Note: This is the third of four case studies spotlighting winners of The Home Depot Foundation's Awards of Excellence.

A runner-up in the Home Depot Foundation Awards' Rental Project category, Solara is 95% powered by solar photovoltaic energy.
Community HousingWorks A runner-up in the Home Depot Foundation Awards' Rental Project category, Solara is 95% powered by solar photovoltaic energy.

Community HousingWorks had developed buildings that exceeded California’s stringent Title 24 energy standards, but never a zero-energy, solar-powered apartment complex. With the Solara project, the developer simply decided to erect it ultra green and figured out how to make it work. If it had known how challenging the task would be, “we would have been intimidated,” says Mary Jane Jagodzinski, senior product manager. But midway through construction, Jagodzinski says she realized “We actually had done something no one had ever done before.” The developer had created California’s first apartment complex almost fully powered by the sun.

The developer faced numerous obstacles. Part of the site is in a flood zone, meaning the site work was challenging. And the organization had a severe time constraint. “We had less than a year to get through all the entitlements and design,” Jagodzinski says.

The apartments also needed to be affordable because a majority of Solara’s residents would earn less than $35,000 per year. Meanwhile, utility companies required that every unit be metered, so a separate panel and inverter were installed for every apartment, totaling more than $200,000.

Finally, assuming the solar panels wouldn’t be attractive, the city insisted they not be visible from the ground. “The architect solved it in a beautiful way,” Jagodzinski says. Concealed on top of the development’s carports and behind parapets on the buildings’ roofs, the panels are noticeable only in aerial photographs. “It showed you can integrate solar into any architectural vernacular.”

Global Green, a green advisor on the project, connected Community HousingWorks with the California Energy Commission, which was looking for candidates for its zero-energy home pilot project. Fortunately, Solara’s photovoltaic system, which provides about 95% of the energy and is critical to its zero-energy status, was paid for almost entirely by tax incentives and state rebates.

While the solar panels are the attention-grabbing amenity, the building and the community include a number of other sustainable features, including Energy Star-rated and other efficient appliances; shade structures to reduce solar heat gain through the windows; tankless water heaters; no-mow lawns made of drought-tolerant native and edible plants, including lemons and rosemary; dual-flush toilets; linoleum flooring; fly ash concrete; formaldehyde-free insulation; and much more.

Runner-Up: Rental Project
Location: Poway, Calif.
Developer: Community HousingWorks
Builder: Sun Country Builders
Architect: Rodriguez Associates Architects & Planners
Size: Six two-story buildings, with 56 one-, two-, and
three-bedroom apartments, and a 2,100-square-foot
community center in a mixed-use site.
Housing type: Below market-rate rents, scaleable to income.
Green Features:
  • 95% powered by photovoltaics
  • Cross-ventilation construction
  • Eco-friendly tankless hot water heaters, dual-flush
    toilets, formaldehyde-free insulation, paint,
    carpeting, and cabinetry
  • Drought-tolerant gardens
  • Interactive public art walk that provides inspiration
    for recycling and eating organic foods
  • Information on green topics from cleaning products
    to recycling
  • A shopping cart for each unit to encourage
    walking to shopping venues

In addition, the development offers information to tenants on topics ranging from recycling to cleaning products. “To create a community that was conscious of what was there, we created a green curriculum,” Jagodzinski says. Furthermore, the complex encourages residents to walk to local schools and shops, even providing a shopping cart for each unit.

Jagodzinski says the green project cost about $225,000 more than a non-green one, but she adds it would cost less now because eco-friendly products are more common. Still, she says, “The fact that we used integrated green design from day one with off-the-shelf, reasonable technology makes this a replicable example.”

Although she’s now aware of the challenges, the project manager says she wouldn’t build any other way. “Once you’ve gone through the design and construction of a sustainable project, it changes the way you think,” she says. “You can’t ever go back.”

Also see:
Home Depot Foundation Award Winner, Rental Project
Home Depot Foundation Award Winner, Homeownership Project