Living in a solar subdivision: the pluses and minuses

There's nothing particularly futuristic about Davis's Village Homes development, nothing that grabs you and says, ''This is the subdivision of the 21st century.''

It's more a series of small things that strikes a visitor - the bike paths meandering through fenceless backyards, the wild variety of vegetation sprouting in those yards, the fruit trees and other food-producing plots interspersed among the groupings of six or eight houses, the ubiquitous solar panels staring out from red tile roofs.

Even more important, says the city's planning and energy officer, Terry Parker, are some subtle, but crucial differences - for instance, the orientation of every home to maximize its use of the sun in winter and its protection from the sun during the often blistering summer months.

What's it like to live in Village Homes? According to Lois Leeth, who worked as a botanist at the University of California until her retirement, it can be very pleasant. ''And I'm a very fussy occupant, since my dad was an architect,'' she says.

Mrs. Leeth lives by herself in a 1,600-square-foot stucco and wood dwelling that's much more spacious and airy inside than its low-profile exterior would lead one to expect. A cathedral ceiling in the living room and an ample kitchen are highlights.

Like every house in the development, Mrs. Leeth's home relies on solar energy for nearly all its hot water and much of its space heating. A 2,500-gallon ''thermal mass,'' hidden in an interior wall, captures heat during the day and releases it at night. High, strategically placed windows help control air circulation.

''The utility bills are just nothing,'' says Mrs. Leeth. She estimates that her summertime bill for gas and electricity averages $9 a month; in winter (and the thermometer can dip toward freezing in Davis), the amount might be twice that.

One thing any prospective resident of a neighborhood like Village Homes should remember, says Mrs. Leeth, is that ''a passive solar home requires an active occupant.'' Chuckling, she then describes her daily regimen of running to open everything up when the sea breezes waft up from San Francisco Bay, some 50 miles to the west.

Another thing to keep in mind, she says, is that a community like this demands a great deal of cooperation among neighbors. For instance, the winding strips of land between houses are common land. Residents have to decide jointly on plantings and landscaping. She smiles again, confiding that she regrets her own decision to plant a tall grass called ''horse tail'' in her backyard. It's been devilish to control, she says. ''I see why it survived the Ice Age.''

Does she hear many complaints about the development's rules among her neighbors? Some, she says. Particularly about the restricted parking and the narrow streets. The streets were purposefully made narrower than normal to cut down on the heat radiation from asphalt, and parking bays were put in to accommodate visitors.

There's one area that the development hasn't been able to control, however - the price of a home in Village Homes. Ms. Parker explains that the builder, Jim Corbett, had originally envisioned it as a moderate-income development. ''And it worked out well the first time around; but on resale, the prices went way up,'' she says.

She estimates that home prices in the neighborhood now average around $110, 000. That's up from a range of $28,000 to $70,000 in 1978.

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