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Who knew that solar homes and Sophia Loren had so much in common? Solar homes have looks that could kill, absorb more sunlight than Demi Moore in Blame It On Rio, and look as modern and sexy as any catwalk in Paris.
Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many equally sexy solar homes blend perfectly into their neighborhood, proving that eco-home does not have to mean eco-chic. Indeed, all it really takes to significantly cut energy use in any home is some clever design and an understanding of the interconnectivity of home construction, people and environment. Our sun is the reason for life on this planet, and the sexiest homes will understand that, use it harmoniously—passively, in green building parlance—and in the process, make life more comfortable for residents, community and world.
The following seven homes exemplify the perks of solar home building. Traditionally, the sexiest American homes have been the biggest—the McMansions of the housing boom, or the exotic celebrity villas Robin Leach once so famously touted. But green and solar homes are reclaiming sexy for the small, the industrious, the energy-efficient and the tech-savvy. Not that all solar homes are simply yurts on a sunny hilltop. Using modern design, a solar home can comfortably house a family of four or more, as a few of these examples illustrate. Uniform in solar home construction, you will see, is an unrelenting and comprehensive focus on efficiency, from the design to the materials to the construction process itself. Observe…
#1 – Heather’s Home
Image credit: Ferrier Companies
Where else but Texas would one look for a solar home unafraid of bigness? There we find Heather’s Home, a near-zero-energy, 2,000 square-foot home of very modern design. Built as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America program, the home is made from eco-friendly products and is known for its affordability (Heather was just a twenty-something looking to build sustainably on a budget). The home has three bedrooms, two and a half baths, kitchen, dining room, great room, office and lofts.
Heather’s House utilizes passive solar design to minimize heating and cooling costs, a solar hot water heater, tubular skylights and a translucent roof in the storage room for daylighting. Walls and roof were made from structural insulated panels (SIPs), CFL lighting, bamboo flooring, low-flow fixtures, Energy Star appliances*, native landscaping, eco-friendly paints and stains, recycled siding, carpet made from recycled plastic bottles, rainwater catchment, termite protection (very important in the region), permeable driveway, programmable thermostats* and more. Heather’s Home was the first LEED for Homes (LEED-H) Platinum home in Texas and the third nationwide, and has won numerous other green building awards.
#2 – The MK Lotus
On the smaller side of “eco-prefab” comes the Lotus, designed by Michelle Kaufmann of MK Designs. Readers from San Francisco may know this sexy 700 square-foot solar home by sight, as it resides on a patch of land directly in front of SF City Hall. Like its Santa Monica cousin, the Lotus is Zero Energy, pre-fab (assembled in just a few days) and solar-powered. The shell incorporates a green roof, solar hot water heaters and solar panels*, which create enough electricity to power the home and charge an electric vehicle via the plug-in on the side of the house. Other energy-efficient and eco-friendly features include passive solar heat, daylighting, LED lighting, Energy Star appliances, zero-VOC paint, EcoResin, FSC-certified wood and fly-ash concrete. All that and a beautiful, open-air, big-feel design make the Lotus one of the sexiest solar homes in the West.
#3 – America’s First LEED-Platinum Home
LivingHomes is a leading developer of high-end, energy-efficient pre-fabs and noteworthy recipient of the first ever LEED for Homes Platinum certification for this super-energy-efficient home in Santa Monica, California. It’s a 2,500 square-foot prototype built in 2006 for LivingHomes founder Steve Glenn. The model home is a—get this—Zero Energy, Zero Water, Zero Waste, Zero Carbon and Zero Emissions home. Solar thermal collectors heat water for use in showers, sinks and for the radiant floor heating system. A 2.4-kilowatt solar electric system provides up to 80 percent of the house’s electricity demand. Given the size of the house, that is a small home solar power system providing a large percentage of energy, illustrating the use of passive solar design and efficient construction to minimize heating, cooling and electrical needs. The LivingHomes model was built in a factory and assembled on site in only one day.
#4 – Das “Cube House”
Image credit: Jim Tetro, DOE Solar Decathlon
Here we have Team Germany’s entrant into the 2009 Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition put on by the Department of Energy challenging university students to design and build an affordable, 100-percent solar-powered home. Team Germany’s Cube House won the pivotal Net Metering award at the Decathlon by creating more solar energy than the house consumed—despite three days of rain during the week-long competition. It did so using innovative thin-film CIGS solar panels for siding, as well as a rooftop solar array. All told, the 11.1-kW solar energy system provided more than twice the amount of energy that the simply-designed, ultra-sexy Cube House needed.
#5 – Stanton House
Image credit: Passive House Institute US
Here we have proof that a solar home can fit into any neighborhood, although the Stanton House is not just any home. It is one of only a handful in North American built to the very rigid, extremely efficient Passive House standards. The home is located in Urbana, Illinois. It has nearly 2,500 square feet of living space (including second story), and was built for Margaret and Gregory Stanton. Every bit of the home is built with efficiency in mind, from the 12 inches of under-slab insulation to 23.5 inches of blown-in roof insulation and all the materials in between. Of course, passive solar design, including triple-paned windows to name just one feature, is integral to the Stanton House. Indeed, it is a must for any solar home, indirectly “powering” the house by facilitating less power consumption. Solar thermal collectors provide hot water, and the roof is pre-wired and ready for a solar panel installation, though it hasn’t happened yet.
#6 – Tidwell Clean Energy Home
Image credit: Chesapeake Climate Action Network
And here we have solar sexiness on a very low budget. Introducing the life and times of the Tidwell Clean Energy Home. A pet project of owner Mike Tidwell, this conventional, grid-power-sucking home was converted to a solar home for the very-low price of $7,500. How did he do it? You can read the story at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Here are some highlights. First, a switch to energy efficient light bulbs and some minor lifestyle changes (e.g. drying clothes on the line), which cut electricity consumption by more than 50 percent. Then, he used an array of solar rebates available to Maryland homeowners (including federal rebates), installed a 36-panel solar PV system that provides 70 percent of the home’s electricity, a solar hot water heater, and a high-efficiency, corn-burning stove for heat. If you happen to live in the region, Mike Tidwell opens his home to the public every few months. All of these changes were made to an existing home.
#7 – The Auckland Solar Energy House
Image credit: Solar Energy House in Auckland Photo Gallery
Perhaps the biggest of the big solar homes, the designers of the Auckland Solar Energy House in New Zealand more than tripled the size of an old, inefficient 2,000 square-foot home and still managed to create a 6,555 sq. ft. structure that provides its own electricity, heat and hot water (including collecting its own water supply) for only $50 per month. It took two years of planning before renovation could even begin, but the results are simply amazing.
Walls, floors and ceilings have the highest possible R-value insulation stuffed tightly into them, the most energy efficient appliances are utilized, a fireplace and solar-heated radiators heat space, and bountiful rainwater in the coastal town provides all the water three adults and two teenagers could want. 4.42-kW of solar electricity powers the home, and a 158-gallon water tank is heated by the sun. These are just a few of the myriad energy efficient and green building features that make it possible to heat and power such a large home with primarily solar energy in a city that receives so much rain. Learn more here.
These are just seven homes in a global culture of architects, engineers, inventors and everyday families taking otherwise frumpy homes and converting (or designing) them into pure solar sexiness.
Dan Harding is a well-versed veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting. CalFinder Residential Solar Power is proud to tout Dan as their solar expert. He has published over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of solar industry topics, ranging from cutting-edge technology and gadgetry to political satire and powerful editorials.
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*Links to pages in sustainablog’s Green Choices product comparison engine