A 1950s Silicon Valley Tract Home Transformed for Net-Zero Living

By Graham Irwin

California has ambitious goals to address climate change. Achieving them will require sweeping changes to industry, transportation, and the built environment. Although this societal transition is a work in progress, a recent project of ours offers an effective and compelling response. A cramped, dark, uncomfortable, and dated 1950s tract house was transformed into a bright, airy, all-electric, high-performance home. The owners now enjoy outstanding comfort, quiet, and air quality, plus a “net-zero lifestyle” – they power their home and charge two electric vehicles with zero energy bills. These benefits were achieved for little additional upfront cost. Whether for a remodel or new construction, we believe this is a feasible approach to a bright, healthy future for all.

The back of the house, before and after. (Photo Credit: Agnieszka Jakubowicz Photography)

Before the remodel, the home was 1,193 square feet with 3 bedrooms and 1¾ baths. It was crowded and dark inside, with no visual connection to the backyard. Due to drafty construction, poor insulation, and original single-pane windows, it was uncomfortable in winter and summer, and frequently rattled by noise from passing cars.

The house is now 1,767 square feet with 3 bedrooms and 2½ baths, with great indoor/outdoor connection via two large “lift-and-slide” doors to a sun-sheltered back deck, and a welcoming entry porch in front. It’s filled with glare-free daylight and optimized to Passive House performance, the world’s highest standards for health, comfort, quiet, and efficiency. Traffic noise is a thing of the past, the interior is profoundly peaceful and quiet.

Before: 1,193 SF 3 BR/1¾ BA. After: 1,767 SF 3 BR/2½ BA

We’ve spent nearly two decades designing high-performance homes in California, optimizing both performance and cost. 2½ inches of rigid insulation on the walls and roof, high-performance doors and windows, careful attention to air-sealing and shading, and a centralized ventilation system were the main upgrades from code. Efficient equipment, appliances, and lighting completed our approach to this home, which is now one of the highest performing in the state of California. The added cost was between 10 and 15 percent above a code-minimum project of similar quality, as we typically see in our projects.

The ventilation system provides outstanding indoor air quality and can deliver clean air even during wildfire smoke emergencies. The owners report no dust in their home, and that seasonal allergies are a thing of the past. Due to its exemplary efficiency, the home achieves net zero energy, including car charging, with a typical 8 kW solar system. Two Tesla Powerwalls are sufficient to fully operate the home for several days during grid outages.

Measured data shows very low and consistent monthly energy demand, ideal for solar. This home, which has zero net annual energy use, including electric vehicle charging, produces more energy than it consumes from April through September.

While solar and batteries definitely have their place, without improved home performance they’re not cost-effective at delivering the housing of the future. Nor do they directly improve comfort, quiet, or air quality on their own. Coupled with a high-performance home, however, they create an inspiring example of state-of-the-art housing for 21st century living.

Graham Irwin, AIA, NCARB, is the principal of Essential Habitat Architecture (www.essentialhabitat.com), a California design firm dedicated to distinctive, modern, high-performance homes

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