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Green Building Blog

Santa Cruz Straw Bale

Net-zero energy use and whimsical details shine in a new family home

Arkin Tilt Architects designed this house for two university professors and their family. The resource-efficient straw-bale construction and net-zero energy use reflect the homeowners’ environmental sensibilities. The smart plan suits the infill building site as well as the couple’s active lifestyle, and the fun, vibrant details reflect their personalities. Few houses work this hard. (photo taken at A on floor plan)
Image Credit: Edward Caldwell

As a rule, we make sure our clients are interested in sustainability and design in equal parts, and ideally, our clients are also fun, intelligent, and engaged. When we met Bernie and Erika at a cafe near our office four years ago, our firm was incredibly busy, and it didn’t seem possible to add another project to our schedule. When the couple described their goals for the house and their property two blocks from the ocean in an eclectic neighborhood in Santa Cruz, Calif., we hesitated. “I’ll tell you what,” Bernie said. “We’ll throw in family surfing lessons.” How could we refuse an offer like that?

Professors of biology and environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz with four children, Erika and Bernie have an active family life as well as being engaged with the outside world: their community, their professional lives, and the health of the earth. We wanted to provide a fun, comfortable house for their family while pushing the ecological envelope.

While in a dense neighborhood, the site is bordered on the west by a lively public park that follows a creek to the nearby ocean. Although the park is narrow, it provides mature sycamore trees to the west, long vistas to the southwest, and easy access to the surf.

Early design feedback leads to a winning plan

After gathering information on the site and the program needs, we quickly explored several design options with the family. On any given site, there are many different ways to solve the same problems, and looking at options makes us think more broadly about the possibilities. The idea, of course, is not that the clients pick one of these initial plans but that they give us detailed feedback on each so…

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