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00000176-6d2a-dc2f-ad76-6d2a4ee60000The environment desk at Aspen Public Radio covers issues in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout the state of Colorado including water use and quality, impact of recreation, population growth and oil and gas development. APR’s Environment Reporter is Elizabeth Stewart-Severy.

Banana Farm in the Mountains - A Model of Energy Efficiency

There’s a house in Old Snowmass unlike any other home in the Roaring Fork Valley, or in the world for that matter. The home Amory Lovins shares with his wife doesn’t have a furnace and it creates more energy than it uses.

Lovins is a scientist who founded Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy and environmental think tank. He’s become one of the world’s foremost thinkers on energy efficiency. And, he gets some of that inspiration from what he calls the “Banana Farm." Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.


Lovins and a group of friends built the 4000 square foot home in the early 1980’s. It was something of an experiment, designed to make the most of the energy efficiency and alternative energy technologies available at the time.

"It’s about 99 percent passive solar heated and there’s no conventional heating system and four winters ago, we de-commissioned the four wood stoves that provided the last one percent of the heat."

The stone flat-roofed structure looks like a cave. Solar panels on top of the house create more energy than the house uses. So, the home is actually putting energy back on the grid.

In 2009, Lovins updated the home.

"I didn’t want it to turn into a museum and the place is a continuous experiment," he says.

The home is sort of a museum though, complete with tours. Over the years, more than 100,000 people, including building professionals and dignitaries like Bill Clinton, have walked through the heavy, tightly sealed front door, down a hallway lit by sunlight. And, into the most unique part of the house: a jungle.

In the middle of the house, sandwiched between the kitchen and Lovins’ office, tropical vegetation takes over.

"We’ve had 47 banana crops so far, lemon, mango, papaya, loquat, passion fruit, you name it, it’s in here," says Lovins.

The jungle has multiple purposes. One is for irrigation. The water vapor produced by the plants goes back into fish ponds and eventually cycles back to irrigate the jungle.

A recent major retrofit was meant to demonstrate that homes can be free of fossil fuels. As part of the upgrade, an energy monitoring data system was set up. Now you can track 300 streams of data in real time, to see how much energy light fixtures and appliances are using.

It’s like the house is a living thing, where a burner on the stove or a light fixture in the refrigerator doesn’t get away with wasting energy. Lovins says the home is equal parts experiment and living quarters.

"This house is where Judy and I live and welcome our guests and grow a lot of our food, but it’s also a continuous experiment in forming Rocky Mountain Institute’s practice, we’ve helped design over 1000 buildings around the world."

The house alone has inspired a passive house movement in Europe where more than 30,000 homes have been built without heating systems. Thanks to organizations like RMI, more building professionals in the United States are bringing the movement here. Plans are being hatched now to build an ultra energy efficient building in Basalt. It’ll be the new home for Rocky Mountain Institute, and it will share some of the technologies found in Lovins’ house.