Rick Van Diepen wanted to become an architect since he was 5. "I liked drawing, so I thought architecture would be a cool job," he explains. He's achieved that dream - and then some. Today he's an associate principal with PGAL, the architecture firm designing McCarran International Airport's $2.4 billion third terminal building. It's a far cry from Van Diepen's first job after college, designing an office building for a nonprofit radio station in Ecuador. The pro-bono project lasted only three months, but his passion for civic-minded projects still persists - and his modest but quietly marvelous home is a fertile lab for common-sense approaches to making our homes more environmentally friendly.
Van Diepen's inspiration comes from architects such as Glenn Murcutt, who's known for his simple, vernacular architecture that focuses on nature. Pritzker Prize-winning Australian architect Murcutt is a sole practitioner known for economical and multi-functional work that takes cues from the environment, resulting in innovative and technical architecture that is nonetheless forthright and honest.
"Murcutt lets the site and climate govern the design, which is often modern and clean but still rooted in the land," says Van Diepen, who served as 2010 local president of the U.S. Green Building Council. "He believes in touching the earth lightly."
Van Diepen's own architecture follows a similar philosophy. And he has the perfect laboratory for it: His 1,723-square-foot Las Vegas home.
"We try to do one or two major upgrades a year," he says. "Our power bill is $250 a year, which makes people's jaw drop. It makes us feel good. Some homes spend that much in a month."
[Read more: Habitat for Humanity's ultra-efficient new homes save families money - and may spark a new wave of green housing for all: The greenback effect]
Van Diepen began piecemeal improvements to the 33-year-old, semi-custom home near Flamingo and Pecos roads in 2001. He began with cheap, quick upgrades such as weather-stripping and new insulation before taking on bigger projects such as placing 15 photovoltaic panels atop the roof. The home, which generates 2.1 kilowatts of solar-powered electricity, also has an evaporative cooler and an attic ceiling fan for high efficiency operation that slashes energy consumption.
And let's not forget about the Solatubes - think skylights on steroids. The roof-mounted tubes capture and magnify daylight for brightly lit interiors that trim the need for lamps and cut the energy bill.
"The Solatubes were our best dollar-for-dollar investment," says Van Diepen, whose home has been featured on HGTV. "Our hallway is a long, picture-lined corridor that previously required turning on a light. Now, it's a nice gallery that feels much more pleasant with natural daylight."
Van Diepen's comfy yet practical home is also a comfy yet practical lab that enables him to field-test green building products. For example, he experimented with flooring in three different areas; he tried stained concrete (which scratched easily), bamboo flooring (which dented) and recycled carpet tiles. That trial and error gives Van Diepen firsthand industry knowledge while creating a fun and functional home.
"You're saving energy and it's more attractive," Van Diepen said. "Community and environmentally friendly design is a passion of mine."