After using rammed earth to construct their home, Mario Bellestri and Pat Bellestri-Martinez fell in love with the green product so much that they decided in 1985 to open their own construction company, Soledad Canyon Earth Builders.
“We had just married and we had learned about rammed earth,” Bellestri-Martinez said. “We fell in love with it. The walls start at 18 inches thick so the home space gives a feeling of security and strength. It also controls the interior of the home, making it very energy-efficient.”
Specializing in a technique created in the late 1700s, Soledad Canyon Earth Builders constructed more than 75 homes with Mario Bellestri manning the helm and Pat Bellestri-Martinez managing projects on site.
Tragedy struck about a year ago, however, when Mario Bellestri passed away and Pat Bellestri-Martinez had just 90 days to get her license so she could continue to operate the company.
“A year ago this time, I was studying like I never studied before,” she said.
Now, Bellestri-Martinez has continued the Soledad Canyon Earth Builders’ mission of providing the area with healthy homes that are comfortable, energy-efficient and “uniquely New Mexico.”
The power of green
The Truth or Consequences, N.M., native said Soledad Canyon Earth Builders has been sought out by customers throughout the region to build Southwest inspired custom homes using rammed earth, adobe, stucco and framing.
“(Customers) come to us because of what we build – quality houses with energy-efficient features,” she said. Bellestri-Martinez said when they first began building with rammed earth, they struggled to educate the public and held demonstrations to raise awareness.
“We were building green houses in 1985, before people called it that,” she said. “It’s great that more builders are doing (green building) and are paying attention to that. It’s what customers want.”
Their dedication to green building has paid off and over the years Soledad Canyon Earth Builders has been recognized by the Building Industry Association of Southern New Mexico, the Doña Ana Arts Council, Mesilla Valley Habitat for Humanity and the Doña Ana County Historical Society.
It is no easy feat to build a rammed-earth home. Described as “a cousin to adobe,” rammed earth is a mixture of soil, cement and moisture.
Bellestri-Martinez said it takes about 200 tons of dirt to construct a 2,700 square-foot home.
“We want to sell a house by the pound, not the square foot,” she joked. While Bellestri-Martinez said Soledad Canyon usually stays in the Mesilla Valley, they have traveled to Roswell and Ruidoso, N.M., to construct homes.
“People do email and ask us to come to North Carolina, or wherever,” Bellestri-Martinez laughed.
“With the Internet, people find you from everywhere.”
She said they recently were approached by HGTV to build a rammed-earth wall around a home being built near Los Angeles for a new show starring Australian designer Jamie Durie.
“We had to pass it up,” she said, explaining that they couldn’t afford to take their crew and equipment to the West Coast. “I want to watch it and see what they ended up using.”
While Soledad Canyon Earth Builders is well known for its green houses, it is also known for its customer service.
More than a client
“(The most enjoyable aspect of homebuilding) is going to dinner at a house I built with the client,” she said.
“It’s very satisfying. It is really a special, special part of my life – talking and interacting with them.
“People say you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but I love doing it.”
Treating the customer as a friend has inspired Bellestri-Martinez’s “open book” policy, allowing the client to make important decisions about cost and materials.
“My challenge is that I always want to put the best quality materials and building techniques into a house and still make it cost effective,” she said. “I involve the clients as much as possible in making decisions. I tell them, ‘If you pay more, you’ll get more,’ and they make that choice. I want them to know what they can get and how much it will cost.
“They get every original invoice for what everything costs in their house. That’s why we have such strong relationships.”
Family through and through
Helping to keep it all in the family, Bellestri-Martinez said her son Max, who recently received a bachelor’s degree in management from New Mexico State University, and daughter-in-law Melissa work for the construction company.
Throughout her 25 years in the business, Bellestri-Martinez said she has had many accomplishments and has been impacted by several people – one of which was her husband.
“My accomplishment, this year, was continuing the business without Mario, our founding guy, and getting my license and continuing to build homes,” she said.
With the start of the new year, Bellestri-Martinez said she is looking forward to the future.
“It’s definitely a new future,” Bellestri-Martinez said. “Max is here now and we’ve gone through our first year of Mario not being with us. It’s been a lot of discovery and a lot of new, fresh ideas, because of Max and Melissa, both internally and on the job site.”