Solar houses, once avante-garde, find their way into American suburbs

Passive solar energy may finally be shaking its "suburban chic" image. It appears poised to leap out of the pages of Sunset magazine into the more mundane world of the tract home.

This transformation could reduce energy bills for hundreds of new homeowners and provide a significant new source of energy savings for the nation.

For a number of years, passive solar design has played the poor relation to active solar systems -- the flat-plate collector on the roof with its maze of pumps, pipes, and tanks. So-called passive systems use south-facing windows to gather winter sunlight, concrete and masonry floors or walls to retain this beat overnight, and various combinations of thermal shutters, skylights, and vents to control the inside temperature.

Only in the last year or so has the passive approach solar's growing acceptability among the nation's homebuilders comes from a program initiated by the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI). Currently, thousands of Denver residents are trooping through 12 model passive homes as part of a special tour.

A $150,000 SERI program was the key. "Essentially, we acted as a catalyst bringing passive solar designers together with reputable developers," explains Bruce Baccei of SERI. He and his staff did not try to tell the designers how to design or the builders how to build.

"When I first heard of the program, I was reluctant because I didn't want to get involved in a lot of red tape," recalls John Kurowski, one of the builders involved. But after attending an orientation meeting, his worries evaporated, he says.

"The SERI people convinced us that we could produce passive solar homes today in 13 different ways, 13 different styles, and for 13 different prices," Mr. Kurowski explains.

Many of the builders participating in the program realize that their market is changing radically and that tey must change with it. And passive solar homes , which cost 5 to 10 percent more than a well- insulated conventional home but may save as much as 60 percent on heating costs, appear to be selling well even in the depressed market of recent months.

The builders involved presold 15 of these homes even before the tour for Denverites began.Most of the dwellings are not constructed yet.

Solar homes have tended to be expensive and experimental. While a number of dwellings of this sort were built as part of the SERI program, there are also several moderately priced houses. The prices for the dozen ranges from $56,500 for a 1,200- square-foot town house ot $199,000 for a 3,200-square-foot residence.

John Meogrossi of US Homes, the largest homebuilder in the country and one of the program's participants, says his firm already has begun laying out tracts with the proper solar orientation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Baccei is organizing seminars for state agencies, public utilities, and other organizations.

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