Writers Picks: Home Improvement

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Best Solution to Drought Hidden Right Under Your Nose

It's an idea so revolutionary, and yet so straightforward, that a child could conceive of it. In fact, one did. Well, a teenager anyway. Rohnert Park's Steven McDowell was only 15 years old when he developed the WaterFence, an ingeniously inconspicuous way to collect roof rainwater runoff that can put thousands of gallons of fresh water at your disposal.

McDowell originally showed his design, a structure one-foot wide and six-feet tall, as a science-fair project, though it wasn't long before investors came calling. At the time of his invention, California was in a historic drought, and local governments were encouraging people to not water their lawns. McDowell's fence provided a way for homeowners to store tens of thousands of gallons of rainwater, when the rains sparingly came, to use as lawn irrigation.

Even now that the North Bay has seen reservoirs fill up with a wet and rainy season, the principle stays the same. Public utilities are great for tap water, but the WaterFence is still a handy and stylishly sustainable way to hold on to your hydration for landscaping.

Here's how it works: Rainwater flowing from the roof is collected in the fence system, made up of interconnecting sections that hold over 200 gallons each. The recycled polyethylene sections are built to withstand natural and seismic elements, and are closed to prevent mold or critters from contaminating the water. On the outside, a customizable wood, brick, bamboo or stone finish completes the disguise. No one will know the difference—except for you, of course. waterfence.com.—C.S.

Best Way to Flip Monsanto the Finger

If your visions of a well-manicured lawn are thwarted by gophers and weeds, it's temping to reach for the big guns to beat your yard into submission with fertilizers, pesticides and a carpet of sod armored with varmint-proof wire. But gardening and landscaping need not be combat. Permaculture offers a method of landscape and building design that works with natural systems and principles. Go with the flow, man. Sebastopol's Permaculture Artisans serves as a hub for spreading the word. The site on Gravenstein Highway South offers interpretative gardens open to the public and training programs for new farmers, as well as landscape services for those who want someone else to set it up. 2185 Gravenstein Hwy. S., Sebastopol. 707.824.0836. permacultureartisans.com.—S.H.

Best Way to Add a Room Without Adding a Room

We're all looking for a little more space. Rising housing costs aren't going away any time soon, and the expense and time it takes to add a room on to a home is a staggering ordeal. But what if there was a better way, you ask? As stupefying as it is simple, the ingenious Roll in a Room is really on the move. The concept comes in the midst of a housing market that encourages people to live in tiny houses that are little more than mere holding pods on wheels, and where turning a room into a for-rent studio is a necessary step many residential suburbanites take to cover mortgages. Roll in a Room covers both bases. Developed by former Occidental family man Terry King, Roll in a Room is a one-unit wonder that easily fits in a garage and provides kitchen and bathroom facilities all ready to hook up to your existing plumbing and sewer. It can help you convert a garage into a rental studio or simply add another place for your ever-growing family to find relief in the morning. Imagine, no more fighting for the shower and being late to the office, no more kids pounding on the door while you take care of business, no more stacking dishes to the ceiling in your modest kitchenette as you prepare dinner. Made of recycled fiberglass, the room is also a sustainable, and durable, way to add-on to the house. In addition, a stable, movable foundation with leveling feet at the four corners means the unit can be leveled on a sloped floor. It's amazing what a little extra room can do. rollinaroom.com.—C.S.

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Best End-of-the-World Hardware Store

Attention DIY-ers, survivalists, metal fabricators, sculptors, value shoppers and Mad Max fans. Have we got the place for you. Friedman's Home Improvement will take care of most of your hardware and building supply needs, but across the street, down Mountain View Avenue, Bataeff Salvage has all the stuff you didn't think you needed or didn't know existed—much at end-of-the-world prices. Look over there! It's a stack of industrial-grade coffee makers. Over there is a row of plastic drums that once held kalamata olives, perfect for your rainwater-catchment project. And here's a bin loaded with hundreds of belt buckles. And don't miss the pallet of ammo cans, just the thing for your zombie-apocalypse preparation needs. How about a giant boiler for the backyard? Got a Burning Man project? Start here. Inside the wonky, open-air, barnlike buildings you'll find Sawzall blades, titanium drill bits and buckets upon buckets of screws and nails. Bataeff also sells perfectly new items like rakes, shovels and gloves, but the fun part of coming here is roaming the yard looking at the rusted odds and ends that wind up here among the skulking cats and scrap-metal scavengers. 244 Mountain View Road, Santa Rosa. 707.584.8401.—S.H.

Best Tree Farm—Simply Put

This is an easy claim to make, because there is no place quite like Fulton's Urban Tree Farm Nursery. Shade trees, fruit trees, nut trees, evergreen and deciduous trees—they've got just about every tree you can imagine, spread out over 20 acres. I like to go there even if I'm not shopping for a tree and walk around. And they sell more than trees—seeds, shrubs, grasses, vines. If it grows, they've probably got it. Tell the helpful folks what you're looking for, and they'll offer you a seat in a golf cart and then motor over to inspect a few specimens. It's like going on a vegetarian safari. 3010 Fulton Road, Fulton. 707.544.4446.—S.H.

Best Way to Keep Your Home from Looking Like You've Gone Total Tobacco Road

The car was wrecked and sitting in the driveway for a couple of months, out in the hinterlands of coastal Marin County. I couldn't get anyone to come and get it as a charitable tax-writeoff. I tried to donate it to the Polly Klass Foundation and also to nonprofit community radio station KWMR. But those folks weren't interested—the wrecked Grand Marquis was way too far out in the boonies, and their respective, contracted towing companies wouldn't make the trip. Not worth their time. Hmm. Now what? The landlords are getting a little cranky about the car, but they're tolerant people. Can you please deal with the car, man? Acme Salvage to the rescue! Acme's contracted tow-guy made the special 50-mile trip down the coast one morning and removed the eyesore, hauled it up to the Santa Rosa Acme Salvage yard for parts. The payment was a free tow job in exchange for the relief of not having to look at the car anymore—a total square deal. Acme Salvage, 1885 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa. 707.545.9075.—T.G.

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