Wayback Wednesday: Follow the Sun: Ray Kappe’s 50-Year Pursuit of Energy Conserving Design

Ray Kappe's Rochedale Lane residence eflect an approach in which energy efficiency results from a problem-solving design approach. Image courtesy Ray Kappe.

Ray Kappe’s Rochedale Lane residence eflect an approach in which energy efficiency results from a problem-solving design approach. Image courtesy Ray Kappe.

Over our 15-year history as FORM: Pioneering Design, we’ve had the chance to interview some legends of design. Our 2008 September/October issue featured an exclusive conversation with the legendary architect Ray Kappe, whose work embodies a particuarly Southern Californian spirit. In the chat, conducted by Danny King, Kappe addresses energy conservation, a topic that’s importance was becoming more and relevant to design. Six years on, it’s intriguing to see the ideas Kappe has addressed throughout his career have become such imporant and relevant parts of architectural dialogue in the second decade of the 21st century.

Ray Kappe has employed aspects of energy conservation and sustainability in his homes for the last half century. A 1951 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Kappe helped build Eichler homes before starting his own firm in 1953. Since then, he’s designed about 100 homes known as much for the way they are integrated into their natural settings as for their innovative use of materials and energy systems. A founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Kappe, 80, was awarded one of AIA’s Top 10 Green Projects in 2007 for his Z6 House in Santa Monica, California. He was interviewed at his Pacific Palisades home, which the city of Los Angeles has designated a Cultural Heritage Landmark.

Form: Are sustainable and aesthetic design mutually exclusive?

Ray Kappe: The two can go very well hand in hand, and quite often solutions are there because of sustainability or energy are added elements to the project itself. I hired Thom Mayne at SCI-Arc when he was just out of USC because he was really into environmental response issues. Then a couple years in, he said, “I’m not interested in those issues any more. I’m interested in design.” And I said, “Thom, I don’t think the two are separate issues. I consider those to be one in the same, always.” He said, “No, no, you can’t design and do that too.” I said “I don’t agree with you, but we’ll see.” And today, he’s back to where he was in the beginning, and the projects and elements of design are primarily about energy concerns.

It’s like, you don’t deal with structure and architecture at the same time, it gets in the way of design. I mean, that’s stupid, in my opinion. But there are architects who think like that, that don’t care about those issues.

Form: Does green building design always cost more?

RK: Look at most of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building) point issues. If you have a countertop that’s made out of paper, recycled, you get points. If you have it made out of glass, recycled, you get points. If you take broken concrete and throw it around the site, you get points. It’s not a major issue if you can find the material, but it does cost more. Using a cistern, water recycling, photovoltaics, it all builds up points. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Most builders are starting to put them in as a sales gimmick. It shouldn’t be a sales gimmick, but I guess it makes them feel like they’re doing something for the environment.

Form: What kind of conservation sensitivity was there when you broke in to architecture?

RK:We didn’t really think too much about energy. We thought more of repetitive systems and mass housing. If you had an all electric house, that was supposedly a good plan. What did gas cost? Nothing. So there was no thought about how to conserve your resources. Today, they can be a major issue.

Form: How did you develop a cognizance of energy-saving design?

RK: When I first started out, I did a lot of work in the (San Fernando) Valley, and people didn’t want to spend for air conditioning. So I used larger overhangs, trellising, issues like that. Then of course, we had the period where solar glass came in, so everyone got lazier because that was going to be the panacea. Then as the glazing types changed, they started to be fully glazed buildings with no sun control at all. And that was cheaper. And today you come around again where people spend money to get sun control systems. It’s a question of how much you want to work. It’s a lot easier to forget about these things than solve problems with them, but I think most architects like the challenge again.

Form: How have you implemented energy conservation into your design?

RK: I’m not a designer who likes to design just for the sake of creative design. I think of myself more of a problem-solver. So the more constraints you put on it and the more issues you deal with, for me, the more interesting the project becomes. I don’t care for the idea of just complete freedom. When (California’s energy-oriented) prescriptive code came in in 1975, I did a study where I took 12 of my houses and another half-dozen houses in the same neighborhoods that were following the prescriptive standard, and I asked the people save their heating and electric bills for a year. I found that the houses that had the most glass facing south and had fairly high ceilings would be efficient. You had sun insulation, and because the ceilings were high, your heat would rise to the ceiling and stay there. And when the glass got colder, you’d get convection action.

Form: Where is sustainable or energy-efficient design most predominant?

RK: In Germany and Switzerland, they have so many more sophisticated systems of sun control protection for buildings in terms of screen types that drop down and awning types that play out. In the United States, we don’t have anything that’s very far advanced. But in the global world we’re in, people are buying stuff from everywhere now.

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