Green home
green for real

The first custom home in New Mexico to receive LEED Platinum certification sidesteps greenwashing with well-defined avenues for creating an eco-friendly, high-performance house.

This article first appeared in Summer 2009 Su Casa

Drive a sinuous dirt road over a low bridge that floods in heavy summer storms, and you come upon a characteristically Santa Fe home. Set in the lap of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains among stubby piñon trees, its brown tones blend with the earth; it has the inviting quality that so distinguishes the area. But this is no normal home. Look up and the rooftop solar array serves as a visual indicator of the home’s myriad green design and construction features. This is the first custom home in New Mexico to earn the prestigious LEED for Homes Platinum certification. Designed and built by architect and contractor Bob Kreger of Kreger Design Build for clients Rocky and Patricia Tucker, this home also has Build Green New Mexico’s Gold certification, the highest rating of the program, and Energy Star certification.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a national program of the U.S. Green Building Council with rating systems for a variety of project types, including commercial and institutional projects. The more recent LEED for Homes program began as a pilot project in 2005, and more than 1,000 homes have been LEED certified nationwide. The program seeks to provide a road map to greener living for builders and consumers. Because the certification requires documentation, testing, and inspections, the process is transparent—no greenwashing for marketing purposes.

Achieving LEED Platinum certification takes mind-boggling attention to detail, but this is not meant to intimidate. “LEED informs and guides builders so they feel confident,” Bob says. It is a point-based system with eight major categories covering everything from design process to materials and resources. Out of a total 136 possible points, Platinum certification requires 90 points or more. While builders trained in traditional methods usually need further education in green building to reach LEED standards, Bob had the skills. The Tucker home is his first LEED project, but he had already built several Energy Star certified homes.

To say that Bob is passionate about the issue of climate change would be an understatement. He began his career in the Boston area, designing and supervising everything from suburban production housing to luxury homes for Saudi princes. “I came to New Mexico to build my stepsister’s custom home and never looked back,” he says. He was laid off from his job with a large local builder after 9/11 and went straight into the custom home business. “When I saw Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, I was absolutely stunned,” he says. “I knew climate change was an issue, but that was when I really internalized just how urgent it is.”

Bob was so energized that he went to Nashville, Tennessee, studied with Gore, and was authorized to present the PowerPoint version of the movie. He quickly saw that building sustainable homes was his way to take a stand. “We won’t do homes that are ‘business as usual’ construction,” he says. “It leaves behind a huge carbon footprint and generates huge energy bills for years to come.” He has had a steady stream of clients. “Growth will occur with or without us,” Bob says. “We just want to do our best to mitigate it—one house at a time.”

The Tucker home began with the matching of clients and builder. The Tuckers lived in Oregon but planned to retire to Santa Fe. “We knew we wanted a green builder, and we like small personalized businesses,” Rocky says. “We picked Kreger Design Build right out of the phone book, and it couldn’t have been better.” Bob was ready to take green building to the next level, and the timing was perfect. “We owned a piece of property we were ready to sell,” he recalls, “and the Tuckers were very environmentally conscious people who recognized the urgency of climate change and wanted to do their part to make a difference.”

Their decision to aspire to LEED Platinum certification didn’t happen immediately. “At first, we were just seeking good reduction in energy consumption,” Bob says. “But then the issue becomes, how do you quantify that? LEED and Build Green New Mexico are both empowered by the state as certification programs.”

The certification process begins well before the home goes from dream to design. A green rater evaluates, tests, and inspects the house, and a consulting company acting as a LEED provider ultimately issues the LEED certification. Both offer input every step of the way. “Ninety percent of sustainability happens during the design phase,” Bob explains. “That’s when you make the critical choices about high-quality insulation, airtight construction, a high-performing heating system, and so forth.”

With the basic design complete, it was clear that the Tucker residence would be very energy efficient. The Tuckers wanted solar panels to heat their hot water for everyday use and for the high-efficiency boiler that supplies radiant heat to the floors. “At that point we could see that we would be very close to the number of points needed to reach the [LEED] Platinum certification,” Bob says. “So the Tuckers decided to dig a little deeper into their pocketbooks and add photovoltaic collectors to generate their electricity.” With a 3-kilowatt grid-tied photovoltaic system anticipated to produce approximately 4,600 kilowatt hours per year, the home uses almost no commercial electricity. In fact, in months when the system produces more energy than the Tuckers use, the energy goes into the grid and they get a check instead of a bill. “It’s pretty great,” Rocky says. “This is definitely the right thing to do.”

