building a healthy home

In pursuit of a peaceful place, Paul and Anita Chavez create a serene backdrop for family life shaped from natural materials, artful aesthetics, and earth-conscious choices for mindful living.

This article first appeared in Winter 2010 Su Casa

Paul and Anita Chavez sit at their kitchen island, eating lunch in their new home off a quiet lane in Albuquerque’s North Valley. Pleasant natural light envelops the room as soothing notes of running water waft from the stone waterfall inside the front door.

As parents to a three-year-old son, Paul and Anita have ideas and ambitions about the lifestyle they wish to create for their family. The fact that these goals start at home is no surprise. But when it comes to home building, this particular couple brings something special to the table. Paul works as a contractor and real estate agent—an EcoBroker—and is also a trained counselor with a background in ecopsychology, an area that deals with the relationship between our health and our environment. Anita’s strong design sense and artistic abilities reflect in the paintings that now grace their walls. Paul runs Earth Origins Construction and Earth Origins Realty, and together, the couple designed and built their home.

They based many decisions about the house on a vision for how they want to live as a family, Anita says. She and Paul want their son, Eco, to live outside, and the home’s numerous windows invite the outdoors in. The home is arranged around a covered courtyard, while chickens live in a coop out back, past the newly planted aspens. They don’t want television to be a constant presence, so they designed a recessed nicho for the living room, where the household’s only set hides behind paintings Anita created for the space. They want walking and biking to be part of Eco’s life, and their North Valley home sits near the public library, La Montañita Co-op, parks, and trails.

The family enjoys local and organic foods from the kitchen Paul and Anita designed with sustainably harvested, formaldehyde-free bamboo cabinets. Paul built the cabinets himself so he knows what went into them, avoiding any material that off-gases down to the planks that hold up the concrete countertops. He and Anita selected clay plaster and low- or no-VOC stains and sealers. Now that they’re living in the home, they use natural cleaning products.

“The whole driving force behind the house is having a healthy space,” Paul says.

Beyond physical building materials, they are conscious of the electromagnetic power levels present in the home. The use of wireless Internet, cell phones, and cordless phones increases those levels, so they prefer wired devices that plug into the wall—including corded landline telephones. They designed a place for a microwave in the pantry, although they don’t use one. They’re also conscious of their electricity use. Throughout the house, switches cut the power from electrical devices to avoid phantom energy loss.

Homes represent a series of choices, from selections on architectural styles and floor plans to how occupants lead their lives within the finished space. At the Chavez home, Paul and Anita’s choices center on decisions to create the healthiest home they can for their family and the environment.

“If you’re not physically healthy, you’re going to hit some roadblocks in being mentally healthy,” Paul explains. “They’re all so intertwined.”

life lessons in green building
Although Paul earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing and entrepreneurship from the University of New Mexico, his longtime interest in health naturally translated to an interest in ecopsychology. The subject explores the acknowledgement that our physical health and our environment interconnect with one another. Paul has also been involved with adventure-based therapies, which apply the counseling process to a physical experience in a natural setting, from something as simple as holding a session outside on a park bench to more extreme examples like rock climbing or taking a high ropes course.

Paul earned his real estate license while attending graduate school at UNM. By the time he had completed his counseling degree, he loved real estate and didn’t want to leave it. He went on to earn his EcoBroker certification, which is geared toward green issues pertaining to buying and selling a house. By this point he also had a contractor’s license and building experience.

“My construction and counseling come into play when I do real estate,” Paul says. His listening skills certainly support his work as an agent, while his firsthand construction knowledge proves an asset in part because so many people want to remodel their houses. Paul can help clients obtain information about making their homes more energy efficient and refer them to subcontractors and home energy raters.

Before building their current home, Paul and Anita completed a number of green remodels. As an EcoBroker, Paul thought, what better way to understand green home building than to do it? With the recession underway and the housing industry slowing, they decided to delve even deeper into the subject by creating a healthy place to live from the ground up.

Both Albuquerque natives, Paul and Anita gravitated toward the North Valley, an area they love. “I think green is so much about being a part of a community,” Anita says. Friends live nearby, and they like the diverse neighborhood populated with a blend of home styles.

