The iconoclastic owner of the San Jose tract home featured in this article takes exception to the notion that green is expensive. Green, to him, is rooted in conservation of all resources, not the least of them being money.
Frank Schiavo’s compact, tract-built, three-bedroom ranch-style home in a modest San Jose neighborhood demonstrates that remodeling to create a cutting-edge green home is neither difficult nor expensive. Heated with sunlight and cooled by night air, his home is comfortable, quiet and tasteful, filled with light and local art. With only modest investments in a sun room, extra insulation, new windows, a very small array of rooftop photovoltaic and solar hot water panels, his electricity bill for the coldest, cloudiest months of the year averages a few dollars a month. His gas bill is even more modest.
What’s most impressive about Schiavo’s house isn’t that it’s so comfortable and practical for him to own, it’s that it demonstrates that lofty resource conservation goals can be achieved on a modest remodeling budget.
Passive Solar Energy is Inexpensive
Schiavo’s remodel performs so well, and for so little, because it focuses on conservation, not features. San Jose has plenty of sun, so Schiavo’s house exploits passive solar design. First, Schiavo thoroughly insulated. Next, he added heat-collecting thermal mass (in the form of a small sunroom addition) to store heat energy in the winter and stabilize temperatures. In the summer, he stores the cool of the night air. Interior walls sport an unusual finish detail that, at first brush, appears to have been motivated by modernist aesthetics. Stacks of black, rectangular solids suggestive of consumer electronics protrude from interior walls extending from the floor to chair-rail height. As Schiavo explains, these are actually five gallon metal cans that have been painted black and fitted into steel support racks in key wall sections. The cans are filled with water, which has terrific thermal mass for its weight and volume. Many of these cans are situated in an interior wall that separates the interior from a south-facing sunroom. The water-filled cans store heat in the winter (and the cool of night air in the summer) and release it into the interior of his house.
Passive Solar Heating/Cooling: Operating the House
In the winter and early spring, Schiavo lowers special insulated doors in his sunroom, exposing the water-filled cans. Sun enters the windows of the sunroom and heats the brick-in-sand floor. The warm air in the sunroom then heats the water-filled cans. At night, Schiavo closes the insulated doors, and the water-filled cans radiate heat back into his house. This is an implementation of a passive solar Trombe Wall.
An added benefit of the sunroom space is that it makes an ideal place to hang laundry to dry. Schiavo admits he does use his gas dryer: about a minute or two per load, with no heat, to fluff-up his clothes and remove lint.
A sustainability activist, passive solar design consultant, and retired environmental studies instructor from San Jose State University, Schiavo doesn’t shrink from publicity. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News (4/5/2008, Is that a lion in the yard? S.J. fence-mural draws second looks) covers the extensive mural in Schiavo’s front and side yards, painted by a friend.
Schiavo first found the public eye in a well-publicized struggle with his local garbage company. Through a combination of disciplined purchasing habits, composting in his yard, and extensive recycling, he has virtually ceased to produce any trash. For years, he continued to pay the local garbage company for a service he wasn’t using. The mayor of San Jose found out and ordered the garbage company to stop billing him. His example led to the City’s composting program, run, incidentally, by a former student.
If you live near San Jose, you can see Schiavo’s house and mural at 1186 Bayard Drive. Look for footprints painted on the sidewalk, position your feet in them, and watch mural, building and landscaping meld into one large piece of art.
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