Sven and Kate Thesen's front yard is a dead giveaway: Here lies a net-zero-energy home.
A sign proclaims "This house is saving energy (and money too!)," an electric-car plugging station sits proudly in the half driveway, four bicycles lie ready to ride and mulch covers the front yard, awaiting further landscaping.
The Thesens' home is one of five that will be on a self-guided tour on Saturday, Oct. 13, offering visitors up-close-and-personal views of what it takes to lower one's carbon footprint. The 2012 Solar Home Tour begins with an informational session at the Girl Scout House, with presentations on how photovoltaic (solar) systems work and what they cost, including information on the city's rebate program and federal tax credits.
Visitors are encouraged to bring their monthly utility bill, with its average monthly cost kilowatt-hour usage, as well as a bag lunch to enjoy before embarking on the home tour.
Thesen is eager to share the details of his new home, beginning with how he had to negotiate with the city to honor both the need for siting the house as far back as possible to get the best sun exposure for the solar panels and still meet the requirement to line up with his neighbors along the street.
"The best solar gain is farther back," he said, but they compromised by adding a faĆ§ade that juts forward.
After a year in the house, all is complete except the landscaping, which is slowly being added with edibles and California natives. Whenever tree trimmers work in the neighborhood, Thesen asks them to drop off the ground-up mulch that now covers his front yard.
Much of what was on the property has been reused, he said, beginning with the rotting planking from a side fence that was trimmed down to a narrower low picket fence at front and side. Now the posts are elevated. "They should last a long, long time," he said.
"There's a lot of sweat equity in this fence," he added, but they saved more than $1,000 by re-using the posts and pickets.
Thesen and his family are literally walking the walk, or riding the ride, of energy efficiency. Although trained as a chemical engineer, he's now become an expert on energy efficiency and consults on the topic.
He points to the electric-car charging station in front, noting that "the real carbon footprint is in the use of the car." He said it takes about four hours to recharge his electric Prius after driving to San Francisco and back.
Inside, he points to the low volatile organic compound (VOC) cabinets, induction cooktop that uses 75 percent less energy, and paperstone countertops.
"I don't know why everyone doesn't have one," said Kate Kramer Thesen. "It's a little more expensive than traditional electric cooktop, but cheaper than gas."
She said the paperstone countertop is as hard as granite, and after a year, it's holding up well -- despite their mistake in oiling it (they had to have it refinished).
A small, 18-cubic-foot Samsung refrigerator readily meets the needs of the family of four.
Concrete flooring was used throughout the first level, which the family stained themselves using fertilizer (iron sulfate).
Details of the Thesen family home can be seen in a "booklet" on the projectgreenhome.org website. Designed by Arkin Tilt Architects of Berkeley, the home incorporates numerous energy-efficient design features, including airtight construction, insulation, and passive solar and passive ventilation.
An entire section of the booklet is devoted to reconstructed and salvaged materials, including beams in the living room, sliding "barn" doors in the living room, recovered redwood siding in the carport and exposed wood siding on the porch. They even took old lead-painted siding and used it between their metal roof and the exposed redwood ceiling on the outside porch.
The first floor is an open structure, with only the exterior walls load-bearing. That will make the home flexible as the family grows and ages, Thesen said. What is now an office could one day be a "senior suite" -- on the ground floor with its own bathroom and access to the backyard.
Homeowners will be on hand during the tour to explain just what each has done to make their houses more energy-efficient. Tour participants can also check out EV and plug-in vehicles, and take home free copies of the Solar Energy Resource Guide (while they last).
What: 2012 Solar Homes Tour - The Road to Net-Zero Energy
When: Saturday, Oct. 13; information session 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., tour 1 to 4 p.m.
Where: Information session: Girl Scout House in Rinconada Park, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto; a map for the self-guided tour of five homes in Palo Alto will be handed out there.