A Fine Romance: A Recycled Steel Home in Southern California

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Photo By Claudio Santini
A reproduction bathtub provides romantic relief to the hard edges and

When Colorado-born Jana Montgomery pictured owning a home, a two-story corrugated-metal cube capped by a roof made from recycled petroleum waste wasn’t exactly what came to mind. “I’m a little more of a cottage person,” Jana confesses.

But Jana and her spouse, Italian architectural photographer and artist Claudio Santini, also harbored dreams of living in an environmentally friendly house large enough to provide a work and display space for Claudio’s art. The Los Angeles-based couple lucked out when they heard about a quirky 3,200-square-foot eco-techno home located on a side street within a quiet residential section of Marina del Rey. “We snatched it up before the house even went on the market,” recalls Claudio. He, Jana, and their rabbit, Chipper, have been living there happily for nearly three years.

Claudio’s idea of home sweet home has always been inextricably tied up with the concept of living in a manner respectful of the planet and its limited resources. And by those standards, this is a dream home, to be sure.

The Montgomery-Santini residence was constructed in 1991 by and for John Picard, a renovator of multi-million dollar Hollywood mansions whose ecological epiphany came while watching an MTV public service announcement on the decimation of Earth’s rain forests. “That was the first time I had ever thought for one second that I had something to do with the world’s environmental problems,” he says.

As a result, Picard changed careers and began planning a personal residence that would become a poster child for environmentally sustainable living in Southern California. Bucking building trends, Picard constructed his home from recycled steel produced from junked cars, cans, and washing machines. “The house can be disassembled with a quarter inch screw gun and recycled again,” he explains.

Solar Power

Twenty-one roof-mounted sun-tracking photovoltaic panels allow the house to generate up to 80 percent of its electricity needs, independent of the city-supplied power grid. (The residence’s adjoining home office is 100 percent solar-powered.) On overcast days in winter when the solar panels produce less electricity, the Montgomery-Santini residence taps into the city’s power grid and consumes conventional energy. On days when Claudio and Jana’s home produces a surplus of electricity, that cycle is reversed by a system that allows the grid to “buy back” energy from them. 

“People are really impressed with the solar panels right off,” Jana observes. “But when they learn that they can make their electric meter run backward, they always say, ‘We’d like to build a house like this.’ We feel like the lifestyle we’ve chosen is encouraging for everyone.”

Thanks to Picard (a self-taught techie), Jana and Claudio’s home is largely computer operated. The shades automatically open and close to maintain interior temperatures, and the coffee maker goes on about 8 a.m. Shortly after that, the couple’s aquarium pump switches on. Used to its fullest, the elaborate computer system controls the home’s lighting, security, appliances, mechanical, heating, and air conditioning systems. Sensors monitor the occupancy and temperature of each room, opening and closing vents and putting on the air conditioning only where needed. A solar-powered, motorized gate controls street access to the residence.

Picard points out that his paean to the marriage of ecology and technology (a far better match than many people would suspect, he says) is even easier to obtain today. “What was then a $15,000 computer system investment can now be purchased for $500 or less and operated by remote control,” he marvels. 

Claudio and Jana readily admit that the system is far more sophisticated than they need. “If you wanted to, you could program the computer to run the dishwasher, but we just turn it on manually,” Claudio confesses. Conventional on-and-off switches allow them to bypass the computer and operate their appliances the old-fashioned way.

Low Maintenance

In addition to being fireproof, termite proof, and seismically sound (the recycled heavy-duty steel frame has an earthquake seismic rating of ten), the home’s exterior remains virtually maintenance-free. “Most houses need to be painted or treated periodically,” says Jana. “This one takes care of itself. We just let the rain wash the outside clean–it’s made of galvanized metal, so it won’t rust.” The home’s iron window frames do need periodic maintenance, however, and are painted with a non-toxic ­sealer to keep them from rusting.

Features such as R-21.5 batt super insulation and a south-facing wall of sixteen giant steel-framed window panes help reduce energy consumption in the home’s 2,400-square-foot main living area, which doubles as Claudio’s art studio. In the shower, a recovery system captures water that literally would be going down the drain while someone waits for a shower to heat up. The system diverts the water into a special plumbing line that feeds into an outdoor barrel storing water for the garden.

A Soulful Dwelling

A house made of metal may sound like it lacks heart, but nothing could be further from the truth. The interior walls are made of drywall composed of recycled materials and covered with non-toxic paints and finishes. Naturally felled wood coated with non-toxic stains and paints was used to construct the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. A restored antique ball and clawfoot tub graces the downstairs bathroom; porcelain tile flooring lends character to the upstairs bathroom. Two full walls of thermal-paned windows make the attached honeysuckle-draped office (built in lieu of a garage) light, airy, and inviting.

“This is the perfect combination for me,” says Jana. Despite its ecological correctness and technological gadgets (such as a recessed Cineplex-style movie screen that hangs from the living room ceiling) the house is “not so contemporary that you can’t do romantic things in it,” she notes.

Neither Claudio nor Jana can identify much in the way of tradeoffs involved in leading a sustainable lifestyle. “The refrigerator doesn’t produce its own ice like most contemporary models do,” shrugs Claudio. Adds Jana, “I don’t know if there is a downside to an energy efficient home. It’s very rewarding to know that you’re doing something good for the planet.”