The Future is Bright

Solar homes are key as we try to reduce our carbon footprint

Date April 17, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Real Estate

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What could the silver lining be as we face the daunting issue of global warming and our carbon emission increase?

Consider that the City of Santa Fe faced an overwhelming water crisis seven years ago. We used an average of 140 gallons per person per day in the year 2001. Our average use dropped to 106 gallons per person per day in 2006-a 32% reduction in water use over the course of 5 years. This change came about mostly because of creative solutions implemented by a community of aware individuals. Our water problems are not over. Nor is global warming an easy fix. However, with some hard work, creativity and imagination, we can turn it around in our community, in our very homes.

According to many sources, including Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030, operation of our buildings (heating, cooling, lighting), account for 50% of the carbon emissions in the US. If we include the worldwide emissions of the manufacture of building components, transportation of the components to the jobsite, and the emissions during the construction process itself, the number is closer to 66%! Consequently, addressing how we design, build, heat, cool, and light our homes can be a huge part of the solution.

Santa Fe was fortunate to be a world leader in residential solar building in the 70s. Many passive solar homes were built then that are still in warm, beautiful, energy reduced operation today. Unfortunately, other homes were designed and built with a disproportionately large percentage of solar gain, hence overheating. That problem, combined with cheap oil prices and a housing boom in the 80s and 90s, resulted in the imperative of solar construction getting lost on the sidelines.

Thanks to the new consciousness about global warming, the energy wars, the high price of oil, and a desire by many to simply "do the right thing," a new wave of interest is growing around solar homes. In the last year, the number of people we hear asking about "zero-energy" and "carbon-neutral" construction is substantially on the rise. The words "green" and "sustainable" have become buzzwords in many communities. When Vanity Fair prints their second annual Green issue, you know something is up in the collective consciousness.

Designing a solar home from the ground up is very cost-effective and energy efficient. A savings of 60% to 75% in energy costs (and greenhouse gases) is typically experienced in a well-designed passive solar home in our area. This savings in energy can usually be achieved with an increase in the construction budget of 10% or less.

There is a design-build method out of Germany that has recently been introduced in the U.S. called "the passive house"€ that uses passive solar gain, extra heavy insulation, very airtight construction, triple glazed windows and a few other options that is achieving an 80 to 90 percent reduction in heating and cooling bills. The cost of these homes is said to be only 15 to 20 percent above normal. There are over 6,000 of these homes in northern Europe today.

The wisdom of this tremendous return on investment, when designing passive solar into a new house-plan, is clear. With the cost of power on the rise and possibly tripling in the next 5 to 10 years, what once was considered radical design now really makes sense. This solar designed building will significantly help reduce our carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases.

There are many good architects, engineers, and contractors in northern New Mexico that are experienced and currently expanding their knowledge on implementing new techniques and products that are energy efficient and available today.

When considering a remodel for a reduction in energy use, there is a whole cornucopia of options: from the simple and relatively inexpensive, such as appliance replacement, to the more expensive and complex, such as adding photovoltaic panels and active solar collection. But let's start with the easiest to implement.

In my next article we'll discuss remodeling your home to make it more energy efficient.

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