By Simmons B. Buntin
Though the development, initiated in 1999 and now about one-third complete, isn’t the first to help revitalize an inner city neighborhood, nor the first to use advanced technologies to capture solar energy, it may be the first in the country to simultaneously accomplish both feats.
History: Inner-City Solar Village
While the deal was struck between builder John Wesley Miller and then-owner Alan Levine “on a handshake and a napkin” at a nearby market in November 1999, Armory Park del Sol is actually the successor to a larger, New Urbanist project then called Kino del Sol. Kino del Sol, according to a panel discussion at the National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America in May 1999, proposed 259 units of mixed-income, single-family and multifamily housing over a 40-acre site. Sixty units were to be build by non-profit housing developers, and all would have featured garages in the backs of homes, on carriage lanes.
A partnership between the neighborhoods and developer, the Tucson Coalition for Photovoltaics, and the Southside Food Production Network, Kino del Sol would also have featured homes with one-kilowatt photovoltaic systems and solar water heaters, adjacent to a retail center featuring a small grocery store.
Many of these concepts have been carried forward in Armory Park del Sol, which is a residential development just a short distance from neighborhood amenities including the Santa Rita Park, Tucson Children’s Museum, and Center for the Performing Arts. Armory Park del Sol is also less than a mile from Tucson’s central business district, the eclectic 4th Avenue shopping district, and the city’s main public library.
The alternative—higher-density development such as apartment-style student housing for the University of Arizona—would likely not have included any advanced energy efficiency or New Urbanist design.
When the project was proposed, individual neighbors and organizations such as the Armory Park Neighbors neighborhood association and Armory Park Historical Zoning Advisory Board were tentative in their support. Fearing unsightly solar panels and “original designs too low and squat,” neighbors worked closely with Miller—one of the region’s most dedicated solar advocates whose work consisted primarily of custom homes in the foothills surrounding Tucson—to ensure the homes fit into the neighborhood, literally and symbolically.
Miller changed the original house designs to those of territorial, bungalow, Mission Revival, Spanish Revival, and Queen Anne styles and colors that both match the Armory Park neighborhood and reflect the warmth of the Sonoran Desert. “What he’s constructing is much, much nicer than what he had originally proposed,” notes Steve Grede, an architect who reviewed the plans for the Armory Park Historical Zoning Advisory Board. The board recommended changes to Miller’s original designs. “All of our recommendations were listened to and followed,” Grede continues. “He’s just done a marvelous job of redesigning and making forms and designs that really fit in.”
Neighbors agree, even though they remained wary as the foundations of the first homes were poured. “As they started to go up, they just looked awful, and some looked out of proportion,” recalls one neighbor, a member of the Advisory Board. “But when they got finished, they looked much, much better. I think we’re very pleased by what we see.”
The challenge for Miller has not been involving neighbors—a natural process for the man who has dreamed of building a community that, in his words, “combines the best of Tucson’s rich history with the advantages that today’s technologies have to offer.” Rather, the challenge has been the delays associated with working with the city.
“We made our share of mistakes,” he admits, “but the city’s development review process is slow. It took one year longer than it should have, which is worth a lot of money.” The homes were originally slated to start at $80,000, though the time delay, the lack of fee waivers “promised by the city,” and additional costs associated with materials and construction have resulted in homes that now sell for between $200,000 and $400,000, well above the Tucson average.
The Homes: Where Custom is Standard
Yet with the possible exception of custom, high-end homes in the foothills and other alternative communities such as Civano on Tucson’s southeast side, the homes at Armory Park del Sol are unlike any others. Armory Park del Sol features more than seven “standard models,” as well as custom homes. Ranging from 961 to 2,059 square feet, even these “standard models” are fundamentally custom in their design and construction.
Each home features:
Additional standard elements include private atriums, French doors, crown molding, private guest retreats, tile countertops, stone porch walls, metal porch roofs, and/or stained concrete floors, depending on the plan.
The homes are also notable for their universal accessibility by incorporating “universal design,” in which elements are chosen that are both aesthetic and functional for “the greatest variety of people.” One example, explains essayist Nancy Mairs, who has disabling multiple sclerosis, is round doorknobs, which are “useless to a person with limited hand strength, but everyone can use lever handles.” Universal design features at Armory Park del Sol include:
Design: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
With the recent completion and sale of the “Zero Energy Home,” Armory Park del Sol may be best known for what it won’t have: high energy bills. Each home includes 1-kW photovoltaic electric power generating systems and solar water heaters, with tankless on-demand electric water heaters for backup. Coupled with the Tucson Electric Power Guarantee Home Program—a series of inspections during home construction to ensure all components perform as they should based on stringent air infiltration, duct loss, and insulation level requirements—the homes are guaranteed not to exceed certain heating and cooling usage year-round (ranging from $.78 to $1.18 per day). The homes currently exceed the Model Energy Code and International Energy Conservation Code by 50 percent, resulting in energy bills that are only one-quarter to one-third those of conventional homes of similar size. View detailed energy analysis results.
Additional energy-saving features for the all-electric homes include:
The community’s Zero Energy Home resulted from a partnership between John Wesley Miller Companies and the National Association of Homebuilders Research Center, as well as numerous other entities, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Tucson Electric Power has provided for net metering, allowing the home’s electric meter to run backwards, crediting the homeowners when power is fed back into the grid from the home’s 3.5-kW solar electric system and active solar hot water system. The home is designed to use about 4 kilowatt-hours per square foot per year, compared to about 7 kWh per square foot for other Armory Park del Sol homes.
The 1,700-square foot home sold for $380,000 a month after its grand opening on Earth Day 2003. The home’s advanced technologies and Spanish Revival design have proven popular, with at least two more potential buyers interested in building their own zero-energy homes. “Spec homes of this size in the same neighborhood usually sell in about three months,” Miller says. “We hope that the mainstream home-building industry will recognize the strong consumer interest in attractive and energy-efficient housing.”
“This is the future of the American home,” predicts Department of Energy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy David Garman. “Solar energy technologies are affordable and practical today. Combined with off-the-shelf energy
The Big Picture
“It was a fun challenge to blend historical architecture with high-tech green building concepts,” Miller said at the 2002 National Green Building Conference. “But we ended up with such a pleasant situation where the surrounding neighborhood is very supportive and is already feeling a positive impact from the development.” Miller was named the national "Green Advocate of the Year" at the conference.
With onsite amenities like a community garden, landscaped common areas, and pedestrian- and bicycle-orientation to complement historic designs that integrate with the neighborhood and high-tech, energy-efficient construction, Armory Park del Sol is proving that infill development—with its myriad challenges—can be sustainable.
For more information, visit the Army Park del Sol website at www.armoryparkdelsol.org.
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