Unit One: A Solar Adobe Home

Douglas and Sara Balcomb spend their winter evenings walking barefoot in a masterpiece solar adobe home.

| September/October 1979

The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico—nestled against the treeline in the cool, dry foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—just has to be one of the best places in this country to make use of solar energy. Blessed with abundant sunshine—and a relatively low latitude of 36 degrees—the capital of the "Land of Enchantment" also has a real need for heating.

You see, although most people think of New Mexico as warm desert country, Santa Fe—which is perched just at the 7,000-foot line—is actually slightly cooler (on an average) than Denver, Colorado! While Santa Feans seldom have to suffer through more than a few consecutive days of subfreezing daytime highs, the mercury does plummet below zero on some winter evenings, and the town's average annual snowfall is over three feet.

In fact, in heating energy terminology, Santa Fe has almost 6,000 heating degree days. (This figure represents the total number of degrees that the mean temperature falls below 65°F during the year.) For comparison, Denver averages about 5,700 heating degree days, and New York nets approximately 5,250. And—just as an extreme example—Edmonton, Alberta rings in at almost 11,700 degree days.

It's not too surprising, then, that the hillsides above the quaint old historical New Mexican community (it was established around 1610) are dotted with adobe homes equipped with a wide range of solar heating equipment. And one of the most attractive (and successful) examples of this combination of new-age technology and age-old earthen home construction methods belongs to Douglas and Sara Balcomb.

We are fortunate enough to have detailed performance records for their solar adobe home, because both Balcombs are intensely involved in solar energy. In fact, Dr. Balcomb—who currently works in passive solar energy research at Sandia Laboratories—has published information on his family home in a Department of Energy pamphlet entitled Passive Solar Buildings: A Compilation of Data and Results (SAND 77-1204 [Revised]). And Sara—who is vice-chairperson of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association—takes part in the preparation of a regular solar newsletter and various sun-energy teaching aids (such as slide shows).

The Balcomb home is known as Unit One, because it was the original dwelling in a planned environmental community called First Village. Architect William Lumpkins—with solar engineers/ designers/builders Susan and Wayne Nichols—chose to blend a selection of solar techniques (many of which were pioneered by solar innovator Hal Miguel and used in his own Tusuque, New Mexico residence) rather than invest all their capital and energy in one system.

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