Green Home
ahead of the curve

An innovative solar solution hides in the foundation beneath this modern-rural home in Albuquerque’s North Valley.

This article first appeared in Spring 2009 Su Casa

We’ve all heard about off-grid houses, those miraculous residences so energy efficient they can cut all ties to the utility companies. While Joel and Evelin Wheeler’s new house in Albuquerque’s North Valley includes many sustainable features and was on a green-building tour, it embraces an entirely different idea of grids.

Joel Wheeler responded to the hypnotic appeal of repeating patterns by incorporating metal grids on both the interior and exterior of his home. In the garden, graceful curves of wire fencing form trellises that echo the building’s curved roof. Inside, metal grids embellish elements from ceiling fans to the staircase railing.

Many of the wire panels are agricultural—hog panel, cattle panel, rabbit wire. Wheeler acknowledges the strong influence of his rural youth as one of “a long line of farmers in the Texas panhandle.” Other features of the house—stock tanks along with metal siding, roofing, and fittings—would look at home on barns and other outbuildings. At one end of the living room, the ceiling slopes down from a change in level. Wheeler designed the area to look like a farmhouse’s screened porch that has been closed in. The large main bathroom is supplied with simple retro fixtures surrounded by plain white tile on the floor and wainscot. Wheeler said he was inspired by memories of exceedingly clean dairy buildings.

Although the Wheeler house feels very spacious, it has only 2,539 square feet of heated area, which would no doubt please Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House. A reading nook on the upstairs landing, complete with embracing window seat, natural light, bookshelves, and storage compartments fitted into every cranny, would surely delight Christopher Alexander, the high prophet of livability, whose writing also influenced the Wheelers’ home design.

Another manifestation of grids and influences remains invisible to the casual visitor. Wheeler spotted James Kachadorian’s The Passive Solar House in the library. Kachadorian, a civil engineer, invented a system for storing solar heat in and under the concrete slab of his Vermont home. In the ground below the house, he first placed a one-inch layer of insulation, then an eight-inch layer of compacted sand and gravel, and finally a layer of concrete blocks (CMUs) with their cells aligned so the open hollows form ranks of small tunnels under the concrete.

In Kachadorian’s house, sunlight pours through large expanses of south-facing glass, heating the inside air. A fan moves the air through a duct and down into the CMU tunnels under the slab, where the dense material stores the heat. When the house begins to cool late in the day, air moving under the floor picks up heat from the concrete and CMUs, moving it back into the house to keep the temperature comfortable.

Wheeler looked at the innovative technique from the opposite direction. He was more interested in the solar slab as an aid to cooling his house during Albuquerque’s hot months. Hot air rises through the house’s two stories at the stairwell. At the highest point a duct supplied with a fan moves the heated air back down to enter and circulate through the solar slab. In the process, the air loses its heat to the thermal mass of concrete and blocks. The air, now cool, returns to the living space through three vents in the floor.

On a hot mid-September afternoon in 2008, the house was 67 degrees with no artificial cooling. Wheeler said its temperature had not risen above 78 degrees during 2008, nor had they turned on the air conditioning. And the insulated wine cellar built under the stairs remained several degrees cooler still.

The house met the ultimate challenge at the summer wedding of the Wheelers’ daughter. They planned to seat people outside at tables on the gravel area. Unfortunately it rained. All 85 guests crowded inside the house, but the air conditioning and solar cooling slab passed the test.

Wheeler built the solar slab with his stepson and stepson’s friend. He says the sandwich of insulation, sand, concrete block, and slab, totaling 75 tons of thermal mass, has already paid for itself.

Along with interior designer Heidi Britt and designer Rod Calkum, Wheeler worked out how to combine the home’s various influences into a coherent whole that fit its surroundings. He wanted the house to look as if it had been in its North Valley setting for generations. Its three colors of exterior stucco relate to older buildings in the area that have been expanded repeatedly, while the use of agricultural materials echoes the lingering rural nature of what once was a chain of tiny farming settlements along the Rio Grande.

The curved roof over the upper floor dominates the masses of the house. Wheeler built circular tops on opposite walls of the upstairs block, then laid TJI joists across the curve to form the roof. If he did it again, he says he would use curved trusses. The metal struts pulling the overhangs of the curved roof into place blend with the other metal agricultural fittings, as do the large half-circle gutters that echo the roof curve.

Several large structural beams support the ceiling in the living and dining rooms. Wheeler recounts how renowned Albuquerque builder Nat Kaplan would go up to the Jemez Mountains near Albuquerque with a woodcutter and point out promising timber. By the time he was terminally ill, Kaplan had “a stash of beautiful beams that he wanted to go into a beautiful house or furniture.” Today several of those beams reside in the Wheeler house.

One final influence dominates the home—Wheeler’s professional experience in fine woodworking. Wheeler built most of the furniture that complements the downstairs interior so well, including the long paired dining tables and chairs. He likes Shaker furniture and the furniture of Gustav Stickley, and the affinity shows in the elegant, rectangular lines of work he does for himself.

But he also enjoys the whimsical. The vanity top in the downstairs powder room seems at first glance to rest on baroque legs writhing with ornamentation. Regarding the cabinetry business, Wheeler says, “If you’re making something complicated, you always make an extra.” A closer look shows that a spare table leg has been split vertically, with each half set into the wall, to make the “legs” of the vanity. Wheeler also supplied the home’s superb built-in features, from a cabinet with shallow lingerie drawers in the main bedroom to the dining room sideboard to the kitchen cabinets.

Joel Wheeler now owns The Branch Cabinetry, but he didn’t set out to become a master carpenter. He came to Albuquerque to earn a degree in English at the University of New Mexico. At some point during graduate school, Wheeler decided that a degree in literature “wasn’t going to do anything for him.”

During school he tended bar part time, and one night a masonry contractor asked if he wanted work as a hod carrier during the upcoming two-week school vacation. Wheeler agreed. He discovered that he didn’t want to become a mason, but he made more money in two weeks than he would have tending bar for a month. He decided to learn more about other skilled building trades.

Wheeler went down to the local carpenters’ union to sign up for an apprenticeship. The secretary told him there were more than 300 names on the waiting list, but he put his name down anyway. Frequently he’d check in and chat with the secretary. Six weeks later she called him to come down and take the entrance test for the six-week apprenticeship. He passed the test and completed the apprenticeship while making a chest of drawers for his own use that so impressed everyone that he immediately got his first carpentry job.

Today Wheeler’s clean-lined house rises from a lush natural setting. The Wheelers began landscaping by taking out some of the elm trees that surrounded the property. About the same time they put in a buffalo grass and blue grama lawn, but enough elms remained to dump seeds all over the new grass. Joel pulled out the seedlings. He said he stopped counting them after he reached 100,000.

After getting the lawn in shape, they began embellishing the property with chocolate flowers, roses, trellises with native clematis, and silver lace humming with bees. Their backyard crops include grapes, cherries, peaches, and tomatoes.

The yard is registered as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. The organization encourages residential landscaping that supports a wide range of small creatures by providing a water source, food for birds and small animals, and nesting places. In addition to the Wheeler dogs, Buster and Willow, the yard is home to many bird species, toads, lizards, and a snake.

resources for this home

Laura Sanchez is a frequent Su Casa contributor and, with her husband, Alex, is author of Adobe Houses for Today: Flexible Plans for Your Adobe Home (Sunstone Press), reviewed in this issue. She is currently working on a series of zero-energy house designs.