on the Earth
The green-building revolution offers Southwest homebuilders and contractors innovative ways to save money and the planet at the same time.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
With apologies to Kermit the Frog, it's getting pretty easy to "be green" these days—at least when it comes to building. The "green building" trend that's sweeping the country combines materials and practices that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and kind to the planet.
Global Green USA, a Web site, says the construction and maintenance of buildings is responsible for 40 percent of US energy use and 30 percent of wood and raw materials consumption. Additionally, the site says, buildings are a main contributor to global warming by generating 30 percent of the country's CO2 emissions, the most significant gas related to climate change.
With landfills filling up and an increased awareness of dwindling natural resources, more people are considering things they never considered before when constructing or renovating their dwellings. Whether it's consumers looking to save some money or save the earth, whether it's builders jumping on a lucrative business angle or finding a practical outlet for their inner principles, the trend is undeniable and gaining momentum. Here in southwest New Mexico, an increasing number of builders are using various green building techniques, and a store has opened specializing in green products and building methods.
So-called "green" building materials are those composed of renewable rather than nonrenewable resources. They are considered environmentally responsible because their environmental impacts are considered over the life of the product—they last longer and/or are recyclable, keeping them out of landfills. They offer specific benefits to the building owner and building occupants, including reduced maintenance/replacement costs over the life of the building, energy conservation, improved occupant health and productivity, lower costs associated with changing space configurations and greater design flexibility.
There are a plethora of green materials and building techniques, and new technologies emerging and developing all the time, so it would be impossible to list them all here. But this is a sampling of some of the alternative building practices and materials taking root in southwest New Mexico.
Rohan Stites, owner of Adobe Techniques, an Arenas Valley construction company, employs green practices and materials on several levels. A long-time builder of and believer in natural adobe construction, Stites makes traditional adobe block mostly out of earth.
"Can't get much more natural than dirt," he says with a laugh. Stites makes natural block, with or without cement and stabilizers. It all gets sealed with stucco, after all, so there's no risk of your house or wall turning into a mud pie come monsoon season.
The wood Stites uses in construction is gathered from the Gila National Forest, with a permit from the US Forest Service, of course, and peeled by hand. Stites goes to collect the wood in a truck powered by biodiesel, the alternative fuel manufactured from waste grease (see the January 2006 Desert Exposure). In fact, Stites runs all his construction equipment on the stuff.
"The other day, I was running my Bobcat on Spaghetti Western grade," he says with a laugh, referring to the Silver City Italian restaurant.
But even the average citizen looking to build a little greener can do so easily these days. The green-building trend has gone mainstream, with "alternative" materials showing up in all kinds of places where regular hammers and nails are sold.
Home Depot in Las Cruces has climbed on board the green bandwagon, carrying a variety of more earth-friendly materials, according to Ryan Ruble, an associate in the store's construction department. He gives the example of a treated composite wood product that is "healthier" than the traditional pressure treated lumber.
Here are some resources for green building ideas, resources and materials cited in this article, and Web sites of interest to those looking to explore green building.
Conventional construction supply stores with green products:
Natural building and home products:
Papercrete and Padobe block:
Parabolic Stress-Skin construction:
Sustainable community development:
Other Web sites of interest:
For other sustainability resources and previous installments in the "Living Within Our Means" series, see www.desertexposure.com/sustainability.
"You had to cut that old pressure treated lumber wearing a mask," Ruble says. "This new stuff costs a little bit more, but it's healthier to use. A lot of people are preferring it."
Ruble says the company started carrying alternative products about five years ago, in response to customer demand, .
Alex Munoz, a manager at Foxworth-Galbraith Building Supplies in Silver City, says the concept of green building is broad, and means different things to different people. "Some people want to know where things came from. Others want to know what it's made from or how long it will last," Munoz says.
"New things are coming out every year and we try to find advanced products, ecology-wise, that the customers are looking for," he goes on. "The environmental issues are on people's minds and they ask questions about the products, you know, 'How is it different?' and 'Why is it better?' People are definitely into it. They are seeking these products out. It makes sense to me that people want to use things that are not harmful to the environment."