The couple designed the house together along with designer Ron Montoya, with Anita taking charge of aesthetic aspects and examining the results as they came to life. “It was wonderful,” Paul says of the 18-month building process, which involved several members of his family. Paul, along with his father, James Chavez—an entrepreneur and builder—and his uncle, Steve Chavez, came together as the building team. Paul describes it as an opportunity to bond. Paul’s mother and father, as well as Anita’s mother, father, and stepmother also joined in by helping to watch Eco as the family built the home.

“I think we get so busy with life, we don’t see people we care about as much,” Paul says.

Meanwhile Eco, who was one-and-a-half when they began construction, gained early exposure to home building. He spent time sweeping, digging holes, and watching the men pour concrete. Even as his parents are describing the process, Eco hangs out between them, nibbling on a piece of bread. “This is how we work,” Anita explains. “He is always the priority.”

As his parents continue talking, Eco offers a few pieces of ice to their three dogs. At one point, he brings in a small magenta flower from outside and gives it to his mother.

mindful construction meets organic aesthetics
You can’t help but notice that Paul’s business card is printed on 100 percent recycled content and features a handy list of green-living tips on the back, from “eat less meat” to “replace paper towels and napkins with cloth.” The house he and Anita created provides the perfect setting in which to walk the talk.

Passive solar orientation principles dictated many aspects of the design, Paul recalls. “It seems so basic to orient the house to the south for solar,” Anita says. “It doesn’t cost more. The sun is such a gift here.” Paul consulted with Santa Fe–based architect Mark Chalom and Taos-based architectural designer Joaquin Karcher on the structure’s passive solar program.

The home’s 12-inch-thick double frame walls are filled with dry-packed cellulose insulation to create a thermal break, which increases the home’s effective insulation value. The resulting structure equates to an insulation factor of R-44 in the walls and R-50 in the ceiling. The home’s HERS (home energy rating system) score is 60. You can think about this score in terms of the HERS reference home, which scores a 100 on the HERS index. The lower the HERS score, the better it is. According to the Energy Star program, each point reduction on the HERS index relates to a one percent reduction in home energy use compared to the HERS reference home.

These energy-saving features also engaged a collaborative effort. Bill Althouse installed the home’s insulation, and Larry Gorman served as the home energy rater. Rather than purchase woodwork manufactured miles away, local craftsman Jack Haring made the doors and cooperated with Paul on building the cabinets.

The Chavez house has two thermostats and in-floor radiant heating with seven zones so the family can heat only the areas they’re using. They applied similar techniques to the cooling system. The home has super-efficient refrigerated air that works in two zones so the entire house doesn’t have to be cooled if it doesn’t need it. Passive cooling elements come into play with two cooling towers that rise four feet taller than the ceiling. A controller opens the towers to the outside so heat can escape. The technique works with carefully placed windows for cross ventilation.

In the living room and master bedroom, stratified rammed earth trombe walls form aesthetic focal points but also enhance the home’s energy efficiency. “It’s so beautiful, and it’s a critical element to green construction,” Paul says of the walls, which have thermal mass to store winter heat admitted through the south-facing windows. “It’s like functional art,” Anita adds.

After testing the technique with some practice pieces, Paul and his building team started each wall in the morning and finished by the light of their car headlights. With each layer of rammed earth, they added different pigment and compacted the level to create the colorful free-flowing pattern.
“It’s hard to draw a line between what was green and what was aesthetics,” Paul remarks.

Overhead, the naturalistic vigas—really, tree trunks stripped of their bark and branches—were sustainably harvested from a project in which the forest service had to remove trees anyway. Paul and Anita made a call to the service and trucked in the vigas to achieve this creative act of recycling.

The concrete floors throughout the home’s common spaces provide thermal mass and save on additional flooring material. Besides looking great and offering the opportunity for the cool pebble river that snakes through the living spaces, the hard surface avoids the dirt- and allergen-trapping properties of carpet. It’s also perfect for the family’s dogs, Forest, Gaia, and Luna, whom Anita describe as like part of the family—Eco’s animal brothers and sisters. For the bedrooms, they chose renewable cork flooring. These materials relate to the surrounding VOC-free American Clay walls, which hug the space and seem to glow in natural light.

