Green builders move toward a sustainable industry and community


Green builders move toward a sustainable industry and community

Each year, buildings — residential as well as commercial — are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. About half of that comes from embodied carbon, the materials used to build our homes and offices, while the balance comes from the energy used to run those buildings.

Green building is one solution to reducing climate change–causing emissions. But green building can mean different things to different people. Even the U.S. Green Building Council, which was founded in 1993 and that same year created LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is more or less the official Good Housekeeping-like stamp of approval for green building), acknowledges the difficulty in defining exactly what green building is. “It’s a simple question,” the USGBC says on its website, “but not one where it’s always easy to find a simple answer.” Building green has been going on long enough that most Santa Fe builders have an impressively simpatico interpretation of what it is, why it’s ideally suited to New Mexico, and why the City Different might just someday claim — or reclaim — its position as one of the country’s green building exemplars.

The USGBC has given the city mixed reviews on its sustainability efforts. Back in 2010, when the council started its annual list showing the gross square footage of LEED-certified space per capita added in each state, New Mexico ranked third. It hasn’t cracked the Top 10 since then. However, in 2020 the USGBC gave Santa Fe a LEED Gold certification “for its exceptional performance in fostering a sustainable, resilient city.” Santa Fe was only the second city to achieve this status.

What’s clear is that Santa Feans often have green-tinted glasses, and that’s creating a robust green building industry here. For most customers, says Keith Gorges of the home building firm Tierra Concepts, “[green building] means to design and build employing materials or techniques that reduce the impact on the planet or improve the health quality of the living environment for the occupant.” While for others, “green building is more about reducing the carbon footprint and overall impact on the planet. Reducing energy consumption is one aspect of this. Other concerns may include where and how materials are made or harvested.”

For Bill Roth of Modern Design + Construction, green building is a “whole approach” to housing. That means taking everything into consideration: “The size of the unit, location of the unit, the impact producing the materials to construct it has on the environment, the impact the home has on the environment as it is being utilized.”

Edie Dillman of B.Public Prefab also sees green building as holistic. “Everyone assumes it is rarefied, expensive, and only for the 1 percent. But New Mexico has a long history of green building, and at B.Public we incorporate the green values of the materials we use, how they are produced, and their sources,” she says. “For B.Public, green building means adhering to higher performance measures in the construction of what’s being built, which effectively reduces the energy required for heating and cooling by 80 to 90 percent.”

Even so, she cautions, “green building is deeply complex, and it is often greenwashed.” Greenwashing is the practice of trying to persuade consumers that a company’s products and policies are environmentally friendly when they’re anything but. This involves misleading consumers with claims of leaving a lighter carbon footprint via things like carbon offsetting and carbon credits. On its website, Greenpeace calls such programs “a bookkeeping trick intended to obscure climate-wrecking emissions” and “tree-planting window-dressing aimed at distracting from ecosystem destruction.”

New Mexico, says Roth, has long been a green building destination, and an argument can be made that the passive solar building movement started here. Adobe homes are passive solar. Plus, “adobe is probably the most green wall material,” adds Tierra’s Gorges. “It’s sourced locally, if not on the site. What could be more sustainable and green?”

Beyond these traditional dwellings, Mike Reynolds’ Taos Earthships (passive solar structures made of natural and upcycled materials that incorporate multiple sustainability measures) helped put New Mexico on the map. The ability to build it yourself and build with adobe, adds Roth, drew a lot of people here in the ’60s and ’70s, “and it grew from there.”

Praxis Design’s Gabriel Browne was the son of a couple of these idealistic DIYers. He grew up in Northern New Mexico in the ’70s and observes, “People move to Santa Fe with a certain expectation. Santa Fe, Taos, and Northern New Mexico are a kind of center for . . . idealists like my parents, and even people who aren’t so much like my parents, and they come here prepared politically, financially, and in a lot of other ways to sort of change their way of being and to do better.”

