Nestled in the quiet suburbs of “Your Town, U.S.A,” sits the boxed marvel of the House of Tomorrow. The inside of the mid-century design home buzzes with clever little devices created to streamline every housewife’s daily routine. Automatic sandwich makers, electric can openers and self-vacuuming carpets serve as beacons to technological innovation and all the prefab luxuries of American convenience.
The highlights of the pre-WWII World’s Fair exhibitions, the Houses of Tomorrow allowed visitors to tour a culmination of progress and design squarely aimed at the American Dream. These “future houses” eventually gave way to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland exhibit, which was one of the first attractions the theme park included on its opening day. For many Americans at that time, tomorrow looked as bright, shiny, and pre-packaged as a brand new Studebaker.
Only these days, the future doesn’t look quite like it did in 1955.
It actually looks a lot like Sheri and Paul Nicholson’s modest Neptune Beach bungalow. Instead of quirky gadgets, the home features a 6.1 KW photovoltaic solar system, solar hot water system, greywater system, recycled countertops, skylight sun tunnels, and a rainwater irrigation system. Coupled with a smattering of low-cost, energy-efficient home appliances, the couple manages to make their electricity bill a mere $140; that’s per year!
The house, which was built in the 1940s and bought by the Nicholson’s 33 years ago, isn’t so much a homage to technology, but rather to the planet. In an effort to step away from the convenience-at-all-costs mindset, the couple’s home doesn’t idealize a tomorrow but actually plans for it. The future, it turns out, happens every day in the steps people take to get there.
Paul is a solar contractor who parlayed his quest for sun-cribbed power into a new career.
“It saddened him that somebody was going to charge that much,” Sheri says after their back-and-forth dealing with multiple independent contractors prior to their house’s installation. “No wonder people don’t want to do it.”
However, the Nicholson’s said that you don’t have to spend the money on panels to make your own House of Tomorrow. Many of the eco-conscious aspects of the home were bought as cheap add-ons from home improvement stores. According to Sheri and Paul, a little effort coupled with a little cash up front can actually save a lot of money in the long run.
I talked to Sheri about how the small adjustments the couple has made could translate to a huge impact if others were to adopt a similar approach.
What is something that can be done to reduce your footprint and expenses that’s free of cost?
All the things that are plugged in are your “phantom load.” If you had them on a power switch, you could just hit the power switch before you leave. Simplify things. Water is a big deal. Water is not expensive right now and neither is electricity. But it’s going to be. It’s nice if we start thinking now about how to change things.
What do you tell people that are interested in solar energy?
What I say is, if you want solar, start by reducing your phantom load. Let’s think about your house. I would say, walk through your house and see what’s going on in it that is making your energy bill $300 dollars a month. How about solar blinds? Very inexpensive considering how much you’re going to reduce your cost. At night when it’s 40 degrees and you put all your blinds down? You’re going to keep your house warmer.
One friend I had, we cut her energy bill down $100 a month just by walking through her house and doing a couple things.
We want to reduce the amount of energy we are using before we consider doing solar. Solar is your last resort. When people talk about solar, I say, “Don’t make that the thing you want so bad.” It’s not putting [in] solar that’s the cool thing. It’s reducing your energy first.
What are some inexpensive “quick fixes” for environmental upgrades?
Solar blinds: Designed to block UV rays and control inside temperatures.
Chili pepper pump: A small appliance that quickly circulates the hot water from the water heater to your sink or shower without wasting any water down the drain.
Sheets and blankets on a clothesline (pro tip): If someone says you can’t have them up, legally they can’t tell you that you can’t.
Sensor lights: All of our rooms, bathrooms, and everything, have sensor lights. If the light comes on and you forget to turn it off, it automatically turns off.
Appliances: Look at your appliances. If they are old, purchase new. Anything that is six years or older, the innovation is that much better. Our 2001 ceiling fans used three times as much energy as our new 2018 ceiling fans.
If you spend a couple thousand dollars to reduce what you had in your home, you’d be good to go. Imagine if you reduced by $150 a month? Then your solar that you considered wanting…or maybe just hot-water solar? You’ll get your return in three to five years. That’s an investment.
How much water do you really save?
All our shower heads have a little device on the top of the shower so you can turn if off when you’re in the shower. I still have the same temperature on the gauge, so my temperature is good: I just don’t have to have the water keep running.
We actually did [a test] with some kids at Fletcher Middle School. It was for the science fair. We said, “Let’s see how long it takes to do hot water.” It was almost half a gallon before [it got hot]. I’m thinking, “Imagine everybody waiting for that. How many people that live on one block?” That’s a lot of water. It’s huge.
What is your motivation for maintaining an eco-friendly home?
We did this for our kids. I have two children, both of them in college now. We did this because we believe in less of a footprint. It meant so much to us to be able to walk the walk, and not just talk about it.
It’s a cool house. It’s got a great personality. I’ve never had anyone walk into my house and not say, “God, this feels good.” I think it’s because we put a lot of love into it.
This feature originally appeared under the headline “House of Tomorrow” in Void Magazine’s January 2020 issue.