Green Home of the Year

finding the sweet spot

Our top award winner showcases the high art of New Mexico green building with careful siting, passive solar design, energy efficiency, and innovative water conservation.

This article first appeared in Winter 09 Su Casa

When Richard and Susan Bechtold went looking for a site on which to build their Santa Fe home, they were planning ahead. They’d already employed Mark Chalom, Architect, based in Santa Fe, to help find the sweet spot from the perspective of using the sun and weather patterns to build a green, energy-conscious house. That was seven years ago.

The finished home turned into a model of both sustainable building and Southwestern architecture. Selected as Green Home of the Year in the second Su Casa and Build Green New Mexico awards competition, the Bechtold house was, in fact, never intended to be a showcase for green technologies—it’s just the way Chalom has been designing houses for three decades, he says. “This is the first contest I’ve ever entered. Or won.” The process was three-quarters of the way finished before he’d even heard of New Mexico’s sustainable building tax credits, which reward homes for meeting LEED, Build Green New Mexico, or Energy Star standards.

Indeed, Chalom’s long history of designing solar homes—he started in the 1970s working with such passive solar energy luminaries as Peter van Dresser, William Lumpkins, Steve Baer, and Doug Balcomb—informed his design; it helped, too, that his clients “were a dream. The Bechtolds were very engaged in the process and educated in the project. They wanted it to be energy-conserving and sustainable,” he says.

What came from the collaboration among the Bechtolds, builder John Di Janni of Custom Homes by John Di Janni, and Chalom was a home that isn’t “merely a blob” on a piece of land but is kinetic, a living, breathing entity. It doesn’t just conserve resources, it actually generates them, Chalom says. The home harvests its own water and the sun’s energy and was designed to collect those resources as efficiently as possible during the day and through the changing seasons to accommodate its energy needs.

The Build Green New Mexico Gold-certified home is sited on the property to minimize damage to the natural terrain and to maximize environmental resources. The actual homesite on the sloping lot cleaves closely to the road, and the driveway is sited to preserve the natural vegetation and not disturb the land’s natural contours. The building sits into the ground on the north side, lowering its profile against the north weather. It rises higher on the south side to maximize the solar gain through the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. Much of the site was left undisturbed, with all landscaping watered using septic water treated with an aerobic digester and rainwater collected from the rooftop and stored in a 10,000-gallon tank. Locating the building on the highest part of the site means that rainwater flows naturally.

“We sited the house to minimize the damage to the natural terrain,” Chalom says. “We wanted to preserve vegetation and drainage courses. The driveways are graded so any excess water would help enhance those [the site’s existing] trees.”

Indeed, builder Di Janni notes that the lavish, mostly xeric, landscaping is watered completely from treated septic water and collected rainwater, while the rooftop collection system feeds the home’s interior. “That rainwater is filtered and pumped back into the house and used to flush the toilets,” Di Janni says, and this water also serves other nonpotable uses. “That to me is incredibly innovative.” In addition to Green Home of the Year, the Bechtold house won a Best Green Feature award for Water Efficiency. The home’s water system was designed by Richard Jennings of Earthwrights Designs in Santa Fe.

Although the home is heavily landscaped, landscaping only disrupts about 10 percent of the land. “Anything we did to the site had a purpose,” Chalom explains. “We did a wonderful landscaping plan to save energy, water, encourage wildlife, and encourage plants to grow.”

One of the home’s most notable green features is its tight envelope designed to eliminate heat-wasting air leaks. The unusual wall system comprises a hybrid of exterior walls insulated with Icynene insulation, polystyrene foam around windows and doors, and interior adobe walls.

“The way we build typically, we build-in energy conservation and high R-values and tight homes,” Di Janni says. “The Bechtold residence took that concept to the nth degree.”

Exterior framed Icynene-filled walls sheathed with one inch of foam insulation surround heat-retaining interior adobes. With this system of building, the adobe inside absorbs heat during the day, but the tight exterior shell won’t lose much heat during the night.

Chalom says he very much wanted to retain the home’s Southwestern vernacular style without sacrificing either energy efficiency or local aesthetics. “We definitely wanted it to be a New Mexico home with the vernacular of adobe homes. Most of the walls are adobe with much of the Southwestern home standard detailing. I then integrated those elements with passive solar design. It’s really an example of the evolution of New Mexico style, integrating the passive solar and sustainable design elements.”

Inside, the home features an open plan, an exposed adobe brick wall in the studio, and light-colored locally harvested vigas and lumber. The home’s walls feel massive—and they are—but this hardly resembles its low-ceilinged, dimly lit cousins. Instead, floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows flood the interior with natural light—the homeowners wanted the sun to do most of the heating work. Adobe trombe walls with a selective surface film efficiently absorb heat into the house, which is released after the sun goes down. An active solar thermal system supplements the passive solar for hot water, and cozy Rumford-style fireplaces warm the living room and master bedroom. The fireplaces’ design reflects more heat into the house rather than up the chimney compared to a standard fireplace. Although the home lacks some of the fancier finishes other custom projects have, “The beauty comes through the simplicity and honesty of the house,” Chalom says.

Here and in Chalom’s other passive solar projects, he notes that homes don’t earn Energy Star, LEED, or Build Green New Mexico credits for some of their most environmentally important features. For example, projects earn credits for a well-designed air conditioner, but Chalom says a home like the Bechtold residence that doesn’t need an air conditioner to maintain cool temperatures during the summer doesn’t receive credits for that consideration.

“The standards are in their infancy and need to be modified,” Chalom says. “They also need to be understood a little more and brought into alignment with New Mexico architecture.”

Di Janni, who has been building homes for 31 years, says he wishes more people had the motivation and the desire to “do the right thing” when constructing their homes. “It cost [the Bechtolds] considerably more,” Di Janni says. “It involved a lot of attention to detail. As a result, the house took quite a bit longer than we initially thought, but it’s unfortunate that more people don’t think like the Bechtolds. It cost them, but their footprint on the environment is going to be minimal as a result.”

Acknowledging that the house cost a little more up front, Chalom describes the Bechtold home as a worthwhile investment that will pay for itself rapidly in savings as well as quality of life.

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