Some of your neighbors have been committed to renewable energy for more than 50 years. Two of them are Steve and Holly Baer who built their innovative, futuristic passive solar home along the east-west hill now known as Solar Hill below the escarpment. Over the decades, the Baers’ home has inspired dozens of Corraleños who realized the advantages of breaking free from fossil fuels. The Baer home here has been featured many times in publications and documentaries.
A prolific inventor and founder of Zomeworks, a solar energy firm in Albuquerque for many years, Steve Baer is considered one of the founders of “bioclimatic architecture.” In 2010, the government of France gave him a Global Award for Sustainable Architecture. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXIV No.22 January 9, 2016 “Bioclimatic Architect, 77 Year Old Steve Baer.”)
“We’re still here, and we still enjoy our comfortable home,” Holly Baer told Corrales Comment October 28.
Among the most innovative features of their home of interconnected domes is south-facing walls that fold down in winter to let the sun’s rays warm barrels of water that heat the structure based on polyhedra domes.
He began experimenting with solar heating for domes in the mid-1960s. In his 2016 interview, he assured that neither he nor anyone alive had invented solar energy for home heating. “I was not the first solar energy person in New Mexico. God no! Solar energy is all around us, in everything. Early Native Americans placed their cliff dwellings in a carefully plotted place.”
He added “There’s so much energy all around us that we overlook. It isn’t apparent, but we can gather it so easily. It’s surprising when you take these dead materials —this glass and metal and insulation— and place them together in very simple, easy-to-build forms, and in the middle of winter, there’s warmth!”
By Carol Merrill
A couple of our neighbors in Corrales have an electric car, a full solar array and geothermal heating and cooling on the cutting edge of climate-conscious living in their 3,000 sq. ft. home on Bosque Acres. “I want to do the right thing for the planet,” David Caldwell explained in an interview for Corrales Comment. “We can’t wait for the policy makers. We can take positive steps in our own lives right now to lower our carbon footprint.
“We generate our own electricity with our solar array and send it to our geothermal heating and cooling set-up which runs on electricity. Our electric car is powered by the sun. We have achieved 95 percent energy independence.”
The Caldwells’ lifestyle has roots in pre-history 10,000 years ago or more when our ancestors found that cave life and cliff dwellings took advantage of the constant temperature of the earth as respite from the ambient air temperature and weather conditions.
Five feet underground, the earth has a constant 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. The 21st century spin on tapping this energy source is at the Caldwell home.
Accessing this free energy is not inexpensive. David and Ellen Caldwell invested approximately $60,000 to install their geothermal heating and cooling system. State and federal tax credits lowered the total expense to $32,000.
On the East Coast where heating oil is expensive or for those who heat with propane or electricity, this set up might pay for itself in a less than a decade. For many New Mexicans, like the Caldwells, it is not yet cost effective since natural gas is inexpensive for now.
Another factor to keep in mind is that each individual site is different and there are many less costly ways to install a geothermal system that would be cost effective in New Mexico now. For example, installing the system in conjunction with building a new home where the tubing can be laid out in five trenches rather than the three much more costly 300-foot wells at the Caldwells’ house.
Caldwell shared this salient quote from http://www.energysage.com. “One of the biggest advantages of ground source heat pumps is their efficiency. A well-installed ground source heat pump system is capable of providing 3 to 4.5 times the amount of electrical energy it consumes in the form of heat energy for your home. This is possible because ground source heat pumps move heat, rather than burning fuel. As a comparison, the best oil-fueled furnaces can only approach a 1-to-1 ratio of energy consumed to heat energy provided.”
The cost was similar with the Caldwell solar array. The initial expense was approximately $58,000 and then $34,000 after state and federal tax credits.
The upside is that after ten years without an electric bill for their spacious home, the solar array will pay for itself. Soon they will have totally free electricity.
Ellen Caldwell said when they first installed the solar panels on the front of their property, her husband would sit under the portal with his feet up proudly observing the installation. After she persisted, they put up an artful wooden screen so their front yard didn’t look so industrial.
He took care of the research and installation of solar and geothermal, while she is in charge of writing letters to Congress and the press and donating money to organizations and indigenous peoples making a difference in the areas of green energy and climate-conscious decisions.
They keep the temperature at 68 degrees in winter and 76 degrees in the summer. The geothermal system is connected to simple thermostats in their home which control the output of the complex geothermal equipment in a large utility room at the back of their house.
Before they set up the system they had a home energy audit conducted to determine how they could make their home more energy efficient. The audit included a “blower door test” where a door was sealed off except for a big fan blowing air out from the inside of their house. They learned that all the cracks and tiny open spaces added up to a two-foot by two-foot open window.
They tightened up the envelope, so to speak, and insulated the roof carefully. Seven drafty 20-year-old skylights were upgraded and five more replaced with energy efficient solar tubes. The house was cold, hot and drafty before they sealed and insulated it thoroughly. After taking these first steps, it was cozy and comfortable year-round.
