Flocking to Rock Row
Buyers snap up homes in a sleek new residential development in Eagle
Rock that may be L.A. County’s first to attain LEED certification
— the gold standard for green buildings.
By Ilsa Setziol 09/01/2009
Earlier this year, retired teacher Karen McKay and her husband John were searching the online real estate service Redfin for a home in the Pasadena area. Nothing stood out. “A lot of the places were 1920s bungalows,” says McKay. “They were cute but required someone younger and more energetic to keep them up.” Plenty of condominiums were listed, but the McKays didn’t want to deal with a homeowners’ association.
Then they read about Rock Row — 15 new homes squeezed together on half an acre on Yosemite Drive in Eagle Rock. The individual parcels were tiny — only five inches separate the residences — but buyers would own their lots. There were no shared walls and no potentially contentious homeowners’association. Plus, the project was in the vanguard of environmentally friendly construction. “We didn’t know that people were building like this,” McKay says of the dual-flush toilets, double-pane windows, low-water landscaping and more.
The McKays consider themselves lucky to have found Rock Row in time. Priced around $500,000, the homes sold out within a month. If the project holds up to rigorous third-party inspections, it could become the first multi-home development in Los Angeles to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating, the gold standard for green buildings.
The two- and three-story Rock Row homes are energy
misers. Every possible hole or crack has been insulated or sealed and
checked by specialized inspectors. The vinyl windows are glazed with a
reflective coating that screens out radiant heat; a layer of aluminum
in the roofing also keeps interiors cool. Most of the homes will draw
at least half their power from solar panels on
The project designer, 32-year-old Kevin Wronske, says he didn’t set out to be a green architect. Sustainable design wasn’t emphasized at the Southern California Institute of Architecture when he studied there in the late ’90s. But by the time he and his developer brother, Hardy, formed an Eagle Rock–based partnership called Heyday in 2001, they felt it was a responsibility they had to take on. “The position we’re in as developers — where we’re offering a lot of homes at the same time — we can have a big impact,” says Wronske, who worked for the prominent late architect George Yu and the Museum of Contemporary Art before striking out on his own.
The homes look a bit boxy on the outside, the result of packing 1,300-to-1,600-square feet of living space (plus decks and a garage) onto lots averaging 1,500 square feet. Inside the spaces are light-filled and open, with 10-foot ceilings. For graphic designer Dyna Kau, the contemporary look was a welcome refuge from the faux facades of most new homes. “This was cool design that didn’t have run-of-the-mill aesthetics,” she says. “It looked relevant in today’s design world.”
The golden-brown bamboo flooring is strand woven, a manufacturing process that makes it twice as durable as a standard bamboo floor, according to Wronske. The appliances are super-efficient Bosch models, and the taps flow low. Several of the homes are topped with a low-growing garden, known as a green roof.
LEED buildings are generally considered healthier not just for the planet, but for people too. Rock Row’s painted walls don’t emit chemicals (volatile organic compounds [VOCs]), shelving units are free of formaldehyde and tail-pipe fumes are fanned out of the garage.
Wronske says the project wasn’t easy to pull together. “I had a terrible time securing some of the materials for the project,” he says. “Some of the more common items — no-VOC paint, tankless water heaters — weren’t too bad, but when I was ordering specific finish materials, it became very tricky to find what I wanted.” He also struggled to secure subcontractors who would guarantee work meeting the more rigorous standards of the Home Energy Rating System (HERS). The Heyday Partnership estimates that environmentally friendly upgrades added about five percent to the project’s cost (not counting the add-on solar panels).
Despite its noble goals, the company wasn’t encouraged by the City of Los Angeles. When Rock Row was launched two and a half years ago, the planning department did not provide incentives, guidance or resources for green construction. Since then, L.A. Council President Eric Garcetti and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have made sustainable projects a priority. An ordinance passed last year requires all new developments larger than 50 units or 50,000 square feet to meet LEED standards. There are also incentives for smaller projects. Garcetti says, “We’ve worked to establish a system to expedite permits for projects that meet certain LEED standards and to offer financial incentives for high-efficiency appliances and fixtures.” It was too late for Rock Row, but Heyday’s future projects will benefit. Wronske expects them all to be green.
Rock Row has faced other hurdles as well. Heyday had wanted to address some environmentalists’ concerns that new buildings capture and recycle water to help cope with the region’s declining water supply. Rock Row is slated to include a permeable driveway that allows rain to trickle through drought-tolerant turf instead of sweeping pollution into waterways. But the developers found storing rainwater or reusing greywater — the mostly clean stuff that flows out of showers, sinks and washing machines — to be too expensive and bulky. Ted Bardacke, senior program associate of the environmental group Global Green USA, sympathizes with the developer. “You have to have a place to store the water,” he says. “To find space for storage tanks is not easy. We also need in L.A. to build at very dense units per acre. That’s an environmental virtue, too.”
The first group of homeowners is expected to move into Rock Row this month. Dyna Kau is one of them. “I’m so excited,” she says. “It’s my first home. I wanted it to be perfect, and it will be. It’s a very smart and environmentally conscious design.”