The Bay Area prides itself on being at the forefront of technological development, especially technology that promotes sustainability and conservation. As a proud Bay Area company, Climb is delighted to be taking part in a remarkable sustainable living project: Sol-Lux Alpha, located at 685 Florida Street. The name breaks down like this: “Sol”, as in powered completely by the Sun, “Lux” for the ultimate in sustainable luxury and energy security, and “Alpha” because it is the first such structure to be offered in the residential real estate market in the United States.

San Francisco’s first multi-unit Passive House, this six story apartment complex in Mission Creek is designed to generate all the energy it uses through rooftop solar panels. The system inside even allows future residents to sell any excess energy back to the local grid! We spoke to the designer of the building system, John Sarter of Off the Grid Design LLC, about Sol-Lux Alpha and the challenges facing sustainable design and construction:

Climb: What is the meaning of Net Zero Energy?

John: A Net Zero Energy (NZE) building or home produces as much energy as it uses. Net Positive (N+E) means that structure produces more energy than it uses, for export to the local grid or for use in charging of electric vehicles on site. In our development model, enough renewable energy is stored within the building for the it to run without grid power for extended, and even indefinite, periods of time.

At Sol Lux Alpha, the residents will have a suite of tools that tells them what their energy use is currently, historically, and as projected based on current usage. We’ve done all we can to get them to N+E, but ultimately they will need to care about that and consider their personal energy use wisely.

Climb: Compared to Europe, the US has very little Passive Housing. What are the obstacles that have prevented Passive Housing growth in the US?

John: The US has not traditionally been concerned with efficiency as energy has been abundant and relatively inexpensive for us. Now that there is a better understanding of the consequences of wasting energy, there are concerted efforts towards making homes and buildings more efficient, and towards the development of NZE.

The California Public Utilities Commission in fact has a mandate that all new homes be NZE by 2020. Passive House structures use 80 to 90% less energy for heating and cooling, thereby making it less expensive for a home or building to achieve NZE use. Passive House (PH) levels of efficiency are actually easier to attain in multi-unit buildings as well. PH is an essential “building block” to cost effective and highly efficient NZE and N+E buildings.

Climb: Other than the solar panels, what materials/construction methods make Sol-Lux Alpha so energy efficient? 

John: The solar panels don’t actually make the building efficient, but as very efficient panels they will produce the energy to power these ultra-high efficiency homes and EVs.

The ultra-high output SunPreme bi-facial PV panels produce up to 30% more energy than standard panels. Raising them high above the roof deck to create a beautiful filtered light on the deck/lounge increases that bi-facial effect even further.

The PV array also serves as a water catchment system, providing irrigation water for the planters and vertical gardens in the light wells. It could also be used as potential emergency water during natural disasters.

105 Kwh of energy storage (ES) in the building system enables arbitrage of energy, (powering up at low cost and exporting Solar energy at peak demand times), reducing costs and maximizing benefits to the HOA and home owners.

To put 105 Kwh of ES in perspective, our energy storage system will have the capacity of 15 Tesla Powerwalls, and the continuous power output of about 32 Tesla Powerwalls. Instead of providing “back up” energy only for critical appliances and circuits as the Tesla system does, our battery system can run the entire home, (excluding the clothes dryer and oven, which are high energy users). So, in the event of a power outage, you might have to air dry your clothes and cook with the induction range and microwave, but all other functions would remain intact, including level 1 (120 volt) electric vehicle charging.

Each of the four units also has Integrated Level 2 (240 Volt) EV charging. Infrastructure is being provided for future Vehicle to Building (V2B) energy transfer. In this way, your EV becomes a mobile power source for your building power, and even for community power in times of need.

Passive House science and methodology reduces the energy needed for heating and cooling by 80 to 90%, while CO2 heat pump water heaters are about 50% more efficient than normal heat pump water heaters.

The building also has 100% L.E.D. lighting in the units and common areas, ultra-efficient traction drive regen elevator with L.E.D. lighting and auto light and fan shut off, and ultra-sonic motion detectors that shut off lights and plugs when you leave the room.

sol-lux alpha rendering 1

Climb: Is there an effort to make Passive House technology available to renters and buyers of all income levels, or will this technology only be available to wealthy customers? 

John: Passive House has already been successfully used in low income projects. The larger the project, the more economical it becomes. Energy storage and off-grid capability will eventually be available to all consumers — cities and communities will evolve into microgrid communities with many “prosumers” and different types of energy storage integrated into the systems.

Smaller scale energy storage systems are now being created by Tesla and other companies, but fully backed up “off grid” capable systems such as ours will remain expensive for quite some time. The costs of these technologies follows Moore’s Law to some degree, which means the electronics and battery technologies will continue to decrease in cost and increase in efficiency over time.

Also, when one considers the “pay back” and revenue streams associated with our system, the costs are actually recovered in quite a short period of time. 5 to 10 years is the range for now, depending on how your local energy company prices and pays you back for exported energy. Since we, the developers, are providing the system to the buyers, there is nothing but immediate savings and revenue from day one!

The US military are the forbearers of Microgrid systems technology for obvious reasons: they cannot afford systems to go down, period. We’re extending that security, quality, and continuity of power to our buildings, and the communities they will serve and be part of.

Climb: Where do you see Net-Positive Design going next? How long do you think it will be until these techniques are commonplace in housing construction? 

John: We are moving toward an “Internet of Energy” where “prosumers” will buy and sell energy in the community market place. This is already occurring here in California, and in other states that have progressive energy goals, like New York, New Hampshire, and believe it or not, Texas! San Francisco is currently launching California’s newest CCA, called CleanPower SF. It will be interesting to see how much of a FiT (Feed in Tariff) they will pay to prosumers of excess energy.

I estimate we are about 5 to 10 years away from Passive House techniques becoming mainstream and in some areas code required. However, if the CPUC mandates NZE by 2020, we will likely see many more designers and builders going this way sooner. It is far more cost effective to build a highly efficient building than to build an inefficient one and use more renewable energy systems to power it.

A more efficient build logically requires less renewable energy to become NZE or N+E. This is how we are able to build a 6 story building that will be N+E with PV panels completely within its own building’s “footprint”.

Another major goal for us is to show that this can be done not just by “breaking even” on the investment, but that this can be accomplished more profitably as well as more sustainably.

Otherwise, very few developers and businesses will go to the trouble to do it, until they are regulated into doing so. We will be asking the investors in this property to consider that this is far more than a real estate investment, it’s an investment in the future of Earth as we now know and love it. The people who value that investment are the people we want as our buyers and clients.

Climb: One of the many nice things about San Francisco is the temperate climate. Is this sort of construction also possible in cities or regions where the climate changes drastically from season to season? 

John: Yes, actually the modern Passive House, (Passivhaus) movement was created in Germany by a physicist named Wolfgang Feist. It is generally much colder in Germany than in the USA. Passive House structures actually save much more energy in harsher climates.

A Passive House works in any climate, and the energy use is the same (or less in some cases) per square foot in any Passive House. There is a “maximum energy” threshold per sq. meter, (or sq. foot).

Justin Fichelson, Climb’s listing agent at the Sol-Lux Alpha, added: “685 Florida is the perfect combination of ultra-luxury and sustainability. The finishes and design will be incomparable.”

Sol-Lux Alpha will be completed in the Fall of 2016. For more information, sign up for updates here.

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