Longtime Santa Fe architect Mark Chalom's devotion to solar and adobe design has earned him high accolades from his peers at the American Solar Energy Society.
Chalom was honored this year with a Passive Pioneer Award, for his decades-long innovation in passive solar design. The award honors people who "developed the theories, early research efforts, new concepts and opportunities" for others to refine. "It is quite an honor," he said.
More than a dozen of the nation's top solar architects and advocates, including Architecture 2030 founder Ed Mazria, recommended Chalom for his commitment as a speaker, researcher, teacher and solar developer. Beyond just designing homes, Chalom has tested new techniques and systems with other architects and scientists.
Chalom came to New Mexico in the early 1970s after earning degrees in architecture and environmental design from the University of Oklahoma. He fell in love with adobe and passive solar -- the notion that a properly designed building could be heated free from the sun and cooled naturally.
Adobe "is one of the greenest materials on this planet," he said. "It is a solar battery, gaining heat from the sun in the day and releasing it at night. It is a material with a low embodied energy that works in harmony with the environment."
New Mexico was a leader in passive and active solar design in those golden years, when a tax credit and high gasoline prices drove people to look for alternatives. Chalom worked with the giants of the solar architecture revolution: William Lumpkin, Peter Van Dresser, Douglas Balcomb, David Wright, a 2008 Passive Pioneer, and others.
The newly-constructed Eldorado development touted itself as the largest solar development in the nation on a big billboard. Chalom designed some of the homes. Then the tax credit went away and a natural gas pipeline came into the community, Chalom remembers. The billboard came down and homebuyers lost interest in passive solar, he said.
Chalom and a handful of solar devotees kept at it, building, designing and pushing the envelope on all things solar. He organized conferences and taught classes on solar design from Vermont to Mexico. He and his students designed and tested solar cookers, desalinators and wood burning water heaters. He and Wright developed an analytical model for predicting and comparing the performance of passive solar buildings.
All the while, he built efficient, beautiful homes, more than 150 in the last three decades. "Mark has put his heart and soul into promoting passive solar homes through education and designing artistic, sustainable habitats for people," said nominator Monte Ogdahl, president of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association.
In 2009, the home Chalom designed for Richard and Susan Bechtold won Green Home of the Year in the Su Casa and Green Build New Mexico competition. More than just passive solar, Chalom tried to make a complete system that harvested water for use in the house, and on the landscape, recycled effluent, produced its own energy, promoted wildlife and "looked good," he said.
Chalom takes issue with some of the new bedrock principles of green building programs, including a new green building code of the city and the HERS (Home Energy Rating System) program. One of his early complaints with HERS is it failed to consider thermal mass of adobe and other earthen materials. The city code, he said, doesn't give as much credit for energy efficient, passive solar design as it ought to and relies too heavily on super insulating buildings.
Chalom believes deeply in combining traditional building materials and knowledge with new systems. "We work with the environment, not hide from it," he said of his work. "My theory is open up to your environment and it will take care of you."
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