It is disguised as a modern and chic home with the look of an art gallery, exhibiting glass sculptures, paintings and a canyon for a backdrop. But inside the walls of this stylish Pasadena abode is an eco-friendly infrastructure with all the works. Kristina Urbana Spencer, interior designer and owner of the Pasadena-based Setting the Stage Interior Design, specializes in healthy, environmentally friendly remodeling and design. She used her own small home as an experimental studio. "My home became my experience," she says. "A house is almost like a living organism. I really love making houses green that perform well and are beautiful."

It took about seven months to remodel her house, which she presents as an example of a home that is sustainable, allergy-free, attractive and comfortable.

Drought-tolerant plants and lead-free synthetic grass were used to landscape the backyard.
Drought-tolerant plants and lead-free synthetic grass were used to landscape the backyard. (Walt Mancini)
"For a long time, green was not necessarily beautiful," Spencer says. "Your choice was hemp, hemp and hemp. With the explosion of truly green products, you have much more variety." Among these products: Mythic paint, a nontoxic, zero Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) paint that is very low in odor, and zebra granite or stone tile, which is easy to keep clean.

Spencer's house was one of the first in her town to utilize Regreen guidelines, which provide basic principles on how to renovate a home to be environmentally clean. She hid most of the house wiring and all of the small energy-efficient appliances behind durable, formaldehyde-free kitchen cupboards that she designed. The recyclable wood floors have a water-based sealer on them to divert away water. The house also has nontoxic denim-cloth insulation in the ceiling, dual-flush toilets, an electric stove and a hot-on-demand no-waste water system operated by "hot" and "cold" buttons. She installed four water filters to clean out microorganisms and recirculate the water throughout the home.

Spencer used American clay earth plaster on her walls, which contains no toxins; it also helps moderate the temperature and repels dirt. To provide heat in the living room, Spencer put in a natural gas fireplace that looks like a jewelry box with crushed colored glass. It is about 40 percent more efficient than a wood-burning fireplace, and creates no soot, smog or smoke, she said. The living spaces throughout the house are clutter-free. That means less dust and more room for people. "Part of Regreen is looking at the space and being more flexible as to how you use it," Spencer says. "Make a space for people and use every inch you have in the house."

The Spencers have one TV and several rooms for family activities. Spencer says she doesn't want family members to sequester themselves into their own isolated spaces. "Less is more," she said. "Your home should be therapeutic, a "place to de-stress, where your body can heal."

Most materials used in the house had to be as healthy, chemical-free and nontoxic as possible. Her husband Jeff is highly sensitive to chemicals and her sister has had asthma her entire life. "Being chemically sensitive is a lifestyle and more and more people are like that," Spencer says. "I think in a few more years, everyone is going to be allergic or reactive to something because we're exposed to so many chemicals."

Not everyone reacts to the toxic chemicals used in everyday building materials, furnishings and packaging, but it is harmful just the same, she says. "If you don't react (to chemicals now) you don't really realize how much trouble it causes.

Formaldehyde-free cabinets, electric appliances and nontoxic paint are among the features in Spencer’s environmentally friendly kitchen.
Formaldehyde-free cabinets, electric appliances and nontoxic paint are among the features in Spencer's environmentally friendly kitchen. (Walt Mancini)
" Her quest for an allergen-free environment and more healthy clean space extends outdoors. She landscaped with only female plants, which don't spread pollen. All the plants are drought-tolerant, which cuts down on water use. There is a steel cactus sculpture in the middle of the lead-free, recyclable synthetic grass yard. Most of the concrete she used in the landscape is made from 40 percent fly ash, or burnt ash, which tends to wind up in the trash. "Instead of sending it to a landfill," she says, "I made a patio with it,"

The solar panels above her patio feed electricity into her home. They also provide shade, which can keep the area cooler. Spencer collects rainwater in two 57-gallon containers. Her strategies, she says, save about 65,000 gallons of water a year. "What I do is ahead of the curve," Spencer said about green design. "But people's minds are open now. People are saying, 'She did it, let's take a look at it.'"

Working for 22 years as a registered nurse in the chronic unit of a Los Angeles respiratory hospital, she is well-versed in the body, health and disease. She eventually left nursing and went back to school for a bachelor's degree in interior design from Cal State Northridge, graduating in 2006. Her nursing background and passion for design led to her specialty. "It was just such a natural fit," she says. "Green designing lets me do my nursing in a different kind of way."

Spencer, whose primary business is staging homes for sale, says remodeling a home is still very costly, but those who take it on can get their money back over the years in lower utility bills and maintenance costs. "I love not being tied down to a big house with a lot of maintenance," she said. "My money can go into other things, like my family."

Spencer has been sharing her green insights for several years. She appeared on an episode of Planet Green's "Greenovate," a how-to green house series, in 2008. She currently speaks about residential remodeling from an interior design perspective for the area chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. She also is designing a space in this year's Pasadena Showcase House of Design, where she can demonstrate her skills with green ideas.

There are some easy things we can all do to approach green living, she said. Take short showers, use less electricity and replace the refrigerator, the biggest energy hog in every home, with an Energy Star brand. "Your finger turning off that light switch has a profound effect" on the planet, Spencer says. "Green is a consciousness, it's a lifestyle."

Setting the Stage Interior Design
1950 Canyon Close Road, Pasadena