently about how the building is being assembled. And then I think materials selection. A lot of different things from the standpoint of, are we using materials that are local, are they products that could be reused. Are they accessible to people?
The house is gorgeous. Often it seems green homes sacrifice looks for efficiency. How did you do it?
Bob: Is it a purist, green house? No ... One of the things that was important to us was, how do we provide an aesthetically beautiful house too that sells for $3.5 million plus? So it wasn't just build a sustainable house [even] if it doesn't look good... there's a balance.

Green to me is just technology that's looking forward regardless of energy. One of the things we did [was] respect the natural contour of the property as opposed to alter it. We also opened the building on the front, side and rear to create a natural air flow. That's my favorite part of the whole project, how it opens. Because if you stand in this house a whole day, you don't know whether you've been inside all day or outside. And when you close the doors it kind of feels good because you've been outside all day. There's so much breath and breeze that runs through the building.
Time for us to geek out. Tell us about all the cool technology and appliances.
Bob: The roof is southern facing with a 38 solar photo voltaic panel array. So it has a 7.2 kilowatt system on the roof that was modeled so the building could achieve a net zero energy. All the appliances [are] high efficiency, even the AC system, so you could attain that net-zero energy.

The AC system duct work is lined with an antimicrobial lining, so it kills germs, as well as a whole house filtration system that uses ultraviolet lights to kill microbes in the air before they're passed through the duct system. All the heating is radiant floor heating ... which is a nicer, healthier air quality... There's a whole-house lighting system... that gives you the ability to set different ambiances. So if you want a party ambience, or morning ambience, or everyday.
We're assuming there's an app for that?
Bob: There is an app! It's called ELAN g!. It controls heating and air, the security system, the irrigation system, the lighting, and the audio visual. All of the appliances, all the systems in the house have a gateway Internet connection. So this screen comes up on my iPad or iPhone, and from anywhere in the world you can turn the lights on, open the garage door or set the security system.

These kinds of systems are becoming so commonplace. The prices are coming down, down, down in the last 3-4 years and fast. Four years ago my clients would spend $60-75,000 to get a fully integrated system and now, $18,000. $18k is a lot of money, I know that, but if you're building a custom home on the west side of LA it's becoming a standard feature.
Is it possible to add one of these systems to an existing home?
Bob: Theoretically it's harder for an existing home, although wireless technology has come a long way. Not hard at all in new construction to add when the house is done or years later. Because we bring all the wiring to a central location, so to add a computer that controls it is easy.
What happens if the power goes out?
Bob: There's a backup generator in this house -- a gas-operated generator in the back yard.
What's your favorite room in the house?
Bob: I love the master bedroom, from day one. It has this light, fantastic feeling. Even when it was framed I questioned whether I'd be able to leave it. It opens up on three sides. Rooms with light on three sides always appeal to me. I like the way this room feels. It makes me feel like I'm on vacation. We're in a neighborhood with little 50-foot lawns but we don't feel hammered in by other buildings on other sides. We are, but it doesn't feel like it.
The house is 4,300 square feet. How much would it cost to heat and cool?
Bob: [It] shouldn't cost anything from an electrical standpoint. Truth is, Palisades isn't a heavy heat climate. We'd have a different story if we were standing in the San Fernando valley... There is huge insulation value. R38 in the ceilings, R19 in the walls. We've exceeded Title 24, which is the energy modeling for a house, by 32 percent. So that qualifies us for a Tier 2 CalGreen certification, which is kind of like the upper level where CalGreen is probably headed.

The other thing we did... was to recondition the attic. So as opposed to just having an attic that's hot and has vents out to let it breath, which is what the city requires you to do, we enclosed the attic and made it part of the conditioned space. So the duct work inside the attic is actually refrigerated by the cooling system just as the air in the house is. It's just a more efficient way to run the AC, as opposed to having ducts that are stuck u in the 100-degree hot attic, which is a lot more work on the AC system.
How do you track how the house is "performing" in terms of being green?
Bob: We actually have systems to monitor that electrical usage over time so we can see how the building is performing, and the owner of the building will be able to get a feedback loop to know how they're doing and what might be throwing it off. And that, in the world of energy consumption and green technology, is actually a proven piece that's a very important part of energy conservation -- getting a feedback loop to know how you're doing. It actually changes behavior more than any one component.
You're a big advocate of a new, more collaborative home-building process. Is this the future of the industry?
Bob: The world is shifting from a non-collaborative space that's surrounded by fear and doubt and protecting, to something that's more open, trusting, accepting and collaborative, generally. That's what the internet is about, the freedom of information. It's influencing the way we do business. Even my clients today, they educate me. They sit at home at night and they're Googling all these new technologies. That's the way the world is working today.

In this project we were pushed to reach out and learn, and to bring a lot of different minds in and really listen to how do we do it differently and better. Why are we conditioning the attic space? Why are we using this kind of paint? We reorganized the way we look at a building, and that required a different kind of collaboration. It's as very interesting concept ... that has to do with the old paradigm. You want to build a house so you hire an architect, the architect designs the house, and then somewhere along the line you bring in an interior designer, and a landscape architect, and then you go out and find yourself a contractor. That paradigm has some real flaws in it.

There's a Cal Green now that there wasn't two years ago. And I have a whole other set of inspectors that review and certify the building before I get a certificate of occupancy. It's a different world. It's only going to move more in that direction because we have to. It's forcing us to get all those component members of the design team together earlier on, because the only way to really execute it properly and get it to work together is to bring everybody in at the beginning.
Any advice for your peers, or what qualities a homeowner who's hiring someone should look for in a contractor?
Bob: Qualities are education, being informed, being open and excited about change, and being willing to implement change. Change is tough. It's easy to sit around and brainstorm ideas, but it's painstaking to put it into action. A lot of people resist it. To me that's the takeaway -- embracing change and not resisting change. The business person in me had this thought that if I get into this world of green building, I will lead a change that's absolutely going to happen. If you and I were guessing whether or not 10 years from now that I've done it, I look at it and say, how could I do it any other way?