When Lais Perlstein, originally from Brazil, moved to the Arizona desert, she made up her mind that she would do whatever it took to adapt to this environment rather than trying to coerce it to adapt to her needs.
“I think we are creating all of this comfort so that people can live comfortably in the desert, at a very high cost for the environment,” she said.
So the first thing she did when she purchased her Tempe home in 2013 was to install solar panels and remove the front and back lawns of the property.
Before installing solar panels, cooling the home during the summer months used to cost around $800 a month. Considering the home has four A/C systems, high ceilings and 30 feet of sliding glass doors, it’s not surprising.
But still, that’s a lot of money.
Nowadays, the price of cooling in the summer doesn’t exceed $400.
“You do need to have some cash,” Perlstein admits.
She put down $15,000 up front in order to install enough panels to offset about 50 percent of the energy consumption. The total amount of the loan is $30,000, meaning that she’s repaying the remaining $15,000 over time.
The good news is that her monthly payment is only $80 a month, and the interest rate of the loan is extremely low. Lower, in fact, than inflation rate.
So, if you do the math, spending $400 (at most) plus $80 for the loan, Perlstein is still spending a little over half what she would have if she hadn’t installed the panels.
The only catch is having some savings handy for the down payment. But Perlstein also took advantage of Arizona’s personal tax credit of $1,000. To top it off, the federal government also allowed her to deduct 30 percent of her solar power system costs.
In about nine years, the solar panels will have paid for themselves, making this a good investment for anyone who plans on staying in their home awhile.
The homeowner also cut her water spendings to a minimum by removing the grass.
“I can’t drive around Arizona and see a place with real grass and feel good about it," she said. "I just can’t. And I love grass. When I see it I think ‘that must be so soft,’ and I just want to roll in it. But I just can’t. So I was very happy when I got rid of it.”
Once again, she did her research and found out the City of Tempe offered a $250 credit for removing grass from the front and an additional $250 for removing it from the back of the property.
“There are some good things being done here, but a lot of people don’t know about it,” Perlstein said.
Now, she has a patch of artificial turf in the back so that her daughter, Camille, 8 years old, can still run and play. As for the front of the property, she has plans to plant a desert landscape someday.
But aside from the solar energy and tackling the grass, Lais has also taken other smaller scale initiatives to be environmentally conscious.
She has two barrels in the backyard to collect rainwater, which she built herself after attending a workshop by the Valley Permaculture Alliance. For about $50 worth of material, she walked away with two rain barrels.
She swears the barrels are “super easy” to make. The biggest challenge, she laughs, was driving home with them in the car. Perlstein couldn’t see out of the car window and ended up having a minor accident. There is a hose connected to the barrels, and the water is used for fruit trees and other plants.
But her current pet project is aquaponics: growing her own vegetables and filtering the koi pond at the same time. The residue from the fish water is used to feed plants, who in turn filter out the residue from the water, cleaning the pond.
“So you are growing your own food without any toxins, nourishing it naturally," she said. "It helps the filtering system of the pond, and the amount of water you need is so much less than if you were to plant them in earth.”
That’s because the plants aren’t planted in soil, but in growing media — clay pebbles that absorb and retain water and nutrients.
Her dream is to grow vegetables out of some raised beds in the front courtyard adjacent to the kitchen. Theoretically, one can grow as many plants as the area of the pond.
Perlstein also composts her own food scraps in a compost bin just outside the kitchen door. And she collects already made compost from the City of Tempe — for free.
“You just call, make an appointment, come with a utility bill and you can get a huge pile of compost," Perlstein said. "You get there and there’s no one there. Huge black piles of compost. It’s like, my gosh, where are the people?”
Built in 2006 by architects Szu-Ping Patricia Chen Suchart and Thamarit Suchart, the house is a gorgeous piece of modern architecture. Perlstein tastefully decorated it with mid-century modern design pieces and some antique finds.
It was initially called “the Sosnowski Residence” after the construction company that built it. The builder lived in that home until Perlstein bought it, and he ran his business out of the front facing upstairs room that is now Camille’s bedroom.
Located by the Maple Ash neighborhood of Tempe, it’s different from the rest of the older homes surrounding it. Some of the neighbors were not thrilled at the time it was being built.
Once, when one of Camille’s friends got picked up by her dad after a playdate, he was surprised: “Oh! You live in the ice cube house! I’ve always wanted to see it!”
That’s how Perlstein found out what neighbors used to call the house. The house stands out so much that one day someone just let themselves in thinking her home was a commercial building.
Nowadays, people find themselves knocking at her door to compliment her on the house.