by Dan Lambert
Take one ancient, environmentally friendly building technique, mix it with modern technology and some good old-fashioned customer service and you get Soledad Canyon Builders, a custom-home business owned by Pat and Mario Bellestri of Las Cruces.
“We end up being real close to our clients,” Mario Bellestri said. “It’s almost like we’re married for nine months, then the project’s finished, and we have to split up, but amicably.”
The ancient technology is called rammed earth construction. Work begins when a mixture of dirt and cement is poured between large plywood supports to form the walls. The mixture is then tamped down with a pneumatic press to make it solid as concrete.
”It’s the greatest house; you get a sense of being enveloped by warmth when you’re inside,” said Pat Gipson, a retired history teacher from New Jersey who moved into a Soledad Canyon home last November.
The warmth comes from a Soledad Canyon’s home being as snug and insulated a structure as you’ll find anywhere, plus the builders attention to detail.
Gipson’s home was being built in Las Cruces as she was finishing her last year of teaching back East. She never visited the home until it was is ready to move into. The Bellestris were just one week off on the estimated completion date and now, Gipson loves her new home.
A custom-built, rammed earth home costs about $10 more per square foot, compared to conventional stick-built construction. But Gipson said the extra cost was not a factor.
“After talking with Mario and Pat and seeing what a solid structure they built with rammed earth, we didn’t even think about the extra cost,” Gipson said.
As an example, the Bellestris say a custom-built, 2,800-square foot rammed earth home, with an additional 1,600 square feet of porch and garage space, will cost about $495,000 to construct. Land costs are extra.
The Bellestris built their first house in Las Cruces in 1983. Since then, they’ve built about 90 more, mostly rammed earth construction, but also some stick framed.
Lynn Wallis and his wife Ruth moved into their Soledad Canyon home in last November.
“The combination of the 18-inch thick walls and good, wood-framed windows eliminates air leaks, and makes for a snug, efficient space,” he said.
In the coldest part of last winter, the monthly heating bill for their 3,200-square foot home was only $60.
Gipson is having a photovoltaic heating and cooling system installed in her home. The state of New Mexico and the U.S. government provide tax credits for homeowners who install these solar-powered units that can cost upwards of $30,000.
But with the tax credits and surplus electricity that El Paso Electric will either buy back or give you credit for, Gipson figures the unit will pay for itself in seven to eight years.
That’s how they charge for a project. They add up the prices of all materials in the book, figure in the subcontractors’ fees as listed in the book, tack on their fee and there you have it, the price of your house. They don’t mark up the cost of materials.
“That book eliminates any guesswork, it’s all there in black and white,” Wallis said. “There’s a brutal amount of work to be done up front because everything needs to be listed, but it’s well worth it.”
And if the owner wants to make changes along the way, like laying tile on the back porch instead of leaving the bare concrete, it’s added to the book.
The Bellestris say they are particular about the subcontractors they use. And their customers say they have had virtually nothing for subcontractors to come back and fix.
Mario Bellestri said rammed earth homes aren’t for everyone, but people seem to know when it’s just what they want.