The Nob Hill Haus is a lesson in perseverance. Built on one of the last lots in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles, just north of the city’s downtown core, the 2,400-square-foot, three-level home has overcome a gauntlet of challenges, from gaining local approval for its greywater recycling system to a huge pine tree that nearly crushed it during a windstorm last year.

But architect and owner Frank Pasker and his wife, Grit, soldiered on, knowing and trusting that what they envisioned as the most efficient use of land, water, and energy for single-family housing in SoCal’s arid climate would win out.

A year after move-in, the Paskers were proven right. The home’s comprehensive passive solar design supplemented by a modest 3.2-kW PV array and solar thermal collectors delivered net-negative electricity use, an estimated 8,487 kilowatt hours per-year improvement (factoring an 837 kWh/year surplus) compared with the average L.A. home.

Meanwhile, a year ago, the couple drew the last possible drop of water from a once-full, 1,500-gallon, below-grade cistern used for a gravity-fed irrigation system ... just in time to have it refilled by seasonal rainfall for the following summer. Overall, the couple uses only about a third of the city-supplied potable water their fellow Los Angelenos consume.

“We are able to see, not just guess or model, how little energy and water you really need to get by and still live comfortably,” says Frank Pasker, a German-born and -educated architect raised to respect natural resources. “It requires a different way of thinking.”

Pasker’s past and perspective served him well when he and Grit bought the 0.2-acre site with an enviable view across Pasadena to Mount Baldy. The orientation perfectly suited a cooling climate-specific passive solar design: With the front of the house at the top of the sloped lot facing south and the west side shaded by mature trees, Pasker took advantage of the cooler north face to limit the amount of heat gain on the home’s largest and most exposed elevation.

While the orientation isn’t ideal for daylight harvesting, the home’s open floor plan, central staircase, and high-performance, thermally broken windows in key locations throw ample amounts of natural light deep into the interior spaces; fixtures fitted with CFL and LED lamps—powered by the PV array—deliver what little artificial light is needed.

More important, the design helps cool the house without much mechanical help. Deep overhangs, precisely modeled by computer per each elevation, further limit heat gain, as does the ventilated phenolic panel siding and the reflective metal roof fitted with R-38 insulation.

But it’s the Paskers’ use of a natural stack effect that carries the bulk of the cooling load. Simply, the open-riser central stair (with help from a ceiling fan) draws cool air from open windows in the basement and drives the hot air through clerestory windows along the top floor. The effect is so efficient that it took a heat wave last July before the couple used the A/C for the first time, and then only for a few hours a day while their neighbors’ equipment hummed along well into the evening.

This exemplary application of passive solar design not only holds the key to the home’s energy efficiency but also serves as a reminder that some ancient ways aren’t obsolete. “People forget about passive solar and have tried to replace it with technology,” says Pasker. “You can accomplish a lot by going back to the basics.”

The Paskers’ vision of a truly net-zero energy house was dashed when they learned that California’s Title 24 energy specs required them to use natural gas for either space or water heating. “For the cost of the line connection, we could have almost doubled the PV array,” laments Pasker.

So, they used that energy resource to power a 4-ton, two-zone split heating system that’s rated at 98% efficiency. The gas line also serves indoor and outdoor cooking appliances and the tankless water heater that (rarely) supplements the solar water system.

The couple ran into more bureaucracy when they sought approval for separate greywater and rainwater recycling-irrigation systems, for which the local building department had to establish new procedures to evaluate and permit.

“The clerks at the desk weren’t familiar with this kind of system, so our request went straight to senior officials who were very supportive,” he says.

Nob Hill Haus thus became the first residence in L.A. ever permitted for a greywater system and set the bar for others to follow; it’s also part of a six-house pilot program of greywater recycling systems headed by the county health department.

But even that hurdle came after the Paskers were forced to rig a fiberglass septic tank into a suitable cistern. “The biggest rainwater collectors we could find were 55 gallons,” he says. The modified 1,500-gallon tank filters and collects rainwater from the home’s roof and multiple decks for gravity-fed irrigation into multiple deep tree wells; the separate greywater scheme, meanwhile, collects water from faucet and shower drains to serve fruit trees on the property. The systems are not only safe and healthy but also extremely water efficient.

All those challenges—including the most recent, when the neighbor to the west pruned some trees, altering the solar heat gain on that elevation—roll off the couple’s broader perspective. “When you think long term, you’re a winner in a short-term society,” he says. “We’re not chasing a fast return on our investment. This place has been designed and built for the long term.”

Project Details

Name: Nob Hill Haus, Los Angeles
Size: 2,400 square feet
Lot size: 0.2 acreCost: $250 per square foot (including land and permits)
Completed: April 2011
Certification: GreenPoint Rated by Build It Green
Architect: Frank Pasker, Los Angeles
Interior and Lighting Design: Grit Pasker, Los Angeles
Energy consultant: Tailored Energy Services, Stockton, Calif.
Structural engineer: David Reith & Associates, Simi Valley, Calif.
Rater: Keith Lilley, Pasadena, Calif.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.