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A tour of eco-friendly Tucson houses shows the possibilities for a brighter future

There's an insurgent joy to the clipped power cables poking from Brad Lancaster's home. And there's a defiant beauty to the lush enclave that surrounds his old adobe. All off the grid and flush with desert shrubs, trees, lizards and birds, his world thrives on a fraction of the energy and water used by most Tucsonans.

Lancaster handed Tucson Electric its walking papers a few years ago, when his residence went all solar. And while Tucson Water is still on the scene, the utility doesn't pull much weight around here. Instead, clever landscape design, abundant gray-water use and a 1,200-gallon concrete cistern maintain this exuberant oasis.

A big, friendly guy with a reddish beard, Lancaster strides around his downtown-area enclave with a kid's enthusiasm. "This is our laboratory and our playground," he says. In fact, he's fashioned an upbeat career from showing how folks can squeeze their earthly impact to miniscule proportions. He recently authored Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands (Rainsource Press, 2006). And he says achieving drastic reductions in water and electricity use don't require rocket science.

You can learn more yourself this weekend, when Lancaster's home is featured on the 11th annual Tucson Innovative Home Tour and Tucson Solar Tour. Co-sponsored by the Solar Institute, the event highlights 20 award-winning sites that illustrate how to slash water and energy use, without living like a Spartan. From expert speakers, you can also learn how to cut home construction costs in half and save up to 80 percent in electricity and gas costs.

Paul Huddy is a physicist and the Solar Institute's chief scientist. He says it's never been more critical to look hard at conservation techniques offered by the tour. "The world's population just turned 6.6 billion. The population of the United States reached 300 million, and the population of the Tucson metropolitan area is about to reach 1 million.

"All over the planet, this growth of human population is having very big impacts on the planet that sustains us," he says. Given those numbers, "it's no coincidence that almost every major government issue has to do with greater competition for dwindling resources."

Those resources are particularly tight in Tucson, he says. "This is a desert, and one of the least sustainable environments in the entire country. So we import from distant places all of the things sustaining us--energy, food, building materials. And that is becoming steadily more difficult and expensive."

To Huddy, the message is clear. "We need to look at a new way of doing things," he says. "The environment was an important concept for us around 1970. At this point, sustainability is the important concept. We need to learn how to fit in with nature and our local environment better, so we don't have to import all this stuff--so we can sustain ourselves better."

Nor could we find a better community for getting into a sustainable mode, he says. "Tucson is really being recognized as a leader in this sort of thing. Professionals come here from around the world for that reason. And the Tucson Innovative Home Tour was established so that everybody else could learn about sustainability.

"This gives people a chance to find out how to live better in the desert, " he says. And there's an added bonus: "Approaching your lifestyle through the concept of sustainability can be a whale of a lot less expensive."

Just ask Brad Lancaster. His utility bills are miniscule. And he's created his Xanadu on a shoestring. "We started where it's the cheapest and easiest to harvest water," he says. "That's the landscape, because you don't need to worry about water quality issues.

"Here's a kicker," he says. "Thirty percent of the potable water consumed in an average single family home in Tucson is cast in the dirt. It's used for irrigation. Another 30 percent in the house goes down the toilet. And we go to such a huge expense purifying this water to deliver to every home.

"But a simple way for people to shift out of that 30 percent for landscape use is to set up simple water-harvesting networks, so water falling from the sky pools in basins. Then we mulch those basins heavily, and we vegetate them heavily, so they become living sponges where the water rapidly infiltrates."

In turn, that water is "recycled" into plants and trees. "They are living pumps," he says, "that allow us to access the water in the form of passive cooling shade, wildlife habitat, food from the mesquite pods, ironwood seeds and oranges, peaches and pomegranates." Those trees also keep his home some 20 degrees cooler than unshaded parts of the neighborhood.

In turn, a solar-powered washing machine is shared with neighbors. It directs gray water to trees around the yard, each connected by a separate piping system. Sun-drenched parts of Lancaster's home are shaded with vines and trellises, and the vegetable garden is irrigated by harvested rainwater.

And we're talking lots of rainwater. In a given year, he captures about 100,000 gallons in the cistern and basins. Compare that to the average Tucson family, which uses about 20,000 gallons of water each year.

There there's the 25 percent of his food needs grown in his own garden, the photovoltaic solar power system, the solar water heaters and the solar oven where most of the food is cooked.

And the 748-square-foot home "doesn't have mechanical heating or cooling," he says. "We open the house up at night and close it during the day. Now, it's not like going into a city building with 76-degree air conditioning, but I feel a lot healthier, because I'm not going from one extreme temperature to another."

If you're not convinced, take a moment to ponder Lancaster's utility bills. "Right now, it's about $20 a month," he says with a big smile.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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