Santa Fe’s Next Level Water Conservation

Santa Fe is considered one of the most forward thinking in the country when it comes to water conservation policy and practice. Many of you may know that the city has had a toilet retrofit program in effect for many years. The purpose of this program is to accommodate new construction and renovations within the Santa Fe limits without adding new burden on the city’s existing water supplies.

How is this possible?

The Santa Fe Toilet Retrofit Program:

The retrofit program acts like a water bank of sorts. Those hoping to acquire a building permit for a new home in Santa Fe or renovation/addition—in which additional plumbing fixtures (i.e. sources of water consumption) are added—acquire the right to do that by purchasing toilet retrofit credits. These credits go to pay for the replacement of older non-conserving toilets with new water conserving fixtures (at no cost to the one’s whose toilets are upgraded).

Who doesn’t want a new, water-conserving toilet installed for free?

The net effect is the water demands of new construction are offset by increasing the efficiency of the existing city plumbing. This program has gained national recognition, with the National Association of Home Builders adopting policy to promote similar programs nationwide. This national effort was inspired directly from the success of our program in little, old Santa Fe.

Still, many argue this is not enough and we must do more to preserve our water resources. Sometimes this sentiment is (in my opinion, mistakenly) substituted with a zero growth/zero development battle cry. But without new construction our city would crumble, decay and become an irrelevant desert outpost, passed over by the innovators, entrepreneurs and forward thinkers on every front.

Smarter Construction Development in Santa Fe, And Everywhere:

Rather than resist development, a sounder approach is to enact smarter development. Development that continues to improve our efficiency, our ability to grow, while preserving our natural resources to the greatest extent possible.

Perhaps the toilet retrofit program is not enough. Perhaps we should go farther to conserve water. Luckily the 2012 version of the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC) allows for innovative water conservation methods including the use of grey water for outdoor irrigation and the re-use of collected rainwater for not only outdoor applications but indoor uses as well. Flushing toilets (high efficiency ones) with filtered rainwater. What a concept.

This concept has been around for decades and has been practiced all over the world with great success. The City Different has not yet adopted the [entire] 2012 UPC as code, making it nearly impossible for the next generation of water conservation techniques to be employed here.

Adoption of the [full] 2012 UPC would require a simple vote of the City Council, thus making it much, much easier for builders to maximize water efficiency practices in the city limits. Ultimately adoption of the 2012 UPC makes for a future in which the next generation of water conservation is safe, reliable and attainable for average people in the City Different.

Spring Planning for New Construction in Santa Fe

As spring hits Santa Fe, it’s great to see so many of us outside, playing and enjoying the sounds of the birds, the smell of the blossoms and the beauty of longer warmer days. If allergies haven’t stopped you in your tracks, most of us feel revitalized in the spring.

This is also the time when many of us are getting serious about plans for home improvements, landscaping, or building the new home dreamt of for so many years. When preparing to make that leap of faith into your project, remember that pre-construction planning is as important as any other facet of the project. Take time to plan accordingly.

First Step in Project Planning: Find the Right Experts

The first step in any successful project strategy should be to find the experts right for you. The right realtor, designer, architect or contractor is out there in Santa Fe for you. Find those who share your core values and have a proven track record of success in the type of project you envision. Using least cost as a primary decision making tool almost always leads to less than desirable project outcomes. It is far better to rely on quality of character, reputation and experience.

Once you have a trusted professional employed, rely on their experience and leadership to guide you toward success. Working together you will be able to establish realistic expectations with mutually beneficial outcomes regarding costs, quality and timing. Together you should able to identify the key challenges your project will have in store. Reviewing and understanding any covenants, Home Owners’ Association procedures, and city or county ordinances in and around Santa Fe that apply to your project is vital.

Given all this information, your pro should be able to provide you with a step-by-step process and timeline for gaining the necessary approvals and permits. I call this the pre-construction “critical path.”

Second Step: Setting the Right Budget and Filing All the Paperwork

The development of a quality design, detailed construction budget, and the preparation of documents ready for approvals and permits necessarily take time. The design and budgeting process should not be rushed, but also must be handled efficiently so as not to take longer than needed. After all, getting the project completed on time and on budget is the goal, right?

For larger projects, bank financing is almost always a key element along the pre-construction critical path. The bank’s timeline for pre-approval, appraisal and loan closing will dictate to a great degree the details of your pre-construction timeline. Talk to your bank early to understand what they will require of you and your builder, and how long it will take them to process the information.

Remember, new construction that relies on bank financing cannot commence until the loan is closed and the title company has inspected the lot, typically the last step in the process.

Once your well-planned and professionally orchestrated pre-construction process is successfully behind you, you will have the construction process to enjoy. And it will be an enjoyable experience when you have the right team, the right plan and the right expectations up front.

How Climate Change Affects the Way We Approach Building Homes

Although it’s been in the forefront of scientific discussion for decades, it seems only until very recently that the media and the public at large have seriously begun a discussion about climate change.

