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Photo credit: Jesse Ramirez
Tall windows adnd high ceilings flood units with natural light, while exterior shading systems help keep glare and summer heat at bay.

Paisano Senior Housing is a 73-unit environmentally friendly community in El Paso, Texas, for the elderly and persons with disabilities. The project, which is exporting energy from its regenerative systems during most months, has received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating.

From the time it was completed on Earth Day in April 2012, Paisano Senior Housing has been focused on green energy. Using power from a large photovoltaic array plus wind turbines, the complex produces as much energy over a calendar year as the occupants use. There are no utility bills for tenants or the local housing authority.

The 4.2-acre (1 ha) site, adjacent to the County Coliseum in central El Paso, previously held 46 vacant units. A national design competition held by the Housing Authority of Central El Paso (HACEP) in 2010 was won by Workshop8, an architecture firm based in Boulder, Colorado, and construction began that September.

The project consists of four three-story apartment buildings, a row of nine duplex buildings, and a long utility structure called the canopy wall. This wall houses elevators and laundry facilities and creates an enclosed garden—an oasis in the center of El Paso where residents can stroll and socialize.

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The buildings contain a mix of one- and two-bedroom units, and nine single-room-occupancy units. A central community building houses office and meeting space. The units are all wheelchair adaptable, and all are completely accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Wind turbines, plus a photovoltaic array, help eliminate electric utility bills
for tenants of the local housing authority. With a total construction cost of $14.8 million, Paisano Senior Housing is funded in part by an $8.25 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The city of El Paso contributed $500,000; the rest was covered by HACEP.

Beyond wind turbines, rooftop solar panels, and solar chimneys—which are cavities inside the building envelope where hot air moves up and out—Paisano Senior Housing’s green approach also extends to water: the project employs permeable paving materials, water retention systems, and spacious gardens to help mitigate runoff.

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To protect residents from the harsh Southwest climate, building walls are made of structural insulated panels that also help reduce noise. Most of windows in the buildings face south with sunshades, or to the north, rather than east or west, in order to minimize daytime heat gain from the sun, and some windows are operable, allowing residents to capture the breeze. Large overhangs and inset window placement also reduce heat gain. Western walls are shaded by solar screens.

The project has provided some worthwhile lessons, according to the architect. For example, the energy savings of the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system are somewhat dependent on a digital feedback loop that senior residents—many unfamiliar with computers—find hard to understand. Education is an important part of the success of the project.

Paisano Senior Housing’s sustainable features—including use of renewable energy—will translate into savings of $691 per year for a typical one-bedroom unit.