New construction on Alto Street will be a test, but it’s worth the wait | Real estate


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

The last vacant lot in the stretch, owned by the city, has likely been vacant since the upper quarter was settled about 200 years ago. The houses below, built after the river was tamed, are newer and more upscale. The empty space will only contain five attached townhouses.

Now to be tucked into the gap will come five Habitat for Humanity owners, reminiscent of the hard workers and low wages that originally established the barrio above. The city gave it away for free. The winning proposal came from Habitat and B. Public Prefab, a local manufacturer of women-owned high performance panel walls led by Edie Dillman, Charlotte Lagarde and Jonah Stanford.

It’s a perfect match and probably the only candidate team that can afford it. Habitat is being built cost-effectively and with maximum energy efficiency under the watchful and problem-solving eye of Construction Manager, Rob Lochner.

But this is not an ordinary construction. Otherwise, someone would have built it decades ago.

B. Public Prefab builds wall sections which are put in place by crane. Stanford and Dillman are stellar players in the field 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 take on site challenges and new construction techniques.

A recent skill mastered by Lochner and his main volunteers is to work with insulating forms filled with concrete of styrofoam blocks. They are very energy efficient and can hold tons of packed soil piled up behind a retaining wall. It’s hard to imagine a plan that wouldn’t employ such a diet.

These same concrete-filled foam blocks could serve as effective sound and fire barriers between homes, which will have common walls. The five units will have two floors. The provisional plans are for three three-bedroom houses and two two-bedroom houses.

Parking will be split between upper and lower Alto Street, but all five will have primary pedestrian access from lower Alto Street, meaning everyone will have at least some private green space. The upper parking spaces, made possible by the large retaining wall and a lot of imported and compacted earth, will have stairs to lower pedestrians off Upper Alto Street.

The walls, floors and roofs of B. Public Prefab are the result of Stanford’s pioneering work as a designer and builder of passive houses. Sections use off-the-shelf products such as I-joists, blown cellulose insulation, oriented strand board and water resistant packaging, but they are constructed to factory specifications and interlock like Legos.

It is likely that the construction of Alto Street is a hybrid of prefabricated B.Public panels and traditional techniques, such as concrete slabs. Habitat Chief Architectural Designer Jacqueline “Jay” Urich is a former AmeriCorps volunteer who discovered Santa Fe during her year of service with Habitat and made our city her home.

She is excited about the technical challenge and the challenge that modern townhouses have to adapt to the historic vernacular required of new construction in historic neighborhoods.

Unlike other Habitat projects, where adjacent lots can be used for large groups of volunteers to meet, eat, and reunite, this will be more surgical. With complicated site engineering and time-consuming historic approvals, Lochner plans to start up in late summer but build quickly.

After a few hundred years, what is a few more months? Take the time and do it right.

Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at [email protected]

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