high desert modern

Just for her family, an Albuquerque architect creates a rambling contemporary showplace with warm livability and sun-worshipping outdoor amenities.

This article first appeared in Spring 2010 Su Casa

When I toured the home that architect Kira Sowanick designed to share with her husband and two boys, I’d hardly stepped in when she slid open a glass door and led me out back. We walked across a patio, down a few steps, around the pool, and past a fire pit to the far corner of the enclosed yard. It seemed we were leaving the place before I’d even arrived.

Intrigued, wondering why Kira had led me with such determination to this peripheral point, I turned back to survey the scene.

From this vantage at the lowest point in the walled-in yard, the house etches a complex geometry of lines against the sky. The forested crest of the Sandia Mountains peeks over the top. Indented and upthrust room blocks with deep overhangs play with light and shadow throughout the day. The compartmentalized outdoor spaces flow from a kitchen patio and barbecue area past a glass railing/divider, a second seating area, and a grassy yard bounded on the far side by a compact guest house. Elevation changes, glass railings, paved walks, and plantings create subtle separation among these zones. You could spend your whole day here without feeling any urgency to leave.

“The view from here back to the house was the focus for me,” Kira explains. And that focus came from her husband, Tony Baca, who was struck by inspiration on a trip to Palm Desert, California. “I was having more fun looking at the houses around the golf course than I was playing,” Tony says. The way those homes integrated well-designed outdoor living areas appealed to him. When he and Kira decided to build a new home, he wanted a place like that. At first Kira protested, saying, “This is Albuquerque!” And at 6,000 feet of elevation at the base of the Sandia Mountains, no less. Winter.

Then like any good architect, she pressed on, treating her own family as her client and keeping a few more things in mind than just the outdoors.

Kira and Tony had built a house a few years earlier, which was framed by their current builder, Woody Supple of Supple Homes. Tony had thought it would be the first and last house they would build from the ground up. But soon its shortcomings had become more obvious. They wanted a more useable yard and a pool, which wouldn’t fit on their existing property. They needed room and a floor plan that would suit their two boys, now 6 and 8, as they grew older from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood. Addressing these desires would shape their new home in the High Desert development of Albuquerque.

modern times
Kira holds a master of architecture degree from the University of New Mexico and spent several years working with the eminent architect Antoine Predock. She contributed to many of Predock’s large commissions in the 1990s, including buildings at Stanford University and Skidmore College in New York, as well as the Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts in Alto, New Mexico.

Those were heady times, learning from one of the greats, an innovative modernist and a man she clearly admires—witness her “Antoine Corner” upstairs, where she’s hung a collection of small watercolors by her former mentor. But fate arranged that she’d meet her future husband when Tony’s company, Southwest Glass & Glazing, bid on the glasswork at the Spencer Theater. Soon they were married, and Kira left Predock’s firm.

Today she considers herself a nonpracticing architect, though she maintains her firm, Exit Architects. She prefers to spend her time at home and being with her boys, Jayson and Will. Even so, she’s kept her hand in the game by designing her own homes, a home for a client, and buildings for Southwest Glass.

form and function
This new home expresses a sleek modern elegance while incorporating the outdoors into the life of the household in carefully orchestrated compositions. Inside, the house rambles and climbs and turns, creating an intriguing sense of discovery in the first-time visitor. The series of distinct spaces arranged by function makes for a livable house that manages to be impressive without taking itself too seriously. In this regard, maybe the defining space is the one not photographed: the boys’ “secret room” tucked under the stairs ascending to their bedroom wing. Here they can (and do) write on the walls, strew their toys about, and get away from the adults. Only a mom-architect would design such a space.

Kira applied this kind of empathetic thoughtfulness throughout the design. Spaces dedicated to specific activities define the layout of rooms while conforming to the slope of the lot, which rises 15 feet west to east across the span of the floor plan.

You enter the home by descending several steps from the street. Inside the front door, you pass through an abbreviated foyer, a long south-facing glass wall ahead, the living room and its north-side curtain wall to the left. Remember, Tony owns Southwest Glass. The company’s skillful work contributes to the home’s overall design statement. High-performance glass forms these dramatic view walls, and tempered acid-etched glass makes up indoor and outdoor railings.

Down the stairs to the right and separated by a hall are the kitchen and dining room. Keep going and you’ll reach stairs up to the boys’ bedrooms above the garage. Each son gets a spacious bedroom, private bath, and big closets connecting to each other through a laundry.

