Passive Solar Construction on the Decline in Eldorado

By David Collins

April 19, 2008 The Santa Fe New Mexican


Builders who helped push Eldorado at Santa Fe to the forefront of a nationwide movement toward passive-solar architecture in the early 1980s say Eldorado buyers since then have expressed a mostly passive interest in free energy from the sun.

Today, new home buyers often put other amenities ahead of solar, according to some builders.

"When we made claims that there were 1,000 solar homes in Eldorado, it was true," said Mark Conkling, who worked with a company called Rational Alternatives to sell many of the early lots sold in Eldorado. "Then, Eldorado was on the map as a solar community all over the nation."

Analysts overwhelmingly point to the sunset of federal tax credits for passive-solar construction as a driving force behind the wane of passive-solar building nationwide, and in Eldorado, which boomed in the 1980s.

The tax credits followed the nation's wakeup call to an impending energy crisis in the 1970s, when motorists lined up for gasoline and oil prices started their ascent toward today's record prices. But the combination of circumstances that led to federal tax credits was not all that drove Eldorado's early solar ambitions, Chalom said.

There was no low-cost natural gas in Eldorado during the subdivision's early years. Homebuyers could realize considerable savings on energy costs by selecting passive-solar designs in what was otherwise an all-electric community.

"When natural gas got to Eldorao, the billboard that said 'the world's largest solar community' came down," said Mark Chalom, a south-county architect who has built about 100 solar homes during his
35-year career, including 15 or
20 of Eldorado's.

Nowadays, homebuyers would rather have another bathroom, an entertainment room, or just more square footage, Conkling said. Improved insulation packages still sell, because buyers know they can save energy costs, but Conkling said he learned not to brag about solar features.

"I didn't tell people it was solar," Conkling said. "I told them the windows were there for the views.

"Now what drives the housing market is price for a square foot, and how much stuff you get and how big is the payment. You don't find a lot of people out there trying to sell solar homes," he said.

It's not just buyers who changed, though, according to John Davis, now an Albuquerque builder who has built solar homes nationwide and in Eldorado for the past 30 years.

"The houses were too weird for most people," Davis said.

Early solar homes featured extensive south-side glass, often with experimental structural systems intended to store heat and often too little insulation to retain heat gathered from the sun, Davis said. These days, his products look more like typical houses, but perform as well or better than early solar homes in terms of energy savings and wintertime solar heat gain.

"The key to making passive solar look normal is to bring the heating loads of the house down so far by insulating it you don't need the amount of glass like we used to back in Eldorado," Davis said.

Most of the long-time solar builders contacted for this report said they are concerned about the market attention to size at the expense of efficiency. Most also acknowledged they have compromised — often regardless their personal preferences — to stay in the market.

"Rather than small and efficient homes, (buyers) have moved toward larger spaces, so of course we have adapted to the market," said John Di Janni, another long-time solar builder who helped build Eldorado.

Passive solar was the way of the future to the idealistic 30-year-old builder he was in the 1980s, Di Janni said. For him and his contemporaries, it was the way all houses should be built, and that's what they did "for two or three years," he said.