Just like the Chinese proverb says, we live in interesting times—unfortunately! Global transitions are occurring that are going to end up significantly affecting most life forms on our planet and we can no longer ignore them or hope they’ll just go away. Massive hits to the global economy, uncontrolled population growth, catastrophic climate changes and disappearing species are all affecting us now—and they’re all going to get worse. What does the future of our planet look like and is there anything we as individuals can do?

As far as I am concerned, what you can do is to be aware and contribute in whatever way you can. As well as understanding that there is an increasing need for more self-reliance and healthier food, I have a vision of people living in greater harmony with our ecosystem and our neighbors—it’s a vision of living more harmoniously with the Earth, where humans learn to walk ever more gently on this wonderful planet of ours. After all, it’s the only home we have, so far. And we can begin by using less energy and utilizing the energy we do consume more wisely.

What kinds of change does this mean when it comes to our individual homes? I know that not everyone is in a position to shift their living patterns drastically and abruptly—and I know that such drastic changes are also pretty expensive. Upfront costs are always a major consideration. A gradual transformation in building practices, materials and paradigms could help to ease the way, though—and that’s what I’ve been doing for over a decade now, testing innovative and eco-friendly ideas, designs and systems in new homes.

Which brings me to the newest version of the ‘eco home’ or—more accurately—Sun Garden Homes. Our latest design target for energy reduction in our new homes is a whopping 85 per cent—and this is before the first solar panel is attached.

The house integrates bountiful, year-round hydroponic gardens and house systems, structures, materials and site design engineered to reduce energy demands, all while bringing fresh, oxygenated air into the home. The approach uses plants and nature to enhance the living experience. As a builder, horticulturalist and new technology developer, I am tantalized by design possibilities—those existing now and those yet to be developed—everywhere. That means that anything I write about this subject can only be an introduction to the possibilities, because I have still just scratched the surface; the options for the future are practically limitless.

For over a decade now I have been working toward this vision, to the point where the name Sun Garden Homes truly reflects the ‘eco home’ concept. My goal is to build affordable energy-efficient homes—where you don’t have to be rich to live in a more self-sustainable way. We all should start thinking about the idea of harnessing nature’s energy through earth-friendly means?

Integrating power from the sun, the ground, the air and plants can reduce home energy consumption by over 85 per cent. My latest home, for example, features an 85 per cent energy reduction in heating and cooling and a 75 per cent saving on lighting costs, while the CO2 levels of the home are reduced by over one third via the attached greenhouse, plants and HRV system. The new design incorporates an even greater reduction in petroleum use when you factor in active solar energy enhancements and the further application of other solar elements. Having returned recently from numerous meetings with solar product producers and designers, I can tell you there are many exciting new developments on the horizon when it comes to active solar energy products.

When it comes to the proverbial car in the garage, the new home is configured to incorporate a plug-in natural-gas Honda Civic. We already own a hybrid car (a Toyota Prius) and I am very excited about the new generation of energy-efficient vehicles—this is another piece in the puzzle when crafting future-ready energy-smart homes.

The natural gas Civic produces close to zero emissions and at current rates runs on about a dollar a gallon for fuel costs. Natural gas compressors range in price from $4,000 to $9,000—admittedly, these are steep upfront costs and at this time there not that many refueling stations. But it is another part of the solution and costs will go down. One estimate is that homes with plug-in hybrid vehicles will eventually reduce their overall petroleum demand by 80 per cent—and natural gas is a fairly readily available resource in North America.

Our homes utilize passive solar cooling and a greenhouse as a produce production unit and air purifier. The upfront cost on new construction is marginal, ranging from one to five per cent. The greenhouse is used as a passive solar system, magnifying heat and exchanging fresh air and as an indoor garden in winter—we even supply fresh basil in winter to several local restaurants. In the latest model, summertime cooling costs are targeted at 85 per cent less than comparable conventional new home designs, which will run you between $200 and $350 per month for cooling.

So what does ‘passive solar’ mean, exactly? Since the ‘70s, many engineers have worked on refining passive solar designs. The concept isn’t new—perhaps even dating back to the hanging gardens of Babylon. Passive solar designs capture the sun’s light and heat through window placement, home site placement and roof overhangs, while utilizing a heat sink to store and release the heat during colder seasons.

Overhang widths are designed to keep the high summer sun out and let low winter sunlight in. In addition, deciduous trees can be placed to help protect the home from heat gain during the hot summer months but let the winter sun shine through.

The greenhouse is vented directly into the mechanical system on the new model home and is opened and closed as supplemental heat is required. The heat will also travel via convection and rises to the highest level of the home by opening the greenhouse door manually.

Cool air then returns to the greenhouse, cooling the plants and creating a continual loop. The foundation and ground underneath the home function as the heat and cool sink and the latest home has a complete envelope of insulation. It also utilizes a state-of-the-art hybrid heating and cooling system, with a heat pump for primary heating and gas-forced air as backup. The heat pump becomes inefficient at temperatures below freezing, at which point the gas furnace kicks in. No geothermal runs are needed—there is radiant run through all slabs and garages to connect to the solar vacuum tubes.

Typically, two sides or 50 per cent of the basement walls are walkout and the framed walls of the house are insulated with one inch high-density foam around all exterior walls. In addition, stud walls have R19 batt insulation, so the total R value for the walls is R24 and for the ceilings R60—above local and national codes.

Neil Watson—a colleague and friend—visited one of our earlier model homes on a frigid winter day. We could only chat so long in the home, though, before the heat got to Neil and we had to step outside into the freezing cold to cool down—the 4,500 square foot home had reached 81° from the sun alone and was also heating a 500 square foot garage! I could only smile, for I was having fun showing him what the solar heating could do…

Thanks are due to many people, but I would like to give special shout outs to Paul Smith, Chris Asselberg and Barb Asselberg of Suncourt for their contributions with the HRVs (heat recovery ventilators); to the city of Bloomington, Indiana for contributing mulch from storm-downed trees; to Lawrence Brooke of General Hydroponics for nutrients and growing systems; to Mike Yosina for his contribution of the Bad Boy and his Just Right Extra potting mix; to Treg Bradley from Botanicare for Hydro Systems for growing basil and his Zho products—and to my wife Madelyn Ritrosky, PhD, for her contributions on the homes and articles. Thanks to one and all.