As a newly-minted, Princeton-trained architect, William A. Wolfe had an atypical assignment. Instead of helping to design a big building or tackling a small project on his own, he spent the summer drafting diagrams to show exactly how the sun’s rays would fall on a particular building at a particular time of day. These solar path diagrams, for any location in the northern hemisphere, show architects how to predict the sun’s position and to use that knowledge to orient and design roofs, walls, and windows.

It was the 1960s, and the Princeton professors with the most influence, including Michael Graves and Robert Geddes, were not emphasizing climate control. Prevailing views of that time focused on architecture as an esthetic, an expression of culture, and as a social force. The views of Wolfe’s mentor, Hungarian-born Victor Olgyay, were out-of-favor: “Olgyay realized that energy was important, that climate has distinguished architecture all over the world, and should continue to influence both traditional and modern buildings,” says Wolfe. And Wolfe’s re-drafting of the Olgyay diagrams are, even now, featured in the reference books found on the desks of architects and planners.

Wolfe went on to work in Michigan for a disciple of Eero Saarinen (Gunnar Birkerts) and managed the design of a commercial building that won a landmark national energy-savings award.

Here in Princeton since 1980, he has often urged his commercial and residential clients to incorporate passive solar and geothermal energy features, but at last he has put his own money on the line. In his two-part renovation of his Princeton Borough home he is taking advantage of every possible energy-saving feature. His aim: to get his house energy independent. He is hoping that, over a year’s time, the house could produce more energy than it uses. He is also concerned about water use, and is incorporating new water-saving technologies.

“Geothermal heating and cooling is the most energy efficient way to heat and cool any home in our climate, and thanks to the New Jersey Clean Energy rebate and renewable energy certificate program, the photovoltaic system could pay for itself and become profitable in about five years,” says Wolfe (see sidebar for details on this program). The up-front rebates are funded by a small charge, under $5 per year, on everybody’s electric bill, and the certificate program (solar renewable energy certificates or SRECs) lets the homeowner sell the certificates to electricity suppliers or other buyers.

“Since 60 percent of our electric power comes from coal, which generates more CO2 per unit of energy than gas or oil, this is essential in the fight against global warming,” Wolfe says. “Rather than gloat that utility rate payers would be putting money in my pocket, my purpose is to encourage others to reduce their use of carbon fuels. And I thought that since I was preaching it to my clients, I should practice what I preach.”

Full disclosure: When Wolfe agreed to open his ledgers to U.S. 1 Newspaper, my husband and I were so impressed by the return on his energy investment that we began to think seriously about following his lead. As this story gets underway, Wolfe is drawing up a plan to transform our modest Cape Cod: To raise the roof, add a bathroom, install passive solar panels, and install geothermal wells. Whether it will make as much sense for us as it did for him — and whether the government rebates make it all worthwhile — well, that will be the next story.

It seems as if Wolfe was cut out to be the kind of architect who pays attention to sun and energy issues. When you ask him about what advice his parents gave him, he cites his mother’s favorite “Serenity” prayer, the one asking for the grace to accept things that can’t be changed, the courage to change what is possible to change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Wolfe likens that to the famous motto of former Princeton University basketball coach Pete Carril: “Take what they give you.” For Carril “what they give you” was the opposing team’s defense, but for Wolfe, “what they give you” represents how the building is situated, relative to the sun. “This is the essence of design,” says Wolfe, “to do something with problems that makes them an asset.”

Wolfe and his wife, Betty Wolfe, are lifelong conservationists. She is the former chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission, and in the 1970s she organized a recycling initiative in Michigan that is still rated one of the best in the nation. Meanwhile, as chairman of Princeton’s Site Plan Review Advisory Board, Wolfe makes a point of seeking possible solar electric potential in any project that comes to him in review.

