Green Zero-Energy Family Home in Santa Cruz

How an unfussy, nearly zero-energy family home in Santa Cruz, California, wound up with hay bales in the walls, a state-of-the-art heat pump system, and six very happy residents.
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University of California, Santa Cruz, professors Bernie Tershy and Erika Zavaleta and their four kids didn’t physically move far when they built a new home a few blocks from the beach in Santa Cruz. But the result of their collaboration with the Berkeley-based architecture firm Arkin Tilt is leagues away from the constraining home they lived in for the past ten years. Their new abode is a marvel of green design, with a photovoltaic array on the roof, straw bales in the walls for insulation, and an open southern facade that embraces both a bustling backyard and a bucolic park.

As they began looking for architects, the couple imagined that they would have to push hard to get their green agenda into the home—seek a style, and then insert the substance. But a tour through Arkin Tilt’s website revealed not just a sustainable sympathy between designer and client, but a brand of modern architecture in which the couple could see themselves living. "When we were talking to architects about the design of the house and what we wanted, lots of them kept asking about the ‘look’ that we were after," says Zavaleta. "But we wanted a house that wasn’t a ‘look’; we wanted a house that actually is something. Arkin Tilt is interested in form, function, and structures that fit their sites."

With about two dozen straw-bale buildings on their résumé, David Arkin and Anni Tilt found a balance between passive design strategies—plenty of natural light, maximized winter sun, shaded harsh summer rays, and cross-ventilated breezes—and the latest in green technologies. But for all its light-on-the-land cred, the home succeeds because it so aptly suits its users. Surfboards festoon the deck, chickens peck in the yard, the kids turn flips on the trampoline, and the pair of academics finally have enough space for all their books. "Plus," as Tershy puts it, "everywhere you go in this house is really, really pretty."

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