Sun Worship: Natural Home & Garden

Feb 3, 2014 by

nat1co1Two homes at extreme ends of the design spectrum, both built by the founder of an outreach group promoting solar energy, prove that photovoltaies are easy to live with – in any form. For Casey Coates Danson, it started as a simple need for natural light; there never seemed to be enough inside her homes. Then, as an environmental design student at the Parsons School of Design in New York in the 1970s, she learned to appreciate how the Anasazi and the master builders of the Renaissance incorporated natural materials into their designs for self-sufficient cities. Then, as news of the expanding hole in the ozone layer came to light in the 1980s, her consciousness about the destructive nature of how we heat and power our homes exploded.

caseybrentwood“Who I am, for whatever reason, has always felt concern for the environment,” Danson says. All those pieces converged three years ago, when Danson founded Global Possibilities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing Americans’ dependency on fossil fuel and mitigating climate change by promoting solar energy. Through national conferences, educational initiatives, and public outreach, Danson seeks to remind people that the sun is a virtually untapped source of free, constant energy. “We are a product of the sun; the earth is fed by the sun,” she says. “Why aren’t we using it? Hello? ”

Danson’s challenge is to disseminate information that counteracts “the endless promotion of our national addiction to fossil fuels.”

She points out that America’s buildings use two-thirds of the nation’s energy supply, producing one-quarter of the carbon emissions that contribnute to global climate change. “It’s a very dangerous situation, very dangerous,” she says. “It’s one of the greatest threats we face economically and environmentally, and if we don’t reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, this lady planet is going to say, ‘Get off.’ But changing the way we build houses and cities is one of the fastest ways we can change this.”

For the past three years, Danson has been funneling her own dynamic energy into Global Possibilities’ educational effort, organizing national and regional symposiums with academics and real-estate developers and working with architechture school deans to develop curriculum.

Twenty years ago there was a real push for Americans to use solar energy,” Danson states. “Today we are still working to promote renewables and illustrate to the public that this technology is less complicated to understand than nuclear, coal, or fossil fuel energy, and the benefits are long-lasting for our natural environment, health, and quality of life.”

Solar Facts

nat2col1Enough sunlight falls on the Earth’s surface each minute to meet world energy demand for an entire year.

The cost of photovoltaic (PV)-generated electricity has dropped fifteen- to twenty-fold; PV modules now cost around $6 per watt and produce electricity for as little as 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour.

While the use of coal, oil, and nuclear power during the 1990s has grown by a little more than I percent each annually, the use of photavoltaics has grown by 17 percent each year.

More than 100,000 U.S. homes rely on PVs as a primary power source. The solar energy industry had its fifth straight year of 20 percent or greater growth in 1998. 400,000 families in developing countries around the world have installed small-scale solar home systems that provide 20 to 50 watts of electricity for lights, a radio, or perhaps a black-and-white television.

Annual worldwide PV power is less than 100 megawatts, miniscule compared to one nuclear power plant, which generates 1,000 megawatts annually.

Homeward Bound

While Global Possibilities is now Danson’s focus, she has left a more tactile legacy in the form of two solar homes that she designed and built in 1991. Her own 1,500-square-foot Pueblo-style adobe home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a grand, 7,000-square-foot contemporary Los Angeles home now occupied by a family of seven prove that the sun’s energy can be used to power houses at any end of the design spectrum.

“My own personal design work is an aside,” Danson says. “But it represents what I think is important in the design environment.”

Both homes rely on the sun for power and make artful use of natural daylight, but the similarities end there. Danson’s double-adobe Santa Fe home is sweetly succoring, a place for nestling and nurturing.

The Los Angeles home soars, providing open space for kids to run and a complementary canvas for the owners’ extensive modem art collection. The adobe home blends into the earthy New Mexico landscape; the other is right at home in Los Angeles’s tony Brentwood neighborhood.

“When I built the Brentwood home, my main focus was to do a high-tech, high-touch photovoltaic-integrated house for sale in a very upper-end area,” Danson explains. “I wanted to show that a solar home could be beautiful and could be lived in graciously.”

The home is built of white stucco, a material that deflects the extreme Southern California sun. A study in angular forms that come together in a thoughtful dance, the home is carefully sited to capture the sun’s energy for electrical needs but block its heat from entering the living space. Its nearly windowless front faces west, turning its back on the late-afternoon heat.

Photovoltaic panels, which lie flush to the forty-five degree angled roof over the lofty living room, capture the southern sun. The panels are virtually undetectable from the street and are carefully sited so they won’t bother the neighbors with glare. Solar panels are similarly situated on the angled roof of the guesthouse over the garage.

The home’s interior sings, thanks largely to Danson’s playful juxtaposition of clean white walls, salvaged Mexican doors, and stone floors. Heavy paneled doors open into a two-story entryway bathed in light from operable skylights, which were cut into the post-and-beam ceiling to minimize the need for air conditioning.

Danson, who believes “there’s nothing worse than a dark kitchen,” also pushed her builders to custom-fit sky-lights over the kitchen sink. Eastern light from floor-to-ceiling windows bathes the breakfast nook; western light from high windows casts a late-afternoon glow in the living room, marrying the diffused southern sun allowed in by frosted-glass windows. “Daylighting is one of the biggest issues architects have to integrate into their work so we’re not always turning on lights,” Danson says. “I grabbed every ounce of light I could for every room.”

