Spirit of the Sun: A Solar Rastra Home in California

Green living pioneers John Schaeffer and Nancy Hensley have built a home that honors the land, wildlife, and the pioneering spirit of their company, Real Goods.


| November/December 2004



First Floor Diagram

Diagram of the first floor


Between the two of them, John Schaeffer and Nancy Hensley have forty years of experience researching green building, off-the-grid living, and permaculture. John founded Real Goods, the nation’s first solar retail business, in 1978 in Hopland, California. Nancy has lived off the grid since 1973 and joined Real Goods in 1989. The couple has realized their dream of employing their collective wisdom to create an energy-independent, nontoxic, environmentally gentle home that promotes sustainability—while also being tastefully beautiful and soul soothing.

They were right on track with that vision as construction on their 2,900-square-foot roundhouse—oriented to the cardinal directions and patterned after a red-tailed hawk ready to take flight—began in early 2001. The home is set on 320 acres overlooking the Hopland Valley that’s richly landscaped with gardens, orchards, ponds, a lake, and a grotto with a waterfall. In 2002, John and Nancy moved into a barn on their property where they could watch the building progress. That summer, they noticed several large, black birds pecking mercilessly at the windows. How cute, they thought, until they realized that weeks later the birds—ravens—continued to attack the home’s sixty-nine windows with a vengeance.

"We went into major raven research mode," Nancy says. "We talked to biologists, ornithologists, and shamans. People told us to dance around in circles with corn, build altars, give them offerings. We eventually learned that when the birds are nesting, they’re very territorial. They saw their reflections and tried to scare off those ‘other ravens.’"

"A shaman told us the ravens were upset because we were calling the house Sunhawk—they have a natural animosity toward hawks," John says. "So we made an altar and for thirty days we brought them tobacco, fish, and meat." In marked contrast to locals who thought a shotgun was the answer to their raven problem, John and Nancy’s attitude was that the birds had inhabited this piece of land first and that they, as the human "intruders," should strive to live in harmony with the ravens. That open-mindedness translated into every step of building their ecologically friendly home.

Better Living Through Technology

Built from Rastra blocks, which are made from 85 percent recycled polystyrene beads and 15 percent cement, Sunhawk is a masterful example of sustainability. Nancy spent months researching building materials and appliances. Her finds include recycled-tire roof shingles and repurposed granite countertops from a Berkeley café. Roof decking, fascia, barge rafters, and beams were made from reclaimed redwood, Douglas fir, and walnut from an area winery, vinegar plant, warehouse, and a converted orchard.

John and Nancy’s house is, of course, entirely off the grid. (Who would expect less from a renewable energy pioneer?) A seventeen-kilowatt solar system—recycled from a Gaiam Real Goods installation in Belize blown down in a hurricane—provides ample power in summer months, and a hydroelectric turbine produces 1.5 kilowatts per hour from a seasonal creek that runs through the property from December through May. "Our hydro system provides thirty-six kilowatt hours per day—almost twice the national average for electricity use," John points out. "And it cost only $1,500—it’s way more cost effective than the electric company or any other source of electricity. It’s a powerful feeling knowing we’ll never have to pay an electric bill for the rest of our lives."





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