heaven can wait

From entertainment Eden to xeric oasis, exterior design gets personal at two unique expressions of at-home outdoor living.

This article first appeared in Spring 2010 Su Casa

Adam and Eve had the run of paradise. Marie Antoinette languished on the sculpted grounds of Versailles. And the Babylonians liked to hang out in their Hanging Gardens. Alas, all of those relationships ended badly—but if you mind your p’s and q’s, you can enjoy your own patch of heaven from here to eternity, give or take an eon.

Outdoor ecstasy is exactly what the owners of two distinctive Albuquerque homes have created: restful, fun, functional exterior spaces that address the needs and wants of their households. Shunning traditional landscaping (turf is so yesterday), the creators applied the same imagination to their outdoors that they brought to their interiors.

back to the future
Contractor Chris Donaldson, the owner of design/build firm Built, bought a ’60s-era house in the Altura Park neighborhood about three and a half years ago. Considered in its heyday to be a chichi part of town, Altura Park stretches from Indian School Road south to Constitution Avenue and from Morningside Drive east to Washington Street. It’s an area Chris knows well, having grown up just a few blocks away.

His first act was to gut the 3,700-square-foot house, a process that included exorcising the kitchen of avocado-green appliances and tearing down walls to open the floor plan. This living space opens up to an expansive deck overlooking the backyard. Chris transformed a lower level by ridding it of both the “basement rec room” stigma and a gargantuan wet bar of the type once coveted by every red-blooded American male. The room leads to a backyard patio covered by the deck.

Buying the home was a smart investment in many ways, not the least of which is that during the renovation, he met interior designer Katie Ebbens, who is now his girlfriend. Starting from Chris’ aesthetic of “functional necessities,” the couple introduced a palette of warm grays and browns, as well as streamlined shapes and sleek leather furniture. Interior surfaces are nature gone one better, with porcelain tile providing the solid feel of stone flooring and honed quartz countertops that look as deep and undisturbed as a forest pool.

One original element that’s remained is red oak flooring, which has been restored. The term accent hardly applies to the subtly nuanced walls Katie created with very slight gradations in neutral colors.

When it comes to yards, think Jekyll and Hyde. As the public face of a home, the front represents as much or as little as the owners choose to reveal about themselves. Especially in Albuquerque, where privacy walls are the norm, backyards are where folks tend to go for the gusto.

The front yard of the Donaldson home is low-key and poker-faced. The design/builder has minimized water use by generously topping the site with oversized stepping-stones (more like small pads of slate and concrete) that introduce the grays and tans of the interior. He surrounded the stones with artificial grass. Although the plants are traditional rather than drought-resistant, Chris has created a fairly sustainable, interesting, and appealing space without draining the aquifer. It’s a reflection of his growing interest in green building.

An abstract metal gate, an angular orange spider web, provides an exclamation point of color. This entryway, also designed by Chris, leads to the backyard. In fact, it’s becoming abundantly clear that all roads lead to the backyard.

Swing open the gate, and as you do, forget the cool elegance of the house and front yard. You are about to enter a microcosm of R&R that is fun, as in “I’m going to Disneyland!” Chris must be listed in the Guinness book under Most Amusements Squeezed into a Limited Space.

Amazingly, he’s done it tastefully. It’s kind of a Lilliputian cruise ship, between a three-hole putting green, a low-to-the-ground trampoline (which Chris uses to sharpen his board-sport skills), a rectangular pool (original but restored) with a waterfall, and the covered patio for entertaining. The walls are studded with myriad deep blue candleholders which, when lit, evoke the twinkling of fireflies in a town that simply hasn’t any. There’s a sitting area on the side of the pool where the cabana boy will bring your order (though it might be a long wait).

Even the deck recalls an ocean liner, with its metal guardrail and a no-nonsense metal staircase that connects the upper and lower levels without a hint of meandering. The only curves to be found in this yard, in fact, are the gentle bends in the putting green that separate the (artificial turf) fairway from the (artificial turf) green.

