Building an eco-home in San Miguel
By Catherine Dunn Original Print Publication: May, 2008
- LED (Light Emitting Diode) light
bulbs will burn 50,000 hours and
only use two watts of electricity; the
upfront cost is about $120 pesos,
compared to a $15-$20 peso regular
- “Intelligent paving” on their sloping
driveway will absorb water; a concrete
driveway would create run-off
- Inside the house, earth-not concrete-
plaster will let the adobe
breathe and still create a smooth
surface. With temperatures in San
Miguel ranging from 5 to 30 degrees
Celsius, “it’s essential to build with
materials that isolate well, but at the
same time breathe,” says architect
- Appliances use electricity just by
being plugged in, even if they aren’t
turned on. A master switch will cut
the power supply to appliances that
aren’t in use at night.
- Solar panels require less maintenance
and are less noisy than a wind turbine.
- The inverted roof will allow for a
more discreet display of solar panels,
and it will also funnel rain into a water
- Solar panels are up already, powering
the construction equipment.
- The house faces south, and that side
will be all glass, allowing for passive
solar power. Eaves over the windows
will keep the sun out in summer,
when it is higher in the sky, but the
lower winter sun will shine into their
- Landscaping will be based on native
flora: “A lot of people want to
bring England to San Miguel, and that
doesn’t work so well,” Stubbs says.
A rutted road leads to the spot where Barbara Levine and Paige Ramey's dream house will be. On this afternoon in early March, it's still just a foundation growing out of a sun-combed hillside outside downtown San Miguel de Allende. Sounds of construction mingle with the wind swishing through a landscape of golden grass, cactus, and twisted mesquite trees.
Barbara Levine (left) and Paige Ramey became hooked on the idea of building in San Miguel three years ago. Given the sunny skies, “it was pretty obvious from the start that solar would be a good option,” Paige says.
Barbara, a 48-year-old artist, and her partner Paige, 51, left careers, a city they knew inside-out, and a Victorian mansion in San Francisco for the chance to build their own home in Mexico.
The new home is designed to capture energy and water. Solar panels will charge batteries to run their lights, computers, and DVD player. A V-shaped roof will funnel rain into a 25,000-liter cistern for their sinks, showers, and toilets. Adobe blocks and earth plaster will retain warmth, but also let the place breathe in the summer. The plans call for neither heating nor air conditioning.
The decision to build "green" was in many ways easy. They weren't about to give up their laptops-"we're not back-to-the-earth kind of people," Paige says-but they are concerned about the environment, and they had a little experience. They grew comfortable with off-the-grid living through years of vacationing at Paige's family's solar-powered cabin in the Sierra Nevada.
It was Paige's outdoorsy sensibility that inspired the project. She dreamed of ten acres of land, with room for goats.
Barbara used to think about the environment in terms of paper versus Styrofoam cups, and plastic versus cloth grocery bags. Moving here, and the idea of setting a house on a piece of untouched land, changed that. "You really see the impact that you are having on an ecosystem," she says.
Still, the former exhibitions director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art wondered: could solar really power their day-to-day lives?
"I was kind of intimidated by solar," says Barbara, who used to stereotype green living as "a lifestyle of deprivation." She researched, talking to people who already lived with solar power: "I'd say ‘tell me your worst solar nightmare.'"
When most folks responded by saying that energy-hogging hairdryers proved problematic, she was relieved: "It was like ‘phew, I don't use a hairdryer.'"
Local experts in San Miguel helped Paige and Barbara develop their plan. They rave about solar guru Jim Karabasz. Neighbors who live "a hill or two away" in straw bale homes made the introduction. Their architect, Werner Stubbs, was able to accommodate the green infrastructure in a modern design that appealed to Barbara and Paige's aesthetics. Each will have a work studio: one for Barbara's painting and one where Paige, a yoga instructor, will teach. They expect their guest room will be in high demand.
They estimate that their choice to go eco will increase building costs by 7 to 12 percent. They've invested in two solar batteries and an additional 100,000-liter cistern uphill from the house. A solar-powered pump will fill that cistern with rainwater collected from the roof. "Cost is a concern for everyone who's building and wants to do right by the planet," says Paige.
They both know there'll be a learning curve once they move in, but face it with good humor: "Maybe we'll have ceremonies to the sun and the moon," Paige kids, a little starry-voiced.
"No, no," Barbara laughs. "I draw the line there."