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New Energy Efficient Home With Colorado Roots
Curvy and clad in shiny aluminum, Element House may look from afar like some advanced space colony dropped into the dusty brown New Mexico desert, but up close, it has all the comforts of home: pitched roofs, chimneys, picture windows.
Of course, the real beauty of this recently-completed residential experiment is in the way it adapts those familiar shapes into an affordable, efficient dwelling that functions off the energy grid. Those nine chimneys, for example, don't actually serve as flues; they're shafts that let sunshine in and hot air out, lessening the need for artificial lights and pricey climate control.
With its mix of symbolism and purposeful execution, Element House is as much a piece of art as it is architecture, and that makes it an apt project for Englewood's Museum of Outdoor Arts, which has been its chief cheerleader and financial backer. "Element House is about rethinking what an outdoor museum really is and what it can be," said MOA Executive Director Cynthia Madden-Leitner.
The museum has been around since 1981 and it has overlapping missions. The nonprofit institution sponsors installations of site-specific sculpture at various, open-air locations and shows artists in its indoor gallery. It has long been interested in exploring how art and design can contribute to healthy, sustainable landscapes.
Element House started as an exhibit bringing those goals together. The gallery invited the New York architecture firm MOS, headed by Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, to create an idea for design-forward, environmentally-friendly, modular dwellings that could be replicated inexpensively. The results were featured in a show of drawings and models that went up in 2010.
But MOA realized the potential of the plans and set about making the idea a reality. It found the perfect location: a remote, 90,000-acre ranch near Anton Chico, N.M., where artist Charles Ross is carving a monumental earthwork called "Star Axis" into the side of a mesa.
"Star Axis" is about as unique a piece of art as one can imagine, basically a narrow, 11-story, stone stairway that's aligned with the earth's axis and allows visitors an encapsulated view of a millennia of celestial activity. Ross has been working on it since 1971 and figures he'll finish in a year, or three.
Element House, on a rugged dirt road about 30 miles from Las Vegas, N.M., could eventually serve as a guesthouse where visitors stay while taking in Ross' finished work. In the short term, it's a place where folks who want to contribute to the project's completion can hole up for an early peek.
But Element House stands apart as a marvel of its own. The two-bedroom, one-bath structure is basically a series of connected modules with walls and floors made from structured insulated panels. The SIPS, as they're called, are prefabricated in a factory and assembled together on site. They're easy to get — SIPS can be ordered right off the Internet — and can be connected quickly and cost-effectively and without much construction waste.
Even better, the modules are flexible. Future Element Houses can be bigger or smaller than the 1,543-square-foot model on display. They could be sheathed in other materials, like wood shingles. They could be configured into communities of similar houses near one another, or even connected together in a circle for greater efficiency. The size of individual dwellings can grow or shrink.
On the inside, the first Element House is relentlessly white, otherwise it resembles any home with an open, contemporary plan that has a living room, dining area and kitchen linked together into a single area, with sleeping quarters set off to the side. The home's shape, including its soaring ceilings and the way its private rooms extend from the main space, is derived from the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical growth pattern that appears organically in many natural organisms.
Unlike most suburban ranch homes, Element House employs passive solar energy systems instead of mechanical equipment. Its floor-to-ceiling windows are set at sun-friendly angles and warm the concrete floors during cooler months. The aluminum shingles reflect the sun in extreme heat. Advanced insulation in the wall panels minimizes temperature fluctuation.
The lights are LED and much of its water recycles itself. It's not winterized, though it has most of the basics, a fridge, oven and a stove powered by propane.
It's a high-end building, but it was put together nearly by hand with much of the work a labor of painstaking love done by Sky Madden, Cynthia's son and the project manager who stayed near the site during construction and brought in crews to assist.
"The SIPS panels actually went up pretty fast. You just have to glue them together," said Sky Madden. "They're like Legos in a way."
Element House is already getting noticed. The project won this year's Architecture Design award from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. It's a big recognition that will make people pay attention to its possibilities; larger or more elaborate versions of the design could become a reality.
In the meantime, it has a simpler job: it just needs to exist — to test its energy systems in a place where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, to see how it interacts with the environment and to determine, importantly, if the folks who stay there find the place cozy — not exactly the kind of word architects use, but one that's crucial to the way people live in the real world.
Element House has some advantages there. Its traditional residential shape offers emotional satisfaction. Its size, just one story tall, sets it on a human scale. Its layout, with everything centered around a communal space, gives it a hint of that thing modern designers seek hardest to create — the current day equivalent of a hearth. The house of the future, whether it looks like a space station or the bungalow down the street, will need to be a comfortable place.
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My name is Michael Ross Steffen. I’m an Exit Realty Cherry Creek Agent in the Denver metro area and Team Leader For Generation Property Group! We specialize in advanced Internet marketing, buying, s....