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Green Goes to the Dogs

Sit. Stay. Save the planet. Ventura-based landscape architect Stephanie Rubin and her artist husband, Chris Isner, put sustainability in the doghouse and teach us all a new trick.

By Michel Cicero

Stephanie Rubin stands behind her Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired “Wright House,” while Gretyl displays its effectiveness. Photos by Briana Cash.

 

ot long ago, sustainable living practices were met with some degree of suspicion from the general public. Recycling was seen as optional and composting was regarded as downright eccentric. But with inconvenient truths swarming like Africanized honey bees, green living has come into its own, and Ventura-based landscape architect Stephanie Rubin couldn't be more excited.

For Rubin, sustainability is more than a buzzword; it's a lifestyle—one that is crucial to the future of humankind. On a recent visit to Rubin's studio, she apologized for the SUV parked in front. "I borrowed it to transport plants," she confessed. Normally, she drives a Mercedes that runs on used vegetable oil. When Rubin isn't puttering around in her garden or designing landscapes for trés trendy eco mansions, she is fabricating sustainable doghouses. Her pooch pads feature chemical-free materials, green roofs, and sleek, modern designs. But most important to Rubin, they are safe and comfy for deserving canines like her "purebred mutt," Gretyl.

Form, function, and doggy style to burn: Rubin’s green roof doghouses have fetched national attention, with designs such as this “Andrew Jackass Plantation."

Rubin and her husband, Chris Isner, an internationally exhibited sculptor and painter, moved to Ventura from Oakland in January, but it already feels like home to them. Originally from the Los Angeles area, they returned to Southern California for better work opportunities. They recognized the quality of life Ventura had to offer, and proximity to Art City for sculpting material sealed the deal.

She first conceptualized the doghouses—which have a patent pending—when one of her beloved dogs died from cancer. At the time, she was attending an ecology focused landscape architecture program at UC Berkeley, which helped fuel her curiosity about the connection between pollutants and her dog's illness. With Isner's artistic input, the first Greenrrroof Doghouse was created. Since then they have been featured in a number of respected publications, including Sunset, Metropolitan Home, and Dog Fancy.

Not to be mistaken for rooftop gardens, green roofs are actually part of the structure they beautify. Green roofs have been in use for thousands of years, but were popularized by the Germans in the 1960s as a way to counteract problems of pollution and storm runoff. The use of green roofs to bring nature to otherwise urban areas has gained popularity in recent years. When planted en masse, green roofs have the ability to cool large cities by as much as 10-20 degrees and mitigate street flooding through absorption. The city of Chicago boasts 2.5 million square feet of green roofing and has designated hefty grants to large-scale green roof projects.

“The Heart Box.”

Doghouse green roofs are really no different than the ones made for people. The first step is to thoroughly waterproof the surface—Rubin uses natural beeswax. Next, drainage and filtration layers are put in place. She tops it off with her signature soil blend and an assortment of pet-friendly, nonpoisonous native plants. Her husband applies his custom paint blends for a finishing touch. "It's like building a cake," she says.

Sounds simple enough, but from start to finish the process is actually complicated, labor intensive, and not easily replicated. "We really want to make sure that our focus is making it healthy for the dogs and eco-friendly," she said.

The end result is an uber hip shelter that won't make dogs sick, but will keep them insulated from heat, cold, and noise. "My dog will freak out over traffic noises,” said Rubin, "so it's really quite calm in there."

Depending on size, Greenrrroof Dog Houses range in price from $2,000 to $6,000, and orders can be customized. Rubin travels great distances to hunt down green materials such as certified red cedar wood—a natural flea repellant—paint and sealer that's free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and an adequate selection of native plants. For central and southern California coastal regions, Rubin favors woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), and stonecrop (Sedum). She also spends 60 to 90 days establishing the plants' root systems before the finished product is shipped to a customer.

The importance of using native plants cannot be overstated. There are certain species of animals that depend on the plants native to their habitat for survival. If, for instance, the beetle population diminishes because the plants it feeds on are too scarce, then the birds that eat the beetles begin to disappear, and so on.

Native vegetation also lends a sense of place. As Rubin says, "It helps keep places special.” Besides their visual appeal and superior insulating qualities, Rubin's green roof doghouses attract beneficial insects such as butterflies and ladybugs, which in turn attract birds. Rubin also has a line of green roof birdhouses, and plans are underway for green roof children's playhouses.

Rubin and Isner offer a handful of playful, artistic doghouse designs such as the whimsical "Leaf House," which hints at Frank Lloyd Wright's renowned "Falling Water" masterpiece, and the "Goth Cathedral," with its eerie paint splattered interior. The "Dog Barn" is probably the most basic and versatile style, while the limited edition, graffiti covered "Andrew Jackass Plantation," made from 200-year-old Tennessee aromatic cedar from Andrew Jackson's estate, divulges the couple's eccentric side.

All indicators point to an upward trend in green living, and Rubin couldn't be happier with the response so far to her doghouses. But she emphasizes the mission behind the style. She hopes the doghouses will inspire people to take it further: "If people can be educated by my dog houses and by me about what's eco-friendly and healthier, I think that's wonderful."

09-01-2008

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