Cover Story

Energy-efficient windows Rainwater catchment Donna-Lynn Ching, Panda, Kerrie Wong and Christopher Tom in the garden
Image: Joana Gonzalez

Her Natural Home

Donna-Lynn Ching dreamed of converting her 60-year-old house into a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly nest--on a strict budget. While not yet quite complete, her green home has already been paying back in energy savings.

Green Nuuanu, swathed in clouds and rain, isn’t exactly the first neighborhood that springs to mind when it comes to solar energy. But on a hot, bright day on a street wedged between a mountain ridge and stream, the photovoltaic (PV) array atop Donna-Lynn Ching’s carport looks like brilliant idea.


As it turns out, there’s enough sunlight in these hills to supply most of the home energy needs of this family of four. Before getting started, Ching consulted with Solar Help Hawaii. “They looked at our electric bill and estimated our tax credits. We were already lean on our usage; everything was on power strips, the kids knew to shut [lights and all electronics] off when not in use.” For starts, “The first thing we did was, we added a solar hot-water heating system, which cut our electricity bill in half,” she says. “Then, two years ago, we did PV and it dropped down to $16 a month.”

That was before the renovation got underway. Since then, the electric bill has risen “as high as $62.50,” Ching says. About half the surplus is temporary, due to the construction workers’ power tools; the rest is from charging Ching’s new electric vehicle (EV).

That’s right, the EV. Those who think they’re above green envy haven’t seen Ching’s sparkling white 2012 Nissan Leaf. Ching plugs the charger into an outdoor socket in the house wall; overnight or on weekends, she pays six cents less per kilowatt hour than during the workday. “It was hard to give up the Beamer,” Ching comments with a rueful smile (she turned in the roadster she’d long leased from BMW Honolulu, where Soong is assistant service manager). “But I love the silence of the Leaf and it accelerates pretty good, not to mention the free fill-ups at Whole Foods and Down to Earth and free public parking.”

Getting Started

A green dream home doesn’t have to mean building new. As in all things sustainable, it’s better to reuse as much as possible, rather than buy new.

Five years ago, when Ching, a doctor of chiropractic, and her husband, Will Soong, bought this one-story, pitched-roof 1950s cottage, it was for the location, near where Ching grew up and her parents still live, with a back yard bordering Nuuanu stream. “I love hearing the stream when it’s quiet at night,” says Ching. The old house itself, they considered tearing down. But “three different contractors told us, ‘Don’t knock it down, it’s tongue-and-groove redwood,’” Ching remembers. The structure, the bones of the house, was strong; They’d bought a house that would last.

Which fit the couple’s plan: “ We’re going to stay here forever.”

Of course, the house needed work. Its original single-wall, open-beam construction allowed energy leaks. All the electrical wiring and plumbing had to be replaced and a thick layer of fiberglass insulation inserted before the drywall and dropped ceilings were added. The general contractor was Jason Retuta, owner of DSB Enterprises. “We’re committed to green design and building. We don’t want to just keep doing conventional,” says Retuta, who has an architecture degree. “We consult with the homeowners, draft design plans, help them identify and source green materials, and hire the subconstractors who do the building and installation.”

Saving Energy and $

Another crucial partner in the project was accountant Lynn Tamanaha of Chinaka and Co., who kept tabs on all the energy tax credits they could get for green products. “One of the first things we did was to put a white coating on the metal roof of the back patio, Ching says.” The coating, which helps cool the house by deflecting the sun’s heat, was Energy Star qualified and thus earned (energy efficient) tax credits. “It insulates us from the sound of the rain, too,” Ching says.

Another first step, in addition to solar water heating and PV, was the installation of a solar attic fan.

Green by design

In late March, when I visited, the exterior work had largely been completed and the interior was still laid bare in many places to the studs and pipes and subfloors.

Before entering, I paused to admire the many beautiful new windows. Plentiful daylight is a crucial energy-efficient design feature, but these Pella windows are also endowed with double-glazed (dual) thermal panes. Formerly filled with jalousies, the windows on the front and makai-facing sides of the house were now double-hung. On the mauka-facing side, where the tradewinds blow, “We placed awning windows so we can leave them partly open even in the rain,” Ching said. Although they installed Energy Star air conditioners, the plan is to stay cool without using them. In early May, Ching said they still hadn’t turned the AC on yet this year.

At the front door, Ching paused. “Another thing we did green was to recycle everything we could that we tore out.”

VOC-free

Leave your shoes on. The floors are still all torn up,” Ching directed as we entered the house, where gouged-out cavities alternated with smooth new flooring. Ching and Soong’s bed stood in the living room, where they’d been sleeping for months. “We can’t afford to move out and stay in a hotel,” Ching said, laughing, not without a touch of exasperation. Her college and high school student sons, Christopher and Nicholas Tom, are living at home, too. “The workers are careful, covering areas with plastic sheets, but when I come home after work every day I opened all the windows, dusted and vacuumed.”

“At least we used low-VOC (volatile organic compound) products, so there weren’t toxic fumes,” Ching said, and her point is well-taken. Even no- or low-VOC materials are not chemical- or fume-free, and plant oils, such as pine or citrus, can cause reactions in sensitive people. A new Energy Star ceiling fan light fixture in the living room helps with ventilation as well as cooling.

The result: Even with fresh paint on the walls and the floors half-laid, the indoor air was free of the acrid, irritating smells of glue and solvents that accompany conventional renovating and decorating. This writer, who once suffered a bad asthma attack in a home freshly coated with regular paint, breathed easy throughout two visits.

