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Ranch House of the Future

See how a Lafayette family turned a tear down into an übergreen dream home.




 Vance Fox Photography/Courtesy of Faulkner Architects 

A walk through Gwenn and John Lennox’s Lafayette home is a little like being in a Star Trek episode. The classic sci-fi series was filled with examples of a better-evolved humanity set in an optimistic future. Similarly, everywhere you look in the Lennoxes’ modern-styled house, you’ll see a great idea—something that is aesthetically cool while being cleverly sustainable and energy efficient.

This house of the future sits on the same 1/3–acre lot that the Lennox family has called home since 1993. They loved their neighbors and their quiet woodsy block, but the 2,200-square-foot 1950s rancher was tight on space. As their son and daughter—who shared a bedroom—grew older, the Lennoxes needed to make a change.

“We looked at moving elsewhere but loved our neighborhood, and did not want to give up what we had here,” says Gwenn. When the Lennoxes started considering what it would take to expand their old home—a new roof, replacing old electrical and plumbing, dealing with trees in the sewer line—they realized they should simply build a new house on the same spot.

What’s Green?

1. Roof
The butterfly shape catches rainwater for reuse and also allows for high windows.

2. Garage
Reclaimed redwood used for the garage doors and siding comes from vintage wine barrels.

3. Fence
All the lumber is repurposed cedar.

4. Landscaping
A decorative rock bed gathers rainfall from the rooftop and sends water into an underground reuse system for landscaping, secondary use sinks, and washing machine.

5. Chimney
The glass solar chimney beams light into the home during the day and allows hot air to escape during summer months.

And so, they started planning their dream house. John, an obstetrician at Alameda Health System, wanted something architecturally interesting. Gwenn, who spent her career promoting energy conservation and efficiency for PG&E, wanted to build the greenest possible house.

“We wanted to do something that was low impact environmentally and high in its efficiency,” she says.

On the prowl for eco-friendly ideas, the Lennoxes visited the Sunset Idea House in Truckee, which was designed with a sustainable focus and filled with large windows to capture natural light from every angle—exactly the type of dwelling the Lennoxes wanted. By chance, the architect, Greg Faulkner, best known for large projects in the Tahoe area, was building his own house in Lafayette and was looking to build more in the Bay Area.

“Our project was very small by Greg’s standards,” says Gwenn. “But he was intrigued by the green challenge. And he said, ‘Being small is green.’ ”

“It was one of those perfect projects,” says Faulkner. “From the very start, Gwenn and John showed an incredible commitment to make the home as sustainable as possible.”

Russell Abraham/Courtesy of Faulkner Architects

Living Room

1. Couch
Custom-made material comes from recycled plastic bottles.

2. Windows
High windows allow for passive day lighting; more light lets the outdoors in, making the house feel larger.

3. Furniture
Using vintage pieces, such as this 1950s armchair and side table, requires less manufacturing than buying new. Gwen credits their designers, KLDesign, for helping them decorate the home. "They were very instrumental in finding all the cool interior elements that are practical, beautiful, and sustainable," she says. "They were a key part of the team in creating our home."

Faulkner’s inventive design is immediately recognizable with its unique butterfly-shaped roof. While neighboring homes have traditional roofs that peak in the center, Faulkner inverted the Lennoxes’ roof, allowing for tall windows throughout the home. The butterfly design also camouflages the solar panels, which power the house and pump electricity back into the grid. And in the fall and winter, the roof collects rainwater and funnels it into pipes for laundry machines and watering the garden.

“This was the first permitted gray water project in Contra Costa County,” says Faulkner. “That was a fun twist: I love it when function and sustainability can affect the form.”

The abundance of large high windows also lets in lots of light and favors views of the trees, rolling hills, and skyline, making the home feel bigger than its 3,000 square feet.

Russell Abraham/Courtesy of Faulkner Architects


1. Fireplace
The solar fireplace acts as a house fan, without using electricity. When windows are open, the convective design pumps hot air up and out the chimney. The heating element uses a renewable fuel—ethanol.

2. Rug
Made from cowhide, the brick-pattern rug requires less processing and fewer chemicals than other rug materials.

3. Flooring
Cement floors have radiant heating; plus, cement holds heat in the winter and coolness in the summer.

“This has been a piece of land we have always enjoyed because of the trees,” says John. “I love the sycamore trees, and now they are so visible from the inside of the house. The home is designed to let the outdoors in. Accomplishing that is a big green element: You get the feeling of a much larger space, but don’t have to maintain and power as much house.”

Gwenn and John also praise their building contractor, Tom Alderson. Like Faulkner, Alderson was accustomed to much larger projects but was intrigued by the übergreen effort.

“Asking, What is green? and finding the best way to approach each task was an incredible learning experience,” says Alderson, who blended many reused materials into the construction.

Russell Abraham/Courtesy of Faulkner Architects

The Kitchen

1. Counter
It’s made from a large piece of granite reclaimed from a San Leandro stone-supplier scrap yard; reusing materials is environmentally friendly and cheaper.

2. Windows
Open windows are designed for cross-ventilation, requiring less electricity.

3. Cabinets
These are made from ApplePly, a more sustainable wood than hardwood, and treated with a water-based finish that does not put toxic chemicals in the air.

4. Ceiling
The plywood ceiling with maple veneer is also better for air quality.

Alderson and Gwenn Lennox found a huge piece of red and black granite at a local scrap yard that they made into a kitchen countertop—which did not need to be special ordered, shipped, or delivered. Redwood siding on the exterior walls is recycled from antique wine vats. (The Lennoxes had to explain to the wine vat owner how they would use the wood, and he approved.) The framing and walls of the Lennoxes’ original home were recycled and donated to Habitat for Humanity and other organizations for reuse.

Faulkner looks back on designing the Lennox home as the best kind of learning experience. “They say you need three good reasons to do anything; they can be formal, emotional, or source driven,” says the architect. “When I look at this house, I can see all of these interesting decisions in every corner.”

For Gwenn, the home is their eco-friendly dream house: “We’re incredibly lucky to have this piece of art that we get to live in,” she says.

Russell Abraham/Courtesy of Faulkner Architects

The Yard

1. Screens
Aluminum shade screens installed around the home are usually used for walkways in industrial settings. They are long lasting and low maintenance, as well as aesthetically pleasing: The screens’ grated texture offers shade while allowing light to pass through.

2. Landscaping
Edible landscaping includes blueberries, chamomile, kiwi, pomegranate, and raspberries.

 Vance Fox Photography/Courtesy of Faulkner Architects 

The Patio

1. Bricks
Bricks in the patio floor are recycled from the Lennoxes’ previous house.

2. Roof
The butterfly shape conceals solar panels and the white roof, which reflects sunlight and keeps the interior cooler during sweltering summer days.

3. Siding
Reclaimed redwood siding comes from vintage wine barrels.

4. Filtration
Outdoor couches and brick patio cover two 1,700–gallon rainwater storage tanks built into the underground filtration system.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Diablo Magazine.

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