The Pink House at 209 Moraga Way

The Pink House at 209 Moraga Way

Katie Hoskins, Editor-in-Chief

Built in 1894, the pink house has always been a symbol of the history and rural roots of Orinda. Rumors of a past train station and even a haunting by Bloody Mary herself circled the small house. As the town of Orinda grew into the bustling suburb it is today, the house has remained essentially unchanged, serving as a little pink bridge to the past in the modern and technology filled town that Orinda has become. 

However, even links to history require love and maintenance, and as the years wore on after the owner moved out, the mysterious pink house deteriorated as the surrounding town became increasingly modernized. It needed a sort of super-hero architect to launch it back into the future without destroying its rich history. And James Wright, of Net Zero Homes, was just the guy to do it.

As an energy architect, Wright is passionate about building and restoring buildings that consume a minimal amount of energy and have a net zero amount of electrical usage per year. Through various modern techniques and systems that utilize the geological and thermal capabilities of the land, Wright has made a living creating incredibly energy efficient and almost futuristic homes.

“I believe coupling homes with the earth is where it’s at,” Wright said. “My inspiration is to visually make a collage of the mechanical systems and what I’m doing.”

Not only does Wright plan on reaching net zero with his restoration of the house, but he also plans to exceed that amount and generate enough power to run a subsequent guest house and studio on the property. “That’s my goal, to take an 1893 building and show everyone how easy it is to turn it into a net zero consumption annually building,” Wright said.

One of the main principles behind Wright’s plan is making the structure completely air tight, so no energy spent heating or cooling air will escape from the building. However, to avoid a situation of unhealthy indoor air quality, Wright plans to mechanically supply the interior with fresh air using energy recovery ventilators. These systems are 95 percent efficient and run on only 60 watts of electricity, the same amount as a light bulb.

These ventilators will also help maintain the interior air temperature of the building using a geothermal technique. One of the crucial elements to the success of this system is the well in the basement of the building, the feature that really drew Wright to the property in the first place. “The well made me salivate because I saw the geothermal opportunities for the systems that I have been developing,” Wright said.

The system is based on the idea of matching the interior air temperature with the temperature of the ground (hence the term geothermal). The ventilators will match the temperature of the air being brought into the house with that of the well. “So, instead of at night 37 degree air, it will be 58 degree air because of the ground temperature,” Wright said. “Then in the summer, instead of 100 degree air, it’s 60 degrees.”

Wright also plans on controlling the temperature of the house using an evaporative cooling system composed of a waterfall behind glass and a relatively new invention made of a seemingly commonplace item: aluminum foil. It’s called a radiant barrier, and it’s the same material scientists and engineers use on space shuttles to reflect the sun’s intense radiation away from the craft and passengers. “I read somewhere that there are two inventions of our time that are great. One is the smart phone, and the other is radiant barrier materials,” Wright said.

The idea is fairly simple. Wright will have two radiant barrier systems on the house, one in which the foil reflects inward, and one outward. In the winter, any heat in the house will be reflected and maintained by the first layer of foil, keeping the interior warm and cozy. Then in the summer, the secondary layer, creating a cool interior environment, will ward off the sun’s hot rays.

Another energy saving feature of the restored house will be that it is thermal bridge free, meaning that parts of the building that interact with the exterior will not leak colder or hotter air into the house. Any transfer of energy like this would take energy to reverse, which would be a major setback in the Net Zero goal. So, Wright plans to eliminate these thermal bridges in the restored structure, augmenting the other energy saving systems.

While all of this may seem awfully futuristic and scientific, Wright has a strong appreciation for the historical attributes of the house, and plans to incorporate his newfound love of the home’s history in the restoration. When demolishing the basement, Wright was surprised to find an assortment of historical artifacts. Among the objects were horseshoes, marbles and even a lock dated 1902. Underneath the linoleum of the house, Wright also came across newspapers dated back to the late 1930s that he plans to laminate and use as room dividers for the second story. “It’s so interesting to look at those newspapers and see what you could buy for five cents in 1939,” Wright said.