The couple raised two teenagers in the house that fronts on Hawthorne Avenue, with a driveway opening to Walnut Lane, across from Westminster Choir College. On the corner is Christ Congregation church, and Princeton High School is visible from the rear windows. Built in the 1920s, the 2,000 square-foot house had three bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, and a separate two-car garage. In 1980, when mortgages were running 18 percent, the Wolfes, fresh in from Michigan, bought it for $125,000.

Last year, in the first part of the renovation, Wolfe added 1,000 square feet, chiefly by enclosing the sun porch and raising the roof for a third floor. The house is in an L shape, and he increased the footprint by adding 12 feet onto the L, extending it into the back yard. From the front, it looks like a two-story house with a roof that matches the slope of its neighbors but extends four feet higher than before. On the first floor: an entrance hall, living room, dining room, powder room, and kitchen. On the second floor were three bedrooms and a bath; he added a bath and study. The third floor was an attic accessible by ladder: he raised the roof and converted the attic into a home office with half bath and a balcony, looking over the back yard.

For the heating and air conditioning (HVAC), Wolfe had Ground Source Contractors of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, drill three 300-foot geothermal wells (each a four-inch pipe) in his driveway. The wells form a closed loop filled with water and anti-freeze. Because the earth temperature stays constant at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the wells bring water at that temperature into the house. A heat pump, working like a refrigerator, puts out cold air in the summer and expels heated air into the earth. In the winter, it reverses that cycle.

Drilling the wells to a depth equal to a 30-story building is a two-day job and costs from $10,000 to $15,000. Because the house had radiators instead of forced air heat, the HVAC renovation cost twice as much as a conventional system. The oil heater, the radiators, and the piping had to be dismantled, and forced air ducts installed. The system needed two heat pumps (run by electricity) and two floor units, with the hot water heater kept as a backup for the heating system. That cost $35,000, for a total HVAC bill of $44,000.

Aiming to let the sun provide the rest of the heating and cooling needs, and all the electrical needs, Wolfe moved a chimney that would have shaded the roof and topped the south side of the roof (facing Hawthorne Avenue) with a photovoltaic array of panels. To understand how this works, it helps to know that “photovoltaic” means “power from light.” Some materials, at the molecular level, generate electrical movement when exposed to light. The one that works best, so far, is silicon, and virtually all photovoltaic panels are made from silicon crystals. The molecules are excited by the light and generate a current flow.

House systems are sized from 2kW to 10kW, depending on the size of the roof, and Wolfe maxed out the use of his roof with 10kW. On a daily basis, excess power gets exported to the grid during the day and imported at night.

The cost for the 10 kW solar electric system, installed by Rick Brooke of Jersey Solar of Lambertville, was $79,500, minus a $43,500 rebate from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and a $2,000 credit from the Internal Revenue Service. Net cost: $34,000. Wolfe hopes to produce so much electricity and use so little that he will be able to sell some electricity back to the power company.

An important point: Because his solar electric system never gets him “off the grid” of the power company, Wolfe does not have to install a slew of batteries as a backup system. “Originally photovoltaics were used for off-grid applications,” says Wolfe. “The big difference is that if you are on the grid you are exchanging with the utility, and you don’t have to put in the huge pack of batteries as storage.”

Underneath the solar array he put in a metal aluminum-over-steel roof that overhangs the upper windows, reflects excess heat, and reflects light on the solar panels. The front wall cantilevers a foot forward above the former sun porch to align with the main wall of the second floor. The main roof plane and solar array extends fully across the front. He installed metal roof canopies, or awnings, for the lower windows. Both the roof and the awnings shield the windows from the high summer sun but let in the heat from the low-angled winter sun.

To make this energy equation work, Wolfe took additional measures, such as replacing all of the home’s incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs. He replaced all the old windows with argon-glazed energy saving windows. The house is well-sealed against leaks and well insulated, and it has a whole-house fan. Because gas is more efficient than electricity, the Wolfes have a gas cooktop and clothes dryer, though they often hang clothes on a back yard line. “And I don’t have a garage door opener. I can get out and open my own garage door,” says Wolfe.

