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Green Building Gains Ground In New Mexico

The houses in one of Santa Fe’s newest subdivisions might look adobe brown, but they’re actually green.

Each home in the Oshara Village development, next to Santa Fe Community College on the south side of town, has energy-efficient lights and appliances, cellulose insulation and water-saving features. Most homes are positioned to soak in the sun through strategically placed windows, and each house is set up for the easy installation of solar panels if the owner chooses to install them. Yards are xeriscaped to save water, and the village has its own wastewater treatment plant that cycles used water back to lawns and parks to water plants.

With a built-in commercial zone, the village will be pedestrian-friendly. Residents will be able to walk to shops and restaurants, and mingle in a central plaza.

Across town, Homewise, an affordable housing organization, is planning to build about 50 green homes on 15 acres along Old Las Vegas Highway. It will be the greenest subdivision the organization has built yet, with high-performance windows to reduce heating and cooling costs, energy-efficient appliances and low-flow shower heads and toilets.

Downstate in Albuquerque, several builders have come together to build the 140-home La Cuentista subdivision on the Westside. About one-third of the development, which is certified by Build Green New Mexico, will be set aside for open space, construction waste will be recycled, and the homes will feature super-efficient insulation and water-saving amenities.

In Rio Rancho, two green subdivisions are in the works: Loma Colorado and Mariposa both feature extensive open space and multiple energy-efficient features. Like Oshara Village, the two subdivisions will be mixed-use developments, with shops, offices and other commercial enterprises as well as homes.

While the green features of the subdivisions vary, all are aimed at shrinking the ecological footprint of residential development.

“It’s just the smart thing to do,” says Mike Knight, president of Lee Michael Homes and manager of La Cuentista in Albuquerque, which recently completed phase one of its five-phase development plan. “We live in a desert. You leave sensitive areas alone, you leave the drainage intact so that the aquifer can recharge. And it’s good for the homeowner too — you’re looking at something that’s going to gain in value for the homeowner as well as save them money.”

As prices for home heating fuels rise, and as global warming and water scarcity continue to make headlines, more homebuyers are demanding green homes, adds Alan Hoffman, the mastermind behind Oshara Village.

“I see this as a trend nationwide,” he says. “People are concerned about global warming, and it’s a tremendous savings in energy and money.”

Sara Eatman of Build Green New Mexico says the Land of Enchantment is ahead of the green building curve.

“Compared to other states, New Mexico is advancing in leaps and bounds,” she says. “We’ve gone to national green building conferences, and our builders are winning awards.”

Sustainable building can save a significant amount of energy — and money. At Oshara Village, a 2,000-square-foot home will use about 52 percent less energy than a conventional home of the same size, according to a study by the New Village Institute. An Oshara resident who works in the village could see energy savings of between 54 and 59 percent, reducing his or her carbon footprint by about 26,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.

A La Cuentista home with solar panels can save a homeowner about 45 percent in energy costs. But every owner of a green-certified home, with its super-efficient insulation and air tight construction, will pay less in energy costs, Knight said.

“There are a thousand things you can do to make a house more efficient, and it just performs better,” he says.

While green homeowners save money, they often pay more for those green features. Knight said building green adds between $15,000 and $18,000 to the price of a home. In both La Cuentista and Oshara, home prices range from about $300,000 to $700,000, depending on the size and design of the home.

But Eatman says those costs are coming down as green building becomes more common.

“It doesn’t really increase the cost that much any more,” she says.

According to a July report by Davis Langdon, a San Francisco-based consulting business that helps architects and builders manage construction costs, building green costs about the same as building using conventional methods and materials — as long as sustainable features are incorporated in the design phase, instead of being added on later.

“Many project teams are building green buildings with little or no added cost, and with budgets well within the cost range of nongreen buildings with similar programs,” according to the report, “Cost of Green Revisited.”

Green building advocates believe the day soon will come when green building is the industry norm, rather than the exception.

“I think, in the near future, all houses are going to be built green in New Mexico,” Knight says.

“It doesn’t have to be an Earthship, it doesn’t have to mean you live in Taos,” Eatman adds, referring to a long-established community of sustainable homes in northern New Mexico. “There are so many more mainstream builders becoming aware of what they can do, and wanting to build a more efficient, economic and smarter home. It’s just logical.”

New government policies and tax incentives are nudging the state toward a green building boom. In May 2006, Santa Fe adopted the “2030 Architecture Challenge” policy, making it the first city in the country to set benchmarks and timelines to decrease fossil fuel consumption in heating, cooling and lighting in all public buildings, with the aim of rendering them carbon-neutral by 2030. Sustainable building advocates say new building codes for residents are not too far off.

In Albuquerque, council members recently passed a green building code, scheduled to go into effect in April. And state and federal tax incentives for both builders and homeowners are adding to the green building momentum as well, Eatman said.

For instance, New Mexico now offers a tax credit for builders of sustainable homes. For Build Green New Mexico’s Gold Level, the maximum possible credit is $11,000 per house. For homes that meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, a more stringent certification system created by architects, the maximum possible tax credit is $22,450 per house.

At the federal level, contractors could qualify for a credit of up to $2,000 for using energy-efficient features. That program has been extended through 2008.

“With all of the code changes and things, it’s pretty clear to builders that green building is going to be required in the very near future,” Eatman says. “So builders are trying to get ahead of the wave. It’s a matter of staying competitive.”

There are other signs that green building is gaining ground as well. According to the New Mexico Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which created the LEED certification program, membership in the state group is up 50 percent from last year.Build Green New Mexico, too, is getting more certification requests, Eatman says. And a flip through the Yellow Pages finds several builders and construction businesses that specialize in green building.

While some might question the environmental logic of building new subdivisions at all — even green ones — Knight and Hoffman say it’s about growing sustainably.

“If you told me today there would be no more building, I’d shut Oshara down right now,” Hoffman said. “But growth is going to happen.”

“Cities grow,” Knight agrees. “And I’d say growth is always good if it’s controlled and done well. That’s what green subdivisions are doing. I think wall-to-wall housing isn’t what everybody’s looking for. I think they want to see open space and parks.”

Builders who need to learn the ropes of green building would be wise to begin now, he adds.

“Some builders will have to change their entire plans and way of doing things,” he says. “But this is the wave of the future. It’s what the cities are going to demand, and I think it’s what the public is going to want.”