Installation of the geothermal equipment took one week to dig three 300-foot water wells and install hundreds of feet of tubing that carrys water with alcohol to circulate to the heat pumps and back deep into the ground.
That process provides a comfortable indoor temperature and domestic hot water. A new high-tech compressor that was supposed to last 30 years went out after only five years. The industry is a work in progress, David Caldwell observed.
For backup the Caldwells have a pellet stove and a gas fireplace just in case something breaks down. Their lovely home with a vaulted ceiling has the serene atmosphere you might find in a sanctuary. They sit out on their long portal gazing at their cottonwoods, watching the birds, rabbits and other wild visitors, knowing they are doing their part.
A one-of-a-kind pre-fabricated house is going up in Corrales with LEED Platinum credentials. The residence of Kyrie and Hal Stillman along Mariquita Road is being built with extraordinary attention to sustainably sourced materials and techniques. The Stillmans hope it will inspire other Corraleños and home builders, and so invite anyone interested to follow its progress on Instagram at RIFT_house.
As Hal Stillwell explained RIFT stands for “regenerative ingenuity for tomorrow,” while the acronym LEED, as coined by the U.S. Green Building Council, means “leadership in energy and environment design.”
After starting in 1993, the council established a rating for construction projects aiming for environmental sensitivities and performance, including energy conservation and carbon footprint. Four LEED certification levels were set: basic, silver, gold and platinum.
According to Stillman, a mechanical engineer, their new home is the first LEED Platinum residence in New Mexico. “We want to change the way people build. A home should use very few resources, it should be extremely energy efficient and it should re-generate, meaning net positive in energy.”
He said their home “will be net positive in energy, thoughtful and innovative in energy and water use, low in construction cost, and the landscape will be managed to make positive contributions to the local ecosystem.”
He described the exterior as Territorial style while the interior is “industrial, minimalist contemporary.”
Architecture is by Equiterra Regenerative Design; the builder is Norm Schreifels’ Sun Mountain Construction.
To highlight a few of the home’s features, Stillman explained that the exterior walls and roof were produced in a factory as graphite-enhanced structural insulated panels, with each piece labeled for assembly at the construction site.
“Those insulated panels are like a sandwich,” he explained. “Two sides of oriented strand board which is made from a fast-growing tree —all of which is utilized— cut into thin pieces and assembled into sheets.
“And some of these are very large sheets; some of them are 10 to 12 feet high. In between those sheets is expanded polystyrene. Now that is a chemical, but it is 98 percent air. It is impregnated with graphite, which is a naturally occurring mineral.”
Stillman said the air in the polystyrene is a really great insulator, and that is augmented by the graphite which “acts as an infrared heat mirror” inside the insulation. “So if any heat comes into the stucco from the outside, it reflects the heat back out. This is pretty unusual for an insulation system.”
And, he said, “there’s no thermal bridging,” since there is no direct path for heat to pass through a piece of wood into the structure, or to lose heat out. There’s insulation everywhere.”
The insulation value is R-30 for the walls, the roof R-60… and that’s before another layer of insulation is added in the ceiling.
“So the question arises: why would you go to this extreme? The answer is to absolutely minimize energy use.”
He projects that over the lifetime of his home it will effectively use almost no energy. We’re going to heat and cool it with an air source heat pump. This is the dominant form of heating and cooling around the world, except in the United States where it is now being promoted by the Department of Energy as a really good way to go.”
The windows are designed to bring light into the house but not heat.
The roof has a highly-reflective thermoplastic olefin membrane, while windows and doors are insulated to control heat loss. “The home will have integrated storage systems for electricity, heat and rainwater,” he added. “An array of photovoltaic panels will be sized to provide net positive generation, including vehicle charging.”
He expects to have the home included in the spring 2022 “Parade of Homes.”
Recycled materials are integrated throughout. Counter tops and ceramic tiles are said to contain at least 50 percent “pre-consumer waste.” The floor slab also incorporates recycled material.
The design has a wing for family and guests. “You don’t have to build this home at 3,800 square feet. If you build it smaller, it goes up quicker and simpler.”
He said he got interested in building a home in Corrales after renovating a 1915 mail-order house in Albuquerque last year. “I met a neighbor who suggested I should take a look at Corrales. We know Ann Taylor, so we went to see her and found out this lot was available. This is gorgeous.”
Both the garage and the residence will have roof top solar electric panels, so that the home will generate far more electricity than it uses. “We expect our monthly bill will be the connection fee, like $8 a month. That will include electric vehicle charging, all the heating and cooling and all the appliances which will be electric.
“Electricity is the way to go for sustainability.”
In his profession, Stillman has worked in environmental and energy systems for 40 years as chief technology officer for a major international corporation. “I’ve also been advising companies around the world about innovation.” He now works with Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago as a senior advisor to Energy and Global Security Group.
“Now, energy and sustainability… that’s global security these days. I understand the climate models that are coming.”
