Natural Home Earth Mover: Rosemarie Michelsen

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In nature, destruction is followed by regeneration. Less than two years after San Diego-area wildfires ravaged the mountain community of Crest, California, the area’s moonscape of charred vegetation is green again and residents are rebuilding their homes. Less tangible things have also emerged from the ashes: personal friendships and new awareness among locals about building environmentally sound homes.

Much credit for this new growth goes to kinesiologist Rosemarie Michelsen, whose mountain house was one of 2,300 homes destroyed in San Diego County in 2003. Because of its remote location, hers was uninsurable, so after it burned, Michelsen had no financial means to rebuild and nowhere to see clients, because she worked from home.

In the fire’s aftermath, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter organized volunteers to rebuild victims’ houses. Michelsen applied and was accepted, but was disappointed that the Habitat floorplan suited neither her sunny property with its mountain and canyon views nor her need for in-home workspace. And it wasn’t as nontoxic, energy and resource efficient, or fireproof as possible. Because she sees clients with multiple chemical sensitivities, she values unpolluted spaces. “Our air quality is good up here in the mountains,” she says. “And the well water too–no chlorine. I just needed a house to match this environment.”

Undaunted, Michelsen investigated alternative building methods. A company called Eco-Block offered to donate materials to Habitat for Humanity and use Michelsen’s project as a demonstration of its insulating concrete forms–easy-to-assemble foam blocks filled with concrete that save energy and resist fire and mold. With the help of her “guardian angel,” Eco-Block’s regional manager Michael Gandee, a new blueprint was created that factors in passive solar capabilities, aligns with cooling breezes, and features separate space for her kinesiology practice.

As construction began, hundreds of people, including clients and family, were drawn into Michelsen’s vision of a green home. More than 200 Habitat for Humanity volunteers joined the learning curve by working on this out-of-the-ordinary house. The new home uses salvaged items from the Habitat ReStore and Salvation Army, water-saving plumbing, low-VOC paints, cement floors instead of carpet, Energy Star appliances, and solar tube skylights. Several of Michelsen’s clients pitched in, including a kitchen designer who volunteered her company’s services to install Crystal Cabinet Works’ formaldehyde-free cabinets. Countertops were donated by Roma Tile and Granite.

The house has piqued interest in Crest, where many others are rebuilding. “When I go to the library or community center, people ask for suggestions for their houses,” Michelsen says. “Most homes that feature green construction are huge, expensive things, but mine is modest. This isn’t a million-dollar home, but it’s just right for me.”