IN the Middle Ages, alchemists hoped to turn base elements into gold. The New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod is embarking on a modern project that is almost as neat a trick.
For 19 years the institute has researched small-scale home and farm projects that use ecological principles in their design. This time, the institute hopes to turn some of today's technology into an environmentally sound home that is cost-competitive, simple to manage - and above all, acceptable to mainstream home buyers.
Demonstration homes that follow ecologically sound rules have sprung up in many places over the past 20 years. They've often been built by colleges, universities, or industries interested only in testing energy or conservation technology. Cost factors and attractiveness to consumers were seldom issues.
Attractive to buyers
What separates the New Alchemy House from similar efforts is that it is not a test of technology, but a test of whether proven technology can be both marketable and affordable to average home buyers.
For those reasons, says John Quinney, New Alchemy's executive director, the 1,744-square-foot, three-bedroom, tri-level house will not be state-of-the-art in many respects. That would have made it too expensive, too difficult or time-consuming to maintain - or too strange to most people.
And that would defeat one of its main purposes. ``If the New Alchemy House is not widely duplicated, then it's failed,'' Mr. Quinney comments.
Ecological and practical
Duplication of its work in everyday life is a major goal of all of New Alchemy's research. So the house will not use no-flush, composting toilets, for instance, because designers believe mainstream home buyers find them distasteful.
The institute is hoping to build the house on a one-acre corner of its 12-acre compound in East Falmouth, Mass., already the site of several other experimental buildings, gardens, and projects. But if funding cannot be obtained, one of several individuals who want to purchase the plans may be allowed to build it elsewhere as a private residence, Quinney says.
According to him, the house is designed to demonstrate how people can conserve energy, choose building materials wisely, use fewer toxic household products, better maintain a home septic system, and give back more to the surrounding land while getting more out of it at the same time. It will include the following:
Passive solar heat and hot water systems. When combined with extra-thick insulation, airtight construction, and a ventilation system that saves the warmth in outgoing air, they are expected to limit total space and water heating costs to $200 a year at current prices, based on Cape Cod's climate.
A backup gas water heater hooked into the air exchanger will be the only supplemental system.
Low-flow toilets that use 1 gallons of water per flush, instead of the usual five or six, plus flow-restricting shower heads and faucet aerators. The combination is expected to cut indoor water use by 60 percent.
A waste treatment system that separates toilet wastes from washing and kitchen wastes, removing an estimated 60 to 90 percent of the phosphorus and 50 to 80 percent of the nitrogen from them before they flow into the underground leach field.
The phosphates and nitrates produced by those two elements are major sources of ground-water pollution.
An attached greenhouse for food production that is expected to save occupants about $1,000 a year in food bills.
Outdoor vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and wild areas - and a small lawn that uses less water than average and no chemicals. There will be a composting area that will recycle leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps.
Integrated pest management - the herbicides and other biological control methods - will be employed. Outdoor water consumption will be controlled by drip irrigation and subsurface hose systems that minimize evaporation.
Avoidance where possible of building materials that produce pollution either in their manufacture or use. For instance, chlorofluorocarbons, often used to blow in insulation, deplete the earth's ozone layer.
Quinney says the house will cost $126,000, or about $72 per square foot, to build, not including land. A scaled-down version that does not include the greenhouse, special waste treatment system, and some finishing work can be built for $98,400.
That figure is on par with the average per-square-foot cost of new construction cited by the National Association of Home Builders. Quinney estimates that a family living in the house can also save $1,860 a year in food, energy, and water costs without changing its life style.
Running the house is expected to take each adult an extra hour a week in winter and an extra three hours a week in summer compared with conventional homes.
Michael Bell of the builders' association, a member of the project's steering committee, says that the home ``is marketable to everyday people if they understand the concept and are willing to get involved.
``The problem at the moment is that energy efficiency and some of the other features aren't high on people's priority lists like they were a few years ago. But that could come again, and it's good to put the technology out there for use when it's needed.''
Once the house is built, its occupants will be asked to keep track of its energy use and food and waste production for a year, according to Quinney. The results will then be compared with those for conventional housing.
The house represents a number of compromises to those who planned it. There were disagreements over what type of insulation to use (a fiberglass and solid foam combination was chosen) - and especially over what type of waste water treatment system to install. Systems that would recycle waste water into the home's gardens, as well as composting toilets, were rejected as unacceptable to the average home buyer. Other Alchemy houses
The New Alchemy House is a far cry from most other state-of-the-art experimental houses, even those built by New Alchemy.
Two so-called ``habitats'' built by the institute, one on its grounds and the other on Prince Edward Island, include such exotic features as clusters of 650-gallon water tanks that store heat while simultaneously supporting hydroponic gardens and fish farms, and organic soil beds along the living area's floors.
Such features are best saved for experiments with other goals, says Quinney.
``With this house, we want to be true to ecological design, but we also want to make it practical.''