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Solar Culture

Home tour shines on houses that use ample solar energy.


This weekend's Innovative Home Tour is a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is event for people concerned about energy consumption and environmental protection.

According to a survey conducted by the state's Energy Office, Arizona's desert dwellers support the concept of solar energy so strongly that they would be willing to pay $1 per month more on their utility bills just to use that power of nature. The Innovative Home Tour, the largest such event in the nation, will introduce new, affordable, environmentally friendly home designs that integrate solar power.

"We were the first with the most," says organizer Paul Huddy, a building design consultant working on the sixth annual tour, which he describes as a non-profit, non-commercial, community-sharing event. "Tucson is recognized by HUD and the Department of Energy as a leader in things like solar energy, alternative buildings and sustainable building practices."

This year's tour will feature 20 residences where visitors can see design advances, heating and cooling improvements, a variety of new building materials and diverse ways to save energy, water and resources. "It's bigger and better than last year with new homes and different ways of doing things in terms of materials, technology, design and construction," says Huddy.

Because of the size and scope of the event, attendees will visit from throughout the West to look and learn; about 1,500 are expected to show up to tour as many of the homes as they can in two days. The tour will include examples of passive solar energy, efficient water use, healthy home strategies and building alternatives ranging from adobe, rammed earth and straw bale to integrated concrete forms and structurally insulated panels. "The tour is even more special this year because, in cooperation with the Tucson Commission for Disability Issues, a number of houses have been chosen based on their lifetime design and accessibility features," says Huddy.

Also new this year will be a follow-up on Next Generation Home, a seminar planned for October 27, a how-to course showing materials and processes designed to drastically cut homebuilding costs.

"Residences on the tour are real homes for real people with an emphasis on practicality and cost," says Huddy. "And they provide visible proof to support our tour theme of how to live better, more comfortably, more affordably and more in harmony with the natural environment."

Ron and Paula Carswell live in such a home, a foothills abode so innovative it is featured on the cover of this month's Solar Today magazine. "You fight the desert, you lose," Ron says simply. "I grew up here with the sun as my logic teacher and an ingrained lesson of 'waste nothing, harvest everything.'"

The Carswells have a seven-room, 5,500-square-foot home built with super-insulated straw bale walls offering an insulation factor of R-50. They say their adherence to the principles of leading-edge solar technology allow them to save 85 percent on utility costs over those of a standard Southwestern stick-and-stucco home. "Our investment was only 15 percent above conventional pricing, and yet our average utility bill runs just $125 a month--and the pool and spa account for half of that amount," says Ron.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the nation's population will grow by 50 million in less than 20 years, with the greatest growth in western states. Sunlight will be one of the keys to future desert development, says Huddy, former director of the Arizona Solar Energy Commission. "The problem isn't technical or economic. It's political and institutional, with some large and powerful companies continuing to perpetuate old paradigms involving traditional energy sources," he says.

"We have a lot of work to do to become independent of our current addiction to traditional energy sources," says Carswell, mindful that journeys of a thousand miles still begin with that first step.

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