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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2008
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Sierra Magazine
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Comfort Zone | smart designs for pleasure and planet
A Bright Idea
By Reed McManus
September/October 2008

IF YOU LIVE IN A YURT, you might not be impressed with Suzanne Johnson's environmental footprint. After all, the retired Intel executive lives in a gated community overlooking Nevada's high-desert Carson Valley, where residents are required to build houses no smaller than 2,500 square feet. But in a development full of yes-I'm-rich mountain mansions with soaring windows and massive stonework, Johnson's relatively modest 3,400-square-foot home makes its mark. Thanks to solar power systems that generate her electricity, heat, and hot water, Johnson's annual energy costs last year "came very close to zero," she says. (And that doesn't include the $3,500 in renewable energy credits she earned for the surplus electricity she transferred to the local utility.) In a neighborhood where some residents' propane bills can top $8,000 annually and even the well-heeled set their thermostats to 58 degrees in winter, Johnson enjoys 65- to 68-degree comfort as fuel trucks pass by her house all winter long.

Johnson traces her obsession with solar to her days studying silicon as a chemistry student at the University of Arizona. The ubiquitous element that would create the computer industry and change the world got her thinking, "The sun is free too. So why aren't we using it?" Then she found mechanical engineer Jim Augustyn's 1979 The Solar Cat Book, whose simple premise is that cats understand solar energy better than humans do. By the 1990s, Johnson had converted her suburban Silicon Valley ranch house to photovoltaics.

When a minivan crashed through its front porch, the self-proclaimed "solar idealist" decided it was time to take on a project "from the ground up," this time in the less trafficked desert landscape she loved as a student. Johnson sought out architect David Arkin, whose ecological thinking embraces the gamut of green design, including the use of straw bale, rammed earth, sod roofing, natural cooling, thermal mass, radiant heat, daylighting, and nontoxic and salvaged materials--all of which found a place in Johnson's dream home.

Take on a labor of love like this and you too can spend more than two years tracking down flaps from junked Piper Cherokees (for passive solar shading) and old railroad tracks (ideal for mounting solar panels). Then there are beams to salvage from an aircraft hangar, floor planks from an old schoolhouse, and decking made of vinegar barrels. Recycled glass finds its way into kitchen countertops, and old mining screens--pebbles still embedded--make perfect light fixtures. (While reuse is certainly environmentally efficient, Johnson has an additional motive: She suffers from chemical sensitivities, and salvaged materials have already "outgassed" noxious fumes.)

The result is a quirky home with earthy tones and unexpected shapes and textures that looks like it was designed by a back-to-the-land artisan--OK, one with a million-dollar-plus budget. Open a hallway closet where the rest of us might store holiday ornaments and out-of-season clothes, and the bank of valves and gauges reminds you that the house is also part space station. It all comes together on a cold winter day, when Johnson can curl up on the sofa with her two cats to enjoy gentle, solar-generated radiant floor heat in front of windows positioned to maximize free-for-the-taking seasonal light (not to mention views of the expansive Carson Valley to the east and 10,633-foot-high Job's Peak to the southwest). "I like daylight," Johnson says. "Here, I don't have to turn lights on until dark."

Now Johnson's neighbors want to know how they can improve their insulation, install passive solar cooling, and even build a "constructed wetland" (yep, she's got one of those too). The wildlife are also curious: One day a black bear marched across the native plants on the "living roof" above Johnson's garage to get closer to a rhubarb pie she was baking.

"The house is built to work as a system," says former Internet executive Suzanne Johnson. "It's like an organism. When I feel a draft, I know exactly where it comes from."

Government obstacles: The septic system's mandated blower uses half again as much energy as the entire house.

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