According to the latest American Housing Survey conducted by the U.S. Census, as of 2011 there were 1.8 million housing units in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. And as most Phoenicians can attest, all of them struggle to efficiently and comfortably shelter their occupants from our extreme Sonoran climate.
After relocating to Phoenix from Seattle in 2005, Austin Trautman noted the summertime comfort sacrifices desert dwellers make to minimize triple-digit electric bills. He also fell in love with the desert — which to him first seemed harsh and lifeless, but he soon realized was a delicately balanced, intelligently evolved ecosystem. With nature as inspiration, he had a vision for a comfortable and well-designed home that worked with, not against, the desert climate.
“The truth is that homes in Phoenix are built using building techniques from more temperate, less sunny climates, and with materials that don’t create comfortable desert shelter,” explains Austin. “These structures struggle with the extreme heat, UV exposure, and intermittent bursts of humidity and rainfall, and literally begin to deteriorate the minute they’re completed.”
To understand the current state of homebuilding in Arizona, it’s important to consider the three seismic shifts in Phoenix development over the past half century:
- The first was tied to the advent of central air conditioning that ushered in farm-to-suburban development, and the glass-walled mid-century homes that we all know and love. Energy was cheap, and little thought was given to efficiency as these homes were filled with countless holes and cracks.
- Next came the energy crisis of the late 70s/80s, and a shift toward “tighter” structures, with far less design and glass area. As square footage continued to increase, builders “sealed” homes, but in doing so trapped radon, moisture and stale air indoors and the dreaded “sick building syndrome”
- The third shift came as solar power became more economical and owners began installing rooftop panels in an attempt to offset energy consumption, and preserve the environment. Yet as electric utilities started changing rate plans to juggle stricter environmental standards, and the different usage patterns of solar homes, solar ROI became less compelling.
Phoenicians know a cool home is critical to surviving a desert summer, but this luxury often comes with monthly electric bills in the hundreds of dollars. And the less efficient the home, the higher those bills are, and will continue to be. Austin explains, “Think of life in the desert as a three-legged stool — you have the temperature you’re willing to tolerate, the price of electricity, and the efficiency of your home. Increasing the temperature can reduce your expenses, but it is no fun. As utilities move to new demand pricing models, consumers will need to pay even more attention to consumption, and make additional comfort sacrifices, to keep bills down during peak demand periods. All of this is a hassle.”
Until now, no-one has truly addressed the third leg in the stool – the efficiency of the house.
“The next shift in Phoenix development is underway,” Austin explains. “Rather than wrapping poorly built frames in foam and plastic, and throwing expensive technology at these structures to improve efficiency, the focus must now be on creating intelligently designed structures from the outset.”
This is where Austin saw opportunity to totally rethink the design, and performance of a desert home. He spent three years researching best-in-class green, passive and net-zero building techniques from all parts of the world before founding Phoenix-based Vali Homes in 2013.
“The Vali mission is to create the most comfortable, livable homes that are optimized for our Sonoran climate while using a fraction of the energy of a regular home, and in some cases actually generating even more energy than they consume. Our living homes work to truly shelter owners from environmental extremes, and eliminate the need to make sacrifices in comfort for the sake of economics.”
The Vali design ethos is simple, and borrows a great deal from desert ecosystems: create shade from the heating rays of the sun, and a sealed, but breathable interior space where life can thrive.
The company’s second home, and “eco Inn” (bookable on AirBnb), in the Loma Linda neighborhood of Central Phoenix delivers on this philosophy. While on the surface, the 1,600 square foot home is elegantly modern, it is truly an “eco ninja” — doing things regular houses cannot do. Thanks to its innovative “heatscreen” exterior cladding, precision construction, state-of-the-art insulation and high-tech air handling/filtration/cooling, the house is always:
- Comfortable — maintains 72 degrees and 35% humidity all summer long
- Quiet – no roaring AC
- Healthy – allergen/dust-free and oxygen-level-optimized
- Efficient – uses $2/summer day of electricity (on standard SRP rate plan)
In fact, the second Vali home set a new Arizona record as measured by the HERS rating system, which tests the energy efficiency of a structure (measured on a 0-to-150+ point scale, with 0 being net zero). While City of Phoenix building code requires at least a 100 HERS rating on new construction, and most remodeled mid-century homes score well over 120, the Vali house scored a TWENTY. As Austin explains, “The Vali house performed so well that the testers questioned whether there was a problem with their equipment!” The home uses such little electricity in fact, that solar would only make economic sense once an electric car is added into the mix. Austin even jokes that a Tesla could actually power the house.
“Thanks to the City of Phoenix, we were able to do things with this house that truly broke new ground, and look forward to adding even more technology — including radiant floor cooling — to our next homes to take thing even further.” “We are proud to call Phoenix home, and are excited to build more Vali communities — ideally with shared solar power plants and true community elements — that make living in our desert more comfortable and healthy, all while preserving resources and minimizing our impact on the environment.” #YESPHX