With an eye on size, Sunlight Homes creates a compact green-built dwelling grounded in the designers’ and homeowners’ eco-minded philosophies.
Oriented to the south, this Corrales, New Mexico, home bags plenty of free solar heat when the sun rides low in the sky during the colder months.
The wood entry gate and pergola lead to a front courtyard.
Despite its compact size, this energy-efficient home maintains a spacious feeling with large windows and generous living areas.
This article first appeared in Spring II 2008 Su Casa
Retiring to New Mexico from chilly Minnesota, Rama Murthy and Janice Noruk brought along several ideas about the dream home they hoped to build in Corrales, a farming village along the Rio Grande that traces its roots to the Spanish conquistadors. Topping the couple’s list of essentials was efficiency in the home’s size, energy appetite, and construction materials.
“We kept coming back to the same general description of what we wanted in a home,” says Janice, a former corporate manager. “The words were ‘comfortable, casual, open, and welcoming.’”
What Janice and Rama ended up with was all that—and much more. In the decade between the purchase of the one-acre Corrales property that offers sweeping views of the Sandia Mountains and the actual move to New Mexico in 2004 came a collaboration with Albuquerque residential designer Jon Davis and his wife, Margie. Owners of Sunlight Homes, the Davises have long demonstrated a deep commitment to the design and construction of environmentally friendly homes. In the mid-1970s, they were building innovative passive solar homes for their clients with the requisite trombe walls and southern-facing clerestory windows of that era. And now, three decades later, Sunlight Homes’ designs still utilize the power of the sun in both passive and active ways. The company’s homes are built using a super-insulated panelized building system. Small, efficiently designed homes are a Sunlight Homes specialty.
“There’s a direct tie between the size of the home and its greenness,” says Margie. “A home is more green if it uses fewer materials in the construction and requires little or no energy to operate.”
The Davises’ philosophy and product selection made sense to Janice and Rama, a retired University of Minnesota geology professor who has also taught classes on natural resource management. With the move to the Land of Enchantment, Rama was eager to walk the talk. He was more than ready to live in a green, solar home, especially one that incorporates his and Janice’s design input on details ranging from the kitchen layout to outdoor courtyards.
“It’s the house I was meant to live in,” says Janice, who doesn’t hesitate to entertain friends in her small home. “I personally feel comfortable in a cozy space. It’s human scale. Frankly, you don’t need a large house to accommodate large numbers of people.”
In 2007, Rama and Janice’s 1,700-square-foot Southwestern style home, replete with a 3-kilowatt photovoltaic system mounted on the garage rooftop, consumed just $320 worth of electricity and natural gas—and that annual total came during one of the Albuquerque metro area’s snowiest winters in recent history. For nine months last year, the photovoltaic system generated excess electricity that was sold back to the utility company via a net metering program.
Designer Jon Davis designs all Sunlight homes using structural insulated panels, generally known as “SIPs.” The panels, filled with polyurethane rather than the more common polystyrene that also can be used within SIPs, fit together to form a home’s exterior structure. Sunlight Homes uses components produced by Murus, a Pennsylvania manufacturer. During the manufacturing process, polyurethane is injected in liquid form between two oriented strand board (OSB) skins, then cures to create a strong, permanent monolithic structure. The preassembled panels are cut to precise architectural specifications. The panelized system is different for every house and can accommodate various architectural designs ranging from Southwest Pueblo style to country farmhouse. Davis has designed homes for clients throughout the United States.
“SIPs are a natural choice in our goal to design homes that are extremely energy efficient and comfortable,” says Jon. “They offer insulation ratings higher per inch than any other insulating material—rated at R-33 in the walls and R-40 in the roof.”
Other SIPs benefits include strong structural stability, no off-gassing, a high fire rating, and minimal waste because of the customized nature of the panels. Pitched roofs require no trusses and can translate to dramatic vaulted ceilings indoors. Stucco and plaster are applied with the same techniques used in a traditional house.
Jon starts the design process with a site visit and progresses to questionnaires, work sheets, and discussions intended to make the future homeowners sort out their own philosophies about spaces, function, aesthetics, lifestyle, and values.
“I didn’t want to do that,” concedes Rama as he recalls the extensive clarification questions. “But it ended up being a very good process. It’s a way to resolve conflicts—for example Janice and I had different ideas about what ‘small’ was. I thought larger; she thought smaller.”
“We lived for three months in a 400-square-foot apartment in Washington, DC,” Janice pipes in. “It was very comfortable—but not good for entertaining, primarily because there was no outdoor space.”
The couple’s inviting Corrales home incorporates bountiful outdoor space and abundant natural sunlight. A compromise in the size issue was reached with the inclusion of a guest suite accessible through a sunny walkway that brings natural daylight into the rest of the home. When not in use, the closed-off guest wing is unheated (except for passive solar gain) and does not distract from the intimacy of the 1,300 square feet that make up the main living quarters. Here, guests gather to sit in cozy furniture groupings with distances conducive to conversation. The cook in the kitchen can take part in the chatter too, thanks to the open floor plan. A dining room table expands to accommodate a dozen diners or sheds its leaves to create an intimate setting for a candlelight dinner for two. When the bedroom door is open to the main living quarters, the couple enjoys the long view into a suite that encompasses bed, bath, office, and access to a large courtyard.
