Over the last 45 years, actor and environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr. has established himself as Hollywood’s most visible proponent of living a sustainable lifestyle. So, when his family outgrew its 1936 bungalow in Studio City, he wanted to make a statement by using the latest technologies to save energy and conserve water. The result is a home that makes no compromises, not just in terms of sustainability, but also in terms of livability and aesthetics.
Begley, his wife, Rachelle Carson, and their daughter moved into the French Mediterranean home in March. A casual observer would never guess the home is LEED Platinum certified.
“You’ve heard the phrase ‘less is more.’ And it usually is,” Begley says in a recent interview. “In this case, more is less. This is a bigger house than the previous home, but it has a fraction of the energy bill, as in zero. It is a net zero electric home. That is to say, we put in more power to the grid than we take out on a monthly basis.”
Nestled into the roof is a set of photovoltaic solar panels that are rated to generate up to 9 kW of power. The home is positioned to take maximum advantage of the sun — even on the winter solstice, the solar panels enjoy total exposure to sunlight. On most days, the system generates in excess of 6 kW, meaning Begley is sending electricity back to the grid. Thanks to a 4-inch riser at the edge of the roof, the panels are nearly impossible to see from the ground.
Contributing to the home’s net zero electric status is an A. O. Smith Cirrex Solar System. The system, with two 4-foot x 10-foot solar thermal panels on the south-facing roof and a 120-gallon storage tank in the basement, has been more than up to the challenge of meeting the Begley family’s hot water needs.
“There’s so much hot water, it’s been more than enough for my family, even on cloudy days,” Begley observes. He also had an A. O. Smith Vertex high-efficiency gas water heater installed to serve as a backup during extended periods of overcast.
“I have to be honest, the Vertex is going to be a lonely piece of equipment,” he jokes. “The solar hot water system works so well, it’s not going to come on much. I don’t think it’s come on once since we had the natural gas turned on.”
According to Oded Vogel of All Valley Solar in nearby North Hollywood, the home’s unique construction created some installation challenges for the rooftop solar units.
“The rack had to be designed and custom-built to fit the steel structure. With an engineer, we designed a rack that is basically hooked on blocks between the steel rafters, because we can't hook it to the roof, can’t hook it in the steel rafters themselves,” Vogel says. “There are four big bolts per footer, per stand for the rack, and they’re suspended in the air. The rack is actually suspended on these blocks. It’s not leaning on the roof membrane itself. That was a challenge, and it took a few months to get the rack designed, engineered and built.”
Begley and his design team paid particular attention to the home’s envelope. To conserve wood, he used steel framing throughout the two-story structure. That created a challenge because most contractors are not accustomed to using steel in residential dwellings.
“But I’m glad we did it because the insulation properties and the structural integrity of the place are so great,” Begley points out. “This home is going do very well in an earthquake. And the fire marshal loves you, the termite abatement people hate you because they’ve got no work, and the mold abatement people don’t like you either because there’s no work for them.”
The 12-inch walls are made up of seven layers of insulation with a thermal gap to offset the temperature conducting properties of the steel. The large windows, which let in the maximum amount of natural light possible, are dual-layer thermal pane construction. Programmable electronics not only control the lighting throughout the house but also synchronize with the sunrise and sunset to raise and lower the shades.
Water conservation is critical in drought-stricken Southern California, and Begley’s home design takes that into consideration as well. The roof is gently pitched to the center, where a drain collects any rainwater and moves it to a 10,000-gallon underground storage tank. The bathrooms and laundry room are designed to drain gray water to the storage tank as well. Begley uses the water he collects to drip irrigate his fruit trees and raised-bed vegetable gardens. When cleaning the bathrooms or using bleach in the laundry, Begley simply has to flip a switch to re-route the waste water to the sanitary sewer.
Add in Energy Star-rated appliances, water-saving toilets, shower heads, kitchen faucets, and 20 SEER heating/air conditioning units, and Begley’s home is a model for thoughtful energy conservation. The project also gave him a newfound appreciation for aesthetics.
“My wife and the architect did a brilliant job with their end, which is the aesthetics. I didn’t think I cared much about it, but now living in this home, I love the way it looks. It makes me feel good every day to look at the design and see how easy it is to use and live in. So, form and function meet in this home build, and they did a good job making something that looks nice.”
Begley continues to urge homeowners to do what they can to conserve energy in their homes: “You can do many things that we’ve done here in the smallest of homes, the most modest of homes. A lot of this technology I did use in my previous home, which was a 1936 home. Some of it is new and wouldn’t work in an old home like that, but many of the things I’ve used will, and that’s what I urge people to do, to do that kind of stuff that will make a difference in your energy bill in your own home. Good insulation, energy-saving thermostats, weather stripping, an energy-efficient water heater. Do the things that you can afford because every little bit matters.”