My wife and I can now clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel that signals our retirement from the daily grind. (Well, one of us, at least. It’s also possible that one of us will continue to work to supplement that retirement… but that’s another grind.) And as we approach it, we’re considering the strong possibility that we’ll leave the Maryland area, considered one of the higher-priced and highly-taxed areas of the country. That means selling our house. So the big question is: What will we live in after this?
Many might assume, from my many posts about tiny houses, that we’re thinking about moving into one of those diminutive domiciles. But as interesting and economical as those homes are, let me assure you that we’re not planning to scale down from a 2500 square foot house to a 250 square footer. Tiny homes offer great lessons on how to downsize your unneeded possessions and demonstrate all kinds of spiffy storage solutions. But—maybe because we’ve both been living in larger spaces for all our lives—we can’t imagine scaling down that much, if we don’t need to.
(And there’s something else to think about: Tiny houses aren’t exactly well-secured to the ground, making them susceptible to high winds… think tornadoes and trailer homes. I’ve got enough on my mind without worrying about doing a Dorothy during twister season and ending my retirement with a bang AND a whimper.)
No, when we think about a retirement home, we like to think about the structures and designs we’ve seen at the Solar Decathlons sponsored by the US Department of Energy and various corporations. The Decathlons host various organisations, mostly universities sponsored by building or energy corporations, that build solar-powered and sustainable home designs to be tested for efficiency, viability and habitability. During the Decathlon, the public can visit on specific days and tour the homes for free, to see the many examples of design and engineering on display. And at the end, the houses are graded, scores are totaled up in individual categories, and a grand winner is declared for the show.
I especially get a big kick out of the show, as I’ve been a fan of solar and efficient/sustainable home designs since my early teens. The US has been developing more efficient home designs and materials, and single-home energy systems like solar and wind, for decades now; and if we had been rolling out these new designs as they were developed, we could have saved our country millions per year, perhaps billions, in energy use by now. I’ve watched the industry carefully, hoping for the point at which current prices were low enough for me to take advantage of them, in my current or maybe a future house. And those price points are finally reaching attainable levels for the general public.
We’ve both attended the Decathlons held in the Washington, DC area, and we’ve toured many homes that seemed ideal for single-couple living. The homes on display feature open, airy designs and clever sustainable systems to keep your energy costs down and your environmental footprint small… ideal for families on fixed incomes, like retirees, or for anyone desiring to live cheaply and more efficiently. The homes, in general, are between 600 and 1000 square feet, and the larger of them seem to be plenty large enough for the retirement future we imagine for ourselves.
The University of Maryland WaterShed house, the Decathlon winner for 2011, is one of our favorite designs. From their site:
Inspired by the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, the University of Maryland return(ed) to the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 with WaterShed—an entry that proposes solutions to water and energy shortages. The house is a model of how the built environment can help preserve watersheds everywhere by managing storm water onsite, filtering pollutants from greywater, and minimizing water use. The photovoltaic and solar thermal arrays, effectiveness of the building envelope, and efficiency of the mechanical systems make WaterShed less thirsty for fossil fuels than standard homes.
The homes have been built as test-beds for various types of energy efficiency systems, including solar panels, solar heating systems, grey-water treatment, windmill energy generation, smart power distribution systems and appliances, and insulating materials. Some that we saw were built solely for the Decathlon, and clearly not supposed to be “finished” homes as such; but many were constructed with such finishing detail that they could be lived in, year-round, as-is. Many homes were sold to interested organizations after their Decathlon; the WaterShed house, for instance, was moved to a PEPCO site, where it is now on display as a “living laboratory” of efficient design. It is the hope of many that some of these home design plans may someday be available for private individuals to purchase and build, or at least used as guides to build your own.
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to keep an eye on our prize. Two years back, the Solar Decathlon moved its show to the west coast; this year’s Decathlon was held in Denver; in 2018, they will be held in China and the Middle East. The previously-set 2019 date, also in Denver, has recently been changed to 2020 and a location to be determined. Unfortunately, the present administration is being heavily lobbied by traditional power companies to discourage the new, alternative energy companies, which suggests the administration is intentionally moving the clean energy target away from potential US customers like myself… it’s hard not to suspect a direct effort to quash alt-energy in favor of Good Ol’ Boy oil and coal. I’ve just discovered that the previously-set 2019 date, also in Denver, has been changed to 2020 and a location to be determined. Who knows what the future of this event will be.
All the same, as that light at the end of the tunnel gets bigger, we’re keeping a weather-eye on those Decathlon homes, and we hope that—on the day we decide to leave this area for greener pastures (and cheaper climes)—we might be able to take one of those houses with us.