By Meredith Hughes
Back in March 2020, there was no bouncy grassy array on the east side of Pierce Howell’s “passivhaus” in the Corrales sandhills, no line of trees on the north side of the property, and even now, the 30 solar panels intended to provide an 8.1 kilowatt system to power both the house and two electric cars, are not yet erected.
Nor are the cars purchased. The entire building, however, is now skillfully sealed with elastomeric stucco.
And Howell, 85, is doing most of the work himself, his workers having either quit, or been fired. And his enthusiasm for this project —he has constructed over 50 houses, but nothing like this— is unabated.
Even as plans change. The original parallel garages now comprise a workshop, a large light-filled space which will become the studio for Ivana Starcevic, Howell’s longtime partner, a painter and photographer.
But the “shoebox” concept of the living area is unchanged. “It’s a 20 by 60 foot parallelepiped,” Howell explains, unhelpfully. Picture a long hall, off which are the living-dining-kitchen, two baths and two bedrooms, lit by LEDs, everything painted a fierce white, and almost complete.
One sees sinks, and countertops of durable, stain-resistant human-made quartz. A stove, too, in the galley kitchen. Progress! And, he emphasizes, “The roof is 24 inches thick, the doors four inches thick, and the walls 15 inches thick.”
“Must get the building inspector in here soon so we can plan our move here from Albuquerque,” he adds.
The shoebox entry way, incidentally, has a low, long shoe shelf built in.
“The tenet here is that each space works for more than one thing,” says Howell, and each space has its own water heater, and wall-mounted air condition/heat pump. So instead of waiting a possible 5-10 minutes for hot water to reach your shower from a hot water heater in a garage, you wait three seconds. “It’s ‘point of use,’ because the water is heated very near where you will use it.”
Another tenet in place is that Starcevic handles all landscaping or outdoor decisions, while Howell does indoor, within reason. She explains that the grassy area, not “a water saver,” is “a park blend and is watered every second day, once a week during fall and winter.”
It was planted so that the couple’s five dogs “have a place to safely play and also for cooling down during the summer. The grass also is shared with rabbits,” but Starcevic plans “to have some areas sectioned off with a fence to allow for rabbits and birds to have areas safe from our dogs.” A similar plan works well at their house in Albuquerque.
She stresses that a healthy and thick lawn, created with natural fertilizers, mowed only with electric tools, “helps clean the air, traps carbon dioxide, reduces erosion from stormwater runoff, improves soil, decreases noise pollution, and reduces temperatures.”
Planted now are junipers, emerald green and green giant thuja arborvitae, apple, plum and cherry trees, and Arizona ash trees.
In addition Starcevic will plant more trees, including more fruit trees, a wildflower meadow with bee-attracting plants; a veggie garden, some in raised beds, some in the ground; and roses “which require little care and produce flowers from May to late November.” Anything not planted will be covered with chipper mulch, “to prevent sand and dust from flying into our faces.”
Howell pointed out a door to the outside in the long hall, that Stracevic had insisted on, rightly so, he admitted, and the canine members of the family also have their own exit, a dog door built in Detroit, that will allow the critters to zoom out onto the lawn.
Another element coming is likely a Murphy bed for the former studio/now office, in the box-like structure covered in non-wood paneling which Howell built first.
But maybe hauling and installing those solar panels stored at the Albuquerque house will come first. Howell notes that Governor Lujan Grisham signed into law a solar bill, granting tax credits of up to $6000 for New Mexicans.
Howell admits he is again seeking a helper, “someone smart, reliable, who really likes construction, and is an all-round ‘good egg.’” And reiterates his loathing of Public Service Company of New Mexico, PNM, “that ruthless monster run by Shell Oil.
“Climate change is a real and present danger that is making us dead. And yet, we don’t have to do it that way.
“Fifty percent of the electricity used in Germany as of 2020 was generated by solar, as compared to two percent in the United States in 2019….”
He remembers well when Ronald Reagan removed the solar panels from Jimmy Carter’s White House in 1986. As reported by Scientific American Magazine in 2010, “The White House itself once harvested the power of the sun.
On June 20, 1979, the Carter administration installed 32 panels designed to harvest the sun's rays and use them to heat water. Here is what Carter predicted at the dedication ceremony: "In the year 2000, this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy.”
In 2013, the Obama administration began reinstalling White House solar panels.
You can read the first story about Howell’s sandhills house in the Corrales Comment articles archive at http://www.corralescomment-archive.com/71-2020-vol-xxxix-nos-1-24/5230-passivhaus-inspired-project-goes-up-in-the-sand-hills.
Howell’s favorite go-to construction experts and a website for “green” buiding are: GreenBuildingAdvisor.com; Joseph Lstiburek, PhD, described by Howell as “a consummate buiding scientist, but brilliant wise-ass;” Will Prowse. DIY Solar System video guy; and Matt Risinger, Texas homebuilder, a producer of helpful videos.
You can visit Pierce Howell’s website at piercechico.weebly.com.