In addition to the newspapers, Wright plans to restore both the first and second floors of the house as they were originally, complete with period furnishings like antique typewriters and radios. “I’m so inspired with the opportunity to illustrate a snapshot of the Industrial Revolution,” Wright said.

However, since Wright plans to live in the house once it is complete, he couldn’t make the whole building like it was in its hay-day. In the basement, Wright plans to create a modern kitchen and bath chock full of energy systems and glass floors and walls to showcase them. When complete it will look like a Malibu beach house and Wright will be able to enjoy both elements of the past and present all under one roof.

Even once all the new systems are installed, the house will still be a beloved, and mysterious, treasure to many Orinda residents that pass it every day on Moraga Way. And to next-door neighbor Ezra Nelson, the house will always be a past home. Nelson, a retired mailman, has lived in Orinda his entire life and spent his childhood days living in the pink house with his family.

In 1918, the Nelson family purchased the house and moved from Albany to escape the flu epidemic that had already claimed the life of one child. However, even before the Nelson’s occupied the building, it served as a home for sea captain Alexander Jenkins, not a railroad station, as many Orinda residents are led to believe.

Ezra was born six years later and lived in the house, a goldenrod color at the time, until 1954 with his parents and four siblings. Growing up, life for the young Nelson was comprable to life on Walton’s Mountain. Children walked, rode horses, took the train or even hitchhiked to school, and Nelson fell asleep each night to the sound of his older brother practicing the harmonica. The surrounding area was open country with few trees, scattered orchards, farms and hayfields and enough open space that one could see as far as El Sobrante and Richmond by simply stepping onto the back porch.

Back then, Moraga Way was a dirt highway that led to the 27 pear orchards owned by Moraga Land Company and St. Mary’s College, home of Nelson’s favorite college football team. Along the road to Moraga, one would pass scattered farms sharecropped by Portuguese farmers who would raise cattle and the hay needed to feed them during the winter months.

Going along the highway back towards the crossroads brought visitors to the quiet town Orinda, complete with three buildings downtown and a whopping population of 200 people. Comparable to modern times, Orinda residents tended to be business folk who commuted to Oakland or San Francisco, rather than farmers.

Such a simple, charming setting couldn’t last forever, especially after the construction of the Caldecott Tunnel in 1937. “It was changing,” Nelson said. “Even before the tunnel. And that tunnel opened up the whole county actually. It didn’t take long before areas started building up piece by piece.”

But even after the tunnel was complete Nelson spent his days mushroom hunting, exploring the surrounding hills and spending time with friends from school. “Even though it was hard during the Depression, it was a fun place to grow up anyway. There were so many places you could go hiking and exploring, you could go just about any place you wanted to. But once they started building up, you could just go where the roads were.”

In 1941 the Orinda Theater was built, near the area that once housed the Nelson’s mailbox. Nelson was 17 years old at the time and attended the opening day celebration, which had drawn quite a crowd and even featured the movie starlet Laraine Day.

With the increase in traffic to Orinda, the highway that eventually became Moraga Way had to be repaved multiple times. Each time more asphalt was added, the road came closer and closer to the little yellow house, which for the most part, remained the same as the town around it grew.

Eventually the Nelson children grew and went their separate ways in the world. Mabel, the eldest sibling, had ownership of the house but didn’t want to make it a historical landmark because of business implications. Since no one was willing to put in the funds or work into bringing the building up to code for living, it became vacant in 1966.

Nelson did do some repairs himself and the house was repainted in 1991. “It was yellow to begin with and it was starting to look very run down. Being as I lived the closest to it, the painter asked me what color it should have,” Nelson said. “The closest I could come was apricot. For some people it looks pink. But it’s really supposed to be apricot.”

For the most part, the house has remained in the same condition it had been in since 1948, until Wright came along and began his restoration, putting the little pink house back on Orinda residents’ radars. However, even though the interior of the newly restored house will be a futuristic, energy efficient, net zero home, on the outside it will still be Orinda’s mysterious gateway to a simpler time, filled with open countryside and pear orchards and hillsides as far as the eye could see.