Ed Begley Jr.’s Green Home Makeover
Saving Energy and Cutting Waste is a Family Affair
Ed Begley, Jr., widely regarded as America’s most environmentally aware actor—the one by which other green celebrities are measured—has never tired of the years of effort he and his family have made in making their home as green as possible. But this past year, his wife, Rachelle Carson-Begley, had had enough.
She isn’t fed up with turning off lights or relying on solar power—she’s just grown weary of the home’s tiny closets and sharing one small bathroom between two adults and a soon-to-be-teenage daughter, 11-year-old Hayden. While Rachelle played the disgruntled foil to the over-achieving eco-cop Ed on their former television show, Living with Ed—which aired for three seasons, first on HGTV and then on Planet Green—her problems with their modest 1936 home in Studio City, California, are those to which most homeowners can relate.
For example, cramped rooms make entertaining difficult. The home’s 1,600 square feet of main living space (plus an additional 600-square-foot room above the garage) does not easily accommodate the fundraisers the Begleys regularly host; not to mention the camera crews that routinely invaded the family’s day-to-day lives to capture the couple’s good-natured squabbles over everything from composting to conserving water and energy. For seven years, the family even ran a nontoxic cleaning business—Begley’s Best—out of their garage, adding to the mêlée.
“Even if it were designed differently, it would be better,” Rachelle explains. “It’s just that it’s a 1936 house. Yes, it’s efficient, but it would be great to be able to incorporate everything that’s going on now in eco building and be a recipient of all the latest benefits—why not?”
So the Begleys are moving. After years of documenting how to retrofit an older house to maximize use of solar energy for electricity, heating, cooling and hot water, family recycling and rainwater catchment, they are planning to sell their modest abode and build a modern, 3,000-square-foot home a mile away.
Ed emphasizes that the move is a major concession on his part. “I made it crystal clear when Rachel and I were dating: ‘This is the home I plan to be buried in. I will never move.’ And I said it repeatedly from 1993 until about a year and a half ago; now I’m going against that.”
Although the Begleys are trading up, they will continue to set an example by building their new home to green building standards that few homeowners have achieved. They’re going for the platinum; that is, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum standards, the highest rating possible for buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council (usgbc.org). This premier LEED designation requires an incredible environmental commitment in every aspect of the building process, from responsible site development, reduced water use and renewable energy utilities to the use of recycled and local materials and indoor air quality control. Of the more than 130 LEED Platinum building projects in California—the state that boasts the most such projects—only about 30 are private homes. Despite his initial protestations, Ed admits that he’s excited about the prospect. If there’s one thing he relishes, it’s a green challenge.
Life with Ed
It’s not easy to live up to Ed’s 30-year-strong waste-nothing ethos. Although he first made a name for himself as an actor, initially as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on the 1980s TV show St. Elsewhere, followed by his recurring roles in the hit TV series Six Feet Under and Arrested Development, as well as a co-starring role in Woody Allen’s 2009 film Whatever Works, lately he’s become best known as Hollywood’s green guru. He’s the people’s go-to expert on green building and saving energy, authoring the how-to books, Living Like Ed and Ed Begley Jr.’s Guide to Sustainable Living. Ed is often spotted around Hollywood riding his bike, his preferred mode of travel; on weekdays, he and his daughter ride together to her school, pedaling two miles each way.
This down-to-earth, affable man is perhaps eco-conscious to a fault. The success of the show Living with Ed relied in great part on the watchdog antics of Ed catching his wife stuffing vegetable peelings down the garbage disposal, instead of in the compost bin, timing her long showers or opening a running dryer to discover Rachelle’s lone tank top inside. In each case, the chastised Rachelle vowed to be more eco-conscious, with a raised eyebrow aimed at the camera.
“I felt vindicated,” Rachelle says of her reality show adventures. “They [the viewers] were going to side with me.”
If there’s any question that Ed’s needling occurs only when the cameras are on, his family members put those doubts to rest. Rachelle describes how her husband insists on keeping the temperature uncomfortably low on cold nights for the sake of saving energy; of turning off her curling iron while it’s warming up if she leaves the room; or switching off the TV if she’s listening to it while getting dressed down the hall.
Daughter Hayden’s biggest gripe has to do with TV time. “I love to watch TV for hours on end,” she says. “My dad is very cautious about using power and we have to turn off several different things when we use the TV, like the DVR and its power switch.”
But Ed insists that all these little energy-saving strategies add up. While he was willing to recently trade his obsolete 1992 TV set for an HDTV, he knows it’s a major energy hog—and not only when someone’s watching it. “The phantom power can be as high as 100 watts per hour,” he says—that’s the power the TV consumes simply by being plugged in. “But,” he notes, “ if you have put power strips everywhere in the house and you just walk around and click off a few of them, all of that phantom power is turned off. Then, you can enjoy an appliance like that without using a tremendous amount of energy.” The sun may be an unlimited source of energy, but the solar power stored in their home’s batteries has limitations—and Ed is a vigilant watchdog.
