May 2011

Low-Impact Living Finds a High-Style Home

Sam Sterling

When Steve and Linda Hamlin decided to build their dream home on Albuquerque’s west side, they had one requirement – high style and low impact would have to learn to live together. The result is Escarpment House, where the two oft-time design opposites now happily cohabitate.

Perched above the Petroglyph National Monument, the Escarpment House enjoys uninterrupted views of the Sandia and Manzano mountains and the city below. And while the views from the site are scene stealers, the three-bedroom, two-bath house takes top billing as a model of efficiency.

“We spent a lot of time to make the most of the views, but we spent just as much time to make the house as green as possible,” Steve Hamlin said. “We didn’t want to sacrifice one for the other.”

The home’s most prominent low-impact feature is a geothermal system. It takes advantage of the earth’s constant 57-degree temperature to provide low-cost heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer while heating water in both seasons essentially for free.

The geothermal system, purchased at Dahl Santa Fe and installed by Camelot Construction, has a high-efficiency heat pump that pulls energy from four narrow wells that were dug 300-feet deep before the home’s foundation was poured. It also has a Lifebreath heat-recovery ventilator that brings fresh air into the home while extracting latent heat from exhaust air.

While the install costs of a geothermal system are slightly higher than a traditional HVAC unit, the difference is returned in tax credits and energy savings in just a few years. System lifespan is estimated at 25 years for the inside components and 50 years for the underground wells.

At the roof, galvanized aluminum and seamless white thermoplastic polyolefein create an airtight surface that reflects heat. The roof is angled so that downspouts send rain to capture swales and almond trees that shade the house’s south side. Thicker framing and insulation helped Escarpment House achieve an excellent Home Energy Rating System (HERS) number.

Recycled materials include fly ash in the concrete floors, cellulose insulation, aluminum window frames, Trex decking, and kitchen countertops that incorporate ground glass. Sound-absorbing panels more typically used in gymnasiums are made of composite wood shavings. When the home’s foundation was dug, the excavated dirt was retained for landscaping berms that help deflect wind. Locally sourced materials include gypsum board, concrete, insulation, stucco and pre-manufactured roof trusses.

The house is also green for what’s not in it. A post-tensioned slab minimized the amount of concrete required for the foundation. The Hamlins also declined to install baseboards and door moldings, wall textures, floor coverings and cabinet pulls. “Any time one of us would want to add some ornament, the other one would ask if we’d have to buy special stuff to clean it,” Hamlin said. “If the answer was yes, the decision was no.”

Escarpment House is also designed to accommodate senior residents – either the homeowners themselves or elderly live-in parents. Among the home’s forward-looking elements are wheelchair-friendly doors, halls and master shower. In the kitchen, there are few upper-level cabinets so that someone in a wheelchair can unload the dishwasher to drawers underneath the countertops. All the home’s cabinets have touch-latch fixtures so they can be pushed with a fist or knee to open and close.

Escarpment House, built by Bob Ruth of Sunbelt Properties, celebrates the clean, spare lines of mid-century architecture. From the street, particularly at night with the city’s lights twinkling behind it, it’s easy to imagine that Frank Sinatra is inside hosting the Rat Pack and bikini-clad blondes. But if “Ol’ Blue Eyes” were to answer the doorbell while sipping a highball, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise residing within Escarpment House.

Once the front door opens, visitors enter a modern take on the classic New Mexico courtyard typology centered around a reflecting pond that uses breezes and evaporation to passively cool the house. The home presents a progression through outdoor spaces – from an entry court through the windowed interior courtyard to a mountain-view patio. The 2,550-square foot home surrounds the courtyard with a bedroom wing on the cooler north side and all public spaces arrayed along the south where stronger light is required for reading, preparing meals and entertaining.

In the 800-square-foot courtyard, a dramatic black-iron steel staircase cantilevers off the north and east walls and leads to a roof deck. Large concrete pads create a wide walkway between the reflecting pool and a simple Japanese-style garden featuring a serpentine flowering cherry tree. The walkway does double duty as a dining area and lounge. The courtyard, which can be seen from the formal living room, kitchen, breakfast room and great room, creates a sheltered outdoor space that is usable nearly year round.

Escarpment Home is one of 24 residences to be featured in the 12th annual USGBC GreenBuilt Tour June 11 and June 12. A keynote event and green awards is scheduled for June 10. The tour showcases renovation and new construction projects ranging in size from 850 square feet to more than 3,000. Two of the homes are off-grid. Several homes utilize innovative materials and building methods. Several homes have achieved Energy Star rating or BGNM or LEED-H certifications. More information is available at

Architect Sam Sterling and colleague Eliza Linde designed the Escarpment House. Sterling teaches a design studio at the University of New Mexico. Visit for more information about the Escarpment House and other projects.

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