Green Home

western state of mind

A lodge-style home in the East Mountains outside of Albuquerque combines rustic elegance with skillful green construction and smart energy- and water-saving features.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2009 Su Casa

When Linda and Chuck Eldred decided to build a home near the Sandia Mountains of central New Mexico, they had a few things in mind. They wanted a home that looked more Western than Southwestern in style, with a refined European-inflected elegance. They wanted an open one-story plan and a master suite set away from the living spaces, plus a guest suite likewise removed. And Linda particularly wanted to be in the East Mountains area near Albuquerque: “I love nature and I wanted space around me,” she says. “It’s an easygoing lifestyle here, and it’s so beautiful and restful.” Finally, but far from least importantly, they wanted to address energy efficiency and environmental concerns.

Enter builder John Lowe of Panorama Homes. For this third-generation home builder, the careful planning and skillful building required to create a high-performing green home came as second nature. The home earned a Gold certification from Build Green New Mexico, the highest level available at the time (the program’s new Emerald rating raises the bar another notch). Certification involved a scoring process based on Build Green New Mexico’s guidelines in seven key areas: lot design, resource efficiency, energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, operation/maintenance/homeowner education, and global impact. To certify a house, the builder must provide detailed documentation and submit to third-party inspections. The house also won the Operation, Maintenance, and Homeowner Education Award in the 2009 Green Home of the Year Awards competition conducted by Su Casa Magazine and Build Green New Mexico.

How does a 4,600-square-foot home hit those high marks? Some would argue it’s too big to be green. Others counter that building a thoroughly green home mitigates the impacts of a large floor plan by using energy at a rate comparable to a much smaller house. Lowe points out that regardless of size, the home meets all the standards for green, everything from site selection to design elements to how far materials were hauled for construction to energy use. The Build Green New Mexico guidelines allow different approaches to meeting the certification requirements: “They’re flexible to let you choose where you spend your money and what you do to meet them,” Lowe explains.

setting an example
Chuck, executive vice president and chief financial officer at PNM Resources—a holding company that owns New Mexico’s largest electric utility, PNM—felt he needed to set an example with his own house, demonstrating a path toward sustainability in a luxury home. Thus not only is the home highly insulated, water wise, crafted with an eye toward sustainable materials, and thoughtfully sited on a building lot carefully protected during construction, but it also generates 4.5 kilowatts of electricity from its roof-mounted photovoltaic solar cells. With that much rooftop generation, the meter can often be seen spinning backward, selling power back to PNM through a solar program that has grown to almost 500 participants. This surplus power helps PNM meet its state legislative mandate for the utility to use renewable energy. However, prior to this state law, the company had already demonstrated a commitment toward renewable energy through purchasing wind power from one of the largest wind farms in the nation, right here in New Mexico. Chuck personally believes the utility of the future is one that PNM is on the path to becoming—mixing renewable generation with energy-efficient products and services to enable consumers to preserve energy consumption and protect the environment, all at affordable prices.

“We’ve been building green for some time,” Lowe says. “When we dived into the green-build program [Build Green New Mexico], we found there was very little change to the way we’ve built for more than 10 years. Almost every house would have probably qualified as green-built in the last 10 years with all the upgrades and custom things we do.”

Achieving Gold certification, as Lowe well knows, requires more than PV cells on the roof—it takes a comprehensive approach to design established by the Build Green New Mexico guidelines. It also takes assiduous care in getting things right during construction. Lowe notes that the home exceeds industry standards for insulation in the roof and walls (equivalent to R-60 and R-26, respectively). Advanced framing techniques reduce cold spots and thermal bridging by the wood framing. Panorama also sealed with caulk “every crack we could see daylight through” before blowing in the expanding-foam insulation. Similar attention to detail, including careful sealing, was paid to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. All this effort yielded outstanding results on the required blower door test, with test leakage coming in at one-third of the minimum required for certification. (In the blower door test, an independent tester essentially hooks up a huge fan to the front door and sucks air out of the house to check for leaks coming into the house from the higher-pressure atmosphere outside.) Lowe recalls “the tester said it was probably the tightest house he’d ever worked on as far as infiltration.”

