By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Robert Carr used to live in Independence, Mo. Now he’s trying to live in independence (small “i”) in New Mexico.
To call the house he and his wife Nancy are building just north of Tucumcari unconventional might be an understatement. He’s building it to be as ‘”renewable and green” as a house can be.
Starting with the house’s orientation so that its large windows face true south, the home is designed to make maximum use of solar energy for hot water, power and interior heating and cooling. In addition, he is designing systems that collect “gray water,” the water that comes from emptying the shower, tub or sink, and storm drainage for irrigation, and even to process raw sewage into compost for plants.
The 1,300 square-foot house is encased in concrete walls resting on plastic foam layers that provide insulation. It has a vaulted ceiling that supports an oversize blue metal roof that will eventually house both “passive” solar panels that heat water and photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity.
The roof extends beyond the home’s southeast-facing wall to create four-foot eaves. These pronounced eaves, he said, will be low enough to provide shade in summer but high enough to allow solar heat to warm the floor in winter.
The vaulted ceiling includes high windows for lighting and will keep warm air aloft. In the winter, that will help with heating, he said.
In summer, a whole-house fan will draw hot air out. On the opposite wall, low-lying filtered vents will cool and filter air that is allowed into the house. These features, he said, should allow the home’s evaporative cooler to work at maximum efficiency
A solar-powered pump will deliver drinking water to the house from a well. The water will then be filtered and treated with ultraviolet light for drinking and stored in a 750-gallon tank in the rear of the house. Another 1,500 gallon tank in that area will store “gray water’ for watering plants.
The photovoltaic panels on the roof will provide sufficient power on most days to keep the house running, Carr said. He had planned to use a storage battery system to store electricity for use on cloudy days, but an electrical inspector told him he could not place those batteries inside the house, he said. Otherwise, Carr said, he could live completely off-grid.
One large room in the house, he said, will be devoted to plants, including fruits and vegetables, as well as flowers. He hopes to grow many of them, especially tomatoes, hydroponically — without soil — in a pool of nutient-enriched water.
He has installed a composting toilet, as well, which includes a compartment that processes waste into compost with help from chemicals and bacteria.
The home’s lighting fixtures and some of the cabinetry came from the Re-Store facility in Amarillo, which resells fixtures and materials salvaged from remodeling projects and building demolition.
Aside from recycling, he said, using these pre-owned fixtures saved him hundreds of dollars.
Bob Hockaday, a Tucumcari engineer and inventor whose focus has been solar energy, said he has toured the Carrs’ house, and said the home is likely to fulfill the self-sustaining mission that Carr has in mind for it.
While some of the ideas that Carr is incorporating are new, such as the energy-efficient argon gas-filled windows just below the ceiling, many of them, including the high ceiling and the oversize eaves, have been applied successfully for centuries, Hockaday said.
While some of Carr’s objectives for his self-sustaining home are related to environmental benefit, he said, he is preparing to live on Social Security and his goal is to keep his living expenses below $600 a month, which would leave some left over for his favorite hobby, rebuilding cars.
Carr retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 2010. He worked at the Kansas City Post Office, where he serviced electronic mail-sorting and other equipment.
Many of the ideas he is incorporating into his house, he said, came from visits to the “Earthship” houses in a neighborhood north of Taos.
According to the Earthship website, these homes features off-grid houses built from recycled material and include many energy-efficiency and material recycling features, as well as lots of space for indoor plants. Typically, “Earthship” houses start out as foundations built by stacking old tires like bricks along vertical walls dug out of hillsides or a few feet underground and mortarting the tires with earth. The supporting walls of these homes, then, are generally underground.
Carr, too, is building a wall of tires to shield his house from prevailing southerly winds, he said.
Are his plans expensive? Carr admits the project is taking much of his life savings, but he believes the investment will pay off with a house that allows maximum comfort and livability while minimizing his future cost of living.