The persistent myth that green-built homes are more expensive than “regular” homes is dispelled every day by builders producing some of the most affordable homes in our state. This article will look at four of the best: two in Santa Fe, one in Albuquerque and one being built all over New Mexico.
The obvious place to start when discussing affordability is Habitat for Humanity. As an organization, it is one of the top five builders in America by volume. But it is a bottom-up organization, with each local chapter determining its own building style and methods of construction. Not surprisingly, the Santa Fe chapter, led by Executive Director Ted Swisher, is one of the greenest in the national Habitat family.
Santa Fe Habitat recognized early on that its clients, who only earn from 33 to 60 percent of area median income, need the smallest utility bills possible, which means the most energy-efficient homes that can be built on really tight construction budgets. The evolution of specifications of their homes over the past decade has been dramatic as they continued to seek maximum efficiency.
Because the homes are built primarily with volunteer labor, attention to detail is guaranteed by a core of consistent local volunteers who have turned their “retirement” years into full-time jobs. They are on-site every day to ensure that the never-ending stream of out-of-town and part-time volunteers stays on track. They also make sure the cadre of student workers from Santa Fe ¡YouthWorks! is learning both how to build houses and why energy efficiency matters.
Habitat stepped up its commitment to affordable super-efficiency by taking on a duplex project off Henry Lynch Road, built to Passive House standards. Designed by local architect Jonah Stanford, the project exemplifies Habitat’s commitment to pushing the envelope on maximizing the tightness of the building envelope. The total number of homes in America built to this standard is estimated to be in the low hundreds, which makes Habitat’s efforts truly worthy of recognition and applause. One of the homes will be featured in the Haciendas—A Parade of Homes, put on by the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association in August.
Another local nonprofit builder with an entry in the Parade of Homes will be HomeWise. Most Santa Feans are aware that HomeWise is an affordable-housing provider, but they may not know how committed it is to building energy-efficient homes. Like Habitat for Humanity, HomeWise (operating in Albuquerque as “Homesmart”) recognizes that affordability goes far beyond the initial purchase price of a home; it is also about how much it costs to operate.
Executive Director Mike Loftin, in his more than two decades of overseeing HomeWise’s growth, has built an organization that does far more than simply qualifying buyers for the city and county affordability programs. HomeWise buys raw land, develops it, designs the houses, hires the contractor, qualifies the buyers, originates the loans, and then often services those mortgages for the life of the loan. And those are just some of the myriad services it provides.
One of Loftin’s most fortuitous moves in recent years was bringing on Rob Gibbs to be in charge of development and construction. Rob was for many years the head of BT Homes, a Santa Fe-based builder/developer with dominant market share until the building crash of 2008. Rob recognized that, if HomeWise were to compete effectively with national production builders, it would need to be as green and energy-efficient as possible. Rob began working with Larry Gorman, a pioneering New Mexico Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rater credited with mainstreaming the evolution of “building science” for New Mexico homebuilders. Rob was an eager student and helped mentor the growth and education of Platinum Sky Construction, owned by Joseph and Valerie Montoya. Platinum Sky builds all of HomeWise’s subdivisions. All of Platinum Sky’s homes routinely achieve HERS ratings in the mid-50s, which means they are more than twice as efficient as an average Santa Fe home, estimated to be in the mid-120s.
Santa Fe’s newest entry into affordable, highly efficient homes is being built by Palo Duro Homes in a subdivision off Agua Fría Road near Agua Fría Village. Owned by Jerry Wade and his son, Tom, this duo brings 56 years of New Mexico home building experience as they jump into the 220-lot commitment they are making in Santa Fe.
Jerry Wade was an early adopter of energy-efficient homes, even before they were called “green.” He made a name for himself in the 90s by building Albuquerque’s South Valley to a standard called “Building America,” developed by the U.S. Department of Energy. Jerry became nationally known for his pioneering efforts, in part because of the larger-than-life character he embodies. While still active, Jerry is handing Tom the reins of day-to-day operations of the business and Tom has stepped up Jerry’s commitment to affordable green building. As an organization with subdivisions all over New Mexico and southern Colorado, they bring a commitment to green building in every community they build.
The Wades were also one of the first to offer full solar options on their homes for true net-zero energy usage. Their distinctive craftsman-style, pitched-roof homes are not out of place in Santa Fe and harken back to a look often seen in some of Santa Fe’s oldest, most cherished neighborhoods. The pitch of their roofs also lends itself to unobtrusive installation of photovoltaic solar panels.
As a for-profit builder going head to head with the nonprofit HomeWise and the publicly traded behemoth Centex Homes, this new but very experienced New Mexico builder promises to shake up the affordable-homes market in Santa Fe, which will certainly benefit the area’s first-time homebuyers. The initial Palo Duro model home is expected to be finished in time for the Santa Fe Parade of Homes.
The builder least familiar to Santa Feans, but one who is quickly making an impressive national reputation, is Albuquerque’ s Paul Allen Green Built Homes. Rex Paul Wilson, developer and builder of the Saltillo Subdivision on Albuquerque’s West Side, designed and created specifications for super-efficient affordable homes. The unique look is all his own, but Wilson credits his daughters for pushing him to incorporate green principles into the construction.
With an oft-repeated tag line of “less than one hundred dollars a year to heat and cool your home,” Wilson makes a bold claim for a housing market that relies on both a good deal of electricity for air conditioning and a good deal of natural gas for heating. With homes built to the Gold level of the National Green Building Standards and LEED for homes, and with HERS ratings from zero to the mid-50s, Paul Allen Green Built Homes can stand by its claim.
Like other builders mentioned in this article, Wilson makes sure the home’s envelope (walls, floors and roofs) is as efficient as can be. With 2×8 walls, twice as thick as typical Albuquerque homes, he achieves R-30 with blown-in fiberglass insulation. R-10 rigid insulation on foundation walls and under slabs keeps the floor temperatures well modulated, and R-60 roof insulation is more than double that of the average Albuquerque home.
Highly efficient mechanical equipment, Energy Star® appliances and windows, along with sensible design and orientation on the lot, allow Wilson to achieve some of the most efficient production homes built in America, without breaking the bank of his buyers. Indeed, homes in the Saltillo Subdivision start in the mid-$130s and top out in the mid-$280s. That’s affordable, even without the affordable housing mandates that Santa Fe builders must comply with.
Wilson often notes that many of his buyers are out-of-town empty-nesters migrating to the Southwest who have done their research and picked Albuquerque because of his homes and the comfort they have, knowing they can live out their golden years on a fixed income with predictable and affordable utility bills. Paul Allen Green Built Homes may not have huge market share in the Albuquerque market, but its unparalleled success is clearly setting a high bar for the competition and is moving that very competitive market in an ever greener direction.
Green building has long stopped being a fad or even a trend. It may soon stop being a movement and simply be what is. The fact that some of New Mexico’s most affordable homes are also some of its greenest should finally put to rest forever the notion that green building is too expensive for the average American home buyer. It is also one of New Mexico’s areas that can truly claim to be one of the nation’s best.
Kim Shanahan is the executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association and a former builder of affordable green-built homes.