One can be forgiven for wishfully thinking party. Or for the less socially inclined, maybe just margarita.

the real old urbanism
Like Altura Park, the older homes in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill area have retained their resale value fairly well despite recent economic upheavals. This neighborhood is a veritable tabula rasa for people’s modest but well-tended dreams. Here a family of four seems to have recaptured the mellow memories of our collective childhood.

When the family moved to New Mexico five years ago, they instantly warmed to a 2,400-square-foot charmer that combines the residential neighborhood experience with proximity to fun places to shop and dine. It’s the epitome of new urbanism—except it’s the original old urbanism.

The Pueblo style house itself feels happily inhabited. Warmth emanates from its walls (one of which has been painted red) to its restored wood floors. The family’s two little girls sit shyly in their jammies, watching the action. It’s a timeless sort of allure, dated only by the home’s dinette set with red vinyl chairs, a whimsical (and child-hardy) reference to the ’50s and ’60s.

All of the updating, inside and out, was executed by the home’s previous owners, a surgeon and his wife, a designer. A freestanding partial wall in the master suite—a clever approach to using an awkward space—harbors a bathroom vanity. Decorative elements attached to each end make it a visual parenthetical comment. The master suite opens to the backyard.

If the yard at the Altura Park house is a garden of earthly delights, this is a garden of earthy delights. The backyard and the front are xeriscapes that forever put to rest the derogatory term zeroscape. Abundantly covered with plants that prosper on a stingy water budget, the yards were created in two phases, from 2001 to 2002 and 2004. There’s plenty to look at and experience.

Hunter Ten Broeck designed the backyard, which was installed by his company, WaterWise Landscapes. Hunter is dedicated to creating pleasing and functional landscaping that respects our climate and our unique ecosystem. He’s also active in water conservation through the Xeriscape Council of New Mexico, which has hosted an annual international conference and expo for the past 15 years. “The water in our aquifer is severely limited,” he says. But “water conservation is given far less weight in the USGBC [U.S. Green Building Council] points system than energy conservation.”

Respect is the foundation of all environmentally responsible projects. Without demolishing the existing backyard, Hunter added shade, color, scent, texture, and a winding path made of recycled bricks.

Although the yard is small, Hunter took what was a basic flat square and broke it into pieces, each of which has its own purpose. “It’s important to design to scale,” he says. A sturdy Southwestern pergola installed by the original owners provides a fine place to enjoy a cool beverage while surveying the lively but serene surroundings. It’s on a second level that predated Hunter, though he added boulder outcrops to soften the transition and give it a more natural feel.

There’s a small area for the girls to play on, planted with tall fescue sod and a swing set. Beyond the play area, a desert willow provides shade. At the far side of the yard, near the detached garage, lies a small garden patch where the family cultivates tomatoes, basil, and mystery watermelons (they’re unsure of the melons’ target size, but they seem a bit small).

Near the house, grapevines twist around a wooden portal, where they produce a fair bit of charm and a respectable number of grapes. This lower level makes use of water-wise creeping germander, which Hunter favors as a ground cover. There are Lady Banks roses, Texas red oak, and vitex, as well as a screwbean mesquite that is not as cold-hardy, for which Hunter created its own highly protected and very sunny microclimate.

At first blush, these two yards seem to have sprung from radically different imaginations: on one hand, you’ve got an outdoor-amusement paradise; on the other, a setting worthy of a drought-hardy Walden Pond. But not so fast. Both have made limited space feel much bigger by dividing it into metaphorical “rooms.” This is what Hunter accomplished, and it’s what Chris created by dividing his backyard Eden into virtual entertainment stations.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to make your small yard feel like the Great Outdoors, but by effectively applying this strategy, you should be able to create a great outdoors. So whatever your dream for your very personal hunk of real estate—from sculpture garden to apple orchard to petting zoo (check for zoning)—follow your bliss. Just promise that you’ll use water wisely.

resources for these homes

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