Family enjoys simple living in efficient solar home

"I've been convinced for years," Bill Press explained as we toured the house tailored especially to his own family's needs, "that Americans consume far too much space and certainly too much energy in the way they live."

Consequently, when Bill and his wife, Carol, approached architect Alex Riley to design a home for them and their two sons, Mark, 10, and David, 7, they had some rather severe stipulations. They said they wanted a small, efficient, compact house that would nestle gently into the terrain they had purchased among the pine and redwood trees near Inverness, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area north of San Francisco.

They told Mr. Riley that they desired the very simplest kind of passive solar house and that they felt they could manage well with just one bathroom, two small bedrooms, one tiny study, and one more generous living-family-hobby room with a fireplace, and, of course, a kitchen-dining area.

What they got from Mr. Riley's drawing board was an unusual small house containing just 1,450 square feet of space, which steps gently down their slope, with rooms at four different levels.

The house, thanks to Mr. Riley's sensitivity to the site, leaves an open meadow intact at one side to be enjoyed as a visual extension of the interior. The fireplace in the living room, at the fourth level down, can be enjoyed from the open kitchen and dining area four steps above. A clerestory window at each step-down brings south light and sun into every space in the house.

This sun warmth is absorbed, throughout, by the poured concrete floors -- the only solar collector -- and then released at night. Otherwise, the only solar help comes from the use of double-glazed windows and four inches of fiberglass insulation in the walls.

"In terms of energy efficiency our house works perfectly," says Mr. Press, who was formerly Gov. Jerry Brown's director of the Office of Planning and Research in Sacramento and now is a commentator on Los Angeles station KABC-TV.

"We need to cooling in the summer because we have ocean breezes and cross ventilation and a deep roof overhang. We have been here two winters now and have had no heating bills at all. The house stays cozy, night and day, only from the floor-stored solar heat.

"We are required by the county building codes to put in a back-up heat system (radiant heat in the floor) when we built the house," Mr. Press explains, "but we have never used it, and have now disconnected it. We do have crackling fires in the fireplace every cool winter evening, as much for atmosphere as for warmth."

The architect, after considerable experimentation in the area, had come to the decision to reject mechanical solar collectors and other hardware usually attached to buildings, as well as masonry walls. Mr. Riley prefers, in this northern California setting, to use fir wood for structural members and cedar as interior trim, and says the mass of wood does participate somewhat in the collection of energy, as does the earth itself which is directly beneath the poured concrete slab floors.

Both Bill and Carol Press grew up on the East Coast, but in 1968, while living in San Francisco, they fell in love with the "summer town" of Inverness, and decided that one day they wanted to become one of the thousand or so people who make the resort area their permanent home.

The couple bought their property in 1975, and a few years later went to Alex Riley, "because his small houses do not impose themselves on the land and because we admired what we had seen him do with small space, and modest costs, for others." The small house that Mr. Riley conceived for them, of fir and cedar , cost about $96,000, not including land. The Presses declare this "a phenomenally low price in California today for a custom-built house, designed by an architect."

Mr. Riley, the architect, grew up on an Oregon farm and graduated from the University of Oregon. He is a master of wood, which he works in a contemporary way but with the influence, in his background, of Japanese architecture, early California architects Greene and Greene, Maybeck, and such present-day architects as Warren Callister, in whose office he worked.

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