The Sundwellings Project: Passive Solar Cabins

The United Presbyterian Church camp in New Mexico operates Ghost Ranch, offering four different styles of passive solar cabins.


| July/August 1977



GREENHOUSE UNIT: Warm air from the attached greenhouse rises into the room while cold room air sinks into the greenhouse to be heated. Warmth is stored overnight in the walls and floor of the room . . . which can be closed off from the greenhouse at any time to prevent unwanted heat loss or gain. Note that the greenhouse is dug 2 1/2 feet into the ground to protect it from frost. This design extends the northern New Mexico growing season from 4 to 10 months.

GREENHOUSE UNIT: Warm air from the attached greenhouse rises into the room while cold room air sinks into the greenhouse to be heated. Warmth is stored overnight in the walls and floor of the room . . . which can be closed off from the greenhouse at any time to prevent unwanted heat loss or gain. Note that the greenhouse is dug 2 1/2 feet into the ground to protect it from frost. This design extends the northern New Mexico growing season from 4 to 10 months.


Illustration by Mark Chalom

The Sundwellings Project introduces passive solar cabins at a low-cost to the owner and the environment.

About 70 miles north of Santa Fe — set amongst the rugged sandstone cliffs of northern New Mexico — is the Ghost Ranch, an adult study center owned and operated by the United Presbyterian Church. But Ghost Ranch is far more than a church retreat . . . it's also the site of one of the most important passive solar heating experiments in the U.S. today: the Sundwellings Project.

This program was born roughly three years ago, when a representative of the Four Corners Regional Commission (a federally funded agency administered by the governors of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah) asked New Mexico solar energy pioneer Peter van Dresser (see The Plowboy Interview, MOTHER NO. 35) if he would be interested in receiving grant money for the purpose of designing a solar heating unit that could be retrofitted to mobile homes.

Mr. van Dresser came up with a better idea: "Rather than try to solarize house trailers," he suggested, "why not spend the money to develop inexpensive, owner-built solar homes appropriate to the human ecology of the local area?" Surprisingly, the Regional Commission spokesman encouraged van Dresser to write up a proposal and told him that — once submitted — his paper would be given a "sympathetic reading".

To make a long story short, the Four Corners Regional Commission liked what van Dresser had to say and came up with a $34,000 grant calling for Peter to head up a team of architects, engineers, and solar experimenters. Their job: design and supervise the construction of a variety of low-technology solar-heated dwellings made entirely of indigenous materials. (Additional funding — to make the construction phase of the project into a manpower training program — came from the state of New Mexico . . . bringing the total amount of "allocated monies" to $102,000.)

Passive Solar Cabin Building: An Unconventional Beginning

The very first thing the Sundwellings design team (which initially included architects William Lumpkins and David Wright, engineers Francis Wessling and B.T. Rogers, and New Mexico Solar Energy Association Executive Director Keith Haggard) did — even before sharpening their pencils — was to ask the local people what their needs and desires were in a dwelling . . what they required in terms of food storage areas, toolsheds, harvest rooms, etc. This, of course, made the Sundwellings Project unconventional from the start. (Other federally funded housing projects in New Mexico have seen fit to plunk California tract-type houses down in the middle of Indian reservations, without the slightest regard for the traditions of the people or the ecology of the area.)





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