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Lake Minnetonka
Living Magazine,

Spring 2008

Father Nature

Peter Lytle is the founder of Live Green, Live Smart

By Kelly Westhoff

Drive by Peter Lytle’s house and you probably won’t be impressed. It’s a cute home. It’s got great curb appeal, a sizable lot and is surrounded by large shade trees, but it’s no mansion. And it doesn’t sit on a lake. And it doesn’t have a pool out back. But step inside, and you’ll be singing a different tune.

That’s because Lytle’s house is the epitome of green. Tour the downstairs bathroom, stick your head in the utility closet, run your hand over the smooth induction stove top and you’ll be so impressed that soon you’ll sound like a broken record. The only words coming out of your mouth will be, ‘Wow,’ ‘Cool,’ and ‘No way!’

Lytle, founder of a nonprofit organization started in 2005 called Live Green, Live Smart, reconstructed his Minnetonka house with the environment in mind. Its mission, and his, is to promote sustainable living practices. His remodeled home is Live Green, Live Smart’s first major project.  

It took two years to remodel the home, but it was worth the time and effort as the house recently earned LEED Platinum certification. LEED certification is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council using the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. There are four scoring methods: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Lytle’s home is the first remodeled house in the country to receive the highest designation.

“The first of anything tends to be really expensive,” said Lytle, admitting he spent over a million dollars remodeling the 1940s, 2,300-square-foot home. “We’ll never get the money out of it that we put in, but that wasn’t the point.”

The point was to construct the most efficient, environmentally-friendly house possible. Lytle likens his home to a laboratory, explaining that 278 people helped in the reconstruction of the house, which was completed in December 2007. Volunteers formed seven teams, researching everything from plumbing to solar panels. There was even a team put in charge of building the most energy-efficient entertainment system available.

“We had a very expensive learning curve,” Lytle said. And even though the construction has now come to an end, Lytle is still learning. He and his wife, Vivian, moved into the house with the intent of monitoring each system for usability and longevity. Their knowledge will be put to use in future Live Green, Live Smart reconstruction projects.

Step Inside

So what exactly does an eco-friendly lab house look like inside? Let’s start with that downstairs bathroom. All that soapy water you make from brushing your teeth, shampooing your hair and scrubbing your hands doesn’t just run down the drain and disappear into the city sewer. In Lytle’s house it’s channeled into a holding tub that looks like a water heater. There the water is treated, stored and recycled back into the bathroom in the form of toilet-bowl water.

The utility room boasts a Honda generator originally designed to help power a hybrid car. In Lytle’s house it’s busy producing electricity to heat the tile floors. All sorts of high-tech machines are hard at work in the utility room converting solar heat into electricity and hot water. After two months living in the house, Xcel’s fraud department called with a concern. The home’s meter hadn’t clocked any usage. On the contrary, it was spinning backwards. The house’s environmental energy systems were actually creating more energy that the house could use.

All of the kitchen appliances are EnergyStar approved. The induction stove top uses an electromagnetic cooking element that heats the pot, not the stove surface. Remove the pot and the stove top is immediately cool to the touch. The oven door is placed at a lower level to accommodate someone in a wheelchair.

This thoughtful oven placement isn’t the only handicap-accessible feature in the house. An entire upstairs wing was built with a wheelchair or walker in mind. Wide doors pass through to a bedroom and adjoining bathroom, which also has an accessible shower, sink and a toilet that connects to the Internet with the ability to perform a urine analysis for a diabetic resident.

“People tend to buy homes when they’re young and healthy, and when you’re young and healthy you don’t think much about sustainability,” said Lytle. “The average new home built today only has a 30-year shelf life.”

Lytle pointed out that very few of those homes are built to accommodate a wheelchair or walker. The result is that as a homeowner ages, he or she will be forced to move or remodel. “I’ve watched houses go through a remodel,” Lytle said. “It takes seven dumpsters to haul off all the old stuff. Where do those dumpsters go? Straight to a landfill.”

This excessive dumping of home parts, claims Lytle, is wasteful and reckless. In this Live Smart, Live Green reconstruction effort, Lytle made considerable use of recycling programs. For example, Habitat for Humanity was invited into the home before it was gutted. The organization stripped fixtures, cabinets and anything else they though could be reused. 

Lytle even used recycled materials to finish his remodeled home. Some of the countertops were pulled from other houses. The wooden slats of the great room floor came from an old gymnasium and a tear-down house. The family room was furnished with comfy recliner chairs found on the Internet site Craig’s List.

Beyond its environmental efforts, the house employs a variety of design techniques to give the allusion of more space. Upon walking in the front door, you can see all the way through the house and out large picture windows into the spacious back yard. Walls were knocked out to create one massive kitchen-dining-living room. Ceilings were raised and pocket doors were installed. Large bathroom mirrors catch and reflect light. 

In the basement, an otherwise dark spot of the house, egress window were installed to bring in more natural light. The egress windows also created more usable living space. While Lytle and his wife currently use a basement room as a home office, a future family has the options of using that same space as a bedroom.

Windows were also cut into the inside basement walls. When those internal windows are left open, light from the outside walls filters through and reaches all the way into the center of the basement.

How can you go green?

Lytle is used to people asking for his advice on how they too can go green. The first step, he said, is to examine your driving habits and consolidate your errands. Not only will you save money on gas, but you’ll also be doing the atmosphere a favor.

For homeowners looking to devote a little more energy to their going green efforts, Lytle suggests a landscape overhaul. Rain gardens make use of native plants and actively strain and clean runoff before it enters the city sewer system and area lakes.

Vast suburban expanses of lush green grass suck lots of resources, Lytle added. Not only do they require weekly watering, but they usually require chemical fertilizers, and of course, they need to be mowed, which usually requires gasoline.

“I don’t begrudge people who have those gorgeous green lawns. I used to have one, too. But in the future, we’re not going to be able to sustain them,” Lytle said. Instead, think about converting some of your green grassy spaces into flower beds that grow prairie grasses and wild flowers. Strategically plant trees shade your home from the harshest summer rays.

Lytle also suggests families reduce their reliance on a garbage disposal. “As soon as you stick something down the garbage disposal, you’ve put it in the water system and now it has to be dealt with,” he said. “Minnetonka has a great compost program. It’s a really good city in terms of forward thinking. You can compost your banana peels, your apple cores. It’s so easy to keep that stuff out of the water system, there’s no reason we shouldn’t all be doing it.”

And really, that is Lytle’s goal—to make going green so easy and commonplace that everyone will be doing it.

“I’m a father,” he said, “and the older I get, the more I realize that if I don’t leave my children a decent environment, their lifestyle isn’t going to resemble mine at all. There are over 6 billion people on the Earth right now, and we don’t have enough drinking water for all of them. Lots of them don’t even get a meal a day. By the end of this century, we’re going to have up to 10 billion people on the planet. What are we going to do then?”

Lytle continued, “When you consider the waste we’re creating and the energy it takes to deal with that waste, you have to realize that in the future, our children will know fewer resources and fewer species than we do,” he said. “I know that there are people out there who don’t care, but there is a percentage out there that do.”

“When I die, I want to die broke,” Lytle said. “People don’t remember you for what you leave behind, but they remember if you influenced them in a positive way. My wife and I believe that if you have more, you should give more,” Lytle said. “We’re lucky. We can afford to give back.”

Learn more about Live Green, Live Smart by visiting www.livegreenlivesmart.org.

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