As part of the conservation effort Wolfe recycled and used every possible part of the old house. For instance, some former dining room windows are now French doors, and the old plaster was retained and patched. New areas have “green” materials, such as bamboo floors and natural wood doors, windows, and trim.

Wolfe’s energy decisions almost went astray on the first floor, when he refused to take out the wood-burning fireplace and replace it with gas. Wood-burners are real no-nos in the energy saving world, but Wolfe, a former Boy Scout and Boy Scout leader, clung to his. To save it under his new design, he bought a prefabricated diagonal chimney. “We had to move the chimney to keep the fireplace,” says Wolfe.

All this was part of the first phase, for which he seems to be achieving his energy and cost savings goals. Meanwhile he is just finishing the second part of the renovation, ripping out the 28-year-old kitchen and the 70-year-old bathroom. “The bathroom plumbing, cast into the floor, was starting to close in, and the kitchen had just enough problems that I got convinced to take that out as well. What we are putting in is `all green.’”

Kitchen counter-tops and counter-end panels are made from 100 percent recycled newsprint and named “Shetkastone,” for the inventor, Stanley Shetka, an art professor in Minnesota. Made by All Paper Recycling, Inc. of 100 percent recycled paper that is hydrogen bonded in a slurry process — without any chemical glues or resins — Shetkastone is completely renewable, with no toxins, and no off-gassing. Color: “Publisher Grey (Light),” a mottled, grainy gray that looks like granite with a satin finish.

Cabinets are a maple veneer “Green Core Plus” plywood made with a patented soy-based resin that is formaldehyde free. “This is significant, as nearly all plywood and particle board used in construction today uses a large quantity of urea-formaldehyde as a binder and is a source of formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen,” says Wolfe. “Press focus on this problem recently prompted the abandonment of FEMA trailers in New Orleans, yet it persists in most residential construction in the U.S.” The cabinets are unstained and clear-coated with low V.O.C. (volative organic chemical) finish lacquer and varnish.

Metal finishes (including the back-splash) are stainless steel, brushed aluminum, or nickel to avoid using chrome. This common kitchen finish, Wolfe points out, is toxic in some forms. Meanwhile, the ceramic tile floor, he says, “is inherently low-toxic, waterproof, fire resistant, permanent, and manufactured with low environmental impact.”

The new kitchen will keep the gas cooktop but will have an electric oven. The Wolfes had never had a microwave, but because microwaves use less energy for baking, they are going to try one out.

Conserving water is a big family concern. “In New Jersey, where water may seem plentiful, the state’s distribution infrastructure will leave us thirsty by 2020 if nothing is done,” he says, quoting a report issued last fall. “Aside from drinking water, each person in a family of four uses an estimated 40 gallons of ‘grey water’ (from the sink, laundry, and shower) each day.” So when adding and renovating the bathrooms, Wolfe bought “dual flush” toilets that allow flushes of only 0.9 gallons. The sump-pump discharges at the uphill end of the front lawn to recharge water into the ground.

Wolfe collects water in rain barrels for his garden, which has arboretum quality plants and trees, including a service berry tree that shades a large stone patio in back, and a smoke tree and weeping cherry out front. Made in Arizona where water is very scarce, the $100 barrels hold 108 gallons and sit at each corner of the house, providing as much as 432 gallons for watering the garden between rains. But it was such a dry summer that Wolfe is thinking about adding four more of the barrels, which are modular and can interconnect.

What you give up with the rain cisterns — using a lawn sprinkler or soaker hoses. Wolfe uses gravity to do the job: “We leave the hose on the ground and pick a barrel uphill of the plant.”

The Wolfes installed a “gray water” system, which diverts used water to toilets, for second time use. Water from the shower, bathtub, and washing machine is collected in a basement storage tank, filtered, occasionally treated with chlorine, and pumped to the toilets. These systems are more popular in parched states like Colorado and California, but Wolfe is among the first to re-use “grey water” in New Jersey and certainly the first to do so in Princeton, so there was a chance that the plan wouldn’t pass muster.

