nothing but green Albuquerque’s brand-new subdivision atop the petroglyphs showcases eight custom builders creating exclusively green-certified homes.
Blessed with staggering views of the Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque, and extinct volcanoes, La Cuentista combines smart green building with active lifestyle.
This residence by Lee Michael Homes is typical of the green-built, Contemporary Southwestern style homes that will grace this brand-new, all-green subdivision.
Combine eight custom builders and a parcel of pristine mesa top high above Petroglyph National Monument and the result is a one-of-a-kind residential development touted as Albuquerque’s first all-green-built community. La Cuentista, which translates as “the storyteller,” is the Signature Community in the annual Homes of Enchantment Parade sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico.
High on the mesa with sweeping 360-degree views of the mountains and city, the first phase of La Cuentista is taking shape on the gently sloped terrace between two of Albuquerque’s best known landmarks—the basalt escarpment containing thousands of Native American petroglyphs and the volcanoes that generated the lava flow more than 130,000 years ago.
The spring rains were kind to this high-desert acreage in 2007, blanketing the mesa with grasses and wildflowers. The unexpected jolt of color gives prospective buyers a glimpse of what life might be like in a community setting aside nearly a third of its property as open space interrupted only by the occasional bike or hiking trail.
“All the big names wanted that piece of land,” says Norm Schreifels of Sun Mountain Construction and one of the seven original local custom builders who combined resources and dreams to purchase the property. “Collectively, we were able to make it come together. None of us could have done it on our own.”
The seasoned builders not only broke ground literally and figuratively by forming their own development company known as La Cuentista I LLC, but together have also implemented strict covenants based on Build Green NM guidelines to ensure that this all-green community utilizes cutting-edge technologies and resources. Energy efficiency, resource conservation, and improved indoor environment serve as priorities.
During the Parade weekends, visitors can expect to see five completed Parade homes in this community and several others under construction. At minimum, all will meet the Bronze certification requirements for green homes as defined by the Build Green NM program, which patterns after a similar program by the National Association of Home Builders. Some will exceed those standards with innovative solar panels, solar water heating systems, water harvesting mechanisms, and attention to indoor products developed to reduce outgassing. Schreifels says the Sun Mountain model will display a smattering of green technology in its garage during the Parade, giving curious visitors a chance to get hands-on with specific products.
Along with Sun Mountain Construction, other builder/developers at La Cuentista include Lee Michael Homes, Ryley West Custom Builders, Homes by Marie, Homes by New Vistas, Keystone Homes, Maxwell Custom Homes, and newcomer Cromlech LLC, which joined the group after the development began. Most will have at least one model open for the October event.
“It’s been a great opportunity to participate with friends and cohorts to do a development together,” says Scott Hauquitz of Keystone Homes, who along with other builders has set aside competitive instincts to enjoy the synergy of a united group. In a move that brings a diverse appearance to this upscale community, the developers have interspersed ownership of the lots, ensuring a visual mix of home styles on any given street.
“About the biggest problem we’ve had is getting all these builders to agree on the size of the lots,” adds Mike Knight of Lee Michael Homes, who wears a dual hat as the managing member of the cooperative. “Most are 60 by 110 feet, give or take.”
Phase one of La Cuentista, about 140 homes on standard lots over about 47 acres of land, with prices expected to run from the high $300,000s to $675,000, comprises the first of five phases of development expected to stretch over the next five or six years, according to Knight.
Future phases in this master planned urban community will grow east toward the volcanic escarpment and include a mix of estate homes, townhomes, live/work combinations, and duplexes. A few of the neighborhoods will be gated. Eventually, between 850 and 1,000 homes will stand on the mesa within the La Cuentista development.
Most of these builders see the La Cuentista community as representative of the future of the industry, both in terms of the economic clout of multiple developers united as a single entity and in the emphasis on green building.
“This is the first effort locally with custom builders competing as a group with the large national builders,” says Gary Bennett of Ryley West Custom Builders. “And this is a piece of land that would have been compromised by the needs of a large tract builder.”
Working within the specifications of the city’s Volcano Heights sector plan, the builders are acquiring the approximately 233-acre land parcel phase by phase from Legacy Sustainable Development, where owner Frances Pavich originally envisioned a mesa-top community that would be entirely sustainable, a place where every home would be off the utilities grid and generate its own energy through sun and wind.
“That really wasn’t possible in the urban setting,” Pavich concedes. Instead, she’s embraced the La Cuentista plan, which despite the logistics of a development of this size takes steps to lessen the impact on the surrounding land. City utilities have reached the area via an easement trench alongside Petroglyph National Monument. Rather than dynamite blasting, specialized trenchers cut through the rocky base of the mesa top, churning out ground rock that can be reused in road construction or returned to the terrain. Open space has been fenced off as a no-touch zone to protect the soil base and sensitive plants, and a series of newly constructed holding ponds controls water runoff.
“We want to be as effective and efficient as we possibly can,” says Knight.
With each builder’s commitment to green building, the La Cuentista community should be 15 to 30 percent more energy efficient than a comparable community constructed with standard new homes, according to statistics compiled by the Build Green NM program administered by the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico. The guidelines developed by the organization promote energy and water conservation, the use of renewable energy, and resource-efficient materials to reduce heating and cooling costs. Builders can select from a smorgasbord of products and construction techniques to earn a Bronze, Silver, or Gold rating for their homes. Finally, each home is independently inspected and tested before earning certification.
“To a large degree now, green building is simply building smart,” says Sara Eatman, certification coordinator of Build Green NM. Like other new residences meeting Bronze certification standards across the city, the homes at La Cuentista will beef up insulation levels, feature duct work installed within heated spaces, boast of high-efficiency HVAC systems, and include goodies such as Energy Star appliances, recirculating hot water, low-E windows, and native landscaping.
But unlike the majority of new homes throughout Albuquerque, many residences at La Cuentista will also be wired for photovoltaic panels that will generate electricity. They’ll be plumbed to accommodate solar hot water systems. Some will have water harvesting systems or be plumbed to reuse gray water. Indoor air quality will merit special attention with carpets and sealants for wood and tile carefully selected to avoid outgassing. Schreifels’ model home, which he calls extreme green, will utilize reclaimed timbers, foam insulation, a variable BTU boiler, and a roof-top mounted 2-kilowatt photovoltaic system connected to PNM’s utility grid in an electricity buy-back program known as net metering. The Lee Michael model home may give visitors a close-up look at a solar hot water system, as well as an active PV system.
“We’ll all find the market as we go along,” says Bennett, who like the other builders walks a tightrope in determining what consumers will embrace or what will prove economically infeasible at the present time. The Bronze certification alone adds about seven to nine percent to the cost of a green home, he says, and each higher rating adds even more.
Despite the high-tech gadgetry, La Cuentista, with its frame construction homes on standard lots, looks like a conventional upscale subdivision with one important difference. Approximately 30 percent of the land is being preserved as open space, which all builders agree is a key ingredient of the community. The builders are following a national trend in urban neighborhood planning by designing the community with efficiently sized private spaces to allow for more public spaces.
“There’s no other project out there like this,” says Knight. “Each owner has not only his private backyard, but can enjoy the wider expanse of open space, all of which will be connected with a trail system. It’s a community—a village. It’s more than a subdivision.”