Paul Weideman | The New Mexican

It’s a funny thing, probably having something to do with the speed of communication today and the “wear-out” factor on issues and marketing, but even good things like “green building” can start sounding suspicious after a few thousand hearings. Sustainability is an imperative for those who believe that the earth – and all of us on it – will benefit by practicing stewardship, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people with something to sell who simply talk green. And on the other side of the cliché problem, how many of us might respond to something that’s touted as “green” only because we think it’s hip?

Whatever, the word “green” is only going to become more common. As in other realms where there are things being sold, the consumer should never forget the time-honored caution, caveat emptor (“Let the buyer beware”), and should try to educate himself about the products.

The New Mexico Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council offers assistance on that education front with its 10th Annual GreenBuilt Tour. On May 16-17, participants can visit 25 homes in the Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos areas that boast some of the best sustainability features out there.

“Starting in 2000, the GreenBuilt Tour pioneered this educational event, showing the public what a green home can be, how sustainable homes are built, and why they are good for the environment,” said Susie Marbury, 2009 president of the chapter.

Four Santa Fe homes are included on the tour this year. One is the Milder Family Residence in Galisteo. It’s packed with green features, all in the context of beautifully designed spaces. The house is 100 percent off the grid. Electricity, heat, and hot water are solar-generated, with generator and propane backup.

Fred and J.J. Milder, working with Signer Harris Architects, Boston, and Wood Metal Concrete (Tom and Sara Easterson-Bond), Santa Fe, equipped the home with energy-efficient appliances, windows made from fast-growing lyptus wood, vigas harvested from standing-dead timber, water-efficient appliances and fixtures, and a water-permeable driveway to prevent runoff and erosion. The family enjoys a swimming pool in the courtyard. It is fitted with a custom cover to minimize water evaporation, and it is “an integral part of our heating system,” Fred explained. “We have a fairly large solar-thermal plant and you need somewhere to dump the heat in the summer.”

Design aspects that relate to health and safety include walls built with fireproof AAC (autoclaved aerated concrete) blocks; plenty of daylighting; and the use of low-VOC, water-based paints, and natural clay plaster on inside walls. All rooms feature direct access to the outdoors.

The rec room is a fine example of this, and of several other green points. The walls here are rammed earth, built by Chandler Huston, which is a wonderful, interesting surface. There’s also a lot of glass, but it’s in big pocket doors that slide completely open in good weather. Over all is a deep “butterfly roof” that is unparalleled in its ability to capture and channel rainwater into storage tanks, where it is used to water plantings. The landscape is also nourished with effluent from a mini-treatment plant, which conditions all of the house’s wastewater.

So how did the Milders arrive at such a pinnacle of greenness?

“Our story,” said Fred, “is that we were living in Boston and we were doing what you can do in a city: recycling, using compact fluorescent bulbs, not wasting water, and driving a Prius.”

“When we came here,” added his wife, J.J., “we really liked this area, in terms of the landscape, and we saw a sign that there was property for sale.”

The story got more complicated, more fortuitous, when, down the road a piece, the Commonweal Conservancy got involved. Commonweal is purchasing the 13,200-acre Galisteo Basin Preserve and will finance conservation and restoration via residential development at the two ends. The master plan shows, at the northeast (west of Lamy and south of Eldorado) New MoonOverlook, with 20 homesites; Southern Crescent, with 22 lots; and the Village at Galisteo Basin Preserve, a mixed-use community that will include 965 homes on 300 acres.

At the southwest edge of the preserve is West Basin, a conservation community of five homesites on 944 acres. The Milder home is the first to be built here, actually the first in the entire master plan. When Commonweal found out how expensive it would be to bring electrical service to the site, they offered the Milders a juicy incentive.

“Commonweal provided a $50,000 cash rebate from the Milders’ purchase to underwrite a portion of the cost of their photovoltaic electric system,” said the organization’s president, Ted Harrison.

“That was really the catalyst,” J.J. Milder said, “especially as we were spec’ing materials with Tom and Sara, there was a certain aesthetic but there was also a commitment to working with more sustainable woods, for example.”

“And once we made the decision to be off the grid electrically, every other desicion was in the green direction,” her husband added. “For example, the solar heat and the AAC walls, which means we don’t need air conditioning.”

They’re proud of the outbuildings they sided with oak wood recycled from the palettes on which the AAC blocks were stacked.

Three buidings comprise the Milder house, which was complete in November 2007. The three sections enclose the great room and dining room; the master suite; and the girls’ bedrooms, a family room, and the mechanicals rooms. Passages between the three elements are open, another iteration of the concept of mixing up inside and outside.

Architecturally, the project has a presence at once elegant and experimental. One of the ideas on which the owners and the architect team worked was a semblance of building evolution, as if the home was constructed over a long, perhaps multigenerational, period. The resulting diversity of spaces and styles serves as a reflection of the innovation variety in the green home.