With rooftop solar panels providing most of the home’s power, the Begleys remain blissfully unaware when there’s a power outage in the neighborhood. “I only find out about it when I walk to the post office and see the signal flashing to show that power has been restored,” Ed comments.
Ed manually switches over to the municipal power grid only when he senses that the stored power capacity in the home’s solar batteries is running low. He foresees that eventually that system will be automated, but for now, he’s happy to keep track. The solar power generated onsite is enough to operate the house and professional TV cameras; it also charges an electric car in the garage—an all-electric 2002 Toyota RAV4 that’s clocked 85,000 miles.
For hot water, the family comfortably relies mostly on a simple solar thermal setup—a 4-by-10-foot panel on the roof of black anodized tubing behind a piece of glass. A pump activates when a sensor in the panel senses that it’s hotter than the temperature in the tank. Ed observes: “If you keep things simple, they work well.”
Simplicity also keeps maintenance issues at bay. The upkeep required for his solar electric system is minor; he’s committed only to adding water to the batteries every nine months and occasionally getting up to the roof to clean the panels with a brush and a little water.
Embracing the Great Outdoors
One of Ed’s first acts when he purchased his current house in 1988 was to rip up the existing lawn and replace it with native California plants and a fruit and vegetable garden. Unless raising cows or running a golf course, he can’t imagine why anyone would need high-maintenance, water-wasting grass outside their home. But, as with many of Ed’s improvements, energy saving tends to trump aesthetics. That’s where Rachelle comes in.
“A few years after Rachelle had moved in here, she was telling a friend to meet her at the house,” Ed recalls, “and she said ‘It’s the one on the corner that looks like the Addams Family yard.’ I thought: ‘Oooh, maybe that garden isn’t quite as nice looking as it used to be.’ It was very drought-tolerant, but it didn’t look good.”
With Rachelle’s help, a new landscaper joined the effort of turning the formerly bleak-looking yard into an attractive mix of native plants that includes fragrant rosemary and purple-flowering sage along with broccoli, artichoke, corn and lettuce. Plans for the new family home will allow Ed an expanded capability to harvest rainwater through a large catchment system with an underground tank, so that he can irrigate the gardens without drawing from the municipal water supply—which he characterizes as having, “... our straw dipped into someone else’s drink”—namely, Northern California’s water. “If you’re going to take water from someone else,” Ed advises, “the least you can do is to use it responsibly and not waste it on non-native species.”
Meeting in the Middle
Bringing Rachelle’s aesthetic influence to bear has entailed replacing outdated living room curtains with attractive and energy-efficient wooden shutters, and finding ways to recycle without having large bins in plain sight. She’s orchestrating the design and layout of the new house—allowing for both entertaining space and larger closets—while Ed focuses on its renewable energy systems—including more unshaded rooftop panels and orientating the building to make the most of natural light.
“If we don’t go LEED Platinum, then who will?” Rachelle queries. “That alone is not easy; still, I want to make it look like other houses in the neighborhood. I don’t want a Jetsons’ house; super modern has never been my style. I‘d like to show people that you can have it all, and I’m praying that it’s true.”
The Begleys got off to a good start in March by tearing down an existing home on the property they recently purchased—96 percent of which, from cabinets to pipes, will be recycled or reused through Habitat for Humanity. By March 2012, the new house should be finished. They want their LEED Platinum home to serve as a model for people who are building new residences, to show what is possible in achieving real energy efficiency and waste reduction without sacrificing style or comfort. Ed’s aim is to ensure the place produces more energy than it uses.
As before, the whole process will be documented. “I hope that I’ve shown what you can do with a retrofit,” Ed says. “Now I want to show people what you can do from the ground up in 2011 and beyond.”
The family’s ongoing focus on green living has made a major impact on Hayden, who accepts environmental consciousness as the norm. “I learned everything from my dad, from composting to solar panels,” Hayden says. “I always teach my friends to turn off the lights more often, take shorter showers, stuff like that.”
Her green awareness gives this tween maturity beyond her years. As Rachelle says, “She thinks about things outside of herself. She’s always been conscientious. She’s also really concerned about the planet and very compassionate.” Hayden is proof that a family’s day-to-day environmental commitments can leave a lasting impact that reaches far beyond the immediate family.
Brita Belli is the editor of E-The Environmental Magazine and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Renewable Energy for Your Home. Her next book, due out this fall, explores the relationship of environmental toxins and autism.
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