Immobile Home

The Sun May Soon Set On A Couple's Self-Sufficient Solar Haven.

JIM AND MINDY Phypers have accomplished what the highly publicized and publicly subsidized solar community of Civano has not been able to do.

They've built a home that generates its own electricity, and collects, stores and purifies their water. Hot water for domestic use and for heating is delivered from solar panels; a greenhouse-Arizona room with a lap pool provides passive solar heating and a place to grow their own food. A compost pile consumes their biodegradable trash.

And it's very likely that Pima County will make them tear it down.

The Phyperses had originally planned to build a 1,600-square-foot adobe house. The County approved their plans and bids were coming in. They had their lot in the failed Diamond Bell development graded, a trench dug for a phone line, and a septic system dug.

They had planned to live in their single-wide mobile home while the adobe house was built, so they moved the trailer on site.

That's when the slow slide toward disaster began: Jim's health suddenly started to deteriorate.

Already disabled as the result of peripheral neuropathy, a progressive neurological disorder that makes standing or walking extremely painful, Mindy now had to devote time to looking after Jim. This meant that she gave up work outside the home.

With no regular job, any real chance at a mortgage to finance the adobe glimmered away. They had a nest egg, but now the family's only regular income was Jim's monthly Social Security check of $507.

Unfamiliar with the ins and outs of county zoning and building codes, with Jim's health declining and their savings beginning to drain away, the Phyperses decided to use the trailer as their permanent residence and began work on what they called their Solar Haven.

Jim and Mindy admit, in retrospect, that they're in part the architects of their own problems. They believed that the temporary trailer permit they'd received from Pima County was in fact permanent, and that it was legally possible to convert a mobile home to a single residence. They claim that this impression was reinforced by a telephone conversation with county staff.

The Phyperses are a well-educated couple. Jim is retired, with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and Mindy's background is nursing with a B.S. in environmental health. In the development of Solar Haven the research and design jobs have been Jim's responsibility.

Although they have been able to hire occasional workers to help with the heaviest jobs, much of what Jim calls the work work was Mindy's responsibility. When it came time to run the tubing for the floor heating system it was Mindy who spent days in the crawlspace underneath the trailer.

In order to prepare for full solar mode, the trailer had to be insulated. First the unit was covered with plastic sheeting as a vapor barrier. Two-inch-thick insulating panels covered the entire structure and were screwed to the trailer studs with three-inch screws, then wire mesh was attached and stucco was applied. The walls were further supported on a steel frame buried in 12 inches of concrete.

With the addition of a carport and a front deck, each anchored in cement and connected to the original trailer, all resemblance to a trailer home disappeared, and the entire structure is about as "mobile" as A Mountain. The only way to move it now is with a bulldozer and a wrecking ball.

The couple might have lived happily ever after except that a neighbor, their only neighbor, who lives about a quarter-mile away, was annoyed. Jim thinks it's because the Phyperses wouldn't pay thousands of bucks to have Trico Electric string in a power line to their home, which would have made it easier and cheaper to bring power to other Diamond Bell lots and increase property values.

So here they were with a perfectly insulated solar home that proved better than Civano what could be done if you set your mind to it, and they all of a sudden found themselves up to their armpits in building and zoning code violations. The initial threat was "move it or lose it"--but of course if they tried to move it they would lose it.

To be fair to Pima County staff, once they understood what was involved they were sympathetic enough to give the couple seven months to get things sorted out, to get the proper permits, submit the proper plans and have engineers certify the safety of the additions to the original trailer.

That may be a forlorn hope.

So far, 11 engineering firms have refused to touch the job of passing judgement on a retrofit project like this, pleading insurance and liability issues. Without an engineering firm willing to take on the job, it's goodbye Solar Haven.

Civano was subsidized by the City of Tucson to the tune of $3 million. The Phyperses, in contrast, haven't benefited from any public or private largesse. To date, no one in the renewable resources or solar technology industries has stepped forward to help. But Jim and Mindy could sure use it.

Tour Solar Haven online at
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