The home’s green credentials also include Energy Star–rated doors and windows, high-efficiency mechanical systems—including a 98 percent efficient boiler for the radiant heat and 96 percent efficient air conditioning unit—and Energy Star appliances. Perhaps its most impressive feature, according to Lowe, is the solar 4.5-kilowatt photovoltaic system, which enables the Eldreds to use federal and state tax incentives. And the Eldreds’ sauna is powered exclusively through solar.

Heat for the home comes from both the in-floor radiant system and forced hot air (a 90 percent efficient furnace). Cooling comes from refrigerated air. Lowe often provides a dual heat system of radiant floor heat and forced air because it allows greater responsiveness to sudden changes in the weather: “It’s always nice when we have those mild New Mexico days and then a big cold front blows in,” he explains. “You can turn on the forced air to get the room temperature up right away and avoid the lag time of radiant.” Also, the cost increment to include heat with the AC unit “isn’t that much.”

With all this energy efficiency and tight insulation, the home earned a HERS (home energy) index rating of 42, meaning it uses just 42 percent of the energy used by a home built to specifications based on the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code.

Lowe addressed water efficiency several ways. For one, the home lacks a septic leach field. All storm and waste water flows by gravity and a series of lift stations to the Paa-Ko treatment plant that produces water used as supplemental irrigation for the golf course. Indoors, all water-consuming appliances are Energy Star certified, faucets are provided with aerators, and showers are rated low flow. The low-water-use landscaping design incorporates bubblers and plans include adding rain barrels for supplemental landscaping water.

Lowe also earned green points by using stone throughout the interior that had been reclaimed from a farmhouse in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and provided by Ground Floor in Santa Fe. Further material efficiency came from designing the trusses and other lumber to building dimensions, which reduced waste on site. Sturdiness and durability were part of the plan, according to Linda, thus the use of slate, stone, wood, and other low-maintenance materials throughout the home.

Panorama Homes earned the Operation, Maintenance, and Homeowner Education Award from Su Casa Magazine and Build Green New Mexico based on its thorough set of documentation and operator’s manuals for all components in the home. Really, the education process began on the first day, and the Eldreds were closely involved in all stages of design and construction. At a minimum, the builder and subcontractors took the homeowners on weekly walk-throughs, showing them how to use and maintain the photovoltaics, mechanical system, appliances, and so on. After the house was done, Lowe presented them with a thick set of binders covering every conceivable detail about the house, including all manuals, interior design color sheets, green living tips, and forms for tax credits and rebates.

western style
Lowe designed the house to perform, sure, but he also made it a looker. Linda explains that while Chuck had always been leaning toward a Western lodge-style home, she had at first hoped to build a blend of Tuscan, Mediterranean, and Southwestern influences. She was soon won over but held fast to her desire to live in the East Mountains area near the Sandias. Once Chuck warmed to the general location, the deal was sealed when Roger Cox, the developer of Paa-Ko, nudged them toward a stunning lot in a newly opened section in Paa-Ko Communities, adjacent to the top-ranked Paa-Ko Ridge golf course.

During the design phase, they showed Lowe photos of homes they liked, and the builder was able to incorporate many of those features, like the posts with tapered stone plinths. Your CAD Drafting was also involved with the home’s design. Linda brought in Ansel Roney of Ansel’s Interiors, an Albuquerque-based interior designer who participated in design meetings with the Eldreds and Lowe, contributing her input to things like placing doorways and nichos, choosing surfaces and finishes, selecting room colors and draperies, and picking out a few new furnishings. Much of the home’s exclusive look comes from the extensive faux painting, murals, and other detailing by Bonnie Neal of G & N Designs.

Lowe used alder wood throughout the house in rich, deep grain tones for ceiling beams, pillars, built-in bookcases, cabinets, window molding trim, and the like. Posts, beams, corbels, and trusses holding up the gabled roofs and porch roofs set the lodge tone outside. Massive trusses holding up the 20-foot living room ceiling repeat that theme inside.

