The Damianos’ house, located in Denver’s Highland neighborhood, runs completely on solar energy. When the couple approached Mike Moore, general contractor and design principal of the Boulder-based firm Tres Birds Workshop, sustainability topped their list of requirements. “The premise was to build a house that would last 400 years,” says John.
Though none of us can say for sure whether the house will be standing for the Damianos’ great-great-great-grandchildren, we can predict, based on a fastidious design process, time-tested materials, and advanced technologies, that the Damianos’ first home will enjoy a very long life.
An array of solar thermal tubes crowns the garage, and photovoltaic panels extend like wings over the third-floor deck. “If we were going to make a big architectural move, we had to have reasons,” Moore explains, referring to the conspicuous placement of the panels. “We needed array space with year-round direct sunlight as well as summer shade and rain protection, so it made sense to let them fly out.”
Underground, a superinsulated cistern stores 1,000 gallons of 180-degree solar-heated water, which can meet the house’s energy needs for a week even if the sun doesn’t shine. But lack of sunlight is not a problem here. Talk to any Denverite and you’re likely to hear one of the city’s top selling points: There are more sunny days per year here than in San Diego.
Thinking of going solar? See if photovoltaics (PVs) are right for you.
Before plopping panels on your roof, consider other ways to conserve electricity, like switching to CFL or LED lightbulbs and replacing inefficient electrical appliances like old refrigerators. “Conservation is the leanest means to reducing electrical use and fossil-fuel consumption,” Moore says. “PV panels require a lot of energy to produce, ship, install, and dispose of.”
Give your lot a once-over. To tap into affordable PV technology, you want a shadow-free environment and a south-facing roof with a 25-degree slope.
Examine your household’s energy usage by reading the kilowatt-hours-used line on your electricity bill. You’ll need a system that can meet this load—–but does not exceed it, as there are often no financial incentives to making more energy than you can use.
Look into buy-back agreements from your regional utility companies to eliminate the need of on-site batteries for energy storage. “Remember, PV panels make electricity during the day when most people are not home to use it and then are off at night when you
do want it,” Moore says.
The house that came with the lot had suffered years of neglect, but its old bricks were readily salvageable. Moore combined these with others taken from local demolition yards, piecing together beautiful, two-tone walls flecked with brightly painted pink, orange, lime green, and white bricks salvaged from a Denver elementary school. A close look at the wide plank floors on the first level reveals numbers printed at random. In their previous life, the boards were bleachers for a school sports stadium. “We didn’t have to do much to them,” Moore remarks appreciatively. “All those years under people’s rear ends gave them a nice smooth finish.”
In the last decade, Colorado forests have been devastated by the relentless presence of the pine beetle. Vast stands of dead trees create a serious wildfire threat and must be cleared, so some
resourceful craftspeople around the state are making use of the dried-up timber.
Moore has been using the so-called beetle-kill pine in his projects for years. In the Damianos’ house, he lined the floors, ceiling, cabinetry, and walls of the second-story living area, white-washing the planks “to let a little more sunlight bounce around the room.” Under the thin coating, the natural blue shade of the wood can be seen, adding subtle color and texture to the room.
While the design of their house automatically promotes energy efficiency, John and Paige can streamline their consumption even more by controlling their lighting and appliances remotely from their smartphones. The entertainment and security systems are housed in a central console in the basement, which works wirelessly. When the Damianos go skiing for the weekend, they can conserve electricity and keep the house secure from hundreds of miles away.
Keep tabs on your house—and energy use—while you’re away with a smart-home system, technologies, and devices like these:
On all three aboveground levels of the house, outdoor spaces feature as prominently as indoor ones. The backyard is lined with tiered concrete boxes for planting vegetables; the modest top floor—which houses the master bedroom—has a deck wrapping three sides; and in the middle, a 770-
square-foot green roof extends off the living area.
Sedums, perennials, and herbs thrive in four to eight inches of soil, enjoying direct southern exposure tempered by shade provided by the overhanging master bedroom. Two bedrooms on the second floor are for Rocco, the couple’s newborn son, and they hope another child within a few years. “We wanted the children to be able to come out of their rooms and see nature,” says John.
There are many ways to create a green roof, and deciding on an approach depends on where you
live and how supportive your house’s roof structure is. Homes in snowy areas generally have roofing thatis made to support a lot of water weight, but on the West Coast and in the South, most aren’t designed for the weight of a garden.
Directly applying four to eight inches of soil in a blanket across the roof means that if your roof can support it, you can grow not just sedum—the small plants typical of green roofs—but also plants with deeper roots like herbs and edibles.
Planter Boxes or Raised Beds:
Choose this option if your roofing material contains questionable toxins or if you can’t put soil directly on the roof. You still need to be able to support a fair bit of weight for this method.
Planting a hydroponic garden means you avoid the weight of soil, though water is still quite heavy. Numerous edibles can be grown hydroponically.
When not working in design, Sarah Rich writes, talks and forecasts about food and consumer culture.