Riding on the coat tails of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report this year, the U.S. Government released its own study, recently, drawing acute attention to the problem of climate change as a real and present threat to our health, comfort, food and water security, and national security.

All of this, based on decades of scientific study from around the world, and the actual measured data of rising average temperatures, increasing severity of droughts, wildfires and increasing intensity of storms, leads us to the question…what is next?

Climate Change Unlike Anything Experienced on Earth:

The evidence is clear. Human activity is the largest contributor to a rapidly changing climate. It’s not that the Earth has never experienced climate change before. In fact, the Earth’s climate is constantly changing, and fluctuations in greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere have occurred repeatedly throughout the eons.

However, what makes this time unique and unprecedented is that one species (that’s us) has developed itself and its society to a point never before seen on Earth. One species has now harnessed sources of ancient energy (in the form of carbon rich coal, oil and gas) to fuel its own expansion and fruition upon the earth.

And to such an extent that all other species, and the climate stability that allowed that diversity of species to evolve, are now faced with a rate of change not known in recent geological history.

Climate Change, Construction & Real Estate:

What does this fact have to do with buildings and real estate? Everything, actually.

When looking at the data, we are faced with the fact that buildings (including our homes) account for the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. That is to say, buildings are where we consume the largest amount of energy across our economy. Heating, cooling, lighting, charging, washing, pumping, watching, refrigerating… more energy consumed in our buildings than in transportation, agriculture or industry, respectively.

At the same time, the building sector also provides the largest source of low cost and easily attainable reductions in energy consumption and thus greenhouse gas emissions. In many cases the climate friendly options in our homes are those options that also save us money.

The use of high efficiency boilers for heating, LED lighting, ENERGY STAR appliances, all save us money over the long term, and reduce energy consumption. Reduced energy consumption at home means less fossil fuel combustion at the power plant, and less impact on climate.

Unlike climate change mitigation strategies in other sectors, high performance building options are off the shelf ready, no need for advanced futuristic solutions. Whether via retrofit or by way of new construction, high performance homes have dramatic impact on the long term outlook for climate change. High performance building techniques are the ‘low hanging fruit’ of climate change mitigation.

Adapting Our Homes in Wake of Climate Change

In the last blog, we discussed the critical implications of the construction methods of our homes and buildings on the causes of climate change. The energy consumption of our buildings is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions across our economy.

The building sector also provides us the largest source of low cost and easily attainable reductions in energy consumption and thus greenhouse gas emissions with existing technology. In many cases the climate-friendly options for our homes are those options that also save us money over time: improved insulation, high efficiency lighting & heating, or solar technology. No futuristic, yet-to-be-discovered technology needed.

Although saving money while saving the planet is as compelling a reason as any to build and renovate our homes with the best energy performance options available, there is another equally critical function that our homes can do for climate change.

Adaption of Our Homes:

When we think about adaptive strategies in buildings we must first consider what the impacts of climate change are, and will be in the future. Scientists agree that the most likely outcomes of increased carbon pollution to our atmosphere will be increased severity of heat waves, droughts, and wildfires.

Also likely are increasingly powerful storms, including larger rain events, which in Santa Fe and New Mexico means increased likelihood and severity of flash flooding. With changing temperature and moisture conditions comes changes to pest behavior, as we have seen with bark beetle infestations, and increasing difficulties for agriculture as California is experiencing today.

Our homes can easily be designed and constructed to respond to these climatic stresses. And often can be done in ways that add no additional cost in the context of typical new construction costs today.

Examples of Home Adaption for Climate Change:

Examples include proper solar design, where solar gain is optimized to increase the indoor temperature only in winter while fully shading the living space in summer. This coupled with high mass interior walls and floors can create a home that resists the temperature extremes of the exterior climate.

Similarly, fire resistive exterior building materials will reduce our risks to wildfires. Exterior materials such as steel posts and beams, metal siding and roofing and masonry walls can minimize fire danger to the structure. These materials are also pest and water resistant, improving our resilience in the face of flooding.

Water scarcity is already a reality for New Mexicans and in the future it is likely to only become more so. The use of water conserving fixtures is already code in Santa Fe and has become the norm, but the inclusion of rain water catchment and grey water re-use for landscape irrigation will afford us more garden enjoyment and food security without the added stress to our water supply.

Building & Renovating with the Future In Mind:

The ways in which we build and renovate our homes can afford us increased resilience to the impacts of climate instability. Such methods improve our capacity to remain comfortable and protected from the climate effects we are already faced with, as well as the increased impacts still to come.

What to Expect from Our Design-Build Approach in Santa Fe, NM

If this is the first time you have considered building a custom home, the process of designing and building your dream home may feel daunting and can be worrisome if you don’t know what to expect.

As a Design-Build General Contractor in Santa Fe, Palo Santo Designs LLC, provides comprehensive architectural design and construction services tailored to your unique project goals.

