Passive House Meets Pueblo
Three projects by a Santa Fe architect demonstrate how well this performance standard and the Southwest style work together.
Synopsis: In this article, Andrew Michler presents three Passive Houses he built in the Southwest United States and how they seamlessly fit the style of the local New Mexican architecture. Using the Passive House focus on energy conservation as a cost-effective approach to efficiency, Michler turned his attention to the envelope of each home, particularly the insulation and air-sealing details and how these would create energy-efficient air and vapor barriers. For as little as $175 per square foot, Michler built the Balance Project, the Taos House, and the Olsen House, incorporating the New Mexican style of thick, adobe-brick walls into his Passive House envelope-first approach.
Northern New Mexico has one of the oldest design traditions in the United States. A mix of cultures intersecting for the past 500 years has led to distinctive architecture that speaks as much to the arid Southwest region as it does the people who live there. The oldest building still inhabited in the United States is the Taos Pueblo (taospueblo.com), built with a stepped, boxy form and massive adobe-brick walls. When the Spanish entered the region, they brought the hacienda with its long front portals, tall windows, and intricate woodwork. The railroad brought manufactured materials like corrugated steel and standardized lumber and trim, leading to the Territorial style. Many new buildings in the region are a mash-up of these influences.
It is in this rich backdrop that NEEDBASED, Inc. — a design firm where I work under my colleague, architect Jonah Stanford — built three certified Passive Houses: the Balance Project, the Taos House, and the Olsen House. For these projects, we were looking for a robust, energy-efficient system for building homes that would also be affordable. We prefer a contemporary design approach that draws on traditional qualities like the parapet roof, natural materials, and, of course, the thick walls that are ubiquitous in the Southwest. We have found that we can design Passive Houses at market prices that use a fraction of the energy of a code-built home. We’ve built these houses for as little as $175 per sq. ft. and feel that $300 per sq. ft. is a budget that we can regularly hit. When this cost increases, it is commonly due to challenges with the building site.
There has long been a lively passive-solar design movement in New Mexico due to the 300 days of sun a year and the thermal mass inherent in adobe buildings. In our experience, though, we have found that passive-solar design has been inadequate for comfort and predictability. It is also too site specific, making it hard to scale or adapt to different conditions. Without significant owner interaction, these homes tend to overheat, even in the winter, but especially in spring and fall. Yet because these homes are so reliant on the sun, a few cloudy days or cold nights will still require large heating systems.
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