Green retreat

In Taos, New Mexico, Tom Worrell's El Monte Sagrado resort offers luxury with a social conscience

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During El Monte Sagrado's grand opening three years ago, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist monks, a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and dancers from the Taos Pueblo all blessed the space. A few brightly colored prayer flags still flutter from an overhead line. On sunny days, the resort's well-heeled guests practice yoga or tai chi in the Sacred Circle, a large, green oval swath of grass at the heart of the resort's grounds.

On wet days, the circle "acts as a kind of big catchment basin," says Doug Patterson, director of systems design and architecture for Dharma Living Designs Group, a resort-affiliated company that creates natural water purification systems. During downpours, the circle's sloping shape fills with rainwater, which slowly drains into nearby ponds. Instead of being lost to runoff, the water is recycled.

Wastewater and rain runoff are treated via a complex organic process, then used to irrigate the grounds. In contrast to Taos's camel hair-colored, high-desert landscape, El Monte Sagrado is luxuriant.

Its equally green energy production uses geothermal and solar sources, without unsightly solar arrays. Pipes are buried. Solar collectors are hidden on rooftops or disguised as sculptural "trees."

In the El Monte Sagrado system, microbes replace chemicals as cleansers. In the warm, glass-enclosed Biolarium room at the heart of the resort, you can see the process at work. Here, large tanks are overhung by tropical plants, including banana palms, bougainvillea, and papyrus. Within the tanks, the resort's wastewater gently filters through layers of dirt and peckish microbes. A sighing shush fills the room as the water moves and the solids settle. Soil and bacteria remove organic materials and other impurities from the water. By the time it's piped out of the Biolarium and into the ponds, the water is potable (although the resort uses it only for irrigation of the grounds).

This system, Worrell says, allows the resort to reuse all of its water and utilize rainwater, conserving hundreds of thousands of gallons annually.



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