Foxworth-Galbraith carries a line of decking, railing and landscape border products made from a composite of wood and plastic. The materials are long lasting, meaning they don't wind up in landfills after a few years, and don't need sealing and maintenance, thereby not using those chemicals.
Those who balk at the idea of blending wood with plastic, or who just can't think of any plastic product as being environmentally friendly, might consider the Nature Wood line of building products, Munoz says. The materials, designed for building decks and fences, come with a lifetime warranty. Instead of toxic chemicals, they are preserved with a copper-based biocide that deters rot and insect damage.
Seeking to satisfy those concerned with energy conservation, Foxworth-Galbraith also carries solar-powered attic fans. Ventilating, cooling and drying the attic space, the fans run on solar panels guaranteed to last for several years, promise easy do-it-yourself installation. Since no electricity is involved, the fans cost nothing to operate.
Entrepreneur Mattie Johnson is looking to make building with alternative earth-friendly materials even easier, putting a wide range of products—along with years of green building knowledge and expertise—conveniently under one roof. Johnson started her natural building materials supply company, Material Good, out of her home last year, and opened a showroom in a storefront in Syzygy Tileworks' new building on Bullard Street in Silver City this spring.
Consumers new to alternative building materials and practices can feel at sea amidst all the information available these days. So Johnson seeks to help the pro builder or homeowner find just the right mix of products and perfect, long-lasting building solutions.
"There are a lot of ways to go about this and a lot of things available," Johnson says. "Most times people have an idea of what they want. That's why they're coming to me. Or they've seen it in somebody else's home or researched something online. And then sometimes whole new worlds open up, and in looking at one thing, we find something else that's just the perfect solution for them."
Johnson graduated with a degree in history and studio art, and says her college years shaped and informed her eco-awareness, leading to the work she does today. "I did a lot of environmental policy work," she says, including a year of studying the ecology of Namibia, which she says is comparable to that of southwest New Mexico, and then serving a 10-week stint in the field there. "I saw many other ways to live during that time."
Sitting at her desk, she is surrounded by examples of the products she sells. A cork wall displayed behind her computer—far too nice to pushpin with messages—is actually a natural flooring. It has a long life, Johnson says, is cost effective, sound-deadening and eases strain on the body. What's not to love?
She pulls out a basket of flexible, colorful squares. These are more samples of natural flooring, in this case rubber-based. The speckles of color are delightful to the eye, and the colors range from neutral tans, creams and browns to purples, pinks, deep reds and brilliant yellow.
She stocks a product called American Clay, made in Albuquerque, a sample of which covers the half-wall enclosing her office space. A clay product containing no cement, it allows the consumer to add color and texture to interior walls, creating what Johnson calls a "breathing wall system." The application process," she says, is very "forgiving," as it can be manipulated and fine-tuned with just a little added water and smoothing.
Johnson considers earth-friendly building far from fringe or frou-frou. "Building this way makes so much sense on so many levels," she says. In addition to being gentler to the earth—curbing waste products and avoiding the use of toxic materials—green building practices can save consumers a lot of money."
Savings come not only in the actual installation costs, she says, but also from increased energy efficiency. In fact, she says, as energy becomes more precious, homes that are built this way will more likely hold their value.
Johnson points out that the flooring materials she sells are comparable to other "traditional" products and, in some cases, even cheaper. The unfinished cork runs about $3 per square foot. A natural bamboo flooring, which comes finished and releases no particles or splinters, is just under $5 per square foot. A natural linoleum product, called Marmoleum, is longer lasting than conventional linoleum, has an interesting finish, and costs $5 per square foot. That beautifully flecked rubber-based flooring starts at $6 per square foot.
"In addition to that, these products come with a 20- to 30-year warranty, so you're not ripping it out and replacing it in five to 10 years," she says.