That soaring ceiling emphasizes the home’s spaciousness, while vast south-facing windows maintain close connection with the shaded outdoor living space and adjacent golf course. Linda specifically wanted free-flowing living spaces between the great room and kitchen area around the massive stone and timber hearth. The dining room (with attached wine room) sits across the hallway but its half walls keep it from feeling isolated.

Up and down that long central hallway, arches and curved groin ceilings add interest and define way points at rooms and doorways. The one-floor plan makes access easy to accommodate aging guests, live-in parents, or even the main residents aging in place, while the south-facing layout orients all the living areas toward the golf course and “this incredible view,” Lowe says. The dining room, powder room, garage, utility room, and sports/TV room lie on the north side. That extended east-west axis also facilitated a strong solar orientation, useful for positioning the solar panels and creating year-round patio living.

The office/study connects through doors onto the living room but through an arched opening to the hallway. Alder bookshelves, a honed walnut floor, a coffered ceiling, and a powerful Native American–themed painting set the style here. Across the hallway, a projector television system encourages serious viewing in the sports/TV room.

Farther down the hallway the master suite anchors the west end of the house. Roomy but not out of scale, the suite includes sleeping and sitting areas divided by a stone fireplace, a large bathroom with a tub under a groin vault, and walk-in closets.

At the other end of the house, a guest room and a separate guest suite give visitors a quiet retreat space all their own. In the suite, adzed-wood built-ins by Ernest Thompson Furniture were so admired during the 2008 Homes of Enchantment Parade that Lowe jokes he implored touring visitors, “Please don’t pet the house.”

Most of the rooms on the south side of the house have a door to the patios. Deep porches—16 feet wide—create a true outside living room. The kitchen area sports a grill and sink plus storage and ample countertop surfaces. Elsewhere there’s a fire pit, spool (combination hot tub and pool), and fountain.

design process: a good start
Lowe hasn’t always been a home builder, though his first job upon graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1979 with a degree in civil engineering was working with his father, John E. Lowe, in his residential construction company. They were building in the Sandia Heights area of Albuquerque. A building slump—anyone remember those double-digit mortgage interest rates?—led his father to lay him off after he’d worked on a few houses. Next he found a job in commercial construction, and soon he was traveling the country as an owner’s representative consulting with developers on shopping centers for Target and Wal-Mart.

Lowe jokes that when his young son didn’t recognize him after these trips, he decided to start his own home building company. He found he had a “strong feel for spatial design and livability.” Since forming Panorama Homes in his mid 30s with his wife, Carolyn, in 1993, Panorama Homes has built 170 homes around central New Mexico in a variety of styles and locations.

As he has in every case, Lowe designed the Eldreds’ house in close collaboration with the homeowners. A high-volume custom home builder, Lowe has developed a thorough design process that assures a smooth building experience, which the Eldreds can vouch for. He starts with a no-deposit, no-obligation design phase. He likes to get to know the clients, and them him, before money is spent. That saves trouble later.

First the client sets the budget, then Lowe begins working on the design “in a couple months of weekly meetings.” Clients often bring in scrapbooks of photos showing houses or details they like. Other meetings include plan reviews and looking over the large-scale details like square footage and room locations. Then comes a period of “massaging the plans.” Usually the whole process stretches over four to six months—still with no obligation—but Lowe says he once did 30 meetings over several months with a client.

After hammering out the design, Lowe solicits bids from his subcontractors. “Then I do extremely detailed proposals,” working out even the smallest facets. “All that up-front work—it’s hundreds of my man-hours,” he says. “But then everybody knows what they’re getting. The key is really working the proposal and plans. It’s all in the initial design.”

“He listened to what we said,” Linda affirms, “and he helped us to visualize it and make it work.” She also notes that because they put “so much thought into it beforehand, we’ve been really happy with the floor plan and the architectural elements.”

Such a testimonial lends credibility when Lowe says, “My mantra is, ‘Always do the right thing for people.’”

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