MOVING TO ZERO: An improved version of its net–zero-energy model in Rio Rancho, N.M., is what Artistic Homes expects to be building and selling exclusively in the future.
Courtesy Artistic Homes MOVING TO ZERO: An improved version of its net–zero-energy model in Rio Rancho, N.M., is what Artistic Homes expects to be building and selling exclusively in the future.

Last year was the 10th anniversary of Artistic Homes’ decision to turn itself into a builder of energy-efficient homes. The culmination of that decision (so far) can be found in Rio Rancho, N.M., where last fall Artistic, which is based in Albuquerque, completed its first net–zero-energy house.

Along the way, Artistic’s owners have learned—sometimes painfully—that green building requires constant training and supervision of personnel, subs, and suppliers, because the danger of slipups is ever present. (It even happened on its zero-energy house, where one of its long-time contractors made some mistakes.) “It’s a top-to-bottom process, and we’re still in that process,” says Tom Wade, one of Artistic’s principals.

Life was simpler when Artistic was an entry-level builder whose main concern was holding down costs as it put up 800 units annually. In 1998, though, its owners met with Building America, the Department of Energy’s program that promotes energy-­efficient construction. Something clicked, recalls Wade. “What they were saying made sense to us.”

The builder’s metamorphosis, though, was another matter. “It was like a lobotomy,” laughs Wade. Getting subs on board meant almost daily in-field training. Going green also necessitated “a tremendous change” in building products. Back then, HVAC units in Albuquerque homes were mostly evaporative swamp coolers, “and overnight, we’re changing to refrigerated air,” says Wade. Artistic’s green homes also are framed with 2x6s instead of 2x4s, insulated with blown-in foam rather than fiberglass batts, with ducts running from the ground floor instead of from the attic.

These rudimentary green building features add $3,500 to the price of a house. “At the time, our homes were selling for $75,000, so that was a lot.” And market conditions weren’t moving in Artistic’s direction. National builders rolled into New Mexico and sated buyers’ appetites for big houses. As a green builder, there were certain design preferences that Artistic could not accommodate, such as 15-foot-high ceilings in the foyers. Consequently, green limited the builder’s customer base, and its annual production fell below 600 units.

With so much construction going on in the market at that time, “we never knew what crews were going to show up,” says Wade. Quality control flew out the window, causing a rift in the Wade family that led to Tom’s two brothers leaving the company in 2003 and 2004. “It took every ounce of ­energy to stick with this,” says Wade.

Raising the Bar

The following year, Tom’s father Jerry, Artistic’s owner, sensed correctly that the housing bubble was about to pop. He retrieved all of the company’s land commitments, which at the time numbered around 2,000 lots. Artistic had a backlog of more than 550 contracts “and our primary focus was to build them efficiently,” says Wade.

The company brought in consultants from Building Science Corp. and other ­organizations to help refine its construction practices. Artistic set benchmarks, such as a home energy rating (HERS) of between 65 and 70 for all of its new houses. And it affiliated with the DOE’s Energy Star program and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED-H certification program.

Tighter frame: Artistic is using 2x6 studs in its energy-efficient construction.
Courtesy Artistic Homes Tighter frame: Artistic is using 2x6 studs in its energy-efficient construction.

Around the same time, New Mexico’s legislators were crafting the Sustainable Building Tax Credit, applicable to homes built after Oct. 31, 2007 that met LEED-H Silver criteria for greenness and performance. Artistic Homes is well-positioned to promote the credit, which for its buyers can be as much as $10,600. A greener house is still a tough sell in Albuquerque, where buyers think about square footage first. But Artistic has had better luck in towns such as Hobbs, Roswell, and Artesia, N.M., whose economies rely on oil, gas, or mining, and whose buyers seem more aware of an efficient home’s benefits. “They don’t want to hear about carbon footprints, but they do want stable utility bills,” observes Wade.

Artistic Homes’ long-term goal is for 100 percent of its houses to be zero energy. The 1,666-square-foot model it built in Rio Rancho has a base HERS of 56 and was priced at $193,000. In late January, Artistic started its second zero-energy house with upgrades that include a solar heating unit, low-VOC products, and ­energy recovery ventilators. That house will sell for under $240,000, and Artistic can build a smaller version (in the 1,300-square-foot range) for under $200,000.

In A Happier Place

At the recent International Builders’ Show, Artistic Homes was one of three builders to receive the first BASF Builders Challenge Award, recognizing Artistic’s efforts to build homes that achieve at least a 70 on the DOE’s EnergySmart Home Scale. If only appraisers in New Mexico were as enlightened about the homes’ benefits. They may not see the value of green building yet, but Wade feels good about his company’s future and projects that Artistic Homes, which finished 100 houses last year, will increase that by at least 50 percent in 2009.

“When I go to builder events, it’s all gloom and doom. But when I go to Energy Star and green events, everyone is positive and excited,” he says. When the housing demand returns, he’s confident that buyers “are going to want a good product that doesn’t cost them a lot to maintain.”