Author Archives: Monica Michael Willis

Monica Michael Willis

About Monica Michael Willis

The former features director at Country Living magazine, Monica Michael Willis writes frequently about design, gardens, and environmental issues.

San Francisco Grabs the “Green” Crown

wallg Flickr San Francisco best green city

Photo: Flickr

In a new survey sponsored by Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit, San Francisco outpaced 27 other major metropolitan areas to win bragging rights as the greenest city in North America. Vancouver, New York City, and Seattle followed in the overall rankings, while Detroit finished last, just behind St. Louis, Cleveland, and Phoenix. Nine categories, ranging from land use and carbon emissions to air quality, transportation, and buildings, were used to calculate which urban hubs were doing the best job of cleaning up the environment.

A powerhouse on the eco-scene, San Francisco came by its first-place win fair and square. The city recycles 77% of its municipal waste, mandates composting, and boasts the longest public-transportation network in America. Retrofitting residential and commercial properties with water-efficient plumbing fixtures has been mandatory in the city since 2009, and San Francisco offers free low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators as well as rebates on toilet replacements—measures that will potentially save the city up to four million gallons of water daily by 2017.

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Titcomb Cabin Rises from the Ashes

Titcomb Cabin, log home, Darmouth

Photo: Lucas Schulz

Thanks to the determination of six enterprising coeds at Dartmouth College, a landmark cabin razed by fire was rebuilt the old-fashioned way—one log at a time.

In 2009, when Greg Sokol, a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, discovered that a nearly 60-year-old cabin owned by the college’s Ledyard Canoe Club had burned to the ground, he knew he had to do something. Like scores of undergraduates before him, Sokol had used the humble cabin on the Connecticut River’s Gilman Island as a base camp during canoe-club outings.

Titcomb Cabin, log cabin, Darmouth, Lucas Schulz

Photo: Lucas Schulz

Up to that point, Sokol, an engineering major, hadn’t built much of anything. Nonetheless he secured the administration’s permission to reconstruct the cabin on its original footprint and recruited five of his fellow canoe club members to help with the project. Sokol, who admits he and his crew lacked log-cabin expertise before they started, chose his team because they shared his desire “to build something beautiful and long-lasting.”

Just over a year later, the students got started by choosing 97 pine and spruce logs culled from a woodlot owned by the school and removing their bark. Then the wood, along with most of the students’ building supplies—toolboxes, plywood, cement mixer, chainsaw, etc.—were floated downstream via canoe and non-motorized boats to the worksite. Once on dry land, a Grip hoist helped the team haul the logs up the island’s steep embankment.

Just like early pioneer builders, the students learned to scribe, notch, and fit the logs together through trial and error. When the several hundred pound logs didn’t fit seamlessly, a 60-pound mallet nicknamed “Gorgeous George” was used to nudge the wood logs an inch or two for a snugger fit.

Titcomb Cabin, log cabin, Darmouth, Lucas Schulz

Photo: Lucas Schulz

After erecting the structure’s four walls, the crew hoisted a 21-inch-diameter ridgepole into place to support the peak of the roof, which was later covered in green metal roof panels. By the second summer, a covered front porch had taken shape, doors and windows were fitted, gables were shingled, and a wood stove and hearth for both heating and cooking was installed. The log cabin’s exterior was stained, and oak flooring—one of the team’s last major projects before graduation— now covers the ground level (there’s a sleeping loft upstairs).

Titcomb Cabin, log cabin, Darmouth, Lucas Schulz

Photo: Lucas Schulz

After two summers of intense work, the little log cabin in the woods, built by hand by an enterprising young DIY crew, will now welcome the next generation of Dartmouth students ready to set out on bold new backwoods adventures.

To learn more about Titcomb Cabin, visit or watch this time-lapse YouTube video:

For more on historic preservation, consider:

Historic Paint Colors
A Farm Grows in Brooklyn
Decorative Woodwork Restoration

5 Simple Ways to Save H2O at Home

Save Water


Although roughly 75 percent of the Earth is covered with water, the reality is that less than 1 percent of that water is fresh and readily available to humans—making conserving the planet’s most precious resource more important than ever. Happily, changing water-guzzling habits doesn’t require herculean sacrifices or big investments, just modest changes. Bonus: saving water saves money, too!

