Green Home

taking the high road

Santa Barbara Builders creates snug and solar homes in the company’s all-green Taos subdivision Vista Primavera.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2008 Su Casa

A long time ago when Thomas Lopez went over the mountain to see what he could see, he found Taos waiting. He liked it well enough to keep coming back and today drives the winding route around Picuris Peak almost daily, a 20-mile drive from his childhood home in the tiny village of Rodarte high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico.

Still snowcapped in the late spring, Picuris Peak, along the scenic High Road to Taos, is but one of the visual pleasures that draws artists and laborers, retirees and shopkeepers alike to Taos, where the multistoried Taos Pueblo traces its roots in centuries rather than decades.

With views of Picuris Peak to the south and Taos Peak to the north, Tom and his family are building new and different types of homes in this historic village. Traditional adobes—and modern stick-framed construction—have been replaced with energy-efficient structural insulated panels, and the sun’s power is harnessed to provide electricity and heat. Using high-tech solutions from the 21st century, Lopez hopes his new homes will prove as sustainable as the adobe haciendas of another era.

The Lopez family, under the banner of Santa Barbara Builders, is developing a 3.5-acre plot in Taos into the Vista Primavera Solar Community (vistaprimavera.com). Located in town within a half mile of the historic plaza and major shopping outlets, the community, nonetheless, is in a quiet neighborhood where a herd of elk still makes an occasional appearance. With a goal of creating healthy homes using advanced building practices and renewable energy sources, this 32-year-old family design/build company has completed two of the six homes planned for the half-acre lots. The green amenities within these custom homes range from grid-tied solar electric systems to solar thermal water heating to augment domestic hot water and in-floor radiant heat. A 3,400-gallon rain water collection system helps provide some actual greenness to the natural and xeriscaped landscape.

Each eco-friendly home in the development will be built to the highest level of standards for Build Green New Mexico or the national LEED for Homes initiative, according to Tom. The two completed Vista Primavera homes were part of the GreenBuilt Tour hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council’s New Mexico chapter in May.

Santa Barbara Builders is a family operation. Tom is joined by daughter Trinidad Lopez, who helps her father supervise the construction work and also has taken on the role of designer. Other active participants include Tom’s wife, Viola; another daughter, Tammy Johnson; and a grandson, Joseph Pacheco. The family has approached solar building with the same determination and enthusiasm that has sustained them for generations in rugged northern New Mexico. Through the years, various members of this building team have supplemented their livelihoods by taking on jobs ranging from driving school buses to running a janitorial business. While Tom has been a builder since 1976—and a union carpenter for 15 years before that—the Vista Primavera project marks a long-anticipated family leap into solar design and construction.

“Anything is possible if you work hard and just go for it,” says Trinidad, who also works as a physician assistant in Albuquerque. “I grew up in a hard-working family, and I value that,” she adds.

A passion and commitment to sustainable building starts with the sun, says this father-daughter team, which devours books, websites, and product information on anything having to do with solar homes, be it passive, active, or a combination of systems. Nor are the Lopezes afraid to experiment—the second of the Vista Primavera homes features a cutting-edge solar thermal system to heat the water used both domestically and for heat. Such technology can be found more often in Europe, particularly Germany, than in the United States.

The two spec custom homes at Vista Primavera, which translates from Spanish as “view of spring,” are constructed with structural insulated panels, better known in the industry as SIPs. The Enercept-brand panels, comprising two oriented strand board (OSB) skins filled with recycled formaldehyde-free expanded polystyrene, create strong, eight-inch-thick walls that offer insulation ratings of R-32. The panels are precut to architectural dimensions specified by the architect or builder, then shipped to the building site for easy assembly.

“It’s incredible,” says Tom of the SIPs interlocking, stacking system. “It’s so simple. It took four of us two and a half days to frame the [2,688-square-foot] house. The hardest part was to get the subcontractors to do this new stuff, but by the second day, they were all on board.”

Icynene spray-in foam insulation was used in the ceiling, creating a conditioned space in the attic through which to run the home’s duct work and a means of sealing areas of air penetrations. SIP roof panels would have been another possibility, and, indeed, it’s one that Tom and Trinidad intend to use soon on a future home. The home’s “tightness” is not a problem for the humans within. A mechanical heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system brings in fresh outdoor air, first heating or cooling it to the indoor temperature to create whole-house ventilation.

Because the subdivision’s prime views—those of Taos Mountain—are to the north, the builders have relied more on active solar systems rather than of traditionally south-facing windows for passive solar gain. No problem, however. The folks at Santa Barbara Builders are intrigued with technology. They embrace technology. Knowing that most homeowners would not retrofit an existing home with solar features, the Lopezes hope to lead the trend to mainstream solar on new construction.

A 3.9-kilowatt grid-tied solar photovoltaic system provides for most of the home’s electrical demands. Twenty photovoltaic panels are installed on the garage roof to produce an average of 600 kilowatts of electricity monthly, which is expected to cover about 70 percent of the occupied home’s annual load. And that translates directly into a lower monthly electric bill from the local utility company.

And then there’s the drain-back solar thermal system that uses the sun to augment the home’s heating requirements. Apricus-brand evacuated tube arrays are positioned to face south on the rooftop. In this active system, a pump circulates water in a closed copper pipe loop through the manifold of high-efficiency glass tube arrays. The hot water returns to a 200-gallon storage tank in the garage, where a heat exchanger prewarms potable hot water for domestic use and augments the hot water that circulates in the home’s zoned radiant in-floor heating system.

While the two active solar systems have added approximately $50,000 to this state-of-the-art home, Trinidad says the home’s overall price of $275 per square foot (which includes land) is still in line with other new custom homes in Taos that may not offer similar green features.

Naturally, good solar design alone rarely sells a home. Trinidad has created a warm, hospitable, and traditional Southwestern home design updated to accommodate contemporary lifestyles with its open floor plan and shady portales. Ceilings soar to 12 feet in the great room crisscrossed with Douglas fir beams. The flow makes sense, with practical details right down to electrical outlets at choice sofa positions and windows that frame Taos’ remarkable natural beauty.

Green details abound, although a casual visitor might not recognize them. Natural day lighting pours in through diffused solar sky tubes and a few well-placed skylights. Floor coverings include travertine, bamboo, and bedroom carpeting created from recycled plastics. The lighting is energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs that create a warm, soft ambience thanks to evolving technology.

Outside, a 3,400-gallon cistern collects rain as it flows off the roof. A pump ties the collected water to a drip irrigation system to maintain the home’s xeriscape plantings. Water conservation in Taos’ high desert setting is achieved in other ways, as well. Dual-function shower heads, high-efficiency toilets, and an Energy Star–rated dishwasher and other Energy Star appliances are part of the package.

At age 68, Tom is reconsidering his retirement plans. Frankly, right now he’s having too much fun to quit building. Smart new technology and an environmental challenge will do that to a person. One of 13 children born to a mother who still lives in the family home a stone’s throw away from Tom’s own sprawling house in Rodarte, it’s all about familia now. There, two miles down a dead-end road from Peñasco, the Rio Santa Barbara, for which the construction company was named, still rushes through the rocky channel that slices through the Lopez property.

“We as a family are doing what we love, the way we love it,” Tom says.

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Freelance writer Jane Mahoney resides in a fixer-upper in Albuquerque’s South Valley and frequently writes about home builders and real estate issues for the Albuquerque Journal.