Joaquin Karcher came to Taos from his native Germany, as an architectural student who was drawn to the Southwest by the innovative work happening here at the time, in the area of sustainable building.
He says he was intrigued by the work being done by Michael Reynolds, and in particular Ed Mazria in Santa Fe, whose book on adobe building was revered by German architects at the time. Karcher went to Hopi Mesa before arriving in Taos, and to this day acknowledges the early Pueblo builders as the source of his inspiration, in terms of design. In fact, his Bauhaus informed modern homes, blend effortlessly into the high desert landscape, precisely because of his intimate knowledge of the way those early indigenous builders approached their craft. He was married for several years to Bertina Concha from Taos Pueblo before they divorced.
Fast forward three decades, and Karcher who has lived here ever since (and is married to artist, STEM Arts creator and co-founder of the Paseo Project, Agnes Chavez), finds himself at the forefront of sustainable building, as a zero-energy designer, with his involvement with Architecture 2030, founded by Ed Mazria.
Architecture 2030’s mission is to rapidly transform the global built environment from the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate crisis, with two primary objectives: to achieve a dramatic reduction in energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the built environment; and to advance the development of sustainable, resilient, equitable and carbon-neutral buildings and communities.
For over a decade, in a concerted effort to combat the projected consequences of climate change, Architecture 2030 and its collaborators have championed the cause of sustainable and carbon-neutral planning and design in the built environment.
Forbes Magazine recently noted that President-elect JoeBiden, who oversaw the Obama administration’s stimulus work as vice president, unknowingly left himself a down-payment for the work ahead: $40 billion in unused Energy Department loan authority awarded under the 2009 stimulus.
That money could be used to kickstart his climate and infrastructure plan at a time when a narrowly divided Congress may balk at his call to spend $2 trillion over four years.
The Energy Department will play a key role in helping slash emissions from the transportation sector, the largest contributor to climate change. Electrifying the nation’s fleet of vehicles would represent one of the most seismic market and technological upheavals in recent history. And the department will also have a major role to play in stanching emissions from buildings, appliances and the electric power sector.
Karcher, who has built several sustainable model homes for private clients over the past decade, is currently collaborating with Kit Carson Electric on the Dolan Street Project, an exciting and innovative peek into the future of residences in Taos.
Tempo caught up with Karcher by phone recently and asked him a few questions.
Tell us a little about Architecture 2030, and how you came to be involved.
Architecture 2030 is a nonprofit organization that was founded by the well-known architect Ed Mazria with the mission to transform buildings from a major contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) and cut their emissions to zero by 2030. This applies to all new buildings and major renovations.
Or in simple terms: stop burning, in order to a) achieve a dramatic reduction in the energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the built environment; and b) to advance the development of sustainable, resilient, equitable and carbon-neutral buildings and communities.
Architecture 2030 initiated the 2030 Challenge in 2006, which led to the zero-emissions movement in the global building sector. They put the challenge to the global architecture and building community to adopt the following targets:
All new buildings, developments, and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral by 2030. No more greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels are necessary to operate.
When you look at the targets you realize that in 10 years we need to be carbon neutral. This is to achieve the 1.5-degree global thermostat limit of the Paris Climate Agreement. And architects hold the key to that thermostat. Forty-eight percent of the United States energy is consumed by buildings, not by cars. What we have to learn is that it is our building stock, more so than our cars!
Well, the Dolan Street project addresses both. Ultra-efficient, all-electric homes and electric cars. Almost the entire lifestyle is committed to reducing your own personal carbon footprint and at the same time you end up with more comfort, lower maintenance costs, and low bills. It is a win-win situation all the way around. The solutions for the future are better than what we had before.
This project is a model of how transitioning to renewable energy can happen in Taos and how it can be affordable. Once Kit Carson Electric finishes its 15-megawatt solar array and storage near the Taos Airport this year (2021) our service area will be 100 percent daytime solar. Renewable Taos is working with Kit Carson Electric to bring wind energy into our service area which would then supply our nighttime energy. This would be spectacular and provide renewable energy to the grid of our entire service area. If this happens it would be a model for the rest of our country because as I understand, many utility providers around the country are looking at KCE and how they are achieving this.
Today there are nearly 1,200 firms, organizations and individuals that have adopted the 2030 Challenge. It has been adopted by architectural design firms, states, cities, counties, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the International Union of Architects, US Conference of Mayors, and the China Accord. It has become standard practice in most leading A/E/C firms.
I adopted the Challenge in 2006. What happened is that the conversation about sustainability had changed. It moved from “materials” to “energy.” It became clear that it is not enough to just build with natural materials, but that buildings also should not need any fossil fuels to operate. Energy became the front and center topic in the quest for sustainable architecture and will be more so in the future.
You have been building super energy-efficient homes for over a decade now, when we spoke, you mentioned making a discovery in Germany some years ago, that led you to your current trajectory. Was it surprising for you to have to return to your point of origin after having spent so many years in the vanguard of sustainable building here in the Southwest?
