Kevin Contreras Interview with Greener Living Today

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Kevin Contreras is the host and creator of "Building Green", a PBS series that introduces viewers to every aspect of green building.  Kevin uses the design and construction of his own green Santa Barbara dream home as a living workshop. Building Green TV’s mission is to encourage viewers to discover just how easy, cost effective and healthy it can be to "go green" while dispelling the myth that a greener lifestyle means doing without.

Greener Living Today:
Where did you get your start as a builder and designer?

kcontreras_lg1Kevin Contreras:
My father was a builder and my mother an interior designer.  I was just around that world growing up.  It got into my blood and is one of the most fun things I do.

Greener Living Today:
Can you tell us how you became involved with green building? Were there any special circumstances that led to your passion to go green?

Kevin Contreras:
In 1994, on a trip to Bali, I met Linda Garland.  She is an amazing designer and bamboo proponent.  She introduced me to bamboo design and construction techniques.  I returned to California wanting to build my own bamboo house but realized the building department was not going to approve a house with materials they couldn’t certify had the correct lumber dimensions and safety specifications.  I just started reading everything I could find about natural home building and discovered straw bales.  Every article, magazine or book on bale building, lead me to other green materials and techniques.

Greener Living Today:
How did the Santa Barbara project begin?

kcontreras_lg2Kevin Contreras:
I was building a house with a partner/contractor and purchased the property next door.  I told him our next project together was going to be a straw bale house for my family.  He rejected that notion immediately, as some sort of far flung fantasy, akin to building a million dollar tree house.  I kept at him, assuring that the risk was going to be all mine and that he just needed to help me build it.  I bought him five books on bale building and assured him we’d bring in experts to help us along the way.

I contacted all the straw bale builders and engineers I could find in California, but they either thought I was a crackpot, were too busy or too expensive. When I couldn’t find green builders to help, I decided to educate myself, and my architect, sub-contractors, and foreman about bale building and do it on our own. It is not rocket science.  I joined CASBA, the California Straw Building Association and prescribed to The Last Straw and began to learn everything I could. 

Greener Living Today:
What was it that motivated you to pursue straw bale construction?

kcontreras_lg3Kevin Contreras:
Bales are the perfect building material.  They are in abundant supply, a waste product normally used only for animal bedding or erosion control.  They are super inexpensive, provide tremendous insulation value and sound abatement, require almost no processing, and are completely non-toxic.  When they are covered with natural plaster they are better against fire than a stick frame wall, are not eaten by termites, last as long as wood if properly protected, and go right back into the earth at the end of the home’s life.

Greener Living Today:
Besides the straw bale construction, what other types of eco alternatives were used in building the home?

kcontreras_lg4Kevin Contreras:
Solar electric panels, solar water heating, radiant floor heating, metal roof to catch rainwater, cisterns to hold that water, a gray water system to take all vanity and shower water out into the garden for immediate reuse to start.   Then, any structural or subsurface wood was FSC certified, and every product that went into the house or on any surface was non-toxic. All paints were zero VOC and healthy.  All walls were plastered with natural clay and lime to keep the walls permeable and healthy.  All wood and floor stains were natural products.  The first floor concrete was stained naturally and not covered with other materials. All appliances were super-efficient.  All lighting was low voltage or compact florescent and on timers or motion sensors.  Recycled Blue Jean insulation was used anywhere bales were not, as in the attic.  The landscaping was all edible fruit trees and vines or low water, native plants.

Greener Living Today:
How long did it take to complete the project?

Kevin Contreras:
Six months to design and get approval and one year to build.

Greener Living Today:
There was reference on your website about filming green. Can you explain what filming green entails?

Kevin Contreras:
It’s simple.  Get as many people in one car as possible any time we go somewhere.  Don’t travel anywhere we don’t absolutely need to go.  Keep paper use to a minimum.  Send edits, music samples, scripts and everything possible via the internet, rather than sending hard copies through the mail.  Make simple meals for the crew rather than buy take out that results in mountains of trash. 

Greener Living Today:
Please tell us more about Building Green TV and what the series offers viewers.

kcontreras_lg5Kevin Contreras:
The series takes the viewer through the entire process of building a straw bale, green home, from start to finish.  It dispels the myth that it is weird and unsafe or that it will result in some kind of hippie mud hut.  It contains sound advice for doing every step, from adding flyash to the concrete to reduce the need for high embodied energy cement, to plumbing and electrical for savings and safety, to plastering bale walls, to green cleaning products.

Greener Living Today:
Are there more episodes of the series planned for the future?

Kevin Contreras:
There are additional seasons in the works.  The issue with doing the series is that we must follow a house or green development for a long period of time to capture the process.  We are shooting interesting small projects regularly for possible air and are talking to developers of various projects, what are looking at everything from eco-resorts to entire cities. 

Greener Living Today:
In closing, what advice would you offer people who are considering a green remodel or just want to make eco friendly changes in their daily lives?

Kevin Contreras:
First, less is more.  Use space and materials wisely to build smaller, more efficient, spaces and make it all as natural as possible.  Purchase materials that are local, from no farther than 500 miles.  Integrate you home into its natural surroundings, to take advantage of assets like the sun’s energy.

kcontreras_lg6The thing we all do at some point is paint.  Often we do it without thinking of the ramifications on our health or the environment.  We go out and buy whatever paint is cheapest and the right color.  Most paints are loaded with petrochemical additives to get the paint to dry faster or cost less.  Many have warning labels on the cans not to let your skin come in contact with the paint and always use in a well-ventilated room.  There is a reason for that.  They are poisonous and can off-gas for years.  Go out to your garage and collect all those cans that you’ve had for years and find your local hazardous waste collection site.  Get rid of those things properly.  Then when you are going to paint anything go to a natural paint/plaster suppliers like BioShield and American Clay to get clay paints that are not only non-toxic but able to remove toxins from the air.

Also, make less trash!  Every time you make a purchase consider the packing, life cycle and useful life of the product and packaging.  Learn about composting and worm bins, to keep organic matter out of plastic surrounded landfills, recycle everything you can.

There is now plenty of great information available, and a growing group of talented people to help you achieve your goals, at very competitive costs to traditionally building.  We just need to make sure we are following all codes and doing it right.

Lastly, remember that the greatest thing we have is love.  Build the home that will best support your loved ones and your relationships.  Time spent with our loved ones rather than our things is so much more rewarding.

Learn more about Building Green TV by visiting their web site located at:

View all of the PBS episodes at the following address:

Kevin Contreras photo courtesy of Jeff Clark.

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