For both the exterior and interior walls, Retuta used Behr Premium Plus low-VOC paint. The outside is a natural, weathered-looking grey-brown, the windows trimmed in white. The vibrant interior paint shades range from white to red to green. The living room floor is a lovely golden brown, grained bamboo that’s used for flooring throughout the house. “When Jason was starting to glue [the flooring] down, I asked him about the VOCs and he decided to nail it down instead,” Ching said with a happy laugh.

Kitchen

The heart of the house is the open but deep kitchen, with red and yellow walls and a window over the sink letting in plentiful daylight. It’s also well-lit by wall/ceiling fixtures and a lovely chandelier, all set with LED (light-efficient diode) lights, which are 10 times more efficient than CFLs (compact fluorescents) and have a warmer hue. Other rooms use CFLs, but “there’s not a single regular lightbulb in the house,” Ching declared.

Cabinets and a generous kitchen island were made of maple the color of maple sugar. “I wanted solid wood, not laminates, nothing plastic,” Ching said. The kitchen counters are dark granite supplied, along with the maple cabinets, by Hawaii Home Expo. Who knew sustainable on a budget could be off-the-charts beautiful? “It’s all just choosing wisely,” Ching advised.

And it’s practical. The stainless steel fridge (Energy Star), oven and stovetop are all GE Profile. The black industrial-looking range is gas, which Ching prefers for cooking. Rather than running a gas line to the home, they use a refillable propane tank.

Bed and Bath

The three bedrooms align along the mauka side of the house, each fitted with an overhead Energy Star ceiling fan. On my return visit in May, Christopher Tom and his girlfriend, Kerrie Wong, are doing their homework in his room, its red and purple walls demonstrating that low-VOC doesn’t mean low-voltage. Tom, who had just moved back into his freshly painted room, confirms that there is no smell. His favorite part of the renovation? “The carpet,” he says. “Why?” Ching asks with a surprised laugh. “Because we didn’t have any floor for a year, nothing to lie around on,” Tom explains.

Ching explains further. “Oh, he means the new area rug, which we can lie on and watch TV. It’s washable. We took up all the original wall-to-wall–and recycled it.” Wall-to-wall carpets, as any green maven knows, are toxic sinks filled with dust mites, animal dander and the settling of ambient airborne chemicals.

The old shared bath is still undergoing a major overhaul, but a second bath has been added between the bedroom wing and a door to the big covered lanai out back, where the family works out on gym equipment and holds most of its parties. A separate sliding door connects to the kitchen, but now, guests won’t have to take their shoes off and trek through the house to use the bathroom.

Both baths have new dual-flush, water-saving toilets and low-flow shower heads and faucet fixtures. Countertops are the same granite as in the kitchen, and untreated (low-VOC) plywood was used beneath the counters and for cabinet boxes.

In a skylight corridor between kitchen and lanai stands the Energy Star washer and 80-gallon solar water heater, as well as the clothes dryer, an appliance that is not available in Energy Star models, being too much of a power hog. So they scarcely use the dryer, Ching says, preferring to hang drying laundry on the lanai. Her latest discovery: Method 32x concentrated laundry detergent. The tiny bottle uses that much less plastic.

Outdoor space

Because Ching is an avid gardener, her green home tour includes the yard, where she does a lot of her sustainable living and really seems to feel most at home. For decades, the doctor has propagated plant cuttings and brought them to her office every week or so to give to her patients as part of what might be said to be her naturally holistic healing practice. Which goes back to this beach-going islander’s original inspiration for a green home. “The goal is for [as much as possible] to be natural, that it come from the earth.”

On my return visit in May, Ching shows off her worm condo, which she bought from Koolau Farmers, with as much pride as her children’s bedrooms. She lifts the lid, revealing a strip of burlap covered with carrot peelings, old lettuce, and worms. “It doesn’t smell,” she says. Her supplemental compost heap is also going strong.

All this provides soil for her organic garden; the yard is colorful with ginger, bird of paradise, heliconia, orchids, ferns, and a wall of trees waving on the banks of the hidden stream. Ching points out her rain gutters, the downspouts aimed at garden spots. “This is Nuuanu. We never water our plants,” she says. Her next purchase? A Water Hog rain catchment barrel. Next system? Aquaponics, adapting the current stone-walled fishpond to growing tilapia.

“To live sustainably, you pay it forward and it pays you back over time,” Ching says. “I wish I could do more.” She thinks for a moment and smiles, her eyes shining. “I just bought some organic vegetable seeds from Fukuda Store: kale, broccoli, spinach, squash. If all goes well, I’ll be giving away produce at the office.”

Hopefully her lucky clients will plant the seeds and share what they produce, as well.

Green Home Checklist

Photovoltaic panels

Solar water heater, timer set for non-peak hours, thermostat at 120 degrees

Solar attic fan

White thermal-coated roof

EV charger, timer set for non -peak electrical hours

Energy-efficientwindows

Low-VOC paint, plywood

Solid bamboo flooring

Solid wood cabinet doors/facings

Granite countertops

Dual-flush, WaterSense toilets

Low-flow shower heads

CFL, LED lights

Energy Star appliances

Power strips

Clothesline

Rainwater-collected Earthworm bin

Resources

DSB Enterprises, Design & building consultation,[dsb808.com], 722-5996

Solar Help Hawaii, PV, solar hot water, solar fans [solarhelphawaii.net],

Hawaii Home Expo (T.Oki Trading), cabinets, stone/granite, lighting, PV,[hawaiihomeexpo.com],834-2722

Koolau Farmers, worm bin, biochar, plants,[koolaufarmers.com]

Fukuda Seed Store, organic seeds & gardening classes,841-6719.

Home Depot, bamboo flooring, paint, appliances, [homedepot.com]