The irony of my story is the fact that I came here because my generation of architect students in Germany in the ’80s was fascinated with what was happening in the Southwest at the time. It was the solar/adobe movement and I wanted to be part of it. When I finally got here Ronald Reagan, in his first day in office, took the solar panels off the White House roof that Jimmy Carter had installed, which set the tone and shifted policies away from renewables and back to fossil fuels.
During a visit in Berlin I read a newspaper article claiming that German building scientists had developed a concept that reduces energy consumption of homes by 90 percent with a constant indoor temperature of 70 F, a value unimaginable in the passive solar world and that they had already built and monitored 15,000 of them. I was stunned because they have not nearly as much sun as we have in New Mexico.
I began researching it – turned out they had an Institute in Darmstadt (Passive House Institute) and learned from an architect in Cologne who was a pioneer in this field.
Back in Taos, I took a sabbatical researching and developing this concept with the contractor Ben van Willigen and others for the climate, construction practices and materials available in the U.S. A few years later we had enough experience to built the Chamisa Passive House in Taos, the first certified Passive House and LEED Platinum residence in New Mexico and it is Site Net Zero Energy.
The irony is that I had to go back to Germany, learn new skills there and bring them to the U.S. Just the other way around than I imagined.
But it wasn’t until I built my house a couple of years ago where I was able to apply all I learned from years of designing custom residences to build it on a shoestring budget and without sacrificing any of the qualities and features I would never compromise. This is the house being used as a model for the Dolan Street project.
You and Agnes live in this model home you designed and built. It’s an example of the type of renewable energy you have been working with. It even charges your electric car! Can you talk a bit about the work you are engaged in with Kit Carson Electric, specifically the Dolan Street Project?
Kit Carson Electric is interested in transitioning the grid to renewable energy (see the 15,000-megawatt grid-scale solar system and storage being built by the airport and reaching 100 percent daytime solar this year, 2021). They are also interested in new customers and their CEO Luis Reyes is committed to keeping utility bills affordable for the lower-income customers.
There is a synergy here. The solution for new construction is all-electric homes that are so efficient that you can heat them with a hairdryer which is technically entirely possible. The second part of the solution is transitioning to electric vehicles to make our personal transportation renewable as well.
The Dolan Street project does both. There are no gas lines coming into the houses, no propane tanks, and not even a wood stove. Every house will have its own EV charging station and owning an EV is required. The goal is to make the units affordable so they can be a model for others to follow.
It is now time to implement models for people to experience first hand. The time of talking about it is over. It is time to share with each other what we are doing.
We are at the end of the fossil fuels era, company after company is bailing out. We have seen the Navajo Power Plant in Page, Arizona, taken down a few days ago. We are done and don’t need them anymore. What we have to do now is look forward and build the future, moving from vision to reality and build projects like this on a large scale.
The solution for the existing building stock is called “weatherization” and exchanging the old and inefficient mechanical equipment to new high-efficient ones like air source heat pumps.
You reminded me when I mentioned the sense of urgency around these endeavors, that not only is it a matter of urgency, but a climate emergency, that inspires your work. Your commitment to the 2030 goal is steadfast; Do you think we can make that goal, and can we make this housing affordable for everyone?
Ha! That is a complex issue and an extensive conversation.
We can certainly meet the climate goal if there is a commitment to it as a society at large. Technically? No problem! We have all the components in place: we know how to build ultra-efficient homes, we have new super-efficient innovative technologies and materials at hand and we know how to retrofit our existing building stock.
What we have to do now is to clean up the grid and run clean renewable energy through it. We need a government that leads the way and makes the right decisions. Incentives can play a role, shifting subsidies to renewables and establishing fair energy prices.
Meeting the 2030 goal will only be successful if we manage to electrify our homes. Because if you think about it, electricity is the only form of utility energy that can be produced renewably and furthermore it is the finest form of energy because anything can be operated with it, from your toaster to your water heater to your car. But electric vehicles are only as clean as the electricity they are charging. The same is true for buildings.
Buildings account for 37 percent of CO2 emissions worldwide (in the U.S. even higher, 48 percent). This is mostly for homes, residences, offices, hotels and schools. Primarily this energy is used for heating and cooling (space conditioning). The predictions are that due to population growth the energy demand will continue to grow. The IEA predicts that by 2070 the built surface area (footprint) worldwide will have doubled. This means that every week we are adding a city of the size of Paris. Heat pumps are seen as essential to still meet the climate goals. They are about three times more efficient.The IEA predicts a boom for heat-pump technology and expects its business to triple in the next 20 years.
In terms of making it affordable to everyone, a key goal about the Dolan Street Clean Living project is affordability. The model for it is our personal home which we built a couple of years ago. It is radical in many ways and from the beginning to the end it has been designed for cost-effectiveness. We want to apply the same strategy to the Dolan Street project. It is designed as a “People’s Home,” nothing fancy, straightforward but nice. They will be easy to live in and the levels of comfort will take your breath away. It is not a high dollar custom development – those are easy to do. To do it on a tight budget requires working all the angles and experience. The basic design will be repetitive but some features will be customizable. Much like a Nike shoe, where you can pick the colors for the soles, the shoe laces etc. At the end you are looking at your individual design.