Anne’s off-grid Fairplay solar home in October 2017, showing passive solar design and solar PV/solar hot water panels.
Courtesy of Anne Brenner ’75
‘We need to be self-sufficient and not rely on fossil fuels,’ Brenner says

Anne Brenner ’75, standing in the southern view of the solar home in Fairplay, Colorado, prior to building in September 2004. Buffalo Peaks are in the background.
Courtesy of Anne Brenner ’75
Anne Brenner ’75 likes projects. And as she sees it, the more challenging a new undertaking is, the better. This proved true when it came to fulfilling her longtime dream of building a self-sufficient, solar-powered home back in 2004. 

A biochemistry major at Princeton, Brenner always had a passion for architecture but set that interest aside in favor of math and science. After graduating, she began a 30-year career as a pathologist, but she held onto her enthusiasm for architecture and imagined that one day she would build an off-the-grid solar home. 

“It seemed like the way of the future. We need to be self-sufficient and not rely on fossil fuels,” Brenner says. Another motivation was to simply see if she could pull off such a daunting project.

After a search for the ideal off-the-grid property, Brenner and her husband, Dave Caprera ’75, purchased a 35-acre plot with a mountain view in Fairplay, Colorado. Self-sufficiency was important to Brenner. “If you bought a property that was on the grid, you would be tempted to just hook it up,” she says. 

Brenner ended up doing a lot of the contracting work herself. “I like to figure things out on my own,” she says. “It’s been important to me to do things from scratch.”

To prepare, Brenner took online courses through Solar Energy International and attended the Denver and Boulder Tour of Solar Homes for inspiration. Beyond solar panels, she added a number of sustainable features to her home, including tiles made from recycled rubber on the roof deck and bamboo flooring.

Brenner also designed her own home automation system, using a Raspberry Pi, which is a single-board computer. The system controls temperature and webcams, and it uses voice recognition. 

Brenner traces her interest in coding back to Electrical Engineering 118 at Princeton. She was so interested in learning new coding languages that on her first day out of retirement she took a Coursera class on programming in Python. 

Though Brenner loves a good challenge, there were hiccups along the way. She says she made a number of mistakes, and it was the support of her husband and two children that kept her going. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work and I knew things were going to go wrong, but it’s ultimately what I wanted,” Brenner says. The family finally got the certificate of occupancy at the end of 2006. 

Brenner was so undeterred by setbacks that she wanted to continue projects like this and started building a solar van in 2020 as a pandemic pastime. She has created websites for both the van and solar home, where she shares the backstory of the projects, information about her smart home automation devices, and data on temperature and solar power. 

Brenner says she developed an interest in making websites, another project she does from scratch. She’s the website master for Princeton Class of ‘75. 

“You have to be adventuresome,” Brenner says. Now, Brenner spends about a third of the year at her solar home, and divides the rest of her time between Denver, Colorado, and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. When in Fairplay, Brenner and her husband spend the days hiking, fishing, playing bridge, occasionally foraging for mushrooms, or tinkering away on one of her many projects. 

Anne sent the following courtesy photos of her solar home and van projects:

The solar home’s dining room and kitchen.

View from the living room to the dining room, showing large south-facing windows for passive solar and the two-sided masonry fireplace.

The van on its October 2020 maiden voyage in Moab, Utah.

The van in Whitney Portal Campground in October 2022, with Dave Caprera ’75 in the foreground.

Inside the van.

The van’s interior in December 2020, with bed in rear overlying the storage “garage,” kitchen area with sink driver side and composting toilet passenger side. The cabinetry, bed, plumbing, lighting, and DC+AC electrical were done by Anne.

David Caprera ’75 sitting at a portable table in the van in January 2021.