green's anatomy

The Emerald Home in Santa Fe reaches the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality, delivering a triple threat of green inspiration, technical innovation, and exceptional beauty.

This article first appeared in Winter 2010 Su Casa

When builder Faren Dancer says he and his team did “as much of the right thing as we possibly could” building the Emerald Home in Santa Fe, he’s got the house to back it up. In the categories used for green certification, the Emerald Home racks up big points—for energy efficiency, water efficiency, resource conservation, indoor air quality, and site impact. And when it comes to energy usage and carbon footprint, this might be the best new house in New Mexico and one of the best in the country, meeting the 2030 Challenge of zero carbon emissions from new buildings 21 years ahead of time. Measured by the standardized Home Energy Rating System, the Emerald Home earned a score of negative two. That’s off-the-charts low. It means the house uses 102 percent less energy to heat compared to a typical benchmark house. By producing at least as much energy as it consumes averaged over the course of a year, it beats the vaunted “net zero” goal, the holy grail of sustainability.

Now that’s green building.

None of it came easy, especially after the accident.

A year ago, Faren was halfway through the project. The building pad had been leveled, the slab poured, and the double-framed walls nailed up. Despite the innovations of sustainable building and the meticulous attention to detail going into the home’s construction, he felt on track to have it done and ready to show in the Haciendas home tour in August.

Then one cold January day last year, he popped up onto a roof beam. Faren is a hands-on kind of guy, an artist, sculptor, and builder as articulate with wood and stone inlay and plaster as he is with words. Maybe he forgot where he was. Maybe he thought he had another six inches. Up on that beam he took a step back and plunged 10 feet onto the concrete slab below, shattering his pelvis.

He spent nearly a month in the hospital. Suddenly the multimillion-dollar project seemed in jeopardy. Determined not to let the whole train go off the rails, he pressed on. His business partner and financial backer Maxine Swisa took over the on-site project management, snapping photos of work in progress and taking them to Faren in his hospital bed at the end of each day. Subcontractors came to the hospital daily at the crack of dawn, rolled out plans on his bed, and discussed the day’s tasks. Work proceeded. Faren healed. Soon he was back to work. By early August at a party just before the Haciendas tour, he was joking and working the crowd, and the Emerald Home looked spectacular.

All the challenges, all the adversity have left no trace on the final product, a graceful home with easy-flowing spaces and the particular serenity attending a natural home. As such, it’s a great vehicle for the public education agenda Faren sees as a key component of the project.

code breaker
Green as it is, the Emerald Home doesn’t ask for any sacrifices from its eventual homeowners. It’s a luxury custom home in exclusive Monte Sereno, with hypnotic views of Santa Fe Baldy and half the Sangre de Cristo range, yet just a few minutes from the plaza. Priced at $2.5 million, it’s a looker with top-drawer amenities ranging from stone tile floors and creamy natural plaster walls to spacious living areas and sparkling bathrooms trimmed in iridescent glass tile (recycled, naturally). Designed in a contemporary Pueblo idiom with long running parapets, a flat roof, a radius-walled bump-out, deep portales, sparing use of stone cladding, extensive interior woodwork, and state-of-the-art appliances, the place fits right into its Santa Fe milieu.

Inside that 375-pound front door (crafted from reclaimed ash-wood barn beams) a luxury-home shopper will find three bedroom suites, a media room, a separate study, four and a half baths, a pantry off the well-appointed kitchen, an isolated utility room, and a three-car garage. The master suite enjoys a private patio and sumptuous bathroom. With its soaring ceiling and unobstructed flow from front foyer to kitchen, the great room manages to meld grandeur with the homey suggestion of separate living spaces, depending on how it’s furnished.

Getting this done took Faren 20 months, beginning with careful design and planning and extensive computer modeling of the home’s energy use by Larry Gorman of Building Energy Solutions. Faren educated himself in the latest green-building practices and technology, then educated his subs and installers, as well. Much of it hadn’t been done under one roof before. In fact, the home is the pilot project for the City of Santa Fe’s stringent new building code, which incorporates Build Green New Mexico’s green-building guidelines and adapts them to local conditions. Faren helped write that code. The Emerald Home goes well beyond its basic requirements to meet the top certification level of Emerald, hence its name.

In his work—in his life, it seems—Faren advocates relentlessly for green building. “We’re on the verge of a paradigm change,” he says. “This house is a model.”

“It’s about doing the right thing,” Maxine adds. “We all need to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint.”

