Upper Alto Street is the physical barrier to the barrio beyond. The high side has old historic homes set on traditional flat lots. The low side is a cliff two-stories deep. The homes there have grown up to street level, but some are only accessible by the last old-timey dirt road in the heart of the city, lower Alto Street.

The last vacant tract on the stretch, owned by the city, probably has been vacant since the upper barrio was settled some 200 years ago. The homes below, built after the river was tamed, are newer and fancier. The empty space will only hold five attached townhomes.

Now, to be tucked into the gap, will come five Habitat for Humanity homeowners, reminiscent of the hardworking, low-wage earners who originally established the barrio above. The city offered it free. The winning proposal came from Habitat and B.Public Prefab, a local women-owned high-performance panelized wall manufacturer headed by Edie Dillman, Charlotte Lagarde and Jonah Stanford.

It’s a perfect match and likely the only bidding team with the wherewithal to pull it off. Habitat builds cost effectively and with maximum energy efficiency under construction director Rob Lochner’s watchful, problem-solving eye.

But this is no ordinary build. Otherwise somebody would have built on it decades ago.

B.Public Prefab builds wall sections that are craned into place. Stanford and Dillman are stellar players in the realm of high-performance thought, design and construction in Santa Fe and beyond. Our local Habitat chapter already meets their high standards and is ready to embrace site challenges and new construction techniques.

One recent skillset mastered by Lochner and his core volunteers is working with concrete-filled insulating forms of Styrofoam blocks. They’re very energy efficient and can hold back tons of packed earth piled high behind a retaining wall. It’s hard to imagine a plan that would not employ such a scheme.

Those same concrete-filled foam blocks could serve as effective sound and fire barriers between the homes, which will have common walls. All five units will be two stories. Draft plans are for three three-bedroom homes and two two-bedroom homes.

Parking will be split between upper and lower Alto Street, but all five will have primary pedestrian access from lower Alto Street, which means all will have at least a little bit of private green space. The upper parking spots, made possible by the significant retaining wall and a lot of imported and compacted earth, will have stairs to bring pedestrians down from upper Alto Street.

B.Public Prefab’s walls, floors and roofs have sprung from Stanford’s pioneering work as a Passive House designer and builder. The sections use off-the-shelf products like I-joists, blown-in cellulose insulation, oriented strand board sheathing and water-resistant house-wrapping, but they are built to factory specifications and fit together like Legos.

It’s likely the Alto Street build will be a hybrid of B.Public Prefab panels and traditional techniques, like concrete slabs. Habitat’s lead architectural designer, Jacqueline “Jay” Urich, is a former AmeriCorps volunteer who discovered Santa Fe in her year of service with Habitat and made our town her home.

She is excited by the technical challenge and the challenge that modern townhomes must fit into historic vernacular required of new construction in historic districts.

Unlike other Habitat projects, where adjacent lots can be utilized for large groups of volunteers to meet and eat and assemble, this will be more surgical. With complicated site engineering and time-consuming historical approvals, Lochner is projecting a late-summer start but a quick build.

After a few hundred years, what’s a few more months? Take the time and get it right.

Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at shanafe@aol.com.

(4) comments

Diane Baker

OMG...are we going to get another black/grey block of "modernist" buildings, and this time in the middle of the historic district? Where are the various committees that are supposed to be safeguarding the homogeneous, eminently warm and humane adobe-style that has made Santa Fe such an appealing destination?

KIM shanahna

The historic design review committee will ensure the structures will not be black/grey blocks of modernist buildings.

Diane Baker

It is truly unfortunate that neither the "historic design review committee" nor, evidently any other city building oversight group is reviewing the ghastly growth of hideous black/grey blocks of unaffordable apartment buildings in Santa Fe that are being built with no regard to either affordability or design, but rather seem to be allowed in order to satisfy developers' greed.

Stefanie Beninato

Diane The historic board only has authority in historic zones. Many of the buildings have occurred because of Planning Commission approval. Perhaps sending them emails or putting in written public comments when the PC hears these proposals would be more effective as well as making written or spoken public comments in front of the council before it goes to appeal...

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