The advantage of our design-build approach is that the design process is informed by technical construction knowledge and real-time construction pricing from the field.

Here’s an outline of the design-build approach:

  • Design development of a home
  • Gathering a team of outsourced services: surveying, soil study, structural engineering, storm-water management, energy modeling and landscape architecture
  • Pricing, plans and permit set
  • Selection of finishes and fixtures
  • Design costs discussed and finalized
  • Construction begins

Integrated team approach allows all the key players (owners, designers, contractor, sub-contractors, suppliers, and other consultants) to feed relevant information into the process early on. This allows the project goals to be met most effectively.


The first step in any successful project is Design. Generally our design process can be broken down as follows:

1. Schematic Design and Design Development.

The process of developing the basic floor plan, site orientation and exterior shape that works for you and the site. This is the most specialized aspect of the process and is different and unique onto each project.

For some, this process can be completed very quickly, but for others it can be time intensive depending on the complexity of the site, the covenants or other restrictions and to what extent you know what design is best for you.

Because of our hands-on knowledge of current construction costs, we are able to project a likely construction budget range during this early phase, optimizing the design process from the start to prepare you for the likely financial implications of the design.  In today’s market, an accelerated cost trend makes it harder than ever to be precise about construction costs until the plans are engineered.  However, the preliminary budget projection and basic house plan are suitable for beginning the bank loan process, should you need.

The final construction bid amount is not guaranteed until the final set of plans are engineered and completed. If your project will require preliminary approval from an architectural review committee or Santa Fe’s Historic Review Board, this would be the stage at which we would prepare the presentations necessary for you. Once we have a basic house design to your liking we then move into the technical aspects of the plan.

2. Outsourced Professional Services:

These services represent our ‘best practices’ approach to quality assurance in design. We work closely with professionals contracted by Palo Santo Designs LLC on your behalf including:

  • Surveyor for topographic study and staking the building corners
  • Geotechnical Engineering for soils study, assuring a design which that minimizes shift, settlement or other common problems in soil movement under your foundation.
  • Structural Engineering to assure all structural components and attachments are sound, durable and safe.
  • Civil Engineering to assure all storm-water management conditions are mitigated adequately and compliance with EPA and other regulations are met.
  • Other professional services including Energy Modeling to optimize energy efficiency, landscape architect, or other services as appropriate to your project.

Pricing and Permit Set:

Based on the outcomes of the two previous steps, a nearly complete set of plans suitable for developing a detailed construction cost breakdown will be made. This will include:

  • Cover Page
  • Site Plan
  • Landscaping Plan
  • Floor Plans
  • Exterior Elevations
  • Roof Drainage Plan
  • Building Sections
  • Typical Wall Section
  • Foundation Plan and Details
  • Roof and Floor Framing Plans
  • Window and Door Schedule
  • Electrical/Lighting Plan
  • Mechanical Plan
  • Other Details as necessary

Finishes and Fixtures will be allocated budget allowances at this time, if not yet specified. The outcome of this step will be a comprehensive construction cost proposal and a set of plans ready for permit.

3. Permitting:

Palo Santo Designs will submit all permit application documents on your behalf and steward the approval process through for you. Permit fees will vary based on location, valuation of the construction and size of the home.

4. Specification:

While the parallel paths of permit approval and bank loan processing are underway, we will work closely with you and preferred vendors to assist you in the selection of finishes and fixtures that suit your taste and your budget.

Additional architectural design work may be appropriate at this stage including interior detail elevations of kitchen, baths, master closet and other key features as necessary to facilitate the selection of cabinets, tile, fixtures, countertops, appliances, and other finishes.

Creating the interior ambiance and overall impression of the home is the outcome of this effort, and allows us to finalize a construction contract amount.

5. Design Costs:

The total cost of the design process will vary based on the unique characteristics of your project and often fall in the range of about 6%-10% of the total construction costs.

Example home:

A home with a projected $1,750,000 construction budget may cost approximately $105,000 to design (6%); a home with a $3,000,000 construction budget may cost $240,000 to design (8%).

Remember that design costs are not included in typical square foot construction costs, so when considering the rough square foot pricing in the next section, the design work is always additional to those typical costs.

Contact us and we will provide you with our Updated Pre-Design Budget exercise which is a very useful tool in preparing for the likely costs of your custom home project.  [email protected] 

Step #2: Construction of a Home

Based on our experience building high quality, high performance custom homes in Santa Fe, NM and surrounding areas, we have developed a very good understanding of what typical construction costs are in this region.

Although each project is unique with varying site considerations, and finishes representing the unique taste and aesthetics of each owner, typical construction costs as of 2023 range between $650-$850 per square foot of heated living area.

In each case, a specialized and itemized construction budget will be developed that represents the exact costs of your project, and will vary somewhat from the typical costs shown here. 

Contact us for a detailed analysis of the likely construction costs for your project.  [email protected] or call us at 505-988-7230

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