By now, doing better by building better has become baked into Santa Fe’s building culture. That’s despite the city’s green building codes, a set of complex and often difficult rules that went on the books in 2006 and,

along with the housing collapse of 2008, pushed a lot of development out of Santa Fe. And that’s also despite supply chain issues, and despite overall permitting and other challenges that compromise many builders’ ability to construct denser housing closer to the city core. “Denser housing close to services,” points out Roth, “is inherently greener.”

Gorges states, “High-density development can often be coupled with larger open spaces, as compared to single-home subdivisions that require much more land consumption for each person.” Browne adds that “pushing development to the perimeter makes Santa Fe a more automobile-friendly city and less of a walkable city.”

Although the green building industry is vital, regulations are restricting its growth. Builders say that codes addressing embodied carbon, not just the carbon used to run a home or an office building, would be useful. As would fewer loopholes for circumventing density and/or affordability requirements. But mostly, says B.Public’s Dillman, the city needs “more performance-based testing and more incentives.”

“Green building,” adds Roth, “needs to be subsidized with tax credits to keep it affordable for the lower end of the market, where the cost savings from living in a highly efficient home/apartment have the greatest impact.”

He and the other green builders agree: “Multimillion-dollar green homes don’t need financial help to get there.” As the builders look to the industry’s future, their aim is affordability, which they feel would also benefit the city.

“Currently,” says Dillman, “green building exists at a premium and is aligned with high home prices in Santa Fe because it is not being produced at scale. Large-scale, dense, sustainable development would address the housing deficit. And in the long term, major savings on the operational side would contribute to affordability.”

“Santa Fe has a crisis for middle-class people,” says Browne, “who just can’t afford to live here in decent housing. Sustainability, in a way, is an answer to that.”

And it’s not just the middle class losing out. It’s practically all Santa Feans. “To even do a small addition to a home in Santa Fe requires a team of design and permitting professionals just to negotiate the ins and outs of the code and various requirements,” says Gorges. “Most people can’t even afford the planning and permitting let alone the cost of constructing. As a consequence, we see most construction being done by the wealthier. This is a big problem. The older working-class neighborhoods deteriorate because it’s so expensive and difficult to even get a building permit. So yes, the code is doing more for sustainable practices but at the same time making the costs and other challenges with permitting further out of reach of the working class.”

Homeowners can tap into several trends in the industry, including moves toward reducing carbon emissions and more sustainable building products. In 2015, Santa Fe County and then the city adopted the Home Energy Rating System (HERS), a nationally recognized index that measures a building’s energy efficiency (how much energy it takes to operate the home, plus the amount of clean energy the building generates). On an index of 0 to 100 points, the city’s current score is 60 — pretty far from the most energy-efficient rating of 0. Experts anticipate that in coming years, cities and builders will push further toward net-zero homes. According to Tierra’s Gorges, as times goes on, “it’s expected that municipalities will require lower and lower HERS scores.” Other trending green efforts include the use of formaldehyde-free products, water-based sealants and paints, and heat recovery ventilators, which bring in fresh air from outside without losing much energy. Modern Design, the first Santa Fe builder to utilize treated rainwater capture systems in the city limits, encourages homeowners to opt for smaller homes and all-electric homes whenever possible.

Many sustainability measures are invisible to the eye and don’t impact homeowners’ comfort. For example, Praxis’ 2022 Parade of Homes entry was an award-winning net-zero-carbon contemporary home, but “most people looking at it had no idea what was under the hood,” says Browne. This is proof that a green home can be just as dazzling as any energyguzzling McMansion, and it will last longer. “You might spend some more, but you also get a better product that lasts longer and, ultimately, has greater value.”

It’s a philosophy Browne and his peers seem to share, one based on the old carpenter’s adage “measure twice; cut once.” In other words: think ahead. Use the resources you have at hand in the most sensible way so that you won’t need to use them again. “Even if global warming wasn’t a crisis,” says Browne, “we should still be thinking about the long-term impact of everything we’re doing.”






Santa Fe New Mexican