Solar Living Center

Hissing up northbound 101 on a wet spring day, the first visible sign of the Real Goods Solar Living Center is a windmill of the rustic American farm variety overlooking an array of gleaming, futuristic blue-black solar panels. A nod to the past situated above a reach toward the future, or the technology of tomorrow supporting the practices of the past? Either interpretation is correct. At the Solar Living Center day-trippers, students, idea entrepreneurs and off-grid homesteaders will all find something to love in the Solar Living Institute’s philosophy of a harmonized low-tech/high concept partnership.

Located in tiny Hopland, 100 miles north of San Francisco in the green valleys of Mendocino’s Coastal Ranges, the Solar Living Center is headquarters for both the nonprofit Solar Living Institute and its commercial-yet-conscious progenitor, Real Goods. Established in 1978, Real Goods sold the first retail solar panel in the United States and continues to lead the way in providing solar living products and outfitting customers with anything they need to live remotely and sustainably. In 1991 Real Goods founder John Schaeffer started the Institute for Independent Living to move beyond the provisioning of goods to the purveyance of ideas. Rechristened the Solar Living Institute in 1998, it trains professionals in the use of solar technology, offers workshops for sustainable living, hosts field trips for students groups, and through its internship program provides immersive learning experiences for future leaders in sustainability.

Even for those incidental visitors not particularly armed with high-minded intentions, the Center’s shade trees, ponds and Mediterranean orchards offer an inviting stop-off for repowering the soul. The watercourses, living structures and general site design seem whimsical despite being components of a meticulously and ingeniously designed mechanism for low-impact living that maximizes quality of life. The 12-acre site functions as a power source, organic food provider, clean water source, calendar and clock. Originally a Caltrans debris field containing highway rubble and exactly two trees, over the course of two-and-a-half years Schaeffer and his team of highly regarded architects and designers transformed the twelve-acre site into a verdant model of intentional living. “The site is built around the sun,” explains Sean Spicer, Real Goods’ enthusiastic Director of Operations. And this assertion couldn’t be more literally true.

Laid out with careful attention to the sun’s movements, each element is oriented against the four points of the compass; nothing is haphazardly placed.The focal point of the site is the Oasis Fountain, from where wind and sun-pumped water flows through a spiral course whose waterforms serve to aerate and clean the water for irrigating the Center’s organic crops. Eighty percent of the Solar Living Center’s plantings produce edible or otherwise useful crops and are oriented in the site as they would be on the planet in miniature, with a Northern Woods of evergreens situated against the northern perimeter, Mediterranean Chaparral to its south and the Olive Bosque in the southernmost position. The Real Goods Store is a curved, sloping structure that resembles the large side of a chambered nautilus, wrapping around the fountain’s north edge. The fountain and the structures surrounding it form a large solar calendar. A smaller-scale Stonehenge for an observer in its center, architectural markers indicate points of sunrise and sunset for each of the solstices and the equinoxes.

Everything at the Solar Living center serves an educational purpose and the Real Goods Store is no exception. In addition to housing the store’s solar sales center and wide array of goods (from “Bless This Home” garden stones to solar ovens and even an organic wine tasting room), the structure itself is a showcase for responsible design. Employing “passive solar design,” the showroom’s shape, construction materials, and orientation to the sun make conventional heating and cooling systems unnecessary. The thick walls are built of highly insulating straw bales, storing heat in the winter and maintaining a cool interior in the summer. Not only is the store the first commercial straw bale construction, it also initiated the use of remilled wood in its construction twenty years ago, something commonplace today, thanks to techniques developed for this project. The fly ash concrete floors are made from reclaimed coal plant ash mixed with rubble, further enhancing its insulating capabilities. The south-facing windows provide heat in the winter and ample natural light year-round. The sloping ceiling, hemp awnings and opening windows allow for regulating the indoor temperature during the summer heat. Real Goods’ Spicer testifies to the efficiency of the passive solar construction, recounting a day last summer when temps reached 107 degrees outside and customers kept cool in the Store’s 70-degree interior, without the assistance of one electrical system. As for Northern California winters without central heating? “We burned one cord of wood in the wood stove all winter.” And the building did the rest.

These features may pass unappreciated to the casual visitor, but the showroom’s built-in solar clock is sure to impress even the most jaded and unobservant. Like a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a construction of prisms inset in the ceiling tracks the sun’s movement across the showroom floor, marking solar noon daily with a white beam while rainbow projections delineate seasonal points of the solar calendar.