Throughout the home, windows open the indoors to the outside. You’ll find more windows than green-building standards would call for, but much more went into the creation of this house than a checklist of requirements. Paul believes that our physical environment affects our spirits and mental health. He and Anita opted for more windows because the resulting light-filled space makes them happy. The great care they put into the home’s shell extends to those windows, too, with the selection of double-paned low-E Energy Star models. South-facing windows lack the low-emissivity coating so solar heat can warm the house during the winter.

Certified Gold by Build Green New Mexico, the home garnered federal and state tax credits for its green attributes, according to Paul. “Sooner than later that will be the only way people build,” he says of his decision to build green. “I think it’s synonymous with healthy, efficient, and conscious. More mindful.”

ingredients for a healthy home
Mindful living is the name of the game at this house. Sitting in the living room a couple of months after the family moved in, Anita explains that just as they avoided using toxic materials in the home’s construction, they’ve taken great care to avoid bringing such materials into the house now that they live here. They don’t use pesticides, and they choose natural body care products. She buys natural cleaning agents—baking soda, or supplies from a natural foods store. Anita ruefully admits that the clothes detergent doesn’t work very well, but she’d rather live with the stains than use harsh chemicals.

“We’re all starting to make the connection that the products we use have a connection to health,” she says.

They eat organic and choose local food as much as possible. “Local, sustainable living is what we’re trying to do and trying to role-play for Eco,” Paul says. Paul’s a vegetarian/vegan and strives for a diet composed of 70 percent raw food. Anita chooses a vegan diet.

When it came to determining the home’s floor plan, they designed an open layout with a great room comprising the living room, dining area, and kitchen. “We knew we wanted to create a space where we could eat, read books, be all together,” Anita explains.

As a couple, they strive for a simple family life. “We want to just experience happiness on a daily basis,” Anita continues. “This culture is so consumer oriented, and that’s not the path we want to follow.”

It’s a topic she has given a lot of consideration. A green lifestyle emerges through choices, from adapting to be comfortable in a house with the thermostat set on a reasonable temperature to choosing produce from the farmers’ market or making plans to grow food in the backyard. “It’s important to us,” Anita says. “We have to live the way we want to envision our life.”

Anita has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American studies from the University of New Mexico and met Paul while she was conducting research and considering pursuing a Ph.D. Before their son was born, she worked as a real estate agent but now enjoys the creative task of developing websites while staying home with Eco. She describes the process of building their house as a creative endeavor, as well.

“I just wanted to create a home that felt peaceful, that invited conversation and interaction but also created a space for meditation and those moments of needing to go inside of a cave,” she says. “My favorite thing about the home is the feeling of peacefulness and calmness. When I walk in, I feel like I can just breathe in here.”

building with balance
The overall effect is a home of balance. Aesthetic elements balance with green-building goals. Lifestyle choices balance with environmental concerns. The home’s occupants consciously balance life and work to nurture a rich family experience.

Now that the home is complete, Paul and Anita are transitioning back to their schedule before construction. Paul’s work as a Realtor provides a certain flexibility with his time that’s particularly important to him while Eco is young. He’s also pursuing building projects and wants to be available for design and green consulting.

Next the family is planning to build a smaller green home on a lot next door. The house will be around 1,400 square feet, quite a bit smaller than the 2,660-square-foot plan of their current home, which is on the market. “Another great experience for me is knowing that we want to sell this house,” Anita says. “To love it and appreciate living in it but not be attached to it.”

For now, the home inspires them and serves as a backdrop for family life. In fact, they so enjoy being at home that when Paul and Anita are ready to take a break from their day-to-day work, they find it difficult to leave their house of windows and clay plaster walls.

This past summer they had planned to spend a few weeks in California but came home early. “We’re big fans of staycation,” Paul says. “Why be out? We’re just so happy here.”

resources for this home