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Solar Living Center

Credits: ©2010 Solar Living Institute

Real Goods Trading Corporation, a distributor of energy conservation and self-sufficiency products, wanted a showroom to mirror its retailing ethic. The resulting building resembles a curved bird wing with stepping roofs where clerestory windows capture the varying hourly and seasonal angles of the sun. The entire facility is set up in a curved plan that looks like a sundial with a curved courtyard evoking the closed loops of a sustainable system.


Solar Living Center Interior

The indoor environmental features of the Real Goods Solar Living Center Retail Showroom include operable windows and clerestory windows that allow for natural ventilation as well as daylight distribution throughout the showroom. ©2010 Richard Barnes

The Solar Living Center is located in a climate zone with extreme summer and winter temperatures. Even though the building has no mechanical heating or cooling system, the interior temperature stays in the 70s F year-round. In the winter months, the low sun penetrates deep into the building to provide warmth and light. In the summer, overhangs and awnings control solar gain. Operable windows with low-e glazing allow natural ventilation and help to reduce heat gain.

The building's curved back wall is constructed of rice-straw bales covered with "gunearth." The locally produced, glue-lam roof structure is made from salvaged fir and the roofing membrane is made from recycled car tires. The floor slab and columns contain fly-ash in place of some energy-intensive Portland cement. A solar-powered pump moves water through the site for irrigation and summer cooling. Constructed wetlands capture rainwater. Native and drought-tolerant plantings attract pollinating insects, birds, and animals, and provide a beautiful and educational environment for human visitors.

The center's energy-production system, connected to the electric grid, generates ten kilowatts of photovoltaic power and three kilowatts of wind power a day, more than enough to power the site. Extra energy is sold to the local energy company.

The Center’s main showroom was designed by architect Sim Van der Ryn of Sausalito, California. His associate, David Arkin, served as project architect and Jeff Oldham of Real Goods managed the building of the project. Their creation is a tall and gracefully curving single story building which is so adept in its capture of the varying hourly and seasonal angles of the sun that additional heat and light are nearly unnecessary. During the summer months, the building is kept cool through a combination of overhangs and manually controlled hemp awnings. Cool night air floods the building and is stored as "coolth" in the six-hundred tons of thermal mass of the building's columns, floor, and strawbale walls. Outside, grape arbors shield the building from the intense summer sun and a central fountain with "drip ring" provides evaporative cooling.

Visitors to the Solar Living Center can experience the practicality of numerous applications of solar power, including the generation of electricity and solar water pumping. The electrical system for the facility comprises 10 kilowatts of photovoltaic power and three kilowatts of wind generated power. The Institute is also home to Solar 2000, one of northern California's largest grid-tied solar arrays. Solar 2000 allows the Solar Living Institute to sell more than 160,000 kWh of clean renewable energy back into the grid annually.

At the Solar Living Center, 80% of the plantings produce edible and/or useful crops. Plantings are utilized to maximize energy efficiency while portraying the dramatic aspects of the solar year. The Center is landscaped as a microcosm of the Planet with the Northern Forest laden with evergreens in the North leading to the Mediterranean Chaparral of the sub tropics all the way down to the Olive Bosque in the South highlighting features from around the globe.

The Solar Living Center's garden follows the Sun's journey through the seasons, with zones planted to represent the ecosystems of different latitudes. Trees are planted to indicate the four cardinal directions. The fruit garden, perennial beds, herbs, and grasses reflect the abundance and fertility of a home based garden economy.

Unique to the Center’s gardens is a series of "Living Structures" which reveal architectural gestures. Through annual pruning, plants are coaxed into various dynamic forms, such as the willow dome, the hops tipi, the bamboo pyramid and the agave cooling tower., where overheated visitors stroll through a gentle mist under the shade of vines, New Zealand flax and agave plants. Another unusual and inspirationally educational feature is the "memorial car grove," where the rusting hulks of 50s and 60s "gas hog" cars have been turned into planter boxes for trees and flowers! These ‘grow-through cars’ are a fitting counterpoint to the ‘drive through’ redwood tree a hundred miles north.

In case this all sounds too serious, it should be pointed out that the SLC is a wonderful place to play! The site features interactive recreational areas, including a sand and water area, where a solar powered pump provides a water source which can then be channeled, diverted, dammed and flooded through whatever sandy topography has been constructed. Block the sun reaching the solar panel and you stop the flow of water!