Beyond green homes


Prepare to be amazed. Or surprised. Or jealous. This year’s Tour of Sustainable Homes, formerly the Tour of Solar and Green Homes, has planned a day of programming designed to let you get acquainted with more than your neighbors’ solar panels.

There may be a little keeping up with the Joneses, but mostly this ever-broadening tour is designed to meet the expanding view of what it means to live sustainably.

Sixteen years ago, when the tour started as the Tour of Solar Homes with funding by the Department of Energy, photovoltaic solar panels (PVS) were “exotic technology,” says Brad Queen, energy division director for the Center for ReSource Conservation and one of the tour’s organizers.

“We started funding these tours to say ‘Hey, a lot has changed since then. These are not that exotic, and they are something you can incorporate into your homes,’” Queen says. “Over the past five years, solar PV has become passé. … Good luck going around Boulder and not seeing PVS.”

So, the tour, which takes place this year on Oct. 2, has expanded on the elements of resource conservation — saving energy and water — it always included, and even expanded to assess homes based on their transportation options, waste transportation, access to local foods, and surrounding community. This year’s tour selection committee considered $4 million homes and included an affordable housing development in Boulder and a former coal miner’s shack in Louisville. The debate on what to include, and whether to include the million-dollar homes, became quite impassioned, Queen says.

“We keep emphasizing each year bringing in more and more variety in the homes, so rather than just having million-dollar investments, we also have very modest homes that, inside and out, are showing applications of living sustainably,” says Alison Layman, communications manager for ReSource.

“There are people who approach buildings as high-tech, technology-driven sustainability, and they’ll build the net-zero house that’s $3 million, but you can see the obvious problems in something like that,” Queen says. “For one, it’s not scalable. Not many people can afford that type of solution. Two, the resources that go into that — how could you ever really say that’s sustainable?” This year, they looked at energy flagship technology homes and assessed how well they really perform — which isn’t actually that well, compared to a moderate home that’s sealed up well, well-insulated and has a few technology updates, Queen says.

“We’re trying to give people more of a larger scope of all things they can do, which often don’t have to be investing in larger technologies or expensive technologies,” Layman says.

What ReSource is moving toward is a way to aggregate information on conservation to help homeowners craft plans to work with their personal situation, because the bottom line in sustainable homes doesn’t always come down to a balance sheet. It comes down to a comfort, safety and lifestyle, Queen says.

“They want to enjoy their homes,” he says. “They don’t want to be uncomfortable in the den when they’re trying to read by the window in the winter. … They want to enjoy their home more, and if they can make improvements and also save money, great.”

ReSource teamed with government and nonprofit groups to get more information out about programs and rebates available to help people attending the tour work out a personal plan for more sustainable living. The tour will also be an opportunity to meet the contractors required to do a serious remodel on an energy-sucking home.

“Our mission is to empower people to conserve natural resources,” Layman says. “Showing people the whole spectrum of these programs is accomplishing our mission.”

Their partners include Transition Colorado, B-Cycle, which is providing free bikes for tour participants to ride the route, and the City and County of Boulder, which devoted a Hop bus to provide a bus-powered tour of the homes.

The tour includes a home improved with the assistance of local government programs, which shows that it doesn’t take a fortune to remodel a house to have a small footprint, and one that devoted a limited budget to building out the property with a permaculture plan.

“This is an overwhelming number of topics and tactics and lifestyle issues, and we realize that and we’re not expecting people to come through and say, at the end of the tour, ‘Now I know it all and I’m going to go off and do this at my home,’” Queen says. “What we want to do is show them that there are a lot of local resources that can help them start working their plan … and now, at the end of the tour, they’ll know who to talk to.”

And, yes, there will be chicken coops. More information is available at