Faren Dancer makes no apologies for the grand size or luxurious nature of his 4,150-square-foot custom gem with sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In designing the expansive Emerald Home, the pilot project for Santa Fe’s green building code, he aimed to show that a big, beautiful house can offer the ultimate in sustainability, too.

Thanks to impressive geothermal and solar systems, a well-sealed and extremely insulated building envelope, and resource-efficient recycled products, the net-zero house not only lives large but with a limited carbon footprint that is in line with the strict goals of the 2030 Challenge, which calls for progressively reducing all greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by 2030.

By opening the house for public tours and educational conferences, Dancer has found that its high-performance features steal the show from the well-appointed living spaces, fully equipped media room, and high-end finishes.

“We created this home as a potential model for the other 300 homes that would be built in this subdivision eventually—making it bigger than most green homes—to show you could have a beautiful home that would fit in with the higher-end location, but with the embodied energy of a house closer to 3,000 square feet,” he says.

The project team began with an emphasis on ultra-tight construction practices and optimum solar orientation that help keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Double framing allowed for 12 inches of Applegate 85% recycled blown-in cellulose for an R-value of 42. Interior walls of compressed earth blocks increased the thermal mass and provide excellent sound-deadening properties, an important consideration in a dwelling with 9- to 15-foot-high ceilings.


Name: The Emerald Home, Santa Fe, N.M.

Size: 4,150 square feet

Construction cost: $1.9 million (including land)

Completed: August 2009

Certifications: National Green Building Standard-Emerald, Build Green New Mexico-Platinum, Energy Star

HERS rating: -5

Designer/Builder: Sundancer Creations, Santa Fe

Rater: Building Energy Solutions, Albuquerque, N.M.

Dancer and his crew left nothing to chance with the building envelope, sealing every penetration and specing ultra-efficient SeriousWindows and R-20 Kalwall skylights. Even before factoring in renewable energy systems, the exacting attention to detail and thorough insulation package brought the home’s HERS rating to 35 and shrunk the heat load to 35,000 BTUs/hour (compared with 135,000 BTUs /hour for a typical home of the same size). This reduced the amount of geothermal wells required from 12 to six and allowed Dancer to get by with a 5-ton ground-source heat pump instead of the 10-ton model his HVAC contractor recommended. Based on the results of detailed REM/Rate energy modeling software, the changes saved nearly $30,000 in construction costs, he estimates.

The grid-tied 9.2-kW PV system includes a 1.8 kW Wattsun solar tracker that follows the sun’s trajectory for maximum sunlight gathering. “The beauty of trackers is that they give you about a 20% bump in efficiency because they follow the sun, and they stay cooler because they are freestanding instead of sitting on the roof, which provides about another 7% efficiency,” he says.

Hot water comes from a solar thermal system that is integrated into the geothermal wells and can supplement the home’s radiant floor heating when excess hot water is produced. During the winter, two clean-burning, sealed-combustion fireplaces offer additional warmth, although Dancer says they are rarely used.

Combined, the solar and geothermal packages were eligible for $56,000 in tax credits. In addition, the solar system earns renewable energy generation credits that Dancer sells to the local utility, and it also garners a direct credit on the home’s electric bill when it sells excess power to the grid.

An array of recycled materials and engineered wood products help bring the home’s embodied energy in line with that of a much smaller house. For starters, massive amounts of reclaimed old-growth wood grace the home’s interior, including the walnut cabinets, milled hickory ceiling beams, and ash entry door. Other products made from recycled materials include the bathroom and kitchen tile backsplashes and cast-iron sinks and bathtubs.

Outside, the house’s low-lying design and neutral color palette blend in with the surrounding landscaping, which is mainly drought-tolerant indigenous selections such as pinon and juniper, with a few deciduous trees along the patio for summer shading. About 80% of roof water is directed into one of three 1,700-gallon cisterns, where it is held until used for irrigation. The remainder flows into a passive irrigation system that allows the water to slowly drain from perforated pipes laid in planting beds.

For Dancer, a longtime environmental advocate and educator, the most important feature of the Emerald Home is its role as a hands-on showcase of high-performance building practices. “Educational outreach has been my mission in green building for many years,” he says. “And, we have to realize that larger high-end homes will continue to be built and often have the biggest ongoing carbon footprints. The Emerald Home has none.”

PROFILE: Faren Dancer, Owner, Sundancer Creations

Courtesy Faren Dancer

Having grown up in Cleveland, Faren Dancer vividly remembers the day in 1969 when the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire. He credits that event with raising his awareness of all things environmental, a passion that has grown throughout the years. He raised his own family in the ecoconscious community of Bolinas, Calif., where he was drawn to causes from green building and recycling to community gardening and social justice. In the mid-1980s, he founded Unicopia, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing green issues of all sorts, including local food production and water issues. He is advocating for a renewable energy grid in Santa Fe and recently spoke at the National Press Club to announce the formation of the Building Energy Efficient Codes Network, a new coalition of business, industry, and nonprofit groups working in support of energy efficiency in the building sector. As resident and curator of the Emerald Home, Dancer manages its role as a building model, training facility, and educational center. Through a grant from the USGBC, Dancer and his team documented the home’s entire construction process and turned it into a 15-week online course on net-zero building for Santa Fe Community College.