Is an energy efficient home enough to save the world?

By Rainy Adkins

Colorado’s high country is emerging as the home to some of the most energy-efficient houses on the planet. Even though temperatures dip well below zero in the winter these homes require no furnaces, and their solar panels allow them to actually make money selling electricity. The homeowners say they’ve built them deliberately to provide a model to navigate temperatures rising potentially 4 degrees worldwide.

“The race for our lives is most definitely on,” Rocky Mountian Institute chief scientist, writer, and physicist Amory Lovins said, munching on almonds and wheat-thins recently as he casually sat with a colorado college students to discuss his work. 

He led students on a tour of his private home, up from the Rocky Mountian Institute near Snowmass, Colorado. Visiting Lovins’ home, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), and the house of executive director for Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism, showed that some people are adapting to climate change by creating a living space that is both comfortable and clean for the environment. Relying on solar panels for power, a passive design strategy, and non-energy consumptive heating/cooling infrastructure these buildings are incredibly well-thought-out and purposeful. 

“Everything has at least three to five purposes,” Lovins said as he broke down the construction and defined all the reasons for each aspect. Curved walls on the south-facing side of his house were for aesthetics, structural stability, minimizing sound travel, a human adaption to curved surfaces and more. A jungle in the middle of his house divides his kitchen and dining room from his workspace and library. It serves the purpose of filtering air, dampening sound travel, setting a natural tone with a subtle gurgling waterfall, fulfilling a human need for greenery and providing fresh bananas, figs, and lime. 

“I’ll be sitting here during a blizzard leaning forwards for papaya and backward for mango,” Lovins said.

Lovins’ home makes use of passive design. With thick and insulated walls and windows, the house is in every practical sense airtight so energy isn’t wasted heating and cooling. The house is also oriented to the sun for lighting and heating.

“The archeologist whom we built this for will probably think it was for some primitive solar cult,”  Lovins said, smirking as he addressed his south-facing wall of windows. In the warmer afternoons, the sun heats the house because of this design, and it remains warm because of the heavy-duty insulation. 

The south-facing orientation also allows solar panels on the roof to capture the maximum amount of energy from the sun which powers all of the house. He has a laptop in his laundry room that monitors solar energy coming in and it’s consumption. 

Lovins incorporated his strategies and even more modern technologies into the construction of the RMI office building. It uses the same super-insulation and solar energy. The building has extra thick windows that are more insulating than most walls. Instead of using steel to frame the two-story workspace, mathematically placed wood beams support the load. A wall of plants filters the air and gives employees a sense of connection with nature. In the walls, it has mats with little pockets of beeswax that absorb or release heat. The building makes use of some of the newest housing technology in order to conserve energy and that isn’t cheap.

The building was expensive to make. It cost about $168 per square feet, making the total ring up near $2.5 million. But the building paid for itself back in five years said Josh Brooks, senior associate at the RMI. They generated so much extra energy that they were able to sell it back on the market and make a profit. 

Large upfront costs that come with these buildings often pay for themselves. Lovins and Brooks go around the country trying to convince key parties that switching to renewable energy or environmentally-friendly construction will save them money in the long run. Some people are convinced of this, and some are yet to be. 

Meanwhile across the snow-topped elk mountains, John Norton putters around a similarly energy-efficient home. Executive director for Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism and former chief of Crested Butte Ski company, Norton said in a recent interview that his house cost about as much as a comparable but less energy-efficient house on the market. 

Solar panels sit on his roof. He has a wood-fired oven for heat. A cement floor and wall that the fireplace is built into warm up when the fire is on, then store heat keeping the house at a nice 60 degrees when it gets to -20 degrees at night. His garage doors are opaque, letting light through but insulate against the cold so that he can spend time in the winter waxing skis without turning on the heat. 

Sitting, as a class, around Norton’s fireplace it was warm and inviting enough that most students peeled off a layer or two. In a comfortable home, where the stress of adding to the carbon concentration of the atmosphere is completely gone relaxation and optimism seem to be a trend. 

Lovins and Norton appear very proud of their homes and seem to enjoy holding court w students. But the fact remains that we’re locked into climate change. The UN Environment Assembly states “if existing Paris Agreement commitments are met, winter temperatures over the Arctic Ocean will increase 3-5°C.”

Audin Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, in a recent interview, talked about how individual action isn’t big enough to change the downward spiral we appear to be in. People can recycle, compost and buy as many recycled shoes as they want, but in the end, it won’t matter Schendler said.

More than anything else, Shendler said that direct political action is what’s needed to help improve our climate. Individual attempts won’t be enough.

“Climate solutions are systematic. They look like revolution… the real difference is political action.”

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