“You might as well get on board now,” Faren continues. And he’s here to help: “We have no trade secrets—this is an open book.” Faren seems to be constantly giving tours to community college students or talks to fellow green builders about the big ideas and the fine details of green building as expressed in this home. He has also developed an online course in net-zero-energy building using the Emerald Home as its subject. Slated to be offered through Santa Fe Community College in Spring 2010, the course was made possible through an educational grant from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Faren’s commitment to green building extends far beyond his personal interest as a home builder. A self-professed former hippie out of northern California where he began his green-building practices in the mid-1970s, Faren came to Santa Fe 20 years ago after producing and directing multimedia theater in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Since that time he has created masterful carved and inlayed sculpture, furniture, and hand-crafted interiors to blend with his passion for building. After a five-year stint building custom luxury homes in Scottsdale, he returned to Santa Fe in 2003. Since that time Faren has embraced green building with passion and energy. He soon found himself cochairing LEED for Homes New Mexico. Other credits include chairing the Santa Fe Green Building Council, founding the Santa Fe Green Building Summit, and serving as president of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association. He also participated with the City of Santa Fe’s building-code committee, which developed the town’s new building code addressing sustainability principles and began moving the 2030 Challenge into statute.

green on green
With those credentials, you’d expect his own work to showcase the state of the art. It does. As in all good green homes, the principles of sustainability are embedded in the structure and intertwined with each other in overlapping systems. Proof comes from the initial HERS score of 35, which was calculated before adding the renewable energy systems of solar photovoltaic panels, ground source heating, and solar thermal domestic hot water.

Starting with a supertight building envelope enabled Faren to reach the astonishingly low final HERS score of negative two. The walls are double-framed, essentially two two-by-four walls joined at the sill and top plate and separated by a four-inch gap, all of it packed with recycled cellulose insulation, then covered outside with insulating board. An innovative five-part cement stucco system incorporates nylon mesh and a bonding component to eliminate cracks outside. Interior walls wear natural plaster.

Besides walls and the roof, heat wants to escape through windows, doors, and skylights—big time. The triple-pane windows in the Emerald Home include a heat-mirror film between each pane as a barrier against radiant-heat loss (or gain, in summertime). The windows on the south side of the home, which admit direct solar gain in wintertime, have a lower heat-gain index, meaning they let in more of that good solar energy. In summer, overhangs shade them from direct sunlight. Superefficient skylights, including six filled with R-20 Nanogel, brighten the interior.

slick trick
Heating accounts for most of a home’s energy use in Santa Fe. Winters can be long and cold and not always sunny. At Faren’s Emerald Home, the high-performance envelope so drastically slashes the heating load that he could size a much smaller heating system, as if the house were 1,400 square feet rather than 4,150.

After considering heating the home by solar thermal collectors mounted on a south wall or south-facing on the roof, he rejected that option, considering it too expensive, too problematic. He turned instead to the rare-in-New Mexico ground-source heat-pump system. It uses six 200-foot geothermal wells, drilled just like water wells, to tap the earth’s naturally occurring constant temperature of 58 degrees Fahrenheit in this area. Think of the earth as a giant heat sink, unaffected by changes in temperature up here on the surface. The advantage of that steady 58 degrees is that a heater only has to raise the temperature 12 degrees to reach a pleasant 70. To accomplish that, the system in Faren’s house runs ethanol through piping into the wells. As the fluid travels into the earth, it absorbs the surrounding temperature. Back at the surface, an electrically powered heat pump runs the ethanol through an expansion chamber, where it gives off its heat—in this case, to a water tank. The warmed water is then circulated through the radiant-heat floor tubing.

Now for the really cool green part. Building code requires that 20 percent of the power to run a heat-pump system come from a renewable source. Faren blew past that rule, powering the heat pump—and the whole house—with electricity generated by a 9.2-kilowatt PV array. It puts out more electricity than the home will use in a year. As a grid-tied system, the home sells excess power to the electric grid in the day when the sun shines, then draws power from PNM when it’s dark. But overall, the Emerald Home generates more renewable electricity than it consumes in dirty coal-fired power, hence the net-zero status. Slick trick.

Domestic hot water comes from rooftop solar thermal panels, which direct excess heat to the hydronic radiant floor system to supplement the geothermal system. Efficient woodstoves with dual catalytic converters allow the homeowners to indulge in the occasional fire in the living room and master suite without significant CO2 emissions.