Maybe the most obvious, best part of the house is the solar systems. A cabinet in one room holds 24 large marine batteries, storing power generated by 33 photovoltaic panels with a capacity of 5.1 kilowatts.

“When I look at my little indicators throughout the house, it’s like, ‘Awesome. The batteries are 100 percent full. The sun is shining and I’m not paying any utility bills,'” J.J. Milder said.

Of course, this is the place for sunshine – the area averages 26 sunny days a month – but when it’s winter and there are successive days of cloud cover, the Milders have to use a backup generator for electricity. They are looking forward to a new addition designed to mitigate the fact that 80 percent of the energy developed by generators is wasted as heat. Cedar Mountain Solar LLC, which installed the solar-hot-water system, planned to jury-rig a heat exchanger on the generator so the heat can be piped into the house heating system during the wintertime.

In mid-April, Fred Milder and two men from Cedar Mountain were in the process of starting a business called Solar Logic. “The new company will make it easier for more people to work with a heating contractor who isn’t a solar expert: to mainstream the design and installation specs of solar hot-water systems,” J.J. Milder said.

Business should skyrocket. Solar-electric and solar-water systems are finally affordable. “The numbers right now are incredible,” Fred Milder said. “You get 10 percent back from the state and 30 percent from the feds, with no caps. We got $2,000 from the feds and $18,000 from the state when we did our house, but if we did it now, we might get $60,000 back.

“Plus, from the legislation the Governor Richardson just signed last week, the county or municipality can actually loan the homeowner the money for the up-front cost and the homeowner pays it back as a tax assessment. So as a homeowner today, you can have solar thermal or photovoltaics installed for nothing up front.”

Three more Santa Fe houses

* The Tucker Residence on Camino Serpiente is a LEED Platinum home: it satisfies the highest standard offered through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification protocol.

The project won the most LEED points in the areas of energy and health/safety. Owner Rocky Tucker and designer/builder Bob Kreger had already achieved high points in the Home Energy Rating System just using conservation strategies; that was boosted significantly by adding six solar thermal collectors and a 3-kilowatt photovoltaic grid.

Interior air quality at the Tucker house is conditioned by means of air inlets and fans equipped with motion sensors for boosted spot ventilation.

Also noted on this home project were the utilization of local products, recycling of building scrap lumber, and water-conservation strategies: a hot-water-on-demand recirculation system, low-flow toilets, and graywater and rainwater-harvesting systems.

* The Santa Fe EcoHome on Double Arrow Road utilizes both passive solar design and an active-solar hot water system. The house boasts high insulation values – R-50 walls and R-70 ceilings – and airtight construction. A ventilator exchanges whole-house air eight times a day via buried pipes, assuring warmer fresh air in the winter and cooler fresh air in the summer.

The owner used clay wall-plaster and nontoxic paints. All wastewater from the home is treated and recycled for landscape irrigation.

The Santa Fe EcoHome sets itself apart from other green homes by building along the lines of the innovative German passive-house standard, which is designed to reduce a home’s energy usage by 75 percent, according to the GreenBuilt Tour materials.

* The Bechtold Passive Solar House on Camino Acote employs “heat-pumping” trombe walls as well as interior adobe walls for thermal mass. A pair of solar-thermal panels provide most of the home’s hot water.

The house project exhibited several green elements during construction. One was minimal site disturbance. The use of adobes and other local materials mitigated the amount of energy usually required for processing and transportation, and aided the local economy and local workers.

Rainwater, stored in a 10,000-gallon, underground tank, is available not only outside with a hose bib but inside at a utility tank, offering residents another resource for washing floors and similar tasks. Outdoor plants are watered with effluent from a small wastewater treatment plant.

The GreenBuilt Tour is part of Sustainability Week. U.S. Green Building Council founding member Bill Reed speaks during the event’s opening ceremonies from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Friday, May 8, at the Albuquerque Aquarium, 2601 Central Avenue NW.

On May 9, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., a Green Central expo will be staged at the University of New Mexico Continuing Education North Building, 1634 University NE. There will be classes on green building and renovation, energy efficiency, water conservation, and sustainable-building tax credits; and showings of the 2007 film Green is the Color of Money, about the design and construction of the LEED Platinum Banner Bank building in Boise, Idaho.

A guided tour of commercial green buildings in Albuquerque and Santa Fe (including the new Farmers Market and Thornburg buildings) will be held between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13.

The event concludes with the GreenBuilt Tour of 25 homes. That takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 16, and Sunday, May 17. Homes are available for viewing during these times only, and visitors must have tickets.

For ticket locations and other information, see www.greenbuilttour.net.