“I felt lucky that the town approved it, but I submitted a lot of material,” says Wolfe. When installed by Quebec-based Brack Systems, this will cut the house’s water use by about half.

Another strategy: to recycle hot water by using a timer on the hot water heater and a return circulation system. “You waste a lot of water waiting for the water to get hot,” Wolfe says. “So early in the morning, when hot water is needed for showers and dishes, a timer turns on a small pump, and the hot water circulates in insulated pipes.” If the hot water is not used, it will go back to the hot water heater.

The new technology can’t do everything. For instance, the geothermal system doesn’t heat water quite hot enough for a really hot shower. So Wolfe added a second tank. The first one receives and stores hot water from the geothermal system, and generally keeps the water at more than 100 degrees. But it also connects to fill a second conventional hot water tank equipped with a gas burner that can bump the temperature up to as high as a homeowner would want. This second tank also functions as a backup heat source for the house, whereas most geothermal systems use less efficient electric backup heaters.

Wolfe grew up in South Orange, where his father was an attorney and his mother a school psychologist. He and his future wife attended the same high school. She went to Smith and Wayne State University. He graduated from Princeton University in 1965 and earned his master’s degree two years later. His brother, Bob, is a commercial realtor and developer with Picus Associates, at the Forrestal Center.

For the summer of 1967 Wolfe did the drafting for Victor Olgyay. “The material presented in two sets of drawings was developed from previous work he had published with his brother Aladar in 1957 in Solar Control and Shading Devices and summarized in 1963 in Design With Climate. Victor Olgyay used some of this material in an architectural drawing course I had taken in my freshman year in 1962,” says Wolfe. The drawings were to occupy four pages in the American Institute of Architects’ “Architectural Graphic Standards,” published by John Wiley & Sons that next year and in subsequent years. “I deserve no credit for these remarkable diagrams. But in the process of redrafting them, I learned them quite well.”

After the drafting stint Wolfe worked with John P. Moran in Princeton University’s planning office, helping to convert the buildings to coeducation. Moving to Michigan for 10 years, he worked for Gunnar Birkerts on such projects as the Corning Glass Museum and IBM’s Michigan headquarters. The IBM building won a national award for energy conservation. Among the strategies were indirect lighting, achieved through a reflective sill on the outside and a reflective cove on the inside, which cut down on daylight use of electricity. In 1980 he returned to Princeton to rejoin Moran, by then president of the Bowers construction company. Later, as chief of design of Fulmer, Bowers, and Wolfe, he landed a plum assignment: To design Carnegie 103 and Carnegie 105.

Also in the early 1980s, he used one of his award-winning techniques for a building at the Forrestal Center at 201 College Road. There he employed passive solar to heat the atrium. His sloping glass wall was self shading from the summer sun, but allowed winter sun to pour onto the slate floors, generating heat that circulated into the office space. This feature has been since altered by replacement of the sloping wall with a vertical glass wall.

Among the other feathers in his commercial design cap are the headquarters for the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic on Roszel Road, the Princeton Township firehouse on Witherspoon Street, the Montgomery Township municipal building, several dormitory projects at the university, the rehabilitation of the building that now housing the Princeton Medical Group, and the conversion of 228 Alexander Road into law offices and then offices for the Mellon Foundation (U.S. 1, October 24, 1990).

His firm went through various permutations and has been known as William Wolfe Architects for 15 years. After his home office was ready, Wolfe moved his business right in. He doesn’t pay rent at home, and he cuts out the commuting expense, but the home office does add to the energy bill. For half the week he is joined by an associate, Arthur Warren Nordfors III, but because zoning laws don’t permit full-time employees they share files over the Internet for the rest of the time.

So after all this remodeling, which costs not only lots of money but loads of time, did Wolfe achieve his goal?

