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INNOVATIVE HABITATS: UTAHNS SEEK OUT FRESH IDEAS IN ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOMES AND NEW CONCEPTS OF COMMUNITY HOUSING.

WE ALL WANT to do the right thing: to live lightly on the land. But most of us don't know where to begin.

At least that's how architect Kenton Peters sees the current state of sustainability. Peters is chairman of the design and environment committee of the Utah chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He sees his committee as being a clearinghouse for information - both for the public and for public officials who determine building codes and other rules."A lot of education needs to be done. Changes need to be driven by builders and architects and knowledgable homeowners who want to make a difference," Peter says.

In his own practice, Peters is introducing some new design concepts to Utahns. He also likes to check out what other innovators are doing. That's why he went to Fruitland, Duchesne County, last week. Peters heard about an Earthship being built there by contractor Todd Kleinfelder.

People have been living in Earthship homes, whole neighborhoods of them, for years in New Mexico. The homes are designed to be not just energy-efficient but energy self-sufficient. They face south, with their north walls nestled into the sides of hills. Using solar panels, they generate their own electricity. They recycle water and waste.

And they are constructed of recycled materials - old tires and tin cans. In pictures he's seen of Earthships in New Mexico, Peters says, the old tires are quite visible. He is pleased to report that in the newest generation of Earthships, the tire substructure is concealed underneath an adobe exterior.

The Fruitland builder modified the design in one respect. Not knowing what a potential buyer might want, Kleinfelder connected the Earthship to electrical and water lines.

"I was pleasantly surprised with the Earthship," Peters said. "The feeling inside is very enclosing and warm and nice." (Kleinfelder's wife says she feels like she is being hugged when she is inside the home.)

Peters would wish for larger skylights over the earth-sheltered portion of the house. "It's a simple house, and the way you live within it wouldn't be suited to everyone," he says.

Perhaps co-housing wouldn't be suited to everyone, either. But that's another new concept in housing that is coming to Utah.

Co-housing groups are small communities, planned and managed by residents who want to live in affordable, energy-efficient homes and who want to know their neighbors and share common areas and even some meals. At least two such groups of Utahns have been planning for several years.

The Rocky Mountain Cohousing Association reports that a Circle Op Springs group has purchased 124 acres near Moab on which it plans to locate 12 homes. Seven households are committed.

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City's Glendale area, the Wasatch CoHousing group has 10 committed households and has found property and hired an attorney to draw up a development contract.

Scott Cowley, a member of the Wasatch group, explains that in order to qualify for a construction loan, his group will form an association much like a condominium homeowners' association.

Meanwhile, they are meeting with people who already live in their new neighborhood, trying to assure them that the housing project will be a nice addition to the community.

Peters is positive it will be. He thinks co-housing associations are a good way to restore a sense of community and safety to city neighborhoods, as well as a way to preserve open land in rural areas.

Peters is one of several architects interested in working for the Wasatch group. He plans to present his ideas for straw-bale construction. By way of illustration, he'll talk about the straw-bale home he is building for a client on a Pack Creek ranch near Moab.

From the outside, the house will look like a modern stucco home. It will actually be built of bales of straw, framed with timbers recycled from train trestles from the Great Salt Lake. Energy-efficient light fixtures, nontoxic paints and finishes and recycled building materials are specified.

The design incorporates passive and active solar gain. "Our passive space is a 75-foot-long lap swimming pool along the south," Peters said. "We will use the deck and the water to be our thermal mass for passive solar heating."

Peters says clients will probably be fortunate enough to be able to finance the house without going through a bank. The lack of a construction loan is what ultimately stopped the last straw-bale building Peters attempted to construct.

"Changing building codes and educating officials are an amazing part of the challenge," says Peters. They have to be helped to understand that these are viable structures.

His Moab client has been able to insure her new home through an agent in Arizona, where straw-bale construction is more common. She first tried to go through a Utah insurance agency, and Peters was invited to explain the concept to the insurance company managers.

Laughing, he describes their reaction to his presentation. "They said, `Thanks, but now we definitely aren't interested.' "

The Rocky Mountain CoHousing Association is holding its second annual conference in Boulder, Colo., Sept 28-Oct. 1. For information, call 303-492-5151.

For information about what is happening with sustainable architecture in Utah, call Elizabeth Hallstrom at the Utah Society of the American Institute of Architects' Committee on Design and the Environment, 532-1727.