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Richard Harkrader has made a career building energy-efficient homes--and with utility bills of just $120 a year, it's easy to see why he's successful.

Richard Harkrader has made a career building energy-efficient homes 

A passion for the sun

click to enlarge The living room in the Harkraders passive solar home - faces south, allowing the room to store heat in its - concrete floor. - YORK WILSON
  • York Wilson
  • The living room in the Harkraders passive solar home faces south, allowing the room to store heat in its concrete floor.

The home of Durham builder Richard Harkrader is an environmentally friendly oasis tucked away on a side street near Duke University.

From the outside, there are no apparent differences from the houses next door. The front of the house is flanked by a large garden, and there's a gently sloping driveway leading to a one-car garage. The whole setting is serene--there's even a creek winding near the property, forming a lovely spot to sit and enjoy the fresh air.

But look closer. Harkrader, one of the first builders to incorporate renewable energy systems into area homes, has created a house that stands out.

The length of his house faces south, standing in stark contrast to the rest of the houses on the block, which are of a traditional design. Harkrader's home operates in part from a passive solar system. Large windows that allow light and heat to filter into the house line the living room, which faces south. The room itself then acts as a solar collector, storing heat in the concrete floor that filters throughout the rest of the house.

Though his home incorporates elements of an active solar system, mainly because its hot water system is heated by solar energy collected from several panels near the driveway, it cannot be classified solely as such because it does not have solar heating or solar electricity.

Seated among various objects collected from travels across the globe, Harkrader extols the benefits of solar energy. In addition to reducing pollution, solar-powered systems help keep the costs of owning a home in check.

"I pay $120 a year for energy," Harkrader says. "Most people have more than that per month."

He stresses that anyone can have a home that is powered by solar energy. The key, Harkrader says, is incorporating "intelligent design" into the creation of a house. "You would think everyone would do it."

And Harkrader would know. His company, New Morning Construction, is responsible for the construction of 60 houses and 15 apartment buildings in the area--all of which incorporate renewable energy systems. Harkrader closed the company in 1991 and opened New Morning Solar Realty, the business through which he rents the apartments.

click to enlarge Richard and Lonna Harkrader, framed by one of their homes many windows. - YORK WILSON
  • York Wilson
  • Richard and Lonna Harkrader, framed by one of their homes many windows.

Harkrader says the mental and financial benefits of solar-powered homes draw potential tenants to inquire about the apartments. He cites as one of the most significant advantages to his designs the psychological benefits of constant exposure to natural light. "On a summer day, the house is filled with sunlight," he says. "Living in a building full of sunlight is very beneficial."

About one-third of his apartment residents are graduate students--Harkrader doesn't rent to undergraduates--and many are single women, who Harkrader says are drawn by the low utility costs.

Harkrader also encourages the incorporation of daylighting into commercial buildings, such as schools, saying that students who are exposed to natural light have been shown to have higher grades and fewer absences.

Harkrader's craft is largely self-taught. Though he received a degree in architecture from Cornell University, he says that nothing he learned in school prepared him for his career as an innovator of solar-powered homes in Durham.

Though there are now several architectural firms dedicated to crafting environmentally friendly homes, Harkrader describes the conservative nature of builders as a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

The demand is there, but some builders refuse to listen. "Everybody builds pretty much whatever everybody else builds," Harkrader says.

In addition to building and maintaining homes, Harkrader is actively involved with the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, having served three terms as its chairman. The association works to promote clean energy to the state's legislators, in hopes that they will pass policies that make it easier for homes and businesses to incorporate renewable energy into their design.

Harkrader and his wife, Lonna, also work on a daily basis to assist the community of San Ramn, Nicaragua, through Durham-San Ramn Sister Communities, a nonprofit organization that works to improve San Ramn through education and cooperation.

"Everything that happens here has an enormous influence down there," Harkrader says. The organization works with the community to fund various projects, including paying teachers' salaries and increasing hours for the town's library.

Harkrader points to a painting in his home of a small village surrounded by lush green vegetation. The painting was made by an artist in San Ramn, and one of the initiatives undertaken by the group is selling paintings by local artists and then incorporating the profits back into the community.

Of course, Harkrader has also worked to develop solar-powered buildings into the community of San Ramn. It seems that no matter where he is, it's impossible for this environmental pioneer to forget his strongest passion.

"It's important to be an activist," Harkrader says. "If not, you're part of the status quo. "

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