That’s a definite yes. “Economically, we’ll do much better than break even,” says Wolfe. He has discovered that his systems are outperforming the capacity that the manufacturers predicted. The geothermal system has been installed for over a year. During that time he has paid no oil bills. And at this writing the solar electric system has been working for 291 days or 80 percent of the year. The photovoltaics have generated 10,450 kW hrs until now, so Wolfe predicts they will generate 13,000 kW hrs annually. He figures that out according to this formula:

Take the size of the system (10kW in Wolfe’s system) and multiply it by 365 days, then multiply by 4.5 hours of sunlight per day (the average sunlight in our climate). Then multiply by 80 percent (a fudge factor for inaccurate tilt, or unexpected shade, plus the energy lost in converting the system from the photovoltaic array’s DC current to AC current usable in the house). When Wolfe runs this formula, the answer is 13,000 kW hours.

“Quite fortunately, my total annual home and office electrical use, including the geothermal system, also happens to be 13,000 kW hrs. I now project our total electric bill to be zero,” says Wolfe. Initially he was disappointed that his gas bill — for the dryer, the range, and the hotwater — didn’t go down as much as he expected, but he thinks adding the second hot water heater will take care of that. “We are doing a couple of things to reduce the gas bill further. On principle we want to go after every bit of our carbon footprint.”

In addition to saving $3,000 per year in utility costs, the Wolfes will receive approximately $5,000 this first year for the Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SRECs) certificates. “This amount will increase each year as the state raises the percentage of their total power required to be generated from renewable sources and raises the penalty utilities are assessed for every kW hr under the required minimum,” he says. “We’ll receive SRECs for 15 years after installation. At the current $8,000 yield, our combined geothermal ($44K) and photovoltaic system ($34K) will pay for itself in 10 years. Because the credits are expected to increase in value it could be much sooner. For the remainder of the 15 years the income for the certificates will be pure profit.”

“As utility costs rise, the savings of having no utility costs will of course continue to raise the value of our home,” says Wolfe, who expects to get his total net on-the-grid energy use close to zero in 2009. “We should be glad that New Jersey has adopted incentives that encourage us all to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Applying for the solar grants was not onerous, he claims, and anyway, the installers generally do the paperwork. “The state didn’t require me to do anything other than show that I could generate electricity equal to 80 percent of the theoretical capacity of the hardware they subsidized. This meant minimizing shading (tree or chimney) and getting the orientation and tilt about right.”

Grants for the geothermal system were a different story. “I could have gotten about $500 from the state for the geothermal system, but didn’t think it was worth the paperwork,” he says. Similarly, the IRS gives credit for energy saving features, but limits its total credit per taxpayer to $500, even over several years.” He calls that federal program “pathetic,” adding, “I spent many times more than that on each of many features, conserving windows, extra insulation, cool roof, etc. The reason I’ll get a payback on these costs is that the conservation features enable the energy use and costs of the geothermal system to stay within those generated by the maximum size solar electric system (10kW) which the NJBPU residential program will subsidize. Except for the solar grants, none of this is funded to the extent that it should be. “

In addition to his “regular” architecture work, Wolfe has developed a side business of helping building owners with their solar schemes — doing site plans and getting approvals. For the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, he wrote the requests for proposals for the solar installers, evaluated them, and helped them award the project. One such project is visible from his back balcony — Christ Congregation Church. He was the architect who led that church through a contentious battle when the borough’s shade tree commission tried to keep the church from cutting down a tree in order to put up its solar electric panels.

Wolfe’s latest job is a similar one, figuring out the solar possibilities for the Unitarian Universalist Church on Cherry Valley Road. With this project, it seems as if he has come full circle, because the architect who designed that building was none other than his early mentor and climate control expert — Victor Olgyay.

William Wolfe Architect, 50 Hawthorne Avenue, Princeton 08540; 609-683-1921. William A. Wolfe AIA, principal.

See also a sidebar to this article:

Facebook Comments