Delta, water saving, shower head

Photo: Delta


Fact: On average, a five-minute shower uses 25 gallons of water. That’s about 175 gallons per week per person—or 2,800 gallons a month for a family of four!

Reality: Cutting that number in half is as easy as installing a low-flow showerhead, most of which look and perform just like standard models. Delta’s Water-Amplifying Showerhead (model 75153) delivers a steady, satisfying stream and costs just $12.75 at


Fact: Leaving the faucet running while polishing your pearly whites (or shaving) wastes 2 to 4 gallons of clean water each and every time you brush.

Reality: If you brush twice a day, simply turning off the faucet will save up to 56 gallons of water a week! Get extra points if you install an inexpensive faucet aerator, which slows the flow even more.

water saving toilet conversion kit


Fact: Toilets use 27% of the water in the average home. Older models fare the worst, using up to 7 gallons per flush.

Reality: If your toilet predates 1992, when energy-efficient models were introduced, replace it with a new high-efficiency model that uses just 1.28 gallons a flush or consider installing a flush toilet conversion kit, such as MJSI’s highly rated One2Flush Dual Flush Toilet Conversion Kits ($29.95; The simple device allows less water into the tank per flush, for an average saving of about 30 gallons of water a day per four-person household. Another option: place a 2-liter plastic bottle filled with water into the tank. The container takes up space, so the tank fills faster and uses less water.


Fact: According to the EPA, leaks in American homes account for 1 trillion gallons of wasted water per year—or the annual water use of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami combined!

Reality: Fixing easily corrected leaks—drippy faucets, faulty sprinklers, old toilet flappers—can save homeowners more than 10% on monthly water bills. The best way to figure out if you have a leak is to check your water meter, then turn off all water sources for two hours. If the meter moves at all, you’ve got a leakage problem somewhere.

watergeegs, garden hose, nozzle, water saving

Photo: WaterGeeks


Fact: More than 12 gallons of water travel through a regular garden hose per minute.

Reality: Investing in an H20-conserving hose attachment, such as WaterGeeks’ Water-Saving Nozzle ($3.99 each), allows gardeners to turn water on and off as they work and adjust the flow and volume of the water according to the job at hand.

For more information, visit

For more on saving water and energy efficiency, consider:

Low-Flush Toilets Save Money and Water
Quick Tip: Solar Hot Water Systems Save Money
Quick TIp: Save Energy at Home

Downsizing with Style

tumbleweed homes,

Photo: Tumbleweed Homes

With rising energy costs and the lingering effects of the mortgage crisis, demand for smaller houses has never been greater. Which is a boon for Jay Shafer, who’s been preaching the gospel of downsizing since 1997, when he founded Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. in Sebastopol, California, and began designing and constructing homes that range in size from 65 to 172 square feet. But his petite abodes pack a lot into their wee footprints. The company’s 65-square-foot XS-House, for instance, offers built-in storage, a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping loft, and front porch.

Slideshow: 11 Tiny Houses We Love

tumbleweed houses, bungalow, craftsmen house style

Photo: Tumbleweed Houses

Shafer himself resided in an 8’-by-12’ house that measured just 100 square feet until he married three years ago. Now he and his wife (and their toddler son) reside in the relatively spacious 500-square-foot home he built next door. “Once I moved into a tiny house, my life opened up, says Shafer. “There was less maintenance, less mortgage, less waste—more time to live.”

Fully constructed with electrical, plumbing, and heating systems, Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny Houses start at about $39,000. Most customers, however, just buy the plans, which cost from $99 to $859, and build the diminutive structures themselves. Because the tiny houses have wheels, the structures are considered travel trailers and do not require a building permit. “You can pretty much put one anywhere you can place an RV,” notes Shafer.

In August, the company plans to launch its new Box Bungalows, a line of Craftsman-style tiny houses that feature mix-and-match modular components. To learn more, visit Tumbleweed Tiny House Company online or pick up a copy of Jay Shafer’s book, The Small House Book (Paperback-2009), at Amazon.

For more on prefab and tiny houses, consider:

10 Cool Shipping Container Homes
Mobile Homes: Then and Now
Home Sweet Container