new kid on the block

Designed to fit its historic Albuquerque neighborhood like a glove, an architect’s new downtown home makes a splash with bright color, intimate courtyards, and bold architectural features.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2009 Su Casa

“Ninety percent of architects don’t want to design their own houses,” says architect and developer Chris Calott with a laugh. “And that 90 percent includes me.” He says it with a little bit of irony and a fair amount of pride, having accomplished the feat after a four-year odyssey he often considered abandoning.

But he persevered, through love or lunacy, or the lunacy of love, and the home he designed for his family is at once solid and reassuring, light and airy. It’s a happy place where big, multipurpose spaces both inside and out don’t so much contain the family as expand to accommodate its enthusiastic engagement with life, learning, and just hanging out.

But that’s the end of the story. Let’s start from the beginning.

Imagine architecture as a boisterous free-for-all among space, function, time, and budget, with the architect as referee. If all goes well, the contenders emerge from the fray energized and with a new respect for each other, and the ultimate outcome is a structure that looks effortless, blends with its surroundings, and provides a satisfying and functional place to be.
But wait. Just for laughs, add restrictive zoning, the challenge of an irregular site, and the zealous oversight of the Albuquerque Landmarks and Urban Conservation Commission to the brawl. Endure frequent knockdowns and pray real hard. If the planets align and the karma is good, you end up with the Calott family’s new house in Albuquerque’s Fourth Ward Historic District.

just the place
As an architect (with design firm Calott + Gifford Architecture/Urban Design) and urban developer (with Infill Solutions), Chris Calott regularly pulls off minor miracles. But building one’s own dream home in a historic district is not for sissies. For starters, the value of land in this urban El Dorado is difficult to divine.

“There hasn’t been any new construction here for 80 years,” Calott explains. “It’s unheard of to find a vacant lot.” He pauses a few beats to let that disappointment sink in before he triumphantly reveals his solution to the dearth of nearby terra firma: to subdivide an awkwardly shaped corner lot associated with a 1914 Craftsman style bungalow that he and his physician wife purchased several years ago.

It was a smart move, both artistically and politically. “The empty corner was sort of like a missing tooth,” he explains. His project was eventually hailed as a work of urban redevelopment. But even before he took pen to plat, the little house seemed meant for the Calotts. An adorable 1,300 square feet with an “Imperial Orange” door and Asian lines that honor his wife’s Chinese heritage as well as a few Greek touches acknowledging his own, the bungalow came with a detached guest house set back on the lot. The side yard extended east.

While Chris mulled the possibilities, the Calott family grew to welcome a baby girl, and 1,300 square feet no longer sufficed. The architect devised an imaginative subdivision of the extra land on his property, shearing off the east side of the deep lot to create two (at first approved for three) homesites facing a petitely charming park.

For his own new home, one house in from the corner, Calott drew the lot line to include the bungalow’s guest house. The less-than-orthodox perimeter is perfectly comfortable with the sometimes unconventional scheme of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is an eclectic amalgamation of mostly railroad bungalows tidily arranged around the park and varying in style from Craftsman to Classical Revival to the occasional Pueblo. Within walking distance, the more substantial presence of historic homes anchors the neighborhood and grounds the soul. Ancient trees flex their burly trunks in grotesquely beautiful configurations, and for the romantics among us, one-car detached garages, the occasional alley, and out-of-plumb walls spur the aching remembrance of things past.

new neighbors
Built by Joe H. Baca Construction, the Calotts’ new house is a white stucco two story with the weight and feel of these historic homesteads. It’s pushed forward on the lot to meet the park. Rather than competing with the master embellishments of the older abodes, Calott kept his design austere. And because the homes ringing the park are smaller, the architect felt it was important that the new lot next door also contain a house of substance with at least some common elements. “Our design would have stuck out like a sore thumb if we hadn’t created an ensemble of two,” Chris says.

Striking the right tone for an infill structure is crucial to the design’s success (and the neighbors’ approval). From the park, Calott points out some of the elements that made the sale with the neighborhood association and the Landmarks and Urban Conservation Commission: a front porch, sections of pitched roof, and a generous wall-to-window ratio in keeping with the other homes on the block.

