Home construction in Dillon is a little bit greener thanks to a new project that aims to harness the power of the sun.
Ron Swenson is the developer behind Dillon’s Blacktail Solar Homes, three residences on North Railroad Street near Veterans Memorial Park that are more than just your average solar-powered homes.
The Blacktail homes utilize solar panels, but that’s not what makes them special. What makes them notable is the way they keep their occupants warm in the winter.
The homes achieve their heating efficiency through the art of placement.
They are oriented so that the longest part of the home faces south, where the homes are equipped with a special kind of window that traps heat from the sun. This keeps the home warm, reducing heating costs in the wintertime.
Swenson explained that this simple but clever solution can keep the homes warm in the winter without overheating them in the summer because of the changing position of the sun.
In the winter, he explained, the sun follows a low, southerly path in the sky, maximizing the heat absorbed by the house. In the summer, the sun is high in the sky, and the homes get shaded by their roofs. In addition, the homes include water-tank heaters and an extra layer of sheetrock on their south sides to maximize the heat absorbed from the sun.
To keep temperatures down in the summer, the other sides of the home include a different type of window that doesn’t trap as much heat. Windows are also oriented to create cross-ventilation during the summer.
Last but not least, Swenson says the homes are “super insulated” with five-and-half inches of insulation. They are also equipped with traditional electricity, along with baseboard-heat for extra cold days.
So far Swenson, along with Dillon-based builder Eric Wendland, have built three Blacktail homes, but have plans to build more.
One of the three homes has already sold, but two are still on the market: a 936-square-foot, two-bedroom home with one bath, and a 1,120-square-foot, three-bedroom home with two baths.
They include granite countertops, chrome faucets, and carpet and vinyl flooring.
According to Pam Neumeyer of Best of the West Properties, listing agent for the properties, the homes would appeal to those looking for an investment property or a seasonal home. She added that the homes are minimally landscaped and are single story, also making them suitable for retirees looking to downsize.
Swenson is based out of Santa Cruz, California, and he says his family has long been visiting Montana and owns property in Dillon. He said he became interested in building in Dillon after Wendland contacted him about collaborating on a project together.
“I got into this idea of building homes in Montana because I wanted to showcase what I call ‘bio-climatic design’ for both comfort and economy,” said Swenson, later adding that he wanted to showcase his designs where they can do the most good: in colder climates.
Wendland and his wife Alicia are Dillon natives and together they own ENA Carpentry & Construction.
Wendland said he and his wife always strive to construct homes that are as efficient as possible, but this is the first time they have worked on homes designed around capturing solar energy.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Wendland when asked what it’s been like to work on the project, adding that it’s been fun to work alongside “Mr. Swenson.”
A solar-energy engineer, Swenson has built a career in construction and real-estate development.
He said he became interested in his field in the late 1960s when he began to realize oil is a finite resource and wanted to find new ways to “energize our society.”
His first home-building project began in 1972 when he and a group of fellow students from the University of California in Davis built 14 dome-shaped homes — a design that’s also intended to conserve energy. Today the homes are known as the Baggins End Innovative Housing complex.
Since then, Swenson has gone on to work on wind- and solar-energy projects, along with other green-building projects.
In all, Swenson said, he sees the sun as a resource.
“Embrace the sun and its qualities and you can get a very good outcome,” he said.