Sustainable in the Sierras: A Solar-Powered Home in Northern California

A builder blends handmade and high-tech to make his family's home resource-efficient and solar-powered.

| March/April 2009

When Ed and Shannon Welch bought a 1972 fixer-upper on five acres in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, they were envisioning a home that had everything the two-story box did not: an open floor plan, connection with the outdoors and lots of windows to take in the view. But Ed, a general contractor and cabinetmaker, knew they could fulfill their “dream home” wish list with a few alterations to the home’s floor plan, and he also saw an opportunity to incorporate solar energy and sustainable building.

Ed spent 18 months stripping the nondescript house to the studs and retooling it with better materials and smarter systems. For help with the house’s biggest flaw—that it did not showcase the spectacular views—he turned to Chris Parlette, senior architect at the Berkeley design firm Wilson Associates. The two devised a plan to create a contemporary home that would open up to the view of black oaks, pines and the mountains beyond. “We wanted it to be clean yet cozy and have a lot of glass,” Parlette says.

Let it shine

The heart of the remodel is a central great room, created by reworking the kitchen space to meld with an addition featuring window banks on three sides and a shed roof (a mildly sloped, one-piece roof). Meeting the original house at a 90-degree angle, the addition points toward the woods, catching morning light. Reworking the kitchen and adding the new room created a flowing living space with constant views. “The shed roof was a brilliant aspect of the design that I love more and more,” Ed says. “If we had done a gable roof we wouldn’t have been able to see the height of the trees and the mountains. You grab all of nature through those windows.”

Made with 10-inch-thick structural insulated panels, or SIPs (Styrofoam sandwiched between slabs of engineered wood) and Douglas fir reclaimed from a Stanford University building, the new room’s ceiling set the tone for a whole-house remodel that showcases Ed’s love of wood. Ed built kitchen cabinets from Forest Stewardship Council-certified cherry and selected interior doors crafted from recycled old-growth Douglas fir.

Throughout the house, Ed and Shannon tore down walls, added new windows and enlarged existing ones, replacing inefficient single-panes with insulating, low-emissivity (low-E), argon-filled windows. They vaulted the kitchen ceiling and added two large skylights. Ed hand-plastered the ceilings, fireplace and entryway walls. “The fireplace has 10 shades of red,” Ed says. “It will outlast anything, and the colors will never fade.”

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