Enter the New American Dream House


Four years ago, Linda Rose and her husband, Eldon Haines, realized it might soon be time to consolidate -- and reinvent -- their family living arrangements. The retired couple lives in Eugene, Ore., where they have to negotiate 46 stairs from curb to doorstep every time they venture out. So the couple decided to build their own version of a dream retirement home in Rose's daughter's backyard in Portland, Ore.

The two life-long environmentalists didn't want just another house, however. The pair already burned old newspapers and cardboard in their wood stove and recycled or reused all plastic. They're proud to boast that they have generated two garbage cans of waste a year for the past 20 years.

EARTHLY PURSUIT. Haines, a nuclear physicist, has worked for decades as a consultant to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, most recently on the Mars Odyssey unmanned spacecraft. But he's also known nationwide as the inventor of the copper cricket, a solar water heater. "My real-life interest is the environment, not planet Mars," he likes to point out.

So it was only natural that the couple set out to build a home that generates all the energy it needs to run appliances, heating, and cooling. It's a pioneering effort in Oregon and one of the first in the nation.

These so-called net-energy homes go a step beyond the "zero-energy homes" promoted by the federal government, explains Charlie Stephens, residential energy specialist at the Oregon Energy Dept. in Salem. To qualify as zero-energy, a home need only generate enough electricity for 70% to 80% of its needs. The Rose House (that's what the owners like to call it), completed this summer, is energy self-sufficient, period.

MORE AFFORDABLE Such homes are at the cutting edge of alternative energy. Fewer than 500 zero-energy homes exist in the U.S. today, and net-energy homes are even rarer. One being constructed in the oceanfront community of Canon Beach, Ore., will store hot water in wells drilled through basalt several hundred feet down. The idea is to store heat in the stone to be siphoned into the house later. Clever as this system is, it costs several thousand dollars extra. You won't find one in the aisles of Home Depot (HD) or Lowes (LOW).

The Rose House takes a different design path. It's plainer and more affordable than most such experiments. In fact, this one-story, green-colored home with a steepled roof looks deceptively normal. Set in a quiet residential neighborhood, it's surrounded by tall sunflowers and beds of tomatoes and squash. It only has 800 square feet of living space: two bedrooms and one bathroom.

The Rose House's owners received $27,750 worth of government grants from the likes of the Energy Trust of Oregon for the construction. With the grants figured in, they estimate they spent about $146 per square foot to build the home. That's 22% more than Portland's going price of $120 per square foot for a standard home. But because Rose and Haines will have no energy bills to pay, they'll save hundreds of dollars each year.

HIGHER RESALE VALUES. The economics might turn out to be even more favorable as utilities start to pay for electricity that residential customers generate. In Tennessee solar-home owners receive 15 cents per kilowatt hour produced (an average solar home produces 6,000 kilowatt hours a year). They pay only 6 cents per kilowatt hour that they buy from the utility. That's one of the more generous deals in the nation.

Builders in California have found that energy-efficient homes have a higher resale value than traditional homes, says John Suppes, president of Clarum Homes, which expects to have built 277 zero-energy homes in California by yearend. A June survey of 600 Californians conducted for Environment California Research & Policy Center indicated that 63% of respondents said they would pay more for a solar home.

In Oregon, the Rose House doubles as a research lab, monitored by scientists from Oregon Institute of Technology, among others, and some of its features could show up in new housing developments to be built in the state capital of Salem in 2006. Sensors dispersed throughout the home measure temperature of the exterior and interior walls and on the roof. Energy generation and consumption is constantly monitored. For the next two years this data will be fed to researchers and builders throughout the state - and soon onto the Web for anyone to see.

HOT AIR AT WORK. The reason for the study, in part, is to motivate more builders to construct energy-efficient homes. The Rose House was recently featured on a local "Build It Green!" tour, showcasing 20 Portland homes incorporating innovative environmental ideas. "My hope is that anyone would be able to see themselves in it," says Clark Brockman, project manager at SERA Architects in Portland, who designed the house. "That they don't think of a net-energy house as something out of a sci-fi movie."

Space-age technology is certainly at the core of the experiment. Part of the house's south-facing roof is covered with 300 square feet of solar panels that should produce 6,000 kilowatt hours a year (a typical American household spends 2,000 kilowatt hours a year on lighting alone). A special system sucks in hot air from underneath the solar panels -- it's typically heated to more than 100 degrees -- and uses it to heat water and air inside the house.

In addition, Haines's invention, the copper cricket, uses the sun's energy during the summer to heat water. Together these contraptions should produce enough hot water for a hot shower.

"MORE ALIVE." A special energy-recovery ventilator -- a file-cabinet-size box -- recaptures heat leaving the house and recycles it. A big part of creating an energy-efficient home is an air-tight design. In a typical older home the whole volume of air escapes through cracks and crannies in less than an hour. In an energy-efficient home, walls, roof, and foundation are designed to reduce this air exchange to once every three hours or even longer.

The Rose House features so-called staggered-stud walls, which prevent heat from leaving the house and the cold from entering it. And its special air-exchange system prevents the house from becoming too stuffy. "You can almost feel the house breathing in the night," says Haines. "It feels more alive."

Haines hopes that as more people see his house, they'll feel it, too, and follow his lead. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.


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