Mother Earth Living

Soak Up the Sun: A Solar-Powered Home in Berkeley, California

This spectacular, solar-powered home was once the ugliest house on the block.
By Lori Tobias
May/June 2009
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Etched glass on the double-pane, low-E windows provide privacy. A glass bridge allows daylight to penetrate deep in the house's core.
Photography By Barbara Bourne
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Just after he graduated from architecture school 15 years ago, Chris Parlette bought a plain, stick-frame house in Berkeley, California—one of the ugliest in the neighborhood. The 800-square-foot box had windowless bedrooms and a backyard that could only be accessed via a cramped laundry room door and along a narrow, overgrown path. “It was in extremely sad shape,” Chris says. “No one had lived here for five years. It had been just absolutely run to the ground.”

On a recent graduate’s budget, Chris did his best to make the house livable. He remodeled the kitchen and cleaned up the lot. And he dreamed. “I was in there for about 10 years, living in this kind of substandard house,” he says. “I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do and how much I wanted to change.”

Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Chris’s head-turning house actually sprang from the homely little house that was. And this striking two-story stucco and glass house has a laundry list of earth-friendly features, including a solar electric system that produces more power than it uses.

Better, not just bigger

Eager to make his home as energy-efficient, sunny and open as possible, Chris embarked on the remodel about five years ago. By adding a second floor, Chris more than doubled his original 800 square feet while expanding the home’s footprint—the area of the house on the lot—by only 50 feet. By strategically placing large expanses of high-performance, low-E (low-emissivity) glass on the home’s southern windows, he took advantage of passive solar gains while framing views of Mount Tamalpais across the San Francisco Bay and the Berkeley Hills to the east.

In preserving the existing structure, he was able to save two-thirds of an earlier kitchen remodel as well as the original wood ceiling, living room beams and fireplace. Doing this reduced his landfill waste and provided inspiration for the new addition. Upstairs, a ceiling made from recycled wood beams complements the original, first-floor ceiling, and a rust-red integral plaster wall from the old structure was extended to follow the stairs to the second floor, unifying the home’s core and adding texture.

An operable skylight helps cool the house on hot days through a “stack effect”—as cooler air on the first floor warms up, it rises and escapes through the skylight. During cooler months, the passive solar design warms the south-facing master bathroom; a slate floor laid atop a bed of mortar provides thermal mass to store and slowly release the sun’s warmth.

The home’s new windows are trimmed with recycled wood and plastic composite, and exterior walls are covered in green stucco, which ties the home to the bamboo and drought-tolerant grasses in the yard. The deck, fence and gate are also made from composite wood and plastic.

 “The backyard—once totally a forgotten space—is now like the second living room,” Chris says. “It really is an extension of the house and increases the visual volume of it.” He achieved the effect by planting the perimeters of the yard and creating a fountain at the rear of the property. Seen through the home’s central corridor, the fountain serves as a focal point.

The beauty of solar

Chris admits he’s sometimes surprised by his endeavor’s success—and he’s particularly excited about powering his house with the sun. “The fact that the house uses zero electricity is the most significant feature,” Chris says. “The meter spins backward during the day, and you use the electricity at night. If we had this happening on a much bigger scale, our whole energy dependence would be a different ballgame.”

But, he adds, beauty matters. “Solar power and sustainable technology are not going to move forward if buildings aren’t beautiful spaces.”

A chat with the homeowner

What books are on your nightstand?

Chris Parlette: There are two. One is The Solar Economy by Hermann Scheer (Earthscan/James & James, 2004), about moving the entire world to a solar economy. The other is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (St. Martin’s Press, 2007). It talks about how quickly nature would reclaim what we’ve created if we were to disappear tomorrow. It really shows how fragile our built environment is. For example, New York City has 800 pumps going 24 hours a day. If those all broke down, within four or five days you’d have all the subways flooded and rivers would start to reform within Manhattan. It takes so much effort to sustain these practices. We’re fighting against nature, rather than trying to work smarter and work with nature.

Another book I recommend is Biomimicry by Janine Benyus (Harper Collins, 1997). The author studies people who use biology as a guide to design instruction. A spider’s web by weight is much stronger than steel and yet, to produce the webbing, all the spider does is eat dead flies. These natural and totally sustainable processes have evolved over millions of years. The book is about how we can study nature as architects and designers and learn how to design sustainable structures.

What would you change if you were mayor? 

Chris: The one thing I would do—and it’s crazy we haven’t done it—would be to tax consumer goods that aren’t compostable or easily recyclable. I remember seeing a slide show by William McDonough, and he made the striking observation that “when we throw things away, there is one problem: There is no away.” All this plastic stuff doesn’t go away; it sits in the Pacific Ocean on this mass gyre. The fact that we’re a species who can put man on the moon but can’t invent more compostable items is tragic.

If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be? 

Chris: Barack Obama. He is probably the most important person, the most important instrument for change we’ve had in the past 40 years. He embodies the green movement that has been going on for the last 20 years. When I started designing this house eight years ago, the idea of solar panels on your roof was still pretty far-fetched. I was one of the very few around. From then to now, the world is a totally different place, and now it has a chance with Barack to have a serious effect on the whole world.

The good stuff

Architect: Chris Parlette, WA Design, (510) 883-0868      
Builder: Chris Parlette
Interior Design and Landscaping: Chris Parlette
House Size (square footage): 1,800
Bedrooms: 3
Bathroom: 2.5
Cost per Square Foot: $300

Energy

Heating/Cooling System: Gas heating with 95 percent efficiency rating and fresh outside air intake
Exterior-mounted, high-efficiency, tankless Rinnai water heater
Electricity Source: Grid-tied, 100 percent photovoltaic (PV), net-zero house; 8 ASE Americas 300-watt PV panels; Sunny Boy Inverter 2500U; 2,400 peak watts
Lighting: Low voltage and fluorescent
Appliances: Energy Star
Insulation: Icynene spray foam

Building Materials

Exterior: Integral color Parex stucco
Composite wood/recycled plastic lumber window trim
Galvalume metal eaves
Composite wood/recycled plastic lumber deck, fencing and gate
Interior Materials: Integral color plaster, handcrafted custom counters of fly ash concrete and recycled plastic aggregate
100 percent recycled plastic tiles on bath and laundry floors 
Recycled Douglas fir roof beams
Benjamin Moore Eco Spec low-odor, low-VOC acrylic latex paint
100 percent natural wool carpet with wool and natural jute backing and natural wool pad
Bamboo flooring
Recycled steel cabinet pulls and drawer fronts

Water

Water Conservation Systems: Future hookup to graywater system
Fixtures: Low-flow toilets and low-flow showerhead on lower level

Construction

Waste Reduction: Use of existing house framing reduced waste.
Recycling: Salvaged construction waste
Construction Methods: Standard framing incorporating recycled lumber

Landscaping

Site and Land Use: Adding second story minimized footprint
Plants: Drought-tolerant
Water Conservation: Drip irrigation system; future graywater plans
Porous paving

Certification

Energy Star   

Lori Tobias is a 20-year journalist who writes for The Oregonian. She has been a Natural Home contributor since 2000.


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