Thermal mass also contributes to heating—and cooling—the home. Objects with thermal mass, in this case dense materials like stone and adobe, tend to maintain their temperature and emit or absorb heat slowly. Thus the limestone tile floors retain the warmth of the in-floor radiant heat. Likewise, the interior walls made of compressed earth blocks absorb the sun’s energy all day in winter through south-facing windows and clerestories in the great room, master bedroom, and second bedroom. The walls slowly release heat to the living spaces at night. This helps maintain a constant temperature and reduces the load on the heat pump. A room with warm surfaces also feels cozier to us than a room heated by blowing air. It’s a principle of physics: energy flows from the warmer to the cooler object. When the walls and floor are warm, our bodies don’t radiate as much heat to them. Think of sitting by a campfire on a cold night: you’re warm in front, cold in back, and the air temperature is the same in both places.

the body electric
Compared to storing the home’s solar-generated electricity in batteries, the grid-tied PV system is less expensive, avoids the environmental consequences of battery disposal, and earns the house credits through a net-metering arrangement with PNM whenever the home is producing more power than it uses. Faren likes to joke that watching the meter spin backward, earning credits on the home’s electric bill, is Maxine’s favorite pastime.

But wait—it gets better. In addition to the net-metering credit, the homeowner also earns renewable energy certificates, or RECs, as do all customers who own and operate grid-connected photovoltaic systems. A REC is proof of renewable energy and helps PNM meet its mandates for deriving a percentage of its electricity from renewable sources—thus its value to the utility company. PNM buys these RECs from the homeowners through the monthly bill at 13 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Sweet as these deals might be, Faren also focused on reducing the home’s demand for electricity. Throughout the house he specced compact fluorescent bulbs (which use just a third of the electricity consumed by a comparable-wattage incandescent bulb) and light-emitting diode bulbs (LEDs, one fifteenth of an incandescent bulb’s power consumption). A sophisticated Lutron lighting system allows the homeowner to program lighting, hot water recirculation, audio/visual entertainment gadgets, and other technical features to suit his or her needs, which helps keep things like lights off when appropriate.

breathe easy
Achieving net-zero energy efficiency starts with building a supertight house, Faren believes. A tight house also needs air. Faren installed energy-recovery ventilators to exchange stale air with fresh outside air without losing heat in the winter. They also control indoor humidity and their HEPA filters block pollen, a real plus for allergy sufferers. In the summer, Faren advocates opening windows to let in the cool night air.

Faren also assured high-quality indoor air through his careful choice of materials, none of it toxic. He used no-VOC paints, plasters, and other finishes. Nothing off-gases. All cabinetry and closet systems use formaldehyde-free melamine or solid wood.

material impact
Resource efficiency—how you use materials, where you get them, and the energy embedded in their creation, transportation, and installation—plays a large role in green building. “We used huge amounts of reclaimed and recycled materials, or materials with a large percentage of recycled material,” Faren notes. That is, “we didn’t cut any big trees for the project.” Yet there’s plenty of timber on display. Faren built the stunning living room ceiling from 200-year-old, hand-hewn oak beams salvaged from dismantled barns. Likewise he built the ceiling decking from reclaimed 20th-century sugar pine.

“We had to haul it from the Midwest, yes,” Faren says, acknowledging the embedded energy required to transport the material. But by contrast, “most of the lumber used to build homes in New Mexico comes all the way from Canada—and they’re cutting live trees.”

An enormous, hand-hewn, hand-mortised lintel spans the opening between kitchen and breakfast nook. Faren obviously loves that piece, which dates to the late 1700s or early 1800s. “Back when they didn’t use nails,” he says. No chance of that beam twisting as it dries.

eco-chic interiors
Along with the building materials themselves, a truly green home requires truly green furnishings, appointments, and accessories. Interior designer Lisa Samuel of Samuel Design Group says she “worked within the theme of the house in terms of using sustainable, reclaimed, and healthy materials.” The Santa Fe native, who also owns Modern Wood Eco-Chic Furniture of her own design, designed the furniture and interiors for the Emerald Home during the Haciendas summer home tour and for the Su Casa photo shoot. For Samuel’s designs, local craftsmen used reclaimed wood, Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood, and eco-friendly finishes and fabrics. Other furnishings, including Peter Danko’s eco-furniture from Victoria Price Art & Design, feature renewed or recycled items bought locally as well, while linens are made of sustainable bamboo and organic cotton fabrics.

water, water everywhere
The importance of water conservation distinguishes green building in the Southwest from other regions of the United States. Santa Fe has particularly parsimonious water regulations. To address the issue, the Emerald Home catches all of its roof runoff. Most of it—80 percent—flows directly into three 1,700-gallon cisterns for landscape irrigation. Two of those cisterns sit uphill and feed the drip-irrigation system by gravity; the other uses a small pump. The water not captured in cisterns runs off by canales, aided by lovely rain chains, and passively irrigates planting beds with excess flowing into retention ponds.