Although green building materials sites are multiplying on the Internet, Johnson says she feels having a storefront showroom—a place consumers can visit not just virtually, but actually—is a big plus for her business. "People can do their research online," she says, "but that doesn't really give you a true idea of color, and that's very important when you are considering a big expanse of wall or floors going from one room into another. You can't touch things online and really experience how wonderful a texture is."
Another advantage is carrying goods the consumer can get nowhere else. Material Good is the only place in New Mexico carrying products by Ecotimber, a company that makes hardwood flooring out of wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This means consumers can cover their floors with exotic woods like teak and Brazilian cherry without guilt, because the woods are certified to have been harvested sustainably, Johnson says.
"Besides, they're just beautiful," she adds.
Beauty is just one of the many reasons strawbale building expert and enthusiast Catherine Wanek has put years of energy, exploration and education into building with strawbales. "The thick, sculptable bale walls offer great aesthetic options," Wanek says, and the structures they create "feel great to be inside of."
Wanek says interest in strawbale building has steadily increased from about a dozen finished strawbale homes in 1993 to thousands of homes worldwide today. In China alone there are over 600 homes, plus schools and clinics built in the last seven years.
"Clearly strawbale building is catching on," she says.
One key reason is the technique's contribution to energy-efficient construction. "Straw bales have emerged as the missing link in passive solar design—cheap insulation. This allows informed designers to create homes that reduce energy consumption by 50 to 80 percent over conventional construction," she says. At R-2.7 per inch, an 18-inch wide bale equals an R-48 insulation effect. One California study indicated that such a "super-insulated" straw bale home could save as much as 75 percent of heating and cooling costs. This translates to direct dollar savings for the homeowner, and a corresponding reduction in the use of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions.
In sunny New Mexico, any type of building that takes advantage of solar technology has got to be a natural fit. Wanek identifies the four aspects of solar design: orientation of the building to make the most use of the sun's rays; insulation, which strawbale construction so perfectly provides; glass to let in the sun; and mass, both to hold and release energy.
"Actually, there's a fifth component," Wanek adds. "Passive solar design needs an active owner, someone who is conscious of the way the technology works, and does the necessary things—like raising and lowering blinds, opening and closing windows. It's not a hassle, but it takes awareness and action to make it work."
Strawbales are great building material for other reasons, Wanek says. Besides being durable, strawbale construction saves trees, using only half the timber of a conventional build. Sealed properly, the straw will not even rot—for centuries, in fact. There are 100-year-old strawbale houses in Nebraska, where the building style was invented, still completely sound.
Strawbales also are non-toxic and sound- and fire-resistant. They invite owner-builder involvement, a real community aspect that makes building green with strawbales, well, a lot of fun.
"It's like a party! It's just plain fun to get together with friends and build these things," Wanek says. "I've met some of my best friends among the worldwide 'community' that has sprung up around strawbale construction."
Wanek and her husband, Pete Fust, who together own the Black Range Lodge in Kingston, give presentations and teach hands-on workshops in strawbale construction. They also consult on designs and how to build strawbale houses to code, and offer how-to books and video resources.
Wanek has written a book on the subject, The New Strawbale Home (Gibbs-Smith, 2003), produced several videos, and is at work on a new book, Natural Building—Creating Beautiful, Healthy Homes, which will be published next spring.
"I'm hoping the lovely and sensuous qualities of contemporary natural homes will help open the door to renewed interest in building with less-processed materials," she says.
She and Fust love to give tours of their strawbale guest house, which they helped design and built for her parents to stay in when visiting, and which is available to lodge guests when mom and dad are not around. The walls are curved at the corners instead of at right angles, and inside it's finished with a clay plaster. Large windows and a wrap-around deck capture great views of the Gila National Forest.
"Most often the response is 'Wow!,'" Wanek says. "People love how it feels to be inside, and sometimes we get offers to buy it."
The Black Range Lodge is more than the home of one strawbale building example. The lodge has hosted four colloquia on natural building. In 2001, it was the site of the first training course for Building Without Borders, a nonprofit organization the couple helped found to share low-tech natural building solutions with poor communities and the Third World. Wanek will travel to China this July to document the successful strawbale building program there.