There is nothing boxy about a Sunlight home. Rama and Janice’s home manages to take advantage of the sun’s southern orientation yet still opens to the mountain views to the north and east. It’s a well-honed connection of windows and angles and thoughtful flow.
“Our floor plans ‘wiggle,’” explains the newest member of the Sunlight Homes team, Jon and Margie’s son Evan Davis, a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning. “We pull homes apart and put them back together in different ways,” he says. Another Davis son, Steven Mattern, may join the family business after the completion of a Master of Architecture program at the University of Texas. A third son, Andy Mattern, is an Austin-based architectural photographer who has photographed many Sunlight homes.
Together, the Davises profess their dreams. “We are looking for others to join with us to develop a small, green, solar community using passive and active solar, wind energy, gray water, and more,” Margie says. “We’d like to contribute our skills and are looking for people with land, development experience, and financial backing to join us. Such a demonstration community could show what can be done with careful planning and skillful design.”
Although Jon is a general contractor as well as a residential designer, clients are encouraged to choose their own builder. “Any competent builder can assemble a SIP panelized home,” he says. “The learning curve is not steep since, in effect, the builder is using a partially preassembled material instead of assembling all of the individual pieces at the job site as with a conventional frame home.” The average completed SIP home ranges between $135 and $175 per square foot, with the panel component package (which includes lumber, design fees, Pella windows, and skylights) comprising about 40 percent of the total cost, he says.
Rama and Janice, relishing their little solar house by Sunlight Homes, did not skimp on the finishing details and materials. The rooftop solar panels were a conscientious environmental choice despite the high start-up costs. A gas boiler is coupled with radiant floor heat, and five-gallon tanks powered by the photovoltaic system provide instant hot water for the kitchen and bath. Slate floors, triple-pane Pella windows, Douglas fir beams, and custom European beech cabinetry are among the amenities.
The designers and dwellers alike are convinced that the green revolution has begun.
Freelance writer Jane Mahoney resides in a fixer-upper in Albuquerque’s South Valley and frequently writes about home builders and real estate issues for the Albuquerque Journal.
Unless otherwise noted, businesses below are in Albuquerque, the area code is 505, and the prefix for websites is www.
Builder: Debbie Reynolds, Homescapes New Mexico, 856-3467, homescapesnewmexico.com; and Jon and Margie Davis, Sunlight Homes, 856-5888, sunlighthomes.com. Designer: Jon and Margie Davis, Sunlight Homes, 856-5888, sunlighthomes.com. Appliances: Jenn-Air range, jennair.com; Amana refrigerator, amana.com; Fisher & Paykel dishwasher, fisherpaykel.com; from Page’s Appliances, 888-3355, pagesappliances.com. Artwork: (page 47) piece on the left, Hannah, numbered print, by Roy Fairchild-Woodard, purchased at the Hanson Gallery, Carmel, CA, 831/625-6142, hansongallerycarmel.com; piece on the right wall, watercolor by Prabhakar Jha, purchased from the artist in Minneapolis, MN. LIVING ROOM piece to the left of the fireplace, Salt River, monotype, by Paul Howard, purchased at the Susan Cohen Gallery, Minneapolis, MN; piece to the right of the fireplace, Fiddle Leaf, oil on waxed paper, by Jan Wagstaff, purchased at the Carmel Art Association gallery, Carmel, CA, 831/624-6176, carmelart.org. KITCHEN Yellow Stone, numbered print, by Joyce Stolaroff, purchased at the Michael McCormick Gallery, Taos, 800/279-0879, mccormickgallery.com. Bed: Murphy bed, Classy Closets, 888-5788, classyclosets.com. Bedding: Ikea, Bloomington, MN, 952/858-8088, ikea-usa.com. Cabinetry & gate: The Woodshop, Los Lunas, NM, 865-7741, thewoodshoponline.com. Carpet: LIVING ROOM purchased in India. Chair: BEDROOM purchased secondhand. Countertops: granite, Arizona Tile, 883-6076, arizonatile.com. Dining table & chairs: Thomas Design, Minneapolis, MN. Doors: entry door by Michel Richard, The Woodshop, Los Lunas, NM, 865-7741, thewoodshoponline.com. Flooring: slate tiles purchased at Arizona Tile, 883-6076, arizonatile.com; bamboo flooring. Landscaping: plantings and layouts by homeowners, with assistance by landscaper Richard Perce. Lighting supplier: Creative Lighting, 823-6300, creativelighting.net. Loveseats: LIVING ROOM Ekornes loveseats, Leishman’s of Santa Fe, Santa Fe, 982-5555, leishmansofsantafe.com. Lumber: Lumber Inc., 823-2700, lumberinc.com. Pergola: by Evan Davis. Photovoltaic system: Direct Power & Water Corporation, 889-3585, directpower.com. Plaster: American Clay, 243-5300, americanclay.com. Sideboard: (page 47) International Design Center, Minneapolis, MN. Stools: KITCHEN Tema Contemporary Furniture, 275-2121, tema-usa.com. Structural insulated panels: The Murus Company, Mansfield, PA, 570/549-2100, murus.com. Toilets: Caroma dual-flush toilets, 800/605-4218, caromausa.com. Window coverings: cellular shades, The Home Depot, homedepot.com. Windows: Pella Windows & Doors, 345-3502, pella.com.