Text by Amy Elbert
Photographs by Michal Venera
Produced by Sara Alba
With a contagious can-do attitude and the know-how to make things happen, Zem Joaquin is spreading the word. Sustainability is sexy. Green is luxurious. And being environmentally responsible is not a guilt-ridden obligation but a stylish option.
Born and raised in a California commune, Zem has a well-bred respect for nature. She combines that flower-child upbringing, however, with a sophisticated style cultivated from years of working in the fashion industry and living in Milan, Paris, and London. This earth-child-meets-haute-couture aesthetic is showcased in her home and on her Web site, ecofabulous.com.
"Our mission at Ecofabulous is to inspire people to live a more sustainable life and to provide the tools to do so without having to sacrifice style or quality," Zem says.
While she's been an environmentalist since childhood, Zem got serious about eco-design in 2006, shortly after she and her husband, James, bought a 40-year-old house in the San Francisco Bay area. The Joaquins' two children, Dylan and Zoe, suffered from allergies, and the Joaquins embarked on an eco-conscious renovation, working with California designer Aaron Mutscheller.
Zem immersed herself in the subject, reading all she could about sustainable and healthful design. She attended seminars and enrolled in college courses.
She applied that newly acquired knowledge to her home's renovation, choosing finishes and building materials that contained no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or toxins that could off-gas into the air. She searched for furnishings that were recycled, locally sourced, or made from sustainably harvested wood.
The Joaquins worked within the house's existing floor plan, making as few alterations as possible. Wood floors and some of the wool carpets remained.
In the master bedroom and childrens' rooms, carpets were replaced with cork floors. Cork is a rapidly renewable product, harvested without killing the tree, and the Joaquins' cork floors take eco-design one step further: Their floors are made from recycled wine corks. Radiant-heat systems under the floors warm the bedrooms without blowing dust and allergens.
In the kitchen, the Joaquins kept the professional-style range and hood and had new cabinets made by a nearby builder who used eco-friendly processes and finishes. The walnut veneers were fabricated with wood harvested from nonproducing trees in an old local nut orchard. The cabinet boxes are made of wood certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Gorgeous Italian marble on backsplashes and some countertops is the star in the kitchen. Although the marble is imported, Zem discovered most high-end marble is cut in Italy--even if it's quarried in the United States. "In Italy, they've been doing this for centuries, and they are masters at knowing how to maximize output and minimize waste," she says. If marble is sent to Italy to be cut, why not buy an Italian marble she loves and save one trip overseas, Zem figured.
Another of Zem's favorite features are floor pedals that control water flow at the kitchen sinks, minimizing water waste and making the kitchen more sanitary. "These are an easy add-on to an existing kitchen, and they save a tremendous amount of water," she says.
The Joaquins added a whole-house water-filtration system so they can refill water bottles, reducing the need to buy bottled water. They also have a solar water heater as well as photovoltaic solar panels on the roof that provide 80 percent of the house's electricity.
"There's a lot of innovation happening, and I love being witness to it and sharing it," Zem says. "It's so exciting to show people that no matter what their style, there are sustainable alternatives."