Off-Grid Homes Considered ‘Weird’ Living?

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When Gerry Cunningham started building his Southern Arizona zero-energy home in the 1980s, he likely never dreamed that, after his death this year at the age of 88, his solar-powered house would become famous not for its earth-friendly footprint, but as a contender for one of the nation’s weirdest homes.

The contest is called Top 10 Weirdest Homes in the United States (though you won’t actually find any mention of it at the site). The real estate firm sponsoring it is called Top Ten. The motive is obviously increased traffic and potentially, sales, in a U.S. housing market that is a shadow of its former pre-recession self. The implication, that environmental consciousness equates with peculiarity, is insulting, to say the least.

I’m sure if Cunningham were alive, he’d have plenty to say about the contest, and the paradigm behind it. His home, comprised of two concrete-domed areas tucked into 40 acres of Arizona wilderness, uses solar panels for power; wind power to draw groundwater; passive or “daylighting” captured via south-facing expanses of glass; and skylights highlighted with colored glass sprouting from the desert landscape like colorful cacti.

The home is a prime example of an “earthship” shelter, drawing its insulative capabilities from the earth that almost covers it, so that it remains cool even during a hot Arizona summer day, and warm at night when desert temperatures typically plummet. This passive heating technique also means that most of the solar energy can go for more important functions than heating and cooling.

The fact that the dwelling is considered an oddity is sad testimony to an antiquated home building archetype that sets man against Nature, rather than creating synergy between the two (I’m channeling Cunningham as I write this).

But perhaps not for long. In the coming era of Peak oil and heating/cooling bills from Hell, we may all want to learn to channel Cunningham. In fact, we must, if we want to insure that our home planet has breathable air, drinkable water, and soil capable of growing nourishing food. And what better way to do so than by starting with clean, renewable solar energy systems?

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  1. Jeanne, you are quite right that Gerry Cunningham never expected his home to be part of a top ten weird but wonderful homes list. Many people share your outrage over the fact that some consider earth friendly innovation ‘weird’, but Dad was a pragmatist and had a sense of humor. If he were still here he would find the list entertaining and appreciate the contribution the publicity is making towards finding the right buyer. He lived his entire life thinking outside the box. It didn’t concern him that others didn’t see what he saw—he just forged ahead living what he believed was important and explaining his ideas to others. To learn more about him, visit my blog at http://pennys2pence.wordpress.com/

    After his death in May 2010 his family (mostly my two brothers and my sister-in-law) spent half a year working to get the domes, which we consider an important part of his legacy, into a condition that would attract an appreciative buyer. Since all of us have lives elsewhere we want to get the domes into the hands of someone who will appreciate and care for them as quickly as possible. In this market it is no small task to find a buyer for an unusual property like this. When we entered the contest we actually took some pictures that emphasized the unusual (read “weird”) aspects of the domes knowing that the link to our real estate agent’s virtual tour at http://www.3cim.com/opb/tour.do?method=viewTour&id=1294200946328 would provide the images that showed their beauty.

    One small clarification: although the home shares many earth-friendly features with Earthships, I believe that term refers to a particular construction method using recycled materials such as old tires and rammed earth. The construction of the Cunningham domes has more in common with ferrocement boats, being concrete and plaster over a re-bar and metal mesh armature.

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