TUCSON, Ariz. -- John Wesley Miller uses the words "latest and greatest" to describe the features and fixtures in the "net-zero" energy home he is unveiling at his Armory Park del Sol subdivision, but the bones of the building are old-school block and cement.
The reason is simple. The laws of thermodynamics haven't changed since Miller began harnessing the sun to heat his buildings more than 40 years ago.
"Heat always travels toward cold," Miller said recently as he described how the walls of this, the most efficient home he's ever built, act as "thermal-mass storage."
All the voids in the block are filled, creating mass to hold in the cold in summer and the warmth in winter -- with the exterior wrapped in insulation and coated with three layers of stucco.
"The name of the game in solar is control. You keep what's going on on the inside inside," he said.
"What's really important is making sure you have the envelope right. Then you can put all the bells and whistles on," said architect Hank Krzysik, who first worked with Miller at Biosphere 2 in the late 1980s.
Miller has learned (and taught) a few tricks over the years, but the basic envelope of a home is what makes everything else work, he said.
For this "Vision House" at 413 S. Third Ave., Miller teamed with Green Builder Media to create a showcase for recycled building materials, energy-efficient appliances and an experimental heating-cooling system, all powered by an array of photovoltaic panels that will generate 7.2 kilowatts of electricity at peak.
Two rooftop solar water heaters feed a 150-gallon tank that preheats outside air in winter and provides hot water. Russett Southwest Corp., which provided the heating-cooling system, will monitor its performance.
Once all the systems are operating and tested, they will meet or surpass the highest standards of local and regional green-building codes, said Krzysik. Solar panels will easily produce more energy than the home consumes, he said.
"It's amazing what can be done when we think sustainably and act accordingly," said Krzysik.
For Miller, Vision House is the capstone of his "recycled" subdivision at the eastern edge of downtown's Armory Park neighborhood, where the Southern Pacific Railroad once housed its workers, close by the tracks and yard.
Armory Park del Sol, which opened in 2001, was planned as a 99-home neighborhood of solar-powered homes. Three owners bought double lots. This is the 95th home built and only one lot remains.
This house has all the bells and whistles of the sustainable building movement: Recycled-glass countertops, electric-vehicle recharging station in the garage, 520-gallon rainwater catchment, lifetime cement shingles and remotely controlled appliances.
The price, $888,000 for 2,500 square feet of living area and a double garage, reflects the quality of the construction and the "latest and greatest" contents.
Projects such as Miller's "infill energy-efficient development is exactly what we need to be focusing on," said Rich Franz-Under, manager of Pima County's Green Building Program.
Miller has led by example, he said, in his new housing and his energy-saving retrofits.
"It's a way to start to shift people's understanding of what is the true cost of homeownership. Most people don't take into account their utility bills when they think about the cost of building. John has been a leader both locally and nationally in this for many, many years."
Miller began building passive solar structures with friend and colleague Carl Hodges at the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Lab in 1973 and later that decade managed construction at environmentally friendly Biosphere 2.
In 1981, he organized the first Solar Parade of Homes for the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and was involved in the Tucson Solar Village concept that grew into the new-urban community of Civano in southeast Tucson.
He was a member of the committee that devised a green-building code for the National Association of Home Builders.
Information from the Arizona Daily Star, http://azstarnet.com/