This upstairs wing includes a large play area partly open to the lower levels. The kid zone includes a television/gaming complex and a sleeper sofa. A tempered glass railing provides a view down into the kitchen.

room enough
Back in the entry area, if you take a left you walk along the glass wall through the living room, which terminates at a bar with a granite counter just outside the home theater. Reached by descending three stairs, it’s a dark, pleasant space, half-dug into the hillside, with shaded high windows on the east side and a not overly large TV nestled into streamlined mahogany cabinets on the south wall. In another era, this might have been called the den. The mahogany cabinetry throughout the home was designed in collaboration with Mark Sowers and built by Craig Sowers Cabinets.

A wine room occupies a bump-out in the north wall. Set into off-the-shelf wine racks from the Wine Enthusiast Company, a serving counter is backed by a glittering mosaic of shattered tempered glass by Erica Hoverter of Zoë Mosaic Designs.

If upon leaving the living room you’d gone straight, you would have climbed stairs to the offices, one for Tony, one for Kira, to the right and left. The view from Kira’s simply laps up the imposing cliffs and high canyons of the Sandias. If you had turned right at the base of the stairs, you would have reached the master bedroom, modest in scale and minimally decorated. The master suite includes a spacious yet spare bathroom and a large closet that includes another set of laundry facilities.

Back at the front door, if you’d taken a right down those steps and a quick left, you’d find yourself in the kitchen, which is tastefully trimmed with that clean-lined Craig Sowers cabinetry, bright granite countertops, and a lovely glass oversized-tile backsplash at the stove. Creamy pale yellow paint adorns the walls. And while you stand at the sink, you can look out the windows at the yard, the pool, the open space of the arroyo (no fences between the lots), the Sandias, a slice of the city, and even distant mountains to the southwest.

You also see the guest house, a compact cube with enormous views over the arroyo to the mountains. Kira designed it to accommodate her father, who frequently stays with the family. Floor-to-ceiling drapes cover not just the north window but the door too, providing complete privacy from the main residence.

inspired collaborations
For help with the interiors, Kira turned to experienced designer Lori Roybal, president of Pamela D. Earnest Interiors, involving her at early design stages before ground was broken for the foundation.

“Kira wanted to warm up the interior” to temper the oft-cited modernist tendency toward cold, hard spaces, Lori says. Together, they established a palette of golds, browns, and soft grays using fabrics, wood, and cozy furniture to complement the integrally colored, polished, and sealed concrete flooring on the ground floor. Cherry wood covers the stairs and the floors on the second level.

“In the dining room we got kind of crazy,” Lori jokes, citing the pumpkin hues enlivening those walls. A terra cotta vanity top in the powder room near the master suite sets the tone for the shattered tempered-glass mosaic dominating one wall. Exterior furniture and fabrics continue the modern theme and define five separate outdoor living areas.

Lori also worked with Kira in selecting rugs and fabrics, the oversized tiles from Ann Sacks in the kitchen, and the way-oversized ceramic tiles that clad the exterior walls by the front door. Together they selected furnishings, inside and out, and Lori’s upholsterer added cushions for the lounge set on the patio outside the kitchen.

building the vision
Builder Woody Supple had previously built homes at the other end of the style spectrum—classic New Mexico Pueblo style. After framing the walls on Kira and Tony’s previous home, the three found they worked well together. On this new house, Woody ran the whole job, a role that included fielding on-the-fly design changes while Kira and Tony addressed details.

An Albuquerque native, Woody entered the construction business after college in Tucson, then returned to Albuquerque in the mid-1980s. He started a framing company, working for many of the area’s top builders before becoming a custom home builder himself several years ago. Typically building one or two houses a year, Woody personally leans toward classic New Mexico architecture but found Kira’s modern house an enjoyable challenge.

All those straight lines and rectangles demand seamless precision—“there’s nothing round in that house; it’s like anti-adobe,” and those slick-finished drywalled surfaces “show every wrinkle and shadow,” he says. Likewise the extensive use of cantilevered canopies for outdoor shade and the demands of commercial-grade windows and vertically cantilevered glass railings added to the complexity of the project. But Woody delivered. Two decades framing houses paid off here.

Though some aspects changed during construction—things like parapet heights and exact window placement—Woody knew that Kira had the completed vision in her head from the start. “She knew what she wanted, knew just where she wanted to go, she just needed me to get her there,” he says, leaving it to him to handle structural details and to manage all the subcontractors.

pockets of coziness
Inside and out at Kira’s house, the architecture and design conspire to create pockets of coziness inside a large package. The home feels spacious but not voluminous, its proportions just right for Tony.

“When we were building, I thought it was huge, but now that we’re in it, it’s the perfect size,” he says. “We can hang out together, or separately—there’s always a place to be. It works for our family.”

As for Kira, she seems to love the design process as much as the final reality. “When I’m doing architecture, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, nowhere I’d rather be,” she says. “Tony was the driving force behind making this real and getting it built. I could have designed it for another year. You just want to work out all the details.”

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