How a retired Silicon Valley executive built
a house that soaks up the sun.
Mfitting into a
By Suzanne Johnson
In the summer of 2000 I was working from my 1950s ranch home
in Silicon Valley and talking to Arkin Tilt Architects about remodeling the house. Over the years I’d added a lot of energy upgrades,
culminating with a 2.5-kilowatt (k W) photovoltaic system in 1997. I
was firmly addicted to running the electric meter backwards, and had
chosen the architectural firm for its history with passive and active
solar homes. (Passive solar design uses sunlight for useful energy with
no mechanical systems, while active solar homes include mechanical technologies.) But I was uncertain about the remodel, wondering
whether I’d prefer moving to a quieter, more rural area.
Then a minivan crashed across the porch and into the front room.
Happily, no one was injured. The house suffered far more damage than
the van. It was a sign that I belonged elsewhere.
Elsewhere was the Carson Valley area of Northern Nevada. I loved the
sundrenched high desert and had been considering property in the area for
some time. I closed on my property about a month after the crash.
I asked Arkin Tilt if they would design a new house for me, rather
than remodel the old one. We began to define the requirements for the
new home. While taking a class from David Arkin at the Solar Living
Institute in Hopland, Calif., I reawakened my chemistry background
and started looking closely at healthy interiors. I have a long history of
hay fever, allergies and chemical sensitivities. It was easy to prioritize
finding building materials that wouldn’t aggravate my health issues.
Design Responds to extreme Weather, Dry Climate
In The Return of the Solar Cat Book, Jim Augustyn points out that
when a cat feels cold, it very sensibly finds a sunny spot to stretch out
upon. People, on the other hand, have tended to ignore the sun and generally find much more complex solutions for warmth. I wanted my new
house to incorporate feline wisdom and use the sun to full advantage. I
wanted to avoid the use of fossil fuels completely.
Nevada sees more than 300 sunny days per year, and state laws promote
use of renewable energy and energy-efficient design. The house sits 5,300
feet above sea level on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. Peaks to the
immediate west reach almost 11,000 feet. The climate is extreme. Summer
days reach 100°F ( 38°C) or higher. Winter nighttime temperatures average in the teens, and can drop to well below 0°F ( 18°C). Snow can reach
blizzard depth and it is not unusual to lose grid power, especially during
the winter snow/wind events. Winds tumbling from the peaks can hit 60
to 90 mph (100 to 150 kph) with percussive, turbulent effect. Humidity
is always low and there is typically a 30°F difference between night and
daytime temperatures, as well as a 100°F difference between typical winter-low and summer-high temperatures.
Water is supplied from a community well and the house design incorporates separate pipes for grey and black water. We use permaculture
design, including natural and constructed swales, to channel rainwater to
native plantings. The up-tilted Zincalume metal roof channels water either