Faren chose to cool the house with two OASys hybrid evaporative coolers. They use 40 percent less water than traditional “swamp coolers” while drawing less energy than typical electric-powered air conditioning. Though he did consider running the ground-source heat pump to cool the house as well as heat it, complications and cost dissuaded him.

tax man
Tax incentives sweeten the deal at this green house. LEED for Homes Platinum certification qualifies the Emerald Home for New Mexico state Sustainable Building Tax Credits totaling $22,000, which helped Faren defray some of the added cost of going green. It also qualifies for a $1,000 Energy Star tax credit and $2,000 federal green-building incentive.

For the homeowner, the geothermal heating system, the PVs, and the solar thermal qualify for a $56,000 total tax credit against their $140,000 total cost. (Remember, it’s a big enough PV array to more than power the house, an unusually large installation.) That breaks down to a tax credit of 30 percent the system’s cost at the federal tax level and 10 percent at the state level.

a better way
While the Emerald Home signals a breakthrough in sustainable building by achieving the 2030 Challenge goal of carbon neutrality now rather than later, Faren has nonetheless been a target of criticism for this LEED Platinum showpiece. How can a 4,150-square-foot house be green? From the use of recycled materials to the energy and water efficiency, from the home’s indoor air quality to its light touch on the land, every aspect has been documented, tested, and demonstrated to be sustainable. That’s more than can be said for the vast majority of homes in America, whatever their size. And the Emerald Home doesn’t just use less energy than a comparably sized luxury home—it gives back to the grid more than it uses and emits no carbon (unless the homeowner fires up the outdoor barbecue, the only use of natural gas in the whole house). Finally, the extensive use of recycled, reclaimed, and local materials reduces the amount of energy used to manufacture and transport them—the so-called embodied energy.

Faren is sanguine about the critics, confident the house speaks for itself. Meanwhile, he’s on a mission: “High-end homes have the biggest carbon footprint of anything being built. I’m trying to show a way to do it better. The old paradigm is on the way out.”

green is in the details

Walls & roof Double-framed 12-inch-thick R-42 walls are insulated with blown-in and hand-packed cellulose, recycled from newspaper. All penetrations for electrical conduit and plumbing were caulked and sealed. The roof is cloaked in 8 inches of spray-on polyurethane foam (R-52) in some areas and 4 inches of foam over 12 inches of cellulose elsewhere (R-68).

Doors, windows & skylights With triple panes, heat-mirror glass, krypton gas, and insulated fiberglass frames, the R-7 windows double the insulating value of an average double-pane window. Six skylights filled with 4 inches of Nanogel earn an R-20 value. Solatube skylights add daylighting. All exterior doors except the entry are insulated fiberglass with triple-pane, heat-mirror glass windows.

Heating A heat pump and six 200-foot geothermal wells tap the constant mild temperature of the earth to preheat the fluid flowing into the radiant heat system.

Electric Electricity for the heat pump and for all electric needs comes from a
9.2-kilowatt PV array. One set of panels tracks with the sun. Compact fluorescent and LED lighting greatly reduces electric demand.

Solar energy Solar thermal panels provide domestic hot water (which supplements the radiant heat). Key windows and mass walls capture direct solar gain for passive space heating.

Wood The standing-dead rough lumber (like vigas and posts) was harvested in the nearby Pecos area. The massive front door was crafted from 150-year-old reclaimed ash. Interior doors are Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood. Engineered wood was used for all framing, including finger-joint studs, TJI trusses, and oriented strand board.

Recycled & reclaimed materials The concrete slab incorporates fly ash, a by-product of coal power plants. Compressed earth block interior walls were made in part from dirt excavated on-site. Cellulose insulation comes from recycled newspapers. Interior products include the shimmering, iridescent tile in the bathroom, hand-blown glass sinks by local artists Laura Goodwin and Patrick Morrissey, CaesarStone countertops, cabinetry, and closet shelving.

Water The Emerald Home catches 80 percent of its roof runoff in three 1,700-gallon cisterns that irrigate the mostly xeric landscaping. The rest flows directly to plantings or into ponds; none leaves the property. Low-flow fixtures and dual-flush toilets have .8-gallon and 1.3-gallon flushing modes.

Cooling The OASys hybrid evaporative coolers consume 40 percent less water than traditional “swamp coolers,” and in this tightly insulated house, they won’t run for long.

Natural finishes & surfaces All paints, plasters, and finishes are no-VOC products and produce no toxic off-gassing. Walls are natural Tobias plaster, closet shelves are formaldehyde-free melamine, the oak floors are sealed with a BioShield non-off-gassing finish, and interior doors and wood flooring are finished with all-natural tung oil.

Dollars & sense The renewable energy systems—solar and geothermal—together provide $56,000 in tax credits against their cost, while the home’s LEED Platinum certification earns it $22,000 in building tax credits. The solar PV electric system earns renewable energy generation credits that the homeowner sells to PNM as well as a direct credit on the electric bill when the system sells excess power to the grid.

resources for this home