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ASU researchers, architects build affordable green housing prototype

December 08, 2006

Building an affordable yet sustainable home is no small feat, however the ASU Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family proves it can be done with the completion of a demonstration home in Guadalupe, Ariz. The home features a design based on the unique characteristics of the town’s Yaqui and Mexican-American community, while dramatically reducing energy costs – electrical bills are estimated to cost $10 dollars a month.

This new home, built by the ASU Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family, is proving that a home can be both affordable and sustainable.

The entire home is made with green materials and techniques that take advantage of Arizona’s climate for heating and cooling needs and lower the home’s emission of gases harmful to the environment. The home marks the center’s second Affordable + Sustainable Design/Build Project, which builds prototype homes for low-income neighborhoods while teaching green-building principles to high school and college students.

Labor to build the home was largely provided by Guadalupe YouthBuild, ASU students, Phoenix JobCorps and Habitat for Humanity. In addition, ASU Stardust Center hired local Guadalupe residents to contribute to construction. Most of the eco-friendly building materials and technologies were donated or given at a discounted price and all are produced within Arizona (complete list provided below).

Green housing

ASU is one of the few universities in the nation to have a research-based design/build program focusing on affordable green housing. The Center’s long-term goal is to apply these efficient housing models to the housing industry and produce large-scale subdivisions of earth-friendly homes.

“Homes of this quality build healthier families psychologically and physically,” said Ernesto Fonseca, environmental design specialist at ASU Stardust Center. “Happier families, happier environment, happier minds.”

Supporters hope that this prototype will spark public and private initiatives to build more ecologically-aware housing for the general public. ASU researchers believe Americans are becoming more aware of the risks of global warming, and are slowly taking more responsibility for their energy output and what they can do to change it.

“There’s a crisis here, and we need to address it,” said Daniel Glenn, design director at ASU Stardust Center, referring to global warming. “That visible smoke stack is much more obvious than our own house, but we don’t think about the fact that every light bulb in our home is lit by burning a stack of coal in an electrical plant.”

Developers believe a home similar to the one built in Guadalupe, which cost the homeowner an estimated $90,000 due to donated labor and discounted materials, would cost the average family $140,000 and even less if it were built in mass production by housing developers. It is their vision that mainstream developers begin to incorporate green building designs because of the environmental and monetary impact.

The ASU Stardust Center began planning for the home in February of 2006, shortly after the completion and success of its first project, the Nageezi House, on the Navajo reservation in 2005.

Low-cost upkeep

Designers created the home with the intention of requiring very little monetary upkeep – the home will have minimal cooling needs and absolutely zero need for heating. Sunlight is largely used in place of artificial lighting and proper shading and orientation will protect the home in the summer months.

ASU representatives celebrated the home with a ceremony Dec. 8.

Thick walls made of Navajo FlexCrete, an aerated fly-ash concrete block produced and donated by the tribe, provide an insulation that maintains a balanced temperature within the home year round, dramatically reducing heating and cooling requirements. The minimal cooling requirements are provided by an alternative air conditioning system made by Alter-Air, which utilizes one-third the energy of a conventional system.

Solar panels donated by ASU’s Photovoltaic Energy Lab and installed on the rooftop are expected to provide 90 percent of the home’s electrical energy needs. Other energy-saving features include a tankless water heater system and double-paned Energy Star-rated windows.

The roof’s special design includes highly-insulated structural panels and a non-toxic roof coating called MirrorSeal that reflects the sun’s heat. The roof also serves as a rainwater harvesting system to collect water for future use – potentially saving 5,000 gallons of water per year. Water also is conserved with a grey-water collection system to irrigate the home’s courtyard and dual-flush toilets.

Energy savings

The goal for cost-saving techniques is not something that will run short-term. Over the years, the residents will save money on energy, thus decreasing their entire cost of living. Fonseca predicts the family’s electrical bill should only cost approximately $10 dollars a month because of the home’s design and its photovoltaic panels.

Most families over a 40-year period will pay upwards of $80,000 for their electricity. Utilizing the 300 days of guaranteed sunshine in Arizona, Fonseca expects the solar-equipped home will cost the family roughly $6,000 to $8,000 in the same 40-year period.

The modern kitchen focuses on both performance and efficiency.

As an active research facility, the home will be electronically monitored during the next year by ASU Stardust Center to confirm the center’s computer model predictions based on actual energy performance. The center will broadcast the ongoing energy monitoring of the home in real time online at

“Our previous home is outperforming its predictions and we expect a similar result with this latest effort,” said Glenn.

Because of the home’s expected efficiency in energy performance, it was selected to participate in the U.S. Green Building Council’s pilot program to develop its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) home rating system, which stems from the LEED Green Building Rating System™ for commercial buildings and is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings.

Guadalupe is a predominantly Pascua-Yaqui and Mexican-American community between Phoenix and Tempe. The residents of Guadalupe have managed to preserve a degree of cultural and geographic uniqueness while participating in the economic and political structure of Phoenix's society. Designers kept this powerful element in mind as they designed the home.

“I believe we are paying respect to these ancient cultures by creating new buildings that draw from those much older traditions,” said Glenn. “We need to recognize that the indigenous people of these regions successfully inhabited this Valley for years without destroying it, and yet we’re well on our way to destroying it in just about a century of inhabiting it.”

Cuturally responsive

Many components of the home’s design that met standards for minimal energy needs also attribute to meeting cultural needs. For example, the outside courtyard, equipped with a shaded trellis and water fountain to keep the area cool, additionally serves as a place for the tradition of frequent large family gatherings.

Olivia Bejarano says the Stardust home project has helped her family build their dream home.

Other culturally-responsive elements include a combined kitchen, dining and living area that makes the kitchen the heart of the home and a separate casita that serves as a room for adult children who share the home in this multi-generational household.

The house is designed to expand into a second floor since Mexican-American families often add onto their homes as their families grow. In addition, this home is designed to accommodate the future possibility of a wheelchair-bound resident.

“This project is helping us build a dream home, but in an affordable way,” said Olivia Bejarano, the mother of the family. “We love the design of our new home and look forward to living in it as a family.”