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

This spectacular, solar-powered home was once the ugliest house on the block.

| May/June 2009

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.

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