Photovoltaic Cells

nat3col11Photovoltaic cells, or PV, are the most common method of active solar collection. These cells, which convert a portion of the sun’s energy directly into electricity, are made primarily of silicon, the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust. When combined with other materials, silicon exhibits unique electrical properties in the presence of sunlight. Electrons, excited by the light, move through the silicon. This is known as the photovoltaic effect and results in direct current (DC) electricity. Individual cells are combined to create modules that produce a specific amount of peak power. The modules, in turn, can be combined to create arrays that produce larger amounts of power.

The most common application of PV is in consumer products that use tiny amounts-less than 1 watt-of DC power. More than 1 billion hand-held calculators and millions of watches are powered by PV cells.

Danson did the same in her own Santa Fe home, but in a much more traditional way. Oriented toward the south with windows flanking each room, the home takes advantage of centuries-old knowledge about heating with natural sunlight. Photovoltaic panels on the angled studio roof provide electricity and supplement the passive solar heat stored in the brick floors. Bat of 14-inch adobe bricks placed end-to-end with a 5-inch space for insulation, plumbing, and electrical wires, the home provides enough mass to store heat in winter, keep it out in summer, and provide shelter from the wind. In many ways, the home represents the admiration for the wise building systems of indigenous cultures that Danson learned in design school.

It also allows her to bask in tangible evidence that her beliefs about solar energy are well founded. “You want to talk about light-you have to go in there at night and feel

the difference in the quality of light from the photovoltaics,” she says. “It’s cleaner, it’s clearer, and it feels better. It’s just beautiful light; I feet it.” She pauses for a moment, reflective. “But maybe that’s just because it’s my personal passion.”

Global Possibilities at Work

In 1997, on the eve of the Kyoto Climate Change Conference, Global Possibilities, in conjunction with the University of California at Santa Barbara, sponsored its first conference. The U.S. Solar and Renewable Energy Policy Symposium brought together renewable-energy experts to discuss everything from technology to tax reform.

Douglas Ogden of the Energy Foundafion confirmed the need for the symposium. “Public participation is the ultimate driver of the renewables market. Getting an educated public, however, is a tall order, especially since everybody’s buying four-by-fours out there and energy is the lost thing on people’s minds.”

L. Hunter Lovins, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, followed up with a brighter note. “There is a dramatic shift in thinking, and it’s not the Age of Aquarius, it’s for very pragmatic economic reasons coupled with real constraints of the biosphere,” he said.

At the second annual symposium in 1998, Donald Aitken, senior staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, declared, ‘We can have our greatest impact for the least cost in the shortest time in mitigating climate change if we start with our built environment.” He spoke hopefully about creating an economic synergy between solar providers and users. “When we start doing the utility economics, looking at the real benefits to the utilities in deferred infrastructure, construction, and maintenance, you find that the utilities really ought to be pouring a good bit of money into this stuff to help us defray the first costs of using solar.”

nat4col1Solar energy – a brief history

Solar energy has been around, well, about as long as the sun.

Roman bath houses in the first to fourth centuries A.D. had large south-facing windows to let in the sun’s warmth.

Conservatories were popular in the 1800s, creating spaces for guests to stroll through worm greenhouses with lush foliage.

In 1839 Edmund Becquerel, a French physicist, first observed the photovoltaic effect.

Limited resources during World War II created a surge in demand for passive solar buildings.

In 1947, Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company published Your Solar House, which profiled forty-nine of the nation’s greatest solar architects.

In 1958 the U.S. Vanguard space satellite used a small solar array to power its radio. The cells worked so well that the space program has played an important role in the development of PVs ever since. Today, solar cells power virtually all satellites.

The oil crisis of the late 1970s led many to look for alternatives to fossil fuel. During this time the U.S. Department of Energy funded the Federal Photovoltaic Utilization Program, resulting in the installation of more than 3,100 PV systems, many of which are still in operation today.

-Kelly Smith

Solar advances

photoshingleRoof shingles with photovoltaic modules imbedded in them have become available.

Thin film technology, in which the silicon material that coats the modules is vaporized, then deposited on the PV cells, offers hope for price reductions in PV systems. These cells are cheaper to produce but less efficient, so the challenge is to produce a low-cost product that doesn’t degrade quickly.

Net metering allows homeowners to sell excess electricity generated by their home solar systems back to their public utility. As of 1999, twenty-three states had implemented net metering programs. For more information on this and other programs, go to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) website at The database contains information on state incentives (tax credits, grants, special utility rates, etc. designed to promote renewable energy technologies.

President Clinton unveiled One Million Solar Roofs, an initiative to install solar energy systems on 1 million U.S. buildings by 2010, in a 1997 speech to the United Nations. The inifiative includes two types of solar technology: PVs and solar thermal panels. For more information, contact the DOE at (800) 363-3732.

-Kelly Smith


Real Goods – a California-based sustainable living retailer, publishes the Solar Living Source Book, con- sidered by many to be the industry bible. Call (800) 762-7325 to order.

American Solar Energy Society (ASES) – is a national organization dedicated to advancing the use of solar energy. Reach them at (303) 443-3130, or online at

The Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network is a comprehensive website with information about a number of renewable energies. Contact them at (800) 363-3732 or go to

Solstice – the award-winning Internet information service of the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (CREST) is at

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