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An annual tour spotlights local cutting-edge dwellings

The fanciest thing about Mark Bergman's home is the backdrop: Practically on his doorstep, the Santa Catalina Mountains soar magnificently toward the sky, their peaks shimmering in a midmorning haze.

Few of man's creations can compete with that. But what the Bergman home has achieved is a simple elegance that belies one of the region's most remarkably advanced dwellings.

This warm and lovely house runs terrifically on a shoestring, and it's built with a low-maintenance bent that would make most of us green with envy.

It doesn't hurt that Bergman is an architectural designer, or that he wanted to prove a few things when he started building this home for his family a few years ago. Judge his effort for yourself on the annual Tucson Innovative Home Tour/Tucson Solar Tour. Each year, this well-organized excursion highlights the best and brightest in energy efficiency, featuring 20 beautifully clever dwellings, along with a bevy of experts and the "Next Generation Home Seminar."

Of course, sometimes innovation involves getting right down into the gristle of what makes our lives better—sans the excessive gadgets and technical wizardry. For instance, consider how the Bergman home was designed to maximize a sense of openness within its 2,200 square feet. "The house is basically one big room, with some small bedrooms," says Mark Bergman. "We have very small kids' bedrooms, and it's all open through my office. My idea was just to keep the family together, instead of everybody hiding out in their rooms."

Nor will you find this dad spending all of his family time keeping up on repairs. The house is as close to maintenance-free as you can get. Except for the trim, there's no wood to dry and warp in the desert heat. The heating and cooling system relies on water piped under the gorgeous, acid-stained concrete floor. That same water is then used for all household functions, from washing dishes to watering the fruit trees out back.

Bergman didn't just stumble onto these clever ideas, either. The longtime builder and designer has actually spent years honing concepts of what works and what does not. The result is a home that includes high thermal mass, super insulation, geothermal cooling and solar heating. The framing is steel, while the walls are constructed from "tridipanels." This state-of-the-art product features insulation sandwiched between rebar, which is then sealed with concrete once the walls are in place.

None of this is rocket science. But it doesn't need to be. "I was driven (by wanting) a long-term home that would cost less to operate," Bergman says. "I kind of drew from old-school technology—the old thermal-mass adobe houses from before people had air conditioning, and the cooling courtyard effect that's used so much in Mexico."

Its efficiency is perfectly coupled with aesthetics. The home is sunny and cheerful, with 15-foot-high ceilings in the living room and kitchen. Rustic doors of knotty, rough-cut alder open onto the courtyard, which is recessed in cool shadow. The interior walls are painted in burnt-orange-tinted roof coating. "That's why I'll never have to paint the house again," Bergman says.

Paul Huddy, who heads the Solar Institute, calls this "one of the most advanced and well-thought-out homes of its kind in Southern Arizona. It makes good, practical, cost-effective use of many of the best new advances in design and construction."

In fact, Huddy expects to see many more of these high-concept homes during what he considers a golden period for advanced, energy-efficient designs. Why the optimism? Because mainstream builders are now embracing many of the concepts pioneered by Bergman and other cutting-edge designers—a breakthrough popularized by the U.S. Green Building Council's certification program called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Considered the gold standard for sustainable building, the system provides intensive design guidance and helps promote green building.

"It's a way to motivate builders," Huddy says. "They get gold stars and silver stars and platinum stars. Being a national program, it gives them some claim to accomplishment" and can be a marketing tool.

Huddy also notes Pima County's "pioneering work" in promoting sustainable design. "They are one of the first local jurisdictions in the country to create their own local building energy-rating system," he says. "And it's the first local jurisdiction in the entire country to be accredited by the U.S. Green Building Council to perform LEED building ratings."

According to Huddy, more than 700 residences registered with the county program within the last year alone.

Locally, it's easy to understand why people are turning toward green homes: Each year, metro Tucson uses more than $1 billion in energy, equal to about 10 percent of our gross local product. But energy costs for green homes are often 75 percent below their traditional counterparts.

You'll see various green approaches on the tour, which, along with the Bergman home, will feature an "Earthship" design made famous by the late actor Dennis Weaver; a home constructed from aerated concrete that uses a sophisticated rainwater-harvesting system to fill its swimming pool; a top-notch, straw-bale bed and breakfast that garnered "Best Eco-Friendly Accommodation" honors from Arizona Highways magazine; and a new rammed-earth home where visitors will also be able to see walls under construction.

Back at the Bergman home, Mark is standing out in his cool, recessed courtyard. We've seen the system that sends water coursing beneath the floor to heat and cool the rooms, the deep-brown concrete floor that requires almost zero maintenance, and the charming side room, warmed by the sun, that's become a nursery for the family's new baby.

Now we're just enjoying this quiet hideaway. Bergman glances around what he calls his "summer porch." That would make the porch on the south his "winter porch," and today, it comes complete with a friendly, 100-pound Rottweiler and the remarkable view. Just down the hill are fruit trees that relish all the water that's already coursed through the floor of his house.

This is integration at its best. Bergman grins and glances over his shoulder. "Every bit of water I use," he says, "is actually cooling my house as we speak."

Cool indeed.

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