"We're part of the New Mexico Straw Bale Construction Association, and currently are working to update the state's construction codes to allow load-bearing bale building in our state," Wanek says. She should have no problem there: As strawbale building has developed abroad, enthusiasts around the world have looked to Wanek to help them get their strawbale building plans approved.
A woman in Australia looking to build with strawbales showed one of Wanek's videos to the appropriate permit-granting bodies. Her project was immediately green-lighted.
Around the time Wanek and Fust became interested in strawbale construction, they also started learning about Permaculture, a consciously designed system of building and lifestyle that seeks to create cultivated ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. Learning from and emulating Mother Nature, goes the thought, makes for a sustainable community structure.
Building sustainable structures, in all respects of the term, is the goal of Silver City builder and business owner Doug Lacy, who owns The Pet Health Shop, a holistic pet food and supplies store, and who is the owner/design-build consultant of Spiritpath Designs. His patented Parabolic Stress-Skin structures—walls, additions, chimneys and whole buildings—have been popping up all around Silver City and its environs. (See accompanying story for a first-hand account of one example.)
In the Silver Heights neighborhood alone, on the north side of Hwy. 180, four new adobe-looking enclosures have sprung up over just the past few months. One homeowner couple, obviously satisfied with their new wall and chimney retrofit, is having a Stress-Skin addition put on their home.
Lacy defines Parabolic Stress-Skin construction as a low-cost, earth-friendly technique with high thermal performance. The process of building with Stress-Skin technology is simple, and leads to an amazingly resilient structure.
The first step involves creating the special "skeleton" of the structure. Using a special apparatus that bends and folds 6-6-10 gauge wire, Lacy fabricates, on site, the custom-sized and -shaped remesh steel wire building blocks. The blocks are stacked and fixed in place, and the resulting wall can then be filled or left hollow.
A fiber-reinforced metal lathe is then laid over the entire exterior, and finally the intricately and geometrically reinforced armature is coated with a soft composite mix, through hand application or spraying, which hardens into a rigid shell. Surface shells are typically made from fiber reinforced with an ultra-high-performance engineered composite concrete, also called "Fiber Reinforced Reactive Powder Cement" or vapor-proof concrete, which, while structurally solid, allows flexibility. This prevents the cracking that many adobe walls show after some settling. In fact, Lacy says, the cushioning effect of the shell will stop a car and the structure will sustain less damage than a conventional solid adobe-style wall.
Construction of dwellings with Lacy's technique is nearly a complete opposite of conventional building methods. In a Parabolic Stress-Skin home, the walls and roof are built first, the floor added last and leveled to fit the structure. This system "lowers the eco-impact," Lacy says, as no traditional foundation is needed.
Stress-Skin construction is naturally well insulated and energy efficient, he adds. A Stress-Skin chicken coop he built—complete with ergonomically designed, round nesting roosts for the hens themselves—needs no heating system. The thermal mass of the structure itself has proven to provide adequate temperature control for happy, healthy birds, he reports.
In addition to its earth-friendliness, Lacy loves the design flexibility the Stress-Skin method of building makes possible. Often, he says, the design of walls, doorways and window frames will change as the homeowner's imagination becomes freer as the building is taking shape. One of his favorite designs—one he'd like to use someday in a sustainable planned eco-community—incorporates seashell-shaped windows, echoed in the structures' rounded walls.
But simple walls bring great satisfaction, too, Lacy says. "Take Marty Appley's wall for instance," he says of a Sliver City client. "It started as a plan that started to take shape as we talked about it. Then the shape started to transform, as the land and the forms around and people in the neighborhood contributed their two cents about how this design ought to be."
Lacy says conflicting design ideologies—a polite way of saying "opinions," perhaps—brought about discoveries and compromises. In the end, the final design that emerged was unexpected.
"Although just a wall, it is very special and balanced right down to the color." The wall enhances its surroundings the way the right mat board works with a framed painting, Lacy says. "The wall gracefully ties the whole rural townscape back to the earth in just one yard. Not too ornate, not too earthen either—you are subtly directed to notice all of the beautiful flowers, birds and plants around the wall and maybe just notice the day itself."
