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Former New Mexico ranch as off-grid conservation easement

JJ and Fred Milder were looking for their dream home- they’d spent most of their married life in Boston-, but now with their daughters in college, they were looking to relocate. They stumbled on a former cattle ranch in the high desert outside Sante Fe that was being sold as part of a conservation trust.

Instead of allowing the ranch to be divided into “ranchettes” that would threaten wildlife, water and public access to land with important Native American history (like Petroglyph Hill, behind what is now the Milder’s home), Commonweal Conservancy was dividing it into homesteads and a planned village that would keep 97% as open space.

When the Milder’s bought their 125 acre lot, they agreed to the rules of the conservation easement to leave most of it protected. This meant rules for the size and positioning of their home and agreeing not to build fences so that it would remain open for bikers, hikers, horseback riders and sightseers of the many archeological sites nearby.

Their newly-purchased land was also off-grid in every possible sense: not only was there no connection to the electrical grid, but neither was their water or sewage services. The Milders installed photovoltaics for electricity and solar thermal for hot water. They also installed rainwater capture and an extensive blackwater recycling system that kept the water circulating from home use (toilets included) to their drought-resistant garden.

Acting as general contractors on the building of their home (with only the experience of renovating their Boston Victorian), the Milders tried to blend traditional building with modern touches. They laid out their home in a “hacienda” style, eliminating hallways and instead forcing the outdoors in. All rooms are daylighted with skylights and doors to the outside.

Eschewing the more locally traditional adobe for the better thermal mass of AAC (autoclaved aerated concrete) blocks, they created a passive solar home that remains comfortable during New Mexico summers without the need for air conditioning.

“Living in an urban setting the focus at least for me is very much focused on my immediate family, what am I doing, where do I have to be next, how am I going to battle the traffic, security, risk, so there’s this sort of band of focus that’s so inner circle,” explains JJ, “and here it’s like oh my gosh I’m just one person and in the midst of this vast area… I mean in a way this is all transitory for us, we’re just kind of leasing the land to be able to live here so it’s so important to us to be able to share it, and to honor, to really respect and honor, that was a huge driver of how we were going to position ourselves and our home on this land. So that mindfulness of “wow, where in the world are we”.