Building at this level of green requires a client who is both willing and able. “I call it the luxury of integrity,” Bob says, “because it is more expensive.” Quantifying the cost of LEED certification is difficult because costs vary from market to market, and the builder and homeowner can make many different choices. But it is estimated that Platinum certification adds about 10 percent to the overall cost of a home. The certification and inspections require fees, plus higher prices for energy-efficient insulation, windows, appliances, and more. But tax credits and reduced energy bills eventually offset most of the cost.

Energy efficiency represents a significant category within the LEED for Homes program. The Tuckers’ roof is a white membrane that reflects heat and keeps the house cool in summer without air conditioning. Bob insulates between the concrete slab and the subfloor, a simple measure for any new home. He also insulates all of the pipes running under the house. Studs are placed 16 inches or more apart, leaving fewer spaces in the insulation. High-quality cellulose insulation is blown into the walls. Fiberglass batting eventually compresses, leaving gaps in the insulation, but cellulose expands, filling all the cracks. Every possible opening around windows, skylights, and fireplaces is tightly sealed. “Then we have ventilation systems because the house is so well sealed that otherwise there could be air quality problems in the winter when all the doors and windows are closed,” Bob explains.

Indoor air quality is an important LEED issue, and the Tucker home earned points for paint, carpet, and closet fixtures that are low in toxic materials that could vaporize into the air. Lighting gobbles about 25 percent of the electricity in most homes, and old-fashioned light bulbs are incredibly wasteful. Most of the electricity they use creates heat instead of light. Long-lasting, energy-thrifty compact fluorescents fit the home’s decorative chandeliers and sconces. Water conservation also matters. The Tuckers chose water-sparing Energy Star certified appliances, and their faucets, toilets, and showers have low-flow regulators. Even the landscaping gets LEED points for actions such as planting trees to shade walls that receive summer sun.

Because LEED is flexible, points lost in one category can be made up in another. In general, the program rewards orienting homes so they face south to take advantage of passive solar heating and cooling. But they did not use this technique at the Tuckers’ house. “Like many Santa Fe homesites, this one did not have views to the south,” Bob explains. “The house is oriented to capture the panorama of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. I’m very proud that we proved you don’t have to utilize passive solar to achieve a near-zero-energy-use home.”

The Tuckers wanted a traditional Santa Fe style home with modern conveniences. At a pleasant 2,300 square feet in size, the home has four rooms that could be used as bedrooms. This size falls within LEED’s preference for smaller houses, although it’s possible to certify a large home. The only obvious giveaway to the home’s technical side is the outdoor view of the solar panels. Indoors, tile floors, rough-hewn beams, a rustic chandelier, and hand-painted Mexican tile accents create the Southwestern ambience the couple desired. “Style is really not an issue,” Bob says. “A LEED certified home can be any style, traditional or contemporary; it’s the performance that counts.”

As the other half of the Kreger Design Build team, Bob’s wife, Nancy, uses her background in visual arts and design to guide clients through choices about everything from floors to doorbells. She has an artistic eye as well as an intuitive ear. “I’m a people person,” she explains. “I think it takes two to really listen to the clients. They all have different needs, different tastes, and different ways of communicating, so I bring listening talents to the job.” Her designs for finishes and trims make kitchens and bathrooms pop, and her personal touch ensures harmonious interiors. “I’m usually the one who’s there when the tile is going in and the cabinets are being installed,” Nancy says. “No matter how you’ve planned, there can be nuances that are different once everything is actually in the house. I’m the one who makes those improvements and sees that it all works.”

The Tuckers and the Kregers are justly proud of achieving LEED Platinum certification. “It shows that you have made an exemplary effort toward sustainability,” Bob says. Considering that a house can stand for 50 years or more, this high-achieving green home is a significant gift to the future. The house will use far less energy and water than most American homes. Its construction generated less waste and most was recycled. The home is durable—built to last. Most of all, it feels supremely comfortable, with no bone-chilling drafts in winter and no noxious chemical smells. Natural breezes cool it in summer. It is so well sealed that it even stays cleaner in dusty Santa Fe. New Mexico will have more LEED Platinum certified custom homes, but the first lights the way.

resources for this home

For more information about LEED for Homes and Build Green New Mexico, visit usgbc.org and buildgreennm.com.

Award-winning journalist Marsha McEuen is a freelance writer and editor based in her hometown, Santa Fe.