The Chinese and Greek references in the existing house were serendipitous, but in the new house, deliberate design elements bring new meaning to the term custom built. Calott has employed a system of window screens adorned with an “ice crackle” pattern of steel bars—a classic Chinese design—that resembles tree branches and visually pulls in the park. (The screens will eventually rust, enhancing the home’s aging street cred.) A balcony over the entry porch sports “cat ears” where the wall angles up 30 degrees at both corners, a Greek design flourish that honors Calott’s roots.

inside the courtyard
After the extensive prologue, the architect finally swings open the door to Casa Calott. Through the screened-in privacy porch, the visitor arrives at what the family calls “the library.” Focusing immediately ahead, the eye reads that this is a courtyard home. It’s just a first glimpse at the coy interplay of inside and out that pervades the home.

In addition to its function as the anteroom of the domesticated Great Outdoors, the library is a large room, one side of which serves as a sitting area splashed with simple orange furniture and a dramatic geometric rug. The opposite side consists of a large table and bookshelves in white maple, the architect’s signature wood. “We call it the library, but on Thanksgiving, for example, it can serve as a dining room,” the architect explains. Its sleek, modernist feel adds to the adaptability of the space, lending itself to the activity du jour.

This willingness to improvise is just one indicator of a “let the good times roll” feeling created by lots of light, high ceilings, and open, fluid transitions from one large space to another. Not to mention a chorus line of plastic penguins arranged in front of a chartreuse wall beyond the flagstone courtyard. The colorful wall is Mexican Modern—the architect teaches annually in Mexico City. The penguins, on the other hand, are the second major brainchild of a family friend in Minnesota who invented Rollerblades. The blades were a big hit; the penguins, not so much. “He was sure they would become the pink plastic flamingos of the north,” Calott says with a laugh. The courtyard also features a fire pit: clearly Mexican Modern plays it cool until it erupts in well-placed hot, bold touches.

The courtyard is a major deal to the architect. “I love the Mexican concept of building a house around an outdoor space,” he says. Perhaps his young daughter senses the magic of being both inside and out at the same time. Under the courtyard’s partial cover would be a perfect place for watching the rain. An amazing confluence of brightly hued stuccos enlivens the backyard. Further back and off to the right, the guest house from the old bungalow awaits development, or redevelopment. Or whatever: these people are easy.

Back in the house, we follow the irresistible path to the room adjoining the library, which comprises the kitchen, an eating area, a very large play space, work stations, and more maple shelves. A modern fireplace anchors the far end of the space. The work of a particularly precocious artist is displayed around the room.

Just beyond the playroom, we find another pleasant surprise: this house has his and hers courtyards. While the alpha courtyard visible from the front door reflects the persona of Chris Calott, the side courtyard is actually an Asian garden, homage again to the woman of the house’s Chinese ancestry. The yard is planted with bamboo and highlighted with touches of “Imperial Orange”—and their daughter’s handprints in pink concrete.

outside the box
By this point in the tour, Calott, who is all about enthusiasm, nearly bursts with satisfaction. Not to rain on his parade, but his reputation as an urban planner kind of rides on the 800-pound elephant in the courtyard: how green is this house?

He grins, having planned for this, too. “According to the U.S. Green Building Council, location is the first principle of green design. It’s the very reason I became an infill architect and developer,” he says. “At heart, the house itself is a live/work space, but we also live close enough to my studio that I can walk. And, of course, we have incorporated abundant insulation and passive solar concepts throughout the design.” Another wise decision, green or otherwise, was using standard-size construction materials to create a custom look. “They’re the same stuff everyone uses,” he says, “except we’ve arranged them in unique ways.”

No space is wasted, either. As we climb the staircase to the second floor, Calott points out an under-stair pantry. Compared to the free-flowing nature of the first floor, the second floor is rather conventional, with three bedrooms arranged around the landing. But in the master bedroom a horizontal window wittily frames the neighborhood roofscape. The flat roof of the garage, onto which the bedroom opens out, is for the architect a sort of bonus. It may someday be a high-rise play space for the youngest member of the family.
In one corner of this expanse, a staircase leads down to the Mexican garden, where the fun starts all over again.

resources for this home

Janice Myers has been a writer and an editor for more than 25 years. Especially interested in architecture, art, and the concept of “home,” she regularly contributes to local and national publications on a wide variety of topics ranging from the mundane to the sublime.