Energy Equilibrium

David Baker’s Zero Cottage is a passive house in a dense urban area.

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Built in place of a stable that stood in his compound, David Baker’s Zero Cottage, with a salvaged metal facade, generates its own solar energy.

Courtesy Matthew Millman

Architect David Baker, unlike the cobbler whose children had no shoes, has been building for himself since 1999—he has kept the Shotwell Compound he lives in mostly under construction, until quite recently. It’s on a block in the northern section of San Francisco’s Mission District, a formerly rough neighborhood that is now a gentrifying, Tartine Bakery–supporting hipster haven where Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, purchased a home late last year. For Baker, it is a site for experimentation, play, and risk taking—all in the name of building just the right home for himself.

Zero Cottage, a certified passive house, is his latest and most ambitious project in the compound. To achieve the net-zero standard, “if you take the rigorous position, you produce as much energy on site as you use,” Baker says. Typically, architects aren’t so rigorous—as Baker explains, people get pretty close, then bump it up to perfect standard not through architecture, environmental engineering, or design, but instead by purchasing generation credits for the energy their buildings do require. Zero Cottage, on the other hand, actually produces its own energy.

In keeping with the weathered aesthetic of the cottage, the living areas on the second floor—which include a kitchen and work space, as well as a comfortable, informal seating area—use a variety of reclaimed materials and vintage pieces. An unusual ladder, with split and staggered rungs, serves as a staircase to the levels above. The first floor is a woodshop that Baker uses for making models and furniture.

Courtesy Matthew Millman

In 1999, Baker first got a variance to build a cottage where there used to be an old stable, but let it expire. He renewed it and moved ahead with the project before the variance expired a second time. “The whole complex is really a design lab—it’s where I get to do things that you don’t get to do in big projects because they might fail,” he says. “I decided to see how far I could push energy efficiency, and right about then was when people started talking about passive housing.” There was a lot of general skepticism about the prospect of doing high-density urban buildings that could be net-zero.


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