My wife Susan and I dreamed of living in an efficient, solar-powered home as we were finishing our graduate degrees at UC Davis in the late 1990s. After we were married in 1999, we both were able to arrange postdoctoral appointments at UC Berkeley. After lots of searching and failed attempts to find a “starter” house near Berkeley, we finally settled in the Montclair area of Oakland. We found a 1970s modern style house with a steep downhill lot that we were lucky to buy in February 2000, as it was a seller-friendly real estate market.
While the house was well-built—a homebuilder had initially built it for himself—it had single-pane glass windows, substandard insulation, earthquake safety issues, and a natural gas stove, furnace, and hot water heater. The house was also surrounded by giant, 100+ foot eucalyptus trees which disrupted our plans to install solar photovoltaic panels: not only did the trees shade the roof most of the day, but they constantly dropped sickle-shaped leaves on the roof, decks, and gutters. We removed a few trees that were closest to the house but at a cost of $2000-3000 per tree, clearing more of them was impractical. So we did our best and made some insulation improvements when we installed a new roof and replaced our failing hot water heater with a more efficient model.
Flash forward thirteen years to 2013, when our two boys were 2 and 4 years old, we found ourselves wanting a different house with a yard for the kids to play in. We also wanted to move closer to Moraga, CA because Susan’s elderly mother was in a nursing home and Susan was getting weary of the grey and foggy upper Montclair weather. After more than a year of searching for a good, solar-friendly site, we finally found a ramshackle property in North Orinda that no one wanted to buy. As the realtor urged us to make an offer, we underbid it and finally settled on a counter-offer response.
The site had a modest but rundown and dry-rotted house with shaggy Monterey pines, an overwatered and ornate (but not drought-tolerant) front yard, and lemon trees literally trying to grow into the building. Despite its dilapidated appearance, I could see the property would be lovely once the overgrowth was cleared.
After considering various options for saving parts of the existing house, we salvaged and donated what we could to “Donation Solutions” for a tax break, took the building down to the foundation, and rebuilt it, including some of the sub-standard foundation. The city considered this a remodel because we did not add more than 1000 square feet to the property, only adding about 500 square feet to the original house on the same footprint. We worked with a local Lafayette architect on a modern, energy and water-efficient, and “fire-resistant” design, and were delighted with the results when we finally moved in around Fall 2016.
From left to right: a solar inverter, heat pump electric water heater, and heat pump electric space conditioning unit. Credit: Tim Lipman
Key features of the house include:
- 8 kW Solar PV array (SunPower / SolarEdge)
- Passive solar design and high-performance windows (Reynaers)
- Tesla Powerwall 2 battery backup (13 kWh)
- Electric heat pump HVAC (Carrier Infinity Greenspeed)
- Electric heat pump water heater (Stiebel-Eltron)
- Heavy insulation – R-50 in roof
- Induction electric stovetop
- Rainwater collection tank for toilet flushing and laundry cold water
- Greywater tank to collect shower water for drip irrigation
- Pre-wired for two 220V (Level 2) EV chargers
It is great to live in a well-insulated, solar-powered house, but we do need to get the greywater and rainwater systems maintained once or twice a year and lose hot water during a power outage (not connected to the Tesla battery). We quickly adapted to the induction stovetop, although it does require steel pots and pans—which are magnetizable and widely available—versus aluminum ones. We have only experienced a few minor problems with the mechanical systems, love the small electricity bill at the end of the year, and are happy to be doing our part to reduce fossil fuel use and conserve water.
Cover image credit: National Association of Home Builders