Down the hill from the Real Goods Store, at the southern end of the property, stands the Hybrid House, a work in progress and training tool that exemplifies the principles of natural building. Another indication that the old ways can often guide the new, the house is constructed of cob. Cob is an ancient building material composed of straw, earth and water. Inexpensive, readily available, and free of industrial pollutants, it is an amazingly strong and versatile material. While it has the virtue of being fireproof and earthquake resistant, cob is less impervious to water. This is an advantage for low-impact construction and doesn’t pose too much difficulty for maintaining long-term structures since cob wear and tear is so easily repaired. So functional is cob that many of the center’s structures, the pump house and caretaker’s quarters for example, are made of the stuff. The cob structures all wear galvanized tin roofs with broad eaves to protect them from the rain. As with all the materials used in the Hybrid House, the tin is reclaimed. Glass bottles of different colors set directly into the cob let in parti-colored natural light. The combined material costs of the house tally up to only $900.

Solar 2000 – one of Northern California’s largest solar arrays – ranges along the Center’s southern boundary. The most visible feature of the Solar Living Center from the highway, it’s somehow much less dominant when experienced from the grounds. With the handful of SLI vehicles and equipment parked beneath the array’s angled panels they are relatively innocuous, more like carports or naked pergolas. After all they emit no noise, no smoke, and no smell – attributes we frequently associate with power plants. In many ways the array is the heart of the Center, capturing the energy that funds the Solar Living Institute. Solar 2000 was conceived and constructed as a joint project between Real Goods, GPU Solar, Green Mountain Energy and the Solar Living Institute. Its 43,000 single crystal silicon cells deliver 160,000 kWh of energy each year, energy that the Institute sells back to the grid through Green Mountain to fund its education initiatives.


The Solar Living Institute takes its mission of education seriously. The Center is accessible to visitors for free self-guided explorations 362 days out of the year (it’s closed on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day), and guided tours are available from April through October (donations suggested). It hosts tours geared toward school children as well as more technical tours for professionals led by senior staff. But its mission of education only starts with its tours. SLI offers technical training programs for professionals, and lectures, tours and workshops on a variety of sustainable living topics at locations throughout Northern California. From certification courses in photovoltaic installation to instruction in raising backyard goats and chickens, the Solar Living Institute’s instructional range reflects the value it places on both traditional wisdom and well-conceived technology for sustainable living.

Perhaps the most intensive training that SLI provides is through its internship program. For seven months each year the Center hosts teams of interns and a pair of caretakers who maintain the site, lead tours, host workshops, garden, landscape, assist with marketing efforts and generally lend a hand where they are needed. Living what they learn and learning what they live, interns participate in SLI’s training programs while passing their knowledge on to visitors and implementing their skills at the Center.

Interns live communally onsite in the Intern Village, a cluster of yurt bunkhouses and several cob structures, including a cob-constructed open-air oven and the most wonderfully peculiar of the cob buildings, the shower house. With its dome shape, open air transoms, limed interior walls and tiled floors the shower house calls to mind something both ancient and futuristic, a Flintstones bathroom or Luke Skywalker’s living room on Tatooine.

The SLI Interns are key contributors to the Solar Living Institute’s mission and demonstrate significant commitment during the length of their internships. Many, like this season’s Caretakers, Myryra Grace and Quynton McDonald, bring with them considerable expertise. Living off the grid since she was a child, Myrya has experience in nutrition, animal husbandry and permaculture, while Quynton, with a degree in Renewable Energy, is already well trained in engineering and biofuels. The internship is a significant aspect of the Institute’s training mission. With the breadth of their experience and depth of their training in sustainable living these young people will transmit knowledge while they put what they’ve learned to use in their future professional and personal lives.

Despite nestling right up against the 101, there is little sense of the adjacent busy highway from within the Solar Living grounds. This is due in part to the intentional sound and sight barriers – the strawbale “Great Wall of Hopland,” the earthen berms, the surprisingly tall trees that were saplings just twenty years ago. Luckily it’s a barrier that is not impermeable to ideas or people. The Real Goods Solar Living Center opened its gates on the summer solstice of 1996 with three days of events that attracted 12,000 people. 200,000 continue to visit each year. Tracing the boundary, Spicer leads the way through the trees to one of his favorite displays, the Memorial Car Grove, where rusted shells of classic American gas guzzlers have become planters for the trees and shrubs growing through them. Weathered to the point that they resemble terra cotta representations of cars, they are literally being devoured by trees.

In its efforts to construct the space thoughtfully, the Solar Living Institute necessarily abandoned convention for a more thoroughgoing form of efficacy. Innovation – doing the commonplace differently – is so much a part of The Solar Living Center’s reason for being that as a work in progress it was continually at odds with codes that weren’t written to accommodate what SLI was doing. Even the automobile planters were a point of contention and to Spicer they are emblematic of the disconnect that once existed, but has since been erased. In the process of creating the Solar Living Center new norms were created. “(SLI) fought like hell to do what we did, but now the government comes to us to learn how to do it.”

Joe O’Donnell
Photos by Stephen Zeigler

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