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A Unique Home With A Unique Story

By Katherine Thornberry

The eclectic mix of homes that characterizes the Los Altos, California Loyola Corners neighborhood now boasts another unconventional home, but one with quite a unique story.

Amid the modest cottages that date to the area's early orchard days, the ranch-style homes of the 1950s and 60s, and today's million dollar executive homes stands a home constructed of all-metal framing and roofing and environmentally-sensitive building materials.

It is homeowner Rick Kiessig's intent that this will be the home that he and his wife, Lynn, spend the rest of their lives in, and one in which they and their twin six-year-old boys, William and Edward, can take the load off their bodies from the daily assault of toxic materials, hopefully allowing their immune system to rest and recharge.

You see, the Kiessigs were left with weakened immune systems and a critical sensitivity to chemicals and allergens after being exposed to a rose systemic pesticide. Rick had applied the pesticide to his rose garden per the instructions. When he finished he went inside, cleaned up and let the family dog in. The dog ran immediately to the master bedroom, where Lynn was spending all of her time confined to bed rest; at the time she was pregnant with their twins.

Within minutes the dog became violently sick. What the Kiessigs didn't know was that their dog had found its way to the rose garden and the pesticide, rolled around in it and ingested some of it.

Rick rushed the dog to the veterinarian and Lynn stayed behind in the bedroom. The odor was so thick, she cleaned the bedroom. The dog survived, but was never the same and eventually had to be put to sleep. Soon after, the Kiessigs began to experience mysterious health problems, such as overwhelming fatigue, which continued after Lynn gave birth and appeared in their children as well.

Up to three years later, Rick was able to detect in the bedroom, using a home test kit, high levels of the organic phosphates found in the pesticide. By this time, doctors were able to trace the Kiessigs' illnesses to the chemical exposure.

Essentially they had experienced a chronic type of poisoning because as a family they had spent most of their time in the room where they were unaware the chemical remained.

Rick, who has a strong technical/scientific background as a software consultant, spent two years researching environmental illness, and reached the conclusion that a remodel wouldn't even begin to fix the home's problems. They sold the home and bought the Nancy Lane property where their new house now stands.

After nearly 16 months of construction, and thanks to a great deal of patience and creative troubleshooting and material sourcing, the Kiessigs moved into their one-story, three bedroom, two and a half bath home last month. Everything about the 3,200 square feet of living space is designed to maximize indoor air quality.

"People talk about environmental building and that means drastically different things to different people...," said Rick explaining his motivation behind environmental building. "Why did we go to such lengths?
What became clear was that even very small amounts of toxic materials can be very damaging over a long period."

"We don't want to live in a bubble," he continued. "But by living here part of the day and sleeping here we can take some of the load off... We've definitely gone to the edge in building our home as sort of a demonstration to show that you can have a nice, warm home that is non-toxic."

Lynn Kiessig emphasizes that while the home's unusual construction and interior touches had the potential to create a cold, uninviting atmosphere, the result has been the opposite.

"It's very attractive, beautiful. It's comfortable and inviting," she said.

And it would be an understatement to say that the home breaks from the mainstream.

The home features all-metal framing and roofing materials to avoid the chemically treated wood that is used in most home construction today and to avoid later having to douse the home with chemicals to combat what Rick describes as the area's "notorious termite problem."

There is no plywood underlayment on the roof or plywood strathing on the walls, primarily to avoid the high concentration of formaldehyde found in plywood. There is no paint anywhere in the home, just natural looking plaster walls.

There is marble flooring throughout most of the home to eliminate the off-gassing that comes with carpet, as well as the build up of allergens. Only water-based adhesives were used and there is no fiberglass insulation, but rather a foamed concrete material.

The doors throughout are solid natural maple with a non-toxic finish. The kitchen relies on custom made metal cabinetry, not like the tinning look of the 1950s, but very clean and modern in appearance. Chorion counters were used, again to avoid off-gassing, and the counters have rounded corners so that mold isn't trapped.

Similarly, the bathrooms have a concrete floor for easy cleaning and rely on chorion in lieu of tile, again to avoid mold build up. There are no closets to trap dust; the family uses dressers.

The Kiessigs designed one room as a "mud room" so that the kids could come in from the out doors and clean up without trailing in unwanted toxics or to play in with all of those fun materials that kids so love, but may not be the healthiest for the Kiessig family.

The house uses an in-floor radiant heat system to avoid the health problems associated with a traditional heating system, and the entire house is air tight, down to the electrical boxes, switchplates and light fixtures.

This, coupled with a sophisticated whole house air filtration system, featuring an in-ceiling air diffuser in every room, allows the Kiessigs to completely control their home's air quality.

The air handling/air conditioning system was custom designed at a cost of about $15,000 and features pre and post filtration systems, 1,000 pounds of activated carbon and a HEPA filter, a high efficiency particle removal filter originally designed by the U.S. Navy to remove radioactive materials on submarines.

Overall, Rick Kiessig estimates that they spent 50 percent more building their home than if they had relied on traditional construction techniques and materials, but he thinks that cost could come down to about 25 percent with the experience he's gained from the project.

The most challenging aspect to completing the home was that the subcontractors were in "uncharted territory."

"It was a continual education process about what we wanted and emphasizing that it could be done," said Kiessig. "And it required tremendous detail work to achieve the air tight effect."

While the Kiessigs' home brings all of these various environmental building concepts together, Kiessig points out that any of the techniques can used independently by others to improve their own home's overall health. For example, metal cabinetry can be used in a remodel to avoid formaldehyde or concrete insulation can be used if you have input in the construction of a new home.

Kiessig hopes to one day provide consulting on this type of construction.

"I have learned so much, it would be a shame not to pass it on to others," he said.

Katherine Thornberry is a San Jose based business, technology, and real estate writer. Her local government career includes several years working as part of the City of San Jose's Environmental Services staff. She has written for the San Jose Mercury News, the San Jose Business Journal, and others.

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