Lacy says his style of building is cheaper than conventional "stick and frame" construction. Conventional homebuilding-resource Web sites put the cost of the average "basic" new home construction at $95 to $165 per square foot.
"It's exciting to be able to offer people the means to build beautiful, creative homes for around $85 a square foot, or even less. I can build big, beautiful homes for rich people," Lacy says, "but that's not my goal. I'd much rather help more people build wonderful, sustainable homes, which are beautiful, have a low impact on the earth, and are cost-effective. This can make a serious dent in the cost of home construction for a lot of people."
Expanding his success and satisfaction of individual Stress-Skin homes, Lacy dreams of creating a green-built "off the grid" community, which he calls Shambhala Village. The "super earth-friendly" eco-village would incorporate not only homes built with green materials, but water and energy systems designed to be stingy on water use and to take advantage of the sunny, warm Southwest climate.
Composting toilets, integral rainwater collection technology and gray-water systems that re-use some household wastewater would lighten the water needs of such a community, he says. Solar power would reduce electricity needs.
"It's something I've always wanted to do," Lacy says, "to feel that connection to the earth, living 'off the grid.' What a feeling of independence!"
Though Lacy admits his dream community project is "sometime in the future," he is actively talking with builders and developers, and expects that in the sunny, dry Southwest, such a style of building would be "a natural."
Bruce McKinney of Pinos Altos also is dreaming of a sustainable future in the shape of an earth-friendly housing development. In May 2005, McKinney purchased a 110-acre parcel of land on Mountain View Road in Silver City, the remains of the Rio Vicente subdivision. Through his company, Silver Linings, he plans to build an eco-community within walking distance of downtown Silver City.
On a sunny afternoon, Silver Linings' development manager, Patricia Pawlicki, give a private tour of the property. Entry into the property is near a hiking trailhead. Students from the Aldo Leopold School in Silver City have been working on the trail this spring, she says. The trail cuts through the Silver Linings parcel, heading toward the Big Ditch and downtown Silver City. The rolling hills of the site stretch up from the creek on the west to Mountain View Road on the east.
Pawlicki gestures toward Rio Vicente's Phase I of construction, mostly simple manufactured homes set the usual distance apart. A generic, semi-sprawled neighborhood. Unremarkable. Like John Cougar Mellencamp sings, "Little pink houses for you and me."
"There's no cooperation there, no connection," Pawlicki says. "Everybody has to drive to the store in their own cars. There's no gathering place, just all these little houses, on their own."
The plan for the Silver Linings community will look quite different, Pawlicki says. Though the project is perhaps a year away from breaking ground, the "Vision Map" that is being shown to prospective builders shows housing clusters with large areas of shared open space. There is the possibility of it becoming a "greenhouse community," with many dwellings having attached greenhouses. The passive solar attachments will make the homes more energy efficient. Or there may even be a large centralized greenhouse that could provide a small cottage industry for the community's residents. Much is unformed at this point, she says, many doors of possibility are open.
To date, Silver Linings has gathered aerial photographs, made a topographical analysis and interviewed numerous potential partners for the project's development. A baseline environmental sensitivity analysis needs to be completed and compared to what the previous developer proposed in the site's planning. Silver Linings is seeking one or more persons to assist in developing the community's master plan, someone both progressive-minded and experienced in large-scale urban planning.
The company currently is meeting with potential green builders and suppliers of green building materials. One of the most exciting things about Silver City, Pawlicki says, is the emergence of a strong entrepreneurial spirit for green development in the community.
"It is forward thinking like this that makes the vision possible, and will certainly shape its future," she says.
A longtime participant in healthy lifestyle practices herself, Pawlicki speaks enthusiastically of permaculture and sustainability, and how that kind of thinking and planning are the backbone of this project.
"That's the difference here," she says. "I wouldn't necessarily see myself on board with some subdivision project. But this," she says, gesturing over the landscape, "this is different. This, as I see it, is the future."
Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.