For sustainability, a city beats the country
In 2006, my husband and I moved to a little town in New Mexico called Socorro where he was starting his Ph.D. program. Socorro means help in Spanish. We should have known we were in trouble, but how hard could it be to find an energy-efficient house and a sensible way to live?
I was going to be working from home, so we started looking for a two-bedroom house. Nearly everything we looked at, though cheap, was falling apart. When we first set eyes on a spacious, bright, three-bedroom house with very nice landlords, we were smitten. So we failed to notice it was a manufactured home until after we signed the lease. Maybe we were in denial. Maybe it was the pink, adobe-looking plaster façade and the concrete steps in front and back. Maybe we were just too afraid that it wouldn't get better.
I have nothing against manufactured homes except this: They’re not well insulated. Because of that, not to mention an air conditioner that wasn't big enough for the house, we were overheated all summer and racked up huge energy bills. The windows were supposedly top-of-the-line, but perhaps they weren't sealed correctly or just couldn't compete with the rest of the house. It was hot. And we were helping to destroy the environment.
The winter was worse. We were forced to sleep in the guest room on our futon because the heat from the furnace did not reach across the house to the master bedroom. It was still routinely less than 60 degrees inside when we woke up in the morning. And the energy bills did not subside. We lived in less than one-third of the house for at least one-third of the year.
So when, after a year, we decided to hit the road to the big town of Albuquerque, we had some priorities. We wanted a house with a smaller footprint, real insulation, and no traditional New Mexican single-pane windows. One thing we had enjoyed in Socorro was our ability to walk all over town; we wanted to keep on walking in a city.
We looked for well over a month. Our desire to walk limited the area to downtown and Old Town, where prices are higher. Homes are also much older and invariably, too small, too rickety, too lacking in insulation. And nearly all had those cute New Mexico windows.
Then we found the perfect house. For $125 more than we had been paying each month in Socorro, we found a house half the size with walls at least three times as thick. It was an old adobe that had been lovingly restored by an architect, with wood and brick floors, a traditional tin roof, inset bookcases and gorgeous trim. It was also small, at 730 square feet.
A swamp cooler blows out of one vent, keeping the house cool on the hottest days with some help from floor fans. A gas-powered, wood burning stove is the only source of heat in winter. Skylights and windows mean the lights are off most of the day. Our combined gas and electric bills have been under $30 per month.
So we lowered our energy use, which made us feel good about our pocket books and our environment. We donated a lot of our stuff -- perhaps way too much -- which made me feel less anxious, and we put our faith in an area of town that is euphemistically called “rebuilding.” My mother thinks it is still scary. But then, she has always lived in the suburbs.
We traded a bigger, cheaper house for a smaller, more expensive one that is less than a mile from the Old Town Plaza Vieja. We can ride our bikes less than two miles to the beautiful 16-mile Paseo del Bosque Bike Path. We are half a mile from four museums and a beautiful park. We are surrounded by local businesses and have a mix of neighbors, from a 93-year-old Hispanic woman to a white lesbian couple.
We can walk to the post office, the grocery store, the movie theater and the Farmer's Market downtown. We can also take a bus nearly anywhere in the city. (Maybe eventually they will run past 6 p.m.) We traded sprawl for infill, and we traded gas expenses for exercise.
We would never have guessed it, but we found sustainability in the biggest town in New Mexico.
Alison Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a research analyst and writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.