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greenest home in america tah mah lah

Tah Mah Lah: Lessons Learned from the 'Greenest Home in America'

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Aug 31, 2018

In 2006, San Francisco Bay Area residents Paul Holland and Linda Yates began the process of designing what they intended to eventually become the “greenest home in America.” Besides wanting to limit their own participation in the oil economy and live more sustainably, they also wanted their home to function as a model of sustainability in order to inspire others to build homes that truly become a regenerative part of the landscape. 

It has been seven years since construction was finished and Paul, Linda, and their children moved into Tah Mah Lah, the name of their home, which means “mountain lion” in the local Ohlone dialect. While Paul recognizes that Linda was the brains behind the design of the building, we recently had the opportunity to talk with him about some of the lessons learned after having lived in America's greenest home for close to a decade.

tah mah lah exterior high
"In 2011, we completed a five-year process of design and build and moved into Tah Mah Lah, the highest LEED point house in history at the time. We wanted our three daughters to grow up in a house where 100% of our power for the house, cars, and pool was provided by renewable energy sources including solar and ground-source heat exchange. - Paul Holland"

RISE: In terms of livability, how is the home performing based on your initial idea when you first designed and built the home?

Paul Holland (PH): On the green building side, at first we had some problems with our solar system. Once we got that worked out, however, our home has performed above expectations in terms of energy efficiency and renewable energies. When it comes to water, there is a bit of a mixed story. A part of our land is irrigated by the wastewater that is recycled from the home, and that works well. We also have a 50,000-gallon cistern that stores rainwater for irrigation, and that is also turning out to be a success. What hasn’t worked well is the traditional irrigation system. I guess this is something of a universal complaint of homeowners, as there always seems to be something wrong or something leaking.  

In terms of the materials we used for the house, we didn’t use any paints or stains on the wood surfaces, and they look as beautiful as the day we moved in. In some spots, the wood is aging beautifully and even in areas with lots of sun exposure, the bleaching effect on the wood also looks nice.

"There are only four main materials in the house: wood, metal, glass, and stone. There are no oil-based products in the house—no natural gas, no plastic, no PVC. There are no paints, stains or varnishes added to the FSC-certified and/or recycled wood frame and flooring. - Paul Holland"

The intent to foster habitat for other animals has also gone as planned. We installed ponds and took all the fences down to encourage wildlife to move in, and we regularly see bobcats and even mountain lions. For the most part, the flora and sustainable planting have also gone well, but there are have been challenges with irrigation.

tah mah lah kitchen

RISE: One of the guiding themes in the design of the house was “Outside In.” How would you describe the livability of a home that is so connected to the natural world?

PH: We have a series of window walls that open up to the surrounding landscape, and that has been a great part of living here. This is a completely different way to live, as it is kind of like a giant shed that is open to the outside world. We host tons of events at our home and everybody who visits loves it. 

In terms of livability, the house is very comfortable and warm. We chose not to put in air conditioning, and really the house only feels too hot for about 5 days a year. Radiant heating works great. If anything, I think people appreciate the home more now than when we built it.

tah mah lah fireplace

RISE: Is there anything you would have done differently?

PH: Yes. We got ripped off by the driveway we initially put in, which was supposed to be a type of natural pavement. We simply chose the wrong product, and this caused a lot of pain for several years, as the driveway slowly disintegrated and became rutted out. Somebody once asked our daughter what her driveway was made from, and she said “mud.” It was something we had to deal with every day. Eventually, we replaced it with a type of permeable concrete, where tiny holes let the water absorb into the concrete. It really is a magic product and something I wish we would have done from the outset.

tahmahlah kids room

RISE: In what ways do you see your home as being a regenerative part of the landscape to which it belongs?

PH: We have an enormous amount of wildlife on our land. We support a local conservation group and they regularly bring rescued cougars, lemurs, spider monkeys, and other animals, and the animals stay here on this tiny reserve. 

Also, a part of being regenerative is finding ways to influence people’s thinking on green building. Linda teaches at Stanford University, and her students come to spend a day at the house every semester as a sort of living laboratory for green building and living. This gives us the opportunity to explain the home in detail. We also offer 12 tours each year, and in many cases, this is the first place that people have been exposed to these ideas, and afterward, they make living sustainably a fundamental part of their life.

tahmahlah Living-Room_O

RISE: “Multigenerational” was also one of the guiding themes behind the design of the house. How has that theme played out as your old children have grown?

PH: My kids are the ones who know a lot about sustainability. They live it and they believe in it. They were raised a different way. For them, growing up has meant living in the greenest house in America and seeing their home on TV. As it turns out, the house is on the curriculum at their school and now at their university. They get a constant reminder that it’s unusual.

tah mah lah patio

RISE: Anything else you would like to add? 

PH: For people who find themselves in more fortunate circumstances, if they can afford to build a luxury home, they should focus on making it a green and sustainable home. Unfortunately, many people say that they want to build green but they don’t stick with it throughout the design and building process. I wish more people would build this way, as a higher percentage of greener homes would stimulate the green supply chain. 

I wanted to take my family out of the oil economy because I recognized that I was a part of the problem If everyone could move to solar energy and electric cars, not only would it help us address the environmental problems we face, but it would also be a huge economic benefit for the country.

tah mah lah exterior night

I want everyone to live this way. Having a home like this offers a sort of guilt-free existence because you can turn up the heat and take long showers if you want and not have to worry about the environmental effects because the electricity is produced by your home and the water is recycled.

Also, when we first built our home, a lot of people noticed that we had a lot of solar panels. While that might have seemed like a novelty at the time, a recent law was passed mandating that by 2020, every California home that is built will have to incorporate solar panels. Some of the stuff we do here will be mainstream in the future, so we're trying to stay ahead of the curve. 

For example, by 2040 we are probably going to lose the snowpack in the Sierra, and that is our main water source. So, when people marvel at our 50,000-gallon water cistern, it’s not over the top. Rather, there will come a time in the future when every home in California will need to have their own cistern and rainwater catchment system to deal with the loss of the snowpack in the Sierra. 

tah mah lah pool
"There are only four main materials in the house: wood, metal, glass, and stone. There are no oil-based products in the house—no natural gas, no plastic, no PVC. There are no paints, stains or varnishes added to the FSC-certified and/or recycled wood frame and flooring. - Paul Holland"
Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-06-11T17:30:19+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.