ROCKY MOUNTAIN INSTITUTE
Amory Lovins, Snowmass, Colorado, 1982
CAN CURVED WALLS KEEP YOUR HOUSE WARM IN 47°F WEATHER?
Physicist Amory Lovins co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 “to enhance global prosperity and security by fostering the efficient use of resources” (Yi et. al. Lovins GreenHome, 1). The organization’s first experiment was Lovins’ design for a self-sustaining homestead in Snowmass, Colorado. The form and assembly of the home would allow for heat retention, natural ventilation, and maximized solar gain. Around the house, Lovins installed a garden to grow herbs, fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The implementation of these off-the-grid technologies made the house fairly self-sustainable in the hostile climate of Snowmass, which is 7,100 feet above sea level, with a possible low temperature of -47°F and a possible high temperature of 90°F.
The form of the house supports greater thermal inertia, which is crucial for habitation in the harsh winters of Snowmass. The curved walls slow the ‘travel’ of heat outside and break apart possible wind turbulence. The central arch of the greenhouse wall can store heat for months. The greenhouse/atrial space encloses a 900 sq. ft. garden and pond. The atrium collects solar energy through five methods: visible light, photosynthesis, hot air, hot water, and ground heat. Combined with the deep foundations of the structure, which minimize thermal loss above the geothermal layer, the house creates a system of heat generation and retention through its basic structural form.
In total, the house cost $500,000, not including land and financing. At $130 per square foot, this included more than $50,000 of built-in furniture. In comparison to conventional building construction at the time, the Lovins House cost $19,112 more for its comparable materials (such as windows, roofing, and foundation insulation) but saved $10,254 a year. With the addition of other sustainable practices, the house paid for its premium within six months (Yi et. al. Lovins GreenHome. 9). Jeffrey Ball addressed the issues of the Lovins House’s capital cost in an article in the Wall Street Journal, where he called attention to middle-class practices and ‘low-tech,’ non-architectural solutions to energy efficiency: purpose-built pots that work with only energy-efficient stoves, dimly-lit interiors, and other lifestyle measures to decrease the load on the building’s green technologies. According to Ball, the cutting edge of green construction may not be affordable, but individual changes in consumption could help offset the initial capital costs.
In 2006, Lovins began an extensive renovation of the house, replacing windows, photovoltaics, LED fixtures, vacuum-panel doors, kitchen fixtures, and other smaller additions. These additions keep the Lovins Home as a living testbed for green construction research, supplying empirical results for new technologies as they become commercially available.
Lovins’ establishment of the Rocky Mountain Institute in the 1980’s, as well as the construction of his home and its headquarters, aimed to reflect directly on the social revolution he announced in his seminal book Soft Energy Paths in 1979. He saw his role to push the limits of building technologies, and to demand on the market and government institutions to make these technologies available at lower costs. In the book, he wrote: “Throughout the 20th century, the Western industrializing world grew ever more intoxicated with high-quality energy sources such as oil, coal, and nuclear. Using large-scale production of high-quality energy sources for low quality work (heating, cooling, domestic hot water, electricity) is not only wasteful, but also grossly unsustainable in the long-term” (Lovins, Soft Energy Paths, 41).
40 years later, many of Lovins’ ideas have become commonplace in the construction industry, with strides towards highly insulative and efficient building materials, renewables, and an emphasis on passive systems to do low-quality work at the domestic and commercial levels. Using the massively available energy from the sun, however inefficient solar array production may be (5-23% energy production), is an undeniable future of energy production. Losing reliance on mechanical systems in favor of low-tech solutions is not innovative – but rather common sense. While the home itself seems rather intuitive 40+ years after its construction, its role cannot be understated. It stands with definitive and conclusive data towards long-term thinking, as well as a move towards reliance on second-law thermodynamic building technologies. Deliberately using cutting edge technologies in the 1980’s has spurred market demand of solar thermal and massing systems, highly insulative and performative glazing systems, natural ventilation, and overall reliance towards on-site low-grade energy production years later. Let us hope that the home’s subsequent renovation, and $150,000 high-tech upgrade, will continue to not be in vain.
LACK OF INFORMATION: Project does not provide information on relationship between technology and dense urban sites.
HIGH COSTS: High capital cost is off-putting for average consumer
UNRECYCLABLE COMPONENTS: Green technologies must be replaced or upgraded to meet changing demands, and some are not recyclable (such as photovoltaics).