Yellow Is the New Green
Architect James Phillip Wright has turned an Orinda landmark into a showcase for renewable energy.
James Phillip Wright stands in the Old Yellow House’s rafters beneath the photovoltaic skylights that improve the home’s energy efficiency.
Photos by Mitch Tobias
Orinda’s Old Yellow House is not what it seems. A neighborhood landmark, it has been perched on Moraga Way near the outlet to Monte Veda Drive for almost 130 years. Generations have driven past, perhaps pondering its story, as the yellow frontage faded to pink and the house slumped into ruin. But today, it stands reborn. The handsome facade belies the surgery it has undergone. The only clue to the surprises within is a strip of solar skylights worn proudly across its brown shake roof. Truth is, this old house is anything but ordinary. It holds secrets of the past and future: a historic home that aspires to create all the energy it uses and be both an ambassador for green architecture and a working laboratory for future energy-saving technologies.
Built in 1890 as accommodations for California and Nevada railroad workers, the yellow house originally had six bedrooms, no bathroom, just one closet, and two front doors (used to separate lower-class workers from upper-class ones). It wasn’t until 1918 that stonemason Charles Nelson made the building into a family home, outfitting it with a food-storage cellar, incinerator, and hand-dug well. After the Nelson children had grown and Charles’ wife, Karen, passed away in 1966, the house stood empty for nearly 50 years. It had been on the market for two decades when, in 2012, Orinda architect James Phillip Wright first walked through its weatherworn doors. “It was derelict and an absolute rat-infested teardown,” says Wright. “Any wise developer would have just destroyed it.”
But he had been waiting for a house like this for a long time. A specialist in sustainable architecture, Wright wanted to breathe renewable life into a property of the past while showcasing energy solutions of the future. So, he bought the Old Yellow House and embarked on an extensive renovation to achieve his dream.
When Wright began chainsawing off the house’s overhangs (thermal bridges that leached the outdoor temperature), passersby could be forgiven for thinking this was a full-scale demolition. Plank by plank, he dismantled the house. “I power washed the entire building, and afterward, I could smell the Sierra Mountains,” recalls Wright. “It was incredible.”
By sealing the house’s skeleton in plywood and then wrapping it in insulation and soundproofing (muffling the noise from the street), Wright made the building airtight. Striving to meet passive house standards—an energy-efficiency certification that means the remodeled building consumes about 90 percent less energy than it otherwise would have—the house now boasts thermal-bridge-free construction, energy-recovery ventilation, and high-performance insulation. “In my opinion, this is what the future of all dwellings is going to become,” says Wright, who trained as a passive house consultant at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
In 2015, the Old Yellow House renovation won a Green Building Award from Sustainable Contra Costa. Wright plans to add a Tesla
battery to store surplus solar energy generated in the summer months. But even without it, the house heats and cools itself most of the year. “This building runs off three fans six months a year and four fans during the cooling season,” explains Wright. “These fans consume 26 watts each. So, for the consumption of a 150-watt lightbulb, I heat and cool the building nine months a year.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Postsurgery, every piece of original molding and siding, and each double-hung window (complete with wavy panes of glass) was put back, preserving the house’s original aesthetic. Other reminders of the past make appearances throughout the interior, too. The warmth of old redwood and antique decor welcome guests, and vintage newspapers found below the original floor mattings now line the walls of the staircase.
Despite the nods to history, Wright’s quirky, innovative designs and sustainable treatments are everywhere. A living solar-shade evaporative cooler (made with local lichen) cools the bathroom, and a Japanese soaking tub is serenaded by the sound of water trickling through the original stone wall foundation. “I’m probably the first architect that embraced leaks in a house,” says Wright. “I can have wet walls inside an airtight envelope because it’s constantly being ventilated, so there’s no accumulation of moisture within the dwelling.”
At the apex of the house, the photovoltaic solar skylights (solar cells laminated between two sheets of glass, allowing natural light to filter in) take center stage, and the old redwood beams stand in stark contrast to the light-amplifying sheets of aluminum foil Wright has used to cover the interior roof.
While Wright often rents out the four upstairs bedrooms to short-term visitors and primarily keeps the fifth bedroom as his own private quarters, the sixth bedroom now serves as a portal to his working laboratory. More rocket ship than workshop, the space is flanked by huge metal ducts and pipes—the lungs of the house. They function as part of Wright’s fresh-air energy-recovery ventilation system, which helps to heat or cool the air flowing through the entire house.
From here, a modern glass staircase descends into the basement, wherein lies a great room encompassing Wright’s personal kitchen, den, theater, and most importantly, the 27-foot well. With a mesmerizing rainbow light changing the color of the water deep below, the upper part of the stone well has become the base for a round glass table. But its real job is far more crucial. The well is the heart of Wright’s patented geothermal ventilation system, which uses the Earth’s constant temperature for cooling and warming.
Frosted glass windows in the basement floor give a glimpse into the airtight chamber below, where 3,500 soda cans (yes, soda cans) snake around in a two-tiered labyrinth. Filled with sand, gravel, and water, the cans contain the thermal mass required to store warmth for an air-heated radiant floor, much like a Roman hypocaust.
SERVING THE COMMUNITY
Wright’s plan for the Old Yellow House doesn’t end with the green renovations he’s already made. On the property’s acre-plus of land, he is building a guesthouse (where he plans to live one day) out of recycled shipping containers and railroad tracks; an outdoor theater, using raised garden beds for seating; and a yoga site. Eventually, he hopes the house will host wellness retreats, complete with yoga, nutrition, and meditation workshops.
Wright has also applied for the building to be designated a cultural institute and museum. If the city of Orinda approves his application, the Old Yellow House will open for scheduled tours so the public can learn about its sustainable-energy enhancements.
“My purpose is to lock up this property in a land trust to prevent it from ever being sold, so that it can be used for community education and service,” says Wright, who last year received Orinda’s William Penn Mott, Jr. Environmental Award—an annual prize honoring citizens who make exceptional contributions to environmental education or preservation. “I was originally doing this renovation to sell my architectural wares. Now, all I want to do is preserve and share it. I’m so in love with this place.”
See For Yourself
Even though the Old Yellow House has not yet officially opened to the public, Wright still revels in sharing it with guests. Anyone interested in scheduling a private tour of the home—or booking an overnight stay—can contact him directly at architect@JamesPhillipWright.com. (It’s also listed on Airbnb, at airbnb.com/rooms/22342138.)