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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.

Image:Holly Wilmeth

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.

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Shauna Leff

The eco healing center, Yolitia, in Malinalco talks to Inside Mexico about how they built all their bungalow style housing and buildings with the natural resources found on and around their land. View Slideshow >>

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."


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