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Going Net-Zero in Santa Fe

The Emerald Home Santa Fe

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Melanie Pahlmann reporting

Homebuilders across the country will soon be looking to Santa Fe, NM as a guide and inspiration for new levels of excellence in green and low-enviro-impact building. Santa Fe is emerging as the national leader in green building standards, in large part with the help of Santa Fe homebuilder Faren Dancer.

Dancer and the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association (SFAHBA) are raising the bar on green building standards. They were instrumental in the city's adoption of green building codes that are based on a challenge to build only carbon-neutral homes by the year 2030. The SFAHBA has 800 members throughout Northern New Mexico.

Earlier this year Dancer broke ground on a net-zero home that will achieve the highest designations awarded for green home design and performance. The Emerald Home, as it is called, is a pilot project that will embody the highest level of the new Santa Fe building codes.

Dancer's design and construction blends the best of new technology and traditional conservation building principles in a high-end custom home. (See artist's rendering.)

Here are just a few design features of The Emerald Home:

  • All cabinets, wood flooring, tiles and interior doors are supplied from salvaged materials.

  • Tiles are made of 100% recycled glass.

  • Windows are triple glazed heat mirror windows with insulated frames.

  • The home's heat is provided by a geo-thermal (ground source) heating system.

  • The home features an impressive photovoltaic (PV) solar electric system including a PV tracker that follows the sun's trajectory.

  • Skylights are constructed with a solar and gel technology that will increase the insulating from the typical R2 rating to R20.

  • Cellulose wall insulation, made from recycled newspaper, will be used throughout the home.

  • In construction, Dancer will only use framing studs made from recycled scrapwood.

  • The interior walls will themselves be compressed earth blocks using dirt that is excavated and manufactured on-site.

  • Wood beams and vigas (often fashioned from newly cut Canadian timber) will be made from salvaged, hand-hewn beams from Minnesota.

  • Cisterns for water catchment will deliver water by a gravity-feed method, augmented by solar pumps.

  • Bathrooms will be furnished with dual-flush toilettes, which offer the choice of a lighter or heavier flush.

  • A hybrid evaporative cooling system will use 1/2 the water of an ordinary system and divert its back-flush water for outdoor irrigation.

  • Absolutely no use of toxic or outgassing materials. That includes paint, caulks, sealants, finishes, adhesives and carpet.

  • A filtered air exchange system will continuously bring in fresh air without compromising interior temperatures.

Santa Fe is the birthplace of the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which encourages builders nation-wide and globally to achieve 100% carbon-neutral construction of homes and buildings by the year 2030.

The City of Santa Fe and The Santa Fe Home Builders Association are the first in the country to adopt the 2030 challenge and are seeking to mandate it through policy and codes.

The new Santa Fe building codes establish minimal and optimal standards in 6 categories:

Site Impact, which reflects the degree of disturbance to the land where the home is built. This also includes how much the site is renewed after construction.

Energy Efficiency, which factors the net energy use of the house (how much produced minus how much used). A net-zero house produces all its own energy. A higher performing house will produce an abundance of electricity, which can be sold back to the gird. Energy efficiency is improved by insulation, energy-efficient appliances, energy-saving lighting, passive heating and cooling, renewable energy sources (geothermal, wind, solar), and various energy conservation techniques.

Resource Efficiency refers to the amount of energy used to build the house. This can be ameliorated by using recycled and salvaged materials, purchasing materials locally (reducing transportation fuel usage), and using construction methods that minimize energy use and environmental impact.

Water Efficiency, which can be improved with water catchment systems, low-flow faucets and shower heads, low-flow or dual-flush toilettes, drought-resistant landscaping, and low-water use evaporative cooling systems.

Healthy Indoor Air Quality, which is influenced by the toxicity of building materials used within the house (carpets outgas chemical fumes and cabinets often contain formaldehyde). Long-term, an air filtration system will ensure that the air inside a well-insulated house will not get stale.

Homeowner Education is the final category of building standards and quite essential. As Dancer says, "You can build a zero-energy home, but if the homeowner doesn't understand it, they will quickly lose the benefits." Homebuilders are required to provide specific instructions to homeowners so that they can understand and properly maintain the home's design features, and most importantly, incorporate conservation techniques into their lifestyle.

The construction of Dancer's Emerald Home is being videotaped as part of an online zero energy building course made possible by a United States Green Building Council (USGBC) educational grant. This course will be offered by the Santa Fe Community College in 2009. The city of Santa Fe will also incorporate the video in an educational program to teach builders about green building techniques.

Learn more about The Emerald Home at



Melanie Pahlmann
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Architecture 2030

The 2030 Challenge:
A global initiative stating that all new buildings and major renovations reduce their fossil-fuel consumption by 50% by 2010, incrementally increasing the reduction for new buildings to carbon neutral by 2030.
learn more about the 2030 Challenge


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