Entrepreneur Turns House Into Solar Showcase

Behind its historic stucco-and-timber facade is hidden an array of state-of-the art technologies that makes the sandy brown structure one of the greenest buildings on the planet.

At first glance, Marc Porat's Palo Alto house might resemble a number of other 1936 English Tudor Revival gems tucked into the leafy neighborhoods of the Bay Area's pricier communities.

But a closer look reveals that his multimillion-dollar home is a unique blend of old and new. Behind its historic stucco-and-timber facade is hidden an array of state-of-the art technologies that makes the sandy brown structure one of the greenest buildings on the planet.

Porat, a green-technology entrepreneur, is on a mission to massively reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions in buildings, and he hopes to lead by example.

His home has been retrofitted to be carbon neutral, meaning all of its energy comes from renewable sources. His monthly electric bill has been cut from $500 to $100, and when solar panels are installed on the roof, his utility bill will be reduced to almost nothing.

Porat's home will then qualify as one of about 100 so-called net-zero energy homes in the United States. And he's predicting that many other homeowners will be able to achieve similar results in the next decade for a fraction of the $120,000 he's spending to make his home energy efficient.

"This was created as an R&D project to inspire and teach others what can be done,'' Porat said during a tour of his house. "My hope is that throughout the country, this will be the normal way you retrofit houses. The technology and materials we used are the same for new homes, too.''

Visually, the "new normal" is hard to detect inside or outside the 2,780-square-foot home, which was precisely Porat's goal. The two-story stucco and timber house with a pitched roof was created by renowned artist and architect Pedro de Lemos, who designed several buildings in downtown Palo Alto. He also was one of the founders of the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park.

"It's a very romantic, artistic and idiosyncratic house,'' said Porat, who bought it in 2007 for $2.1 million. "I wanted to do a demonstration project on how to do a zero-energy house, and I wanted it to be something with historical significance, and Pedro de Lemos qualifies for that. I knew the collision between historical and net-zero would be interesting.''

Sometimes that collision results in a tear-down, but Porat thinks destroying existing houses and starting from scratch is not a good solution.

So he hired historic preservationist Lynn Kingsbury, who has been renovating historic buildings since the 1980s, to serve as the project's manager. Matt Golden, president and founder of Sustainable Spaces, a San Francisco home energy-performance and retrofitting company, also worked on the project.

"Marc is on the cutting edge,'' Golden said. "He let us implement the system we have always dreamed about for our type of climate. This was always the Holy Grail.''

The project began with a budget of $100,000 and an energy audit of the four-bedroom, three-bathroom home. The first step was to reduce the amount of energy used in the home by 60 percent by improving the insulation, lighting and appliances. Next came installing a highly efficient electric system to replace the original natural gas water heater and furnace. The final step will be solar panels, which are scheduled to be installed soon. Porat also plans to install a solar thermal unit to provide hot water.

Porat will not be living "off the grid,'' however. He decided to get 50 percent of his electricity from his power company, which in his case is the City of Palo Alto Utilities. The energy comes from PaloAltoGreen, the utility's voluntary program that offers energy generated from wind and solar power resources at an additional cost of 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

The other 50 percent of Porat's electricity will come from solar panels. On sunny days, those panels will feed more energy to the grid than Porat uses. For that, he'll receive credits from the utility. At night and in winter, he'll be able to apply those credits against his utility bills.

"The way buildings are designed today is really wasteful,'' Porat said. "They could be easily designed and retrofitted to use 20 to 30 percent less energy at very little expense to the homeowner, if any. This lowers energy bills and dramatically reduces carbon. It's a double win, and we as a nation should do it."

Porat has been a pioneer in green technology. Since 2002, he has founded and serves as chairman of three companies focused on reducing energy consumption and mitigating climate change.

One of those companies, Sunnyvale-based Serious Materials, is a leading manufacturer of sustainable building materials, such as drywall and energy-saving windows. Another, Newark-based CalStar Products, manufactures high-performance, sustainable low-carbon dioxide materials, including bricks, roof tiles and concrete. The third company, San Francisco-based Zeta Communities, manufactures residential and commercial net-zero energy structures.

Both Porat and Golden say many of the energy-efficient changes implemented at his historic Palo Alto home can be done by many homeowners on limited budgets.

"The point is that the first $10,000 or $15,000 is very, very cost-effective and everybody should do it,'' Porat said. With more builders and contractors getting involved in these projects, the costs for labor and materials will come "way down,'' he said.

For now, he said, homeowners can reduce their energy consumption 20 to 30 percent just by sealing air ducts, upgrading insulation, using more efficient heating and cooling systems, and installing high-efficiency windows, better lighting and appliances.

"Twenty to 30 percent is a cakewalk,'' Porat said, adding that even a 50 percent energy savings is realistic for most people. Beyond that, he said, "you have to be a bit adventuresome.''

By Tracy Seipel