Few homeowners would want the shapes of fungus, germs or mold to freckle their walls or ceilings. But when Stephen Pallrand, the owner of the architecture, design and construction firm Home Front Build and a dedicated environmentalist, set out to construct his family’s new house in Los Angeles, he chose these intricate motifs.
Printed mycelium, a fungus, trills up hemp drapery; E. coli appears to wriggle across bathroom tiles. At first glance, the kitchen backsplash looks like a graphic, polychromatic holdover from the 1970s. But no, it’s a representation of mold spores.
“There’s a little mischievousness about bringing all these things and making them visible,” said Mr. Pallrand’s wife, Rachel Mayeri, who based the tile designs on electron microscopy images.
“These things we tend to think of as being kind of ugly and want to hide — mold spores and mildew growing in our bathtub, and bacterial colonies that are on all the surfaces of your house — they’re all noncharismatic animals, but they’re really crucial to our lives.”
Mr. Pallrand wants to help usher in a more sustainable home building industry, so much so that he used to keep pieces of demolished houses in his backyard, ready to reuse redwood cladding or Craftsman-era two-by-fours, when he could.
To build his own 2,495-square-foot house, which he and his team completed in December, Mr. Pallrand wanted to create a livable case study that would push the recycled, compostable envelope. “We explored in every direction possible,” Mr. Pallrand said.
The home’s bifolding doors lessen the boundary between indoors and outdoors and take advantage of Southern California’s mild climate.CreditCris Nolasco Studios
Take the “Gaudí-esque” shingles, as Mr. Pallrand put it, referring to the organic style of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, that seem to crawl across the ceiling archways in the home’s great room. Each shingle is salvaged redwood he bought from Pacific Redwood Products, a Northern California company that reclaims wood and salvages fallen old-growth trees found along the Klamath River, using salvage permits.
“The benefits from reclaimed woods are many,” said Jeffrey Sogge, the co-owner of Pacific Redwood Products. “One is that you’re using old-growth wood, which you can’t purchase or cut down anymore. So you’re getting the highest quality wood but doing it in a way where you’re environmentally friendly.”
Mr. Pallrand’s master bedroom is paneled in redwood that Pacific Redwood culled from a decommissioned bridge built in 1925 in Humboldt County, its knotholes and bolt-holes still visible. The Philippine mahogany table, now carved with a mycelium-inspired runner down the center, was hewed from 1920s-era church pews that a congregation in Santa Monica, Calif., was dumping.
Mr. Pallrand said he hoped the design of his four-bedroom, three-bath home would inspire a resurgent interest in green building, which is often seen as soulless and spare, in the same way that “the Craftsman movement was a reaction against the Victorian bric-a-brac.”
A hand-hewn effect is visible on most surfaces, including the straw plaster walls, which contain grass waste from nearby Elyria Canyon Park. It’s a construction technique that a Home Front Build crew member, Alfonso Garcia, learned from his Mexican grandfather.
“You can tell a hand-applied plaster, and there’s a richness to it when you’re sitting in a room and you’re not in something industrially produced,” Mr. Pallrand said. “You’re in a place that was made by people and you’re more in touch with humanity.”
Sustainable appliances and fixtures ensure that the house, which Mr. Pallrand shares with Ms. Mayeri, a professor of media studies at Harvey Mudd College, their 16-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, is more than its pretty face. There are LG solar panels on the roof that have an estimated annual production of 8,450 kilowatt-hours a year; motion sensors on the LED lights; double walls for thick insulation; and gray water pipes that shoot secondhand water into the drought-tolerant garden from the laundry, showers, and tubs (One catch: “You have to use Dr. Bronner’s hippie soap; you can’t use Pantene,” said Mr. Pallrand).
His most unorthodox touch took its cues from public spaces: flush-free urinals in the bathrooms. “Think of all the water you save with urinals!” he said.
Many things you can’t see — such as the foundation — were made using construction debris, like concrete slabs and chunks, from other sites. But Mr. Pallrand is quick to point out that having a hoard of sustainably intended contraptions isn’t necessarily the same as being sustainable yourself.
“The rule is, there’s no green buildings, there’s only green users,” he said. “If people don’t use it in an efficient way, it doesn’t matter. It loses its point.”
Mr. Pallrand recently established a website, CarbonShack.com, to help homeowners see how they can improve their carbon footprints.
The site allows viewers to input their home’s information and toggle to see how much energy and water they might save with small tweaks, whether that’s limiting themselves to 12 baths a year or cooking on a gas stove once a day instead of three times.
For instance, if you live in a two-bedroom house with two toilets made later than 1994, you might save 2,336 gallons of water a year if you flush less often.
“People should learn right now we’re at a point environmentally where we’re living beyond our means,” Mr. Pallrand said. “We’re at a crisis point.”
Some 30 percent to 40 percent of domestic landfill waste is material from the building industry, said Kathryn Rogers Merlino, the author of the new book “Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design.”
She argues that the greenest thing to do is most likely to repair your house, rather than remodel. But if you’re going to build fresh, using reclaimed and salvaged materials, as Mr. Pallrand has done, is best environmentally, though it’s not easy.
“We haven’t really instilled the ethic in our public policy to say we need to recycle these things, we need to think about where the waste stream is going, we need to legislate careful reconstruction, which to me is really critical,” Ms. Rogers Merlino said. “You need both incentive and legislative laws to make things really happen.”
“What’s the carbon cost of building? Because as an industry we don’t look at that,” said Mr. Pallrand, who grew up the son of a physicist in Princeton, N.J., and worked as a set builder before establishing Home Front Build 16 years ago.
“You know, you can go buy a car, and you can buy a Suburban or a Prius. There’s a way of evaluating the product in the car market which we don’t offer in the construction market. So that’s what we were trying to do in this project and then of course put a website together where we could share all this information, so people could learn from everything that we’re doing.”
Almost all of Mr. Pallrand’s projects for Home Front Build use reclaimed materials to varying degrees, so the concept of bacteria-as-inspiration suits the theme.
For Charlie Markowitz, an environmental analyst for CarbonShack.com, the design decision was ultimately about “understanding the only reason why we exist is because plants have made this planet habitable for us.”
Using their patterns is a nod to “how we value life and how everything is working together as this one biosphere community rather than having this traditional hierarchy,” Mr. Markowitz said.