by Lance A. Williams, Ph. D., LEED AP
On the urban design front, Brian Kite’s expertise in high-density transit oriented development is widely recognized with key mixed-use projects along the Vermont corridor and in downtown from Chinatown to University Park. Kite is President and Managing Principal of SRK Architects Inc., a downtown Los Angeles architectural, engineering and interior design firm specializing in sustainable high technology projects.
His recent portfolio of sustainable projects include work on the AltaSea for the Annenberg Foundation at Port of Los Angeles; and a 23,000 acre sustainable master plan in the Coachella Valley. Kite’s entrée into energy efficiency projects was the 1 million square foot renovation of Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX while employed at Leo A. Daly Architects. The project was the first LEED-rated airport terminal renovation, and was completed in 2010.
Kite’s own off-grid, net zero home project in central California was completed in 2007. It was featured at the 2008 Annual Metropolitan Water Districts Green Conference and is the core subject of the conversation below. Read More
In 2006 Kite bought a 13-acre property on raw land in central California, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range where he built a vacation home. The site had no municipal water or gas and the nearest power grid was a half-mile away.
Pursuing an off-grid strategy, he decided to go with a combination of solar panels on the roof, and passive natural ventilation in the building design. The photovoltaic panels on the roof faced south and generated a DC-based power system using inverters to convert to AC power that was maintained in an onsite battery storage system.
“Because it was a large property, I was able to drill my own well and interconnect the solar power system with the well pump. In essence, the project became a completely self-contained single family two bedroom, two bath residence of about 1200 square feet with no utility bill whatsoever,” said Kite.
Kite noted the unique characteristics of the energy component, based on storage capacity. “The storage of electricity is an evolving technology. I plugged into the existing battery storage technology and utilized the available product resources. I had to replace the batteries every five years or so,” he noted.
A standby propane-fueled generator was available in hot summer months or cold rainy days in the event of peak loads. Kite learned many lessons along the way. “It was really a combination of the active storage system, the inverters, and the backup that allowed me to build and operate this home.”
Kite described the project as, “A really wonderful experiment in alternate forms of living. Being completely off grid was exhilarating because my only gauge for non-energy use was that when it was silent in the house, it meant that there was no generator running and the lights were on day and night.” He was able to complete the project on budget.
Kite owned that property for nine years and sold it last year. “It is still in continuous use for its intended purposes and has not changed much since then,” he stated.
The spark for the initial project was driven by the cost of the utilities. Kite said that he was initially thinking about sustainability, but not off-grid sustainability. “It’s a very different proposition,” he observed.
As for the design, Kite called it a bar house – meaning that it was just a long and rectangular house. It was designed to have open spaces in the middle of the house and bedrooms and bathrooms at either end.
As a vacation house there was the opportunity to have more than one group of people there at the same time. There were two master bedroom suites at either end of the bar and living space in between that constituted the kitchen, living room and dining areas.
“The orientation of the house was east-west and allowed me to have natural ventilation sources through the short end of the bar. On the north side of the house was a series of sliding glass doors that could be opened or closed at will and a high ventilation system on the south end that would restrict the amount of light and heat gain that would come through from the south but that would allow a pressure differential in the house that would draw cool air through the house at all times of the year,” said Kite.
The other main component of the house was that the air conditioning system was a highly efficient heat pump system, a ductless split system that operated in the high space of the living area. The middle space was the main living area and could be completely zoned off from the bedrooms and bathrooms. As a result, they could be cooled completely independently.
On cold winter nights or hot summer evenings, one could close off the bedrooms and naturally ventilate the bedrooms with ceiling fans and windows on three sides. Kite was able to naturally ventilate and only cool the center portion of the house in the summer, and allow heat through the split system as well as a ventilated fireplace.
The heating system was created through the main ductless heating pump system as well as the ventilated fireplace. Kite built the house to be over-insulated. “The walls were built of 2x8s; so I achieved extra insulation in the walls and all elements of the house could be completely sealed. It was a highly efficient thermal enclosure and allowed me to basically restrict the times that the standby generator would ever go on; only in extreme hot or cold weather conditions,” noted Kite.
Throughout the Fall and Spring seasons, the house would be naturally ventilated and the energy use would be very low. “The other thing is that an off-grid home requires you to have daily energy management so I was able to read from within the house the amount of battery draw so if for some reason there was not enough sun or not enough heat, I could actually modulate many aspects of the home including the ventilation system.
“Daily reads of the battery draw allowed me to modulate thermal conditions based on the time of day and it was really a greener way of living. When I lived there for extended periods of time it became a factor of how you lived. You would store heat as best you could in winter conditions and it was really a wonderful experiment in how to live green,” noted Kite.
The most important thing according to Kite was that “When there was no generator on you knew you were living green. And because there was no utility bill, you were reminded that you were living green. By and large, I suffered very little for being off-grid other than having to replace the batteries every five years or so,” Kite further noted.
Lessons learned: “I think that the microcosm of my off-grid house was a great opportunity for over time to assess the potential for ZNE construction on a mass scale. Obviously a single family home is a single increment of construction for a specific purpose and the larger question of how to build single-family residential houses in a tract could very easily be done on a net zero basis if the system is on grid.
“There are many other methods and the question gets down to how much inter-operability of systems is legitimate and reasonable in a living environment; how much can the occupants be expected to manage their energy use on a passive basis,” said Kite.
One important lesson is the responsibility placed on occupants to manage their living conditions. “It pus a lot of pressure on the occupants to be effective energy managers. As the cost of energy continues to go up, the necessity and the willingness of people to embed that into their thinking, into their daily lives…it’s is no different than grabbing a raincoat and an umbrella on a rainy day at some levels.
“It’s really just managing your environmental conditions; in this case it’s the environmental conditions created by the shelter that you live in. And within the 24-hour cycle it’s day to evening. It depends on the climate that you’re in. In southern California, we don’t have temperature extremes. In colder climates zero net energy has certain types of potential at one level and other types of potential at another level,” according to Kite.
The whole purpose is to modulate the environmental conditions to the point of insignificance by the simple application of recognizing that your body is the receptor. “If you’re hot, you want to cool down; if you’re at home, you can take a few seconds and open two or three windows. It becomes like putting on or taking off shoes. It becomes part of the whole living system,” he said.
Kite noted a key difference between off-grid and on-grid energy management. “In an on-grid system the back-up generator and the storage medium is not necessary. It’s maintained through the power grid.
“What that allows you to do is disconnect that last resort from the equation, meaning that if you’re not able to generate enough electricity and moving toward clean power through photovoltaic generation of electricity is a key part, you can get it from the sun and convert it. If you can run your meter backward and reduce the amount of energy to near zero and utilize features that offset whatever energy that you do use, that’s how you get to net zero.”