A young Santa Fe couple embraces a new spin on the city’s signature style with an innovative green home inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s classic organic design.
The great room opens into the kitchen through a graceful arch, part of a vocabulary of curves articulated throughout the home.
Outside the front door, crisp stonework yields to a curvilinear overhang at the top of the wall.
The hearth's Chaco Canyon style masonry carries through a theme established at the home's main entrance.
In the great room steel beams and massive vigas from standing dead ponderosa pines fan out from a large central oculus, or circular skylight. A serene color palette sets off the homeowners’ art and creates a comfortable space for entertaining and family life.
When a young Santa Fe couple purchased a hilltop property with 360-degree views and room to build their dream home, they imagined a resource-conscious, energy-efficient house that would allow them to walk the talk they’d grown up with. Raised with terms like carbon footprint and renewable resources, they had a strong desire to help reestablish a world in which they would want their own children to grow up.
Now the couple has young children, and their new home is a reflection of their earth-friendly intent. Beyond that, it is one example of how Santa Fe’s strong design tradition meets its forward-thinking environmental sensibility—the 400-year-old city stands at the forefront of the green-building movement, notably demonstrated through its new residential green building code, which took effect in July 2009. This home is also a testament to legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s early 20th-century vision of organic architecture, a style in which design, materials, land, lifestyle, and aesthetics intimately interconnect in a natural and self-sustaining logic, just like nature’s structures themselves.
That Wright’s principles are at the heart of the home’s design is no accident. The couple hired Austin, Texas-based architect John Covert Watson, who apprenticed with Wright more than 50 years ago. Watson’s firm, Biostructures, continues to express Wright’s philosophy of sensitivity to, and inspiration from, the natural world. These days that credo is inseparable from a cutting-edge vision of green-built design.
With more than 4,700 square feet of heated space, the home required a combination of complex and highly sophisticated heating, cooling, and water systems to keep its carbon footprint to a minimum. Electricity comes from a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array in the yard, which the homeowners estimate will produce about 90 percent of their electrical needs. At times they could sell extra power back to the utility company.
The home achieved the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold certification, which is the program’s second highest rating. Certifiers using the internationally recognized system take into account factors such as home size, projected energy and water use, carbon emissions, indoor environmental quality, and the use of renewable, reclaimed, and locally obtained resources.
The home also earned an impressively low score of 22 in a projected energy use analysis using the certified Home Energy Rating scale (HERS), established by the national Residential Energy Services Network. The scale rates a reference home at 100 and a zero-energy-use home at 0.
In addition to their green-building objectives, the homeowners, who own Verve Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, wanted their home to be beautiful and function well as an entertaining space and as a family space. “We wanted to reflect organic architecture and the blending of traditional and modern,” the wife relates. “We didn’t want cold modern, because this is a family home. We wanted a warm, inviting space.”
When Watson and the couple first walked the building site together, it held an aging ranch-style house whose asbestos level made it uninhabitable. That house was leveled, only two trees on the lot were cut, and many more were planted. “The initial idea with the lot was to have a house with one central space to capture all the views,” the husband explains. “We wanted a large entertaining room and also private, more intimate living spaces. The first design John came up with was very close to what we ended up with.”
The central octagonal space makes up the great room, with arches framing three large windows; a fourth arch opens into the kitchen wing. A central feature of the great room is an oculus, or circular skylight, that “allows the sun and moon to incorporate their solar and lunar magic,” as Watson puts it.
Encircling the oculus on the ceiling is a tubular black steel support, which follows and continues the lines of a convex-curved fireplace built with Anasazi style flagstone bricks. Like rays from the sun, black steel radial beams fan out from the center along with massive vigas from standing dead ponderosa pines found in the Jemez Mountains.
The steel beams form the supporting structure for the roof. Each beam ties into vertical steel structures around the periphery of the room, but these supports hide inside the “arch trees,” or gracefully fluted forms finely finished with natural clay plaster. The effect is dramatic, clean, and open, reflecting Wright’s—and Watson’s—goal of creating a space that feels sheltering, yet where indoors and outdoors visually flow into each other.
The home’s acoustic environment was given thoughtful consideration as well. The great room ceiling is fitted with (LEED-approved) Tectum acoustical panels partially concealed by fishbone-patterned cedar slatting. Interior walls also contain soundproofing. “Especially in this size space, with so much glass, hardwood floors, and little kids running around, it makes a big difference in livability to have a space that absorbs, rather than reflects, sound,” Watson explains.
Acclaimed Santa Fe–based custom builder Wolf Corporation constructed the home, which took two years to complete. General manager Peter C. Handler notes that among the project’s most interesting challenges was the level of precision required for interfacing diverse materials, including the steel superstructure, load-bearing wood elements, special soundproofing, and exceptionally high R-value roof insulation. In addition, Wolf Corporation’s carpentry shop fabricated the custom cabinetry and doors, and the company’s masons achieved the fine Anasazi style veneer stonework.
“Our clients’ commitment to truly extraordinary energy efficiency was the wellspring for our mission,” Handler says. “The home is just state-of-the-art—and science—in New Mexico. There is nothing comparable in sustainable residential construction and energy independence.”
With few straight lines in the design, Wolf Corporation’s project foreman, Franklin Sena, “had nightmares about the plans,” the wife says. “But he was just incredible every step of the way.” Her husband adds that Sena managed each aspect of the challenging project “seamlessly.”
The kitchen wing, children’s wing, and master suite radiate from the home’s central space. A bath connects two children’s bedrooms. A third bedroom originally intended as a guest room was reenvisioned as a baby’s room when the couple learned during construction that their third child was on the way. “The third bedroom suddenly got a ‘toddler-guest-fusion’ design,” the wife says with a smile.
Working with Jeff Fenton, vice president and interior design manager for the Santa Fe–based firm ACC, the homeowners extended their green-building goals into their choices in furnishings and interior design throughout the home. Whenever possible Fenton guided them to local artisans, locally procured and recycled or sustainably produced materials, and companies known for environmentally friendly practices and products.
For example, several tables were hand-crafted by local woodworker Roger Atkins. Glass tile mosaics in the baths are by Albuquerque artist Erin Adams, who often uses recycled glass. All the home’s hardwood floors are oak reclaimed from an old Virginia barn, while cherry, walnut, and other solid wood for custom doors and furniture came with a Forest Stewardship Council guarantee of sustainable forestry practices. All paints, stains, sealants, and other interior materials were chosen for their nontoxic qualities. “The whole green-built aspect was really a fun challenge for me as interior designer,” Fenton says. “Plus, the homeowners have a strong aesthetic interest, so it was great to combine those two elements.”
Unseen behind the home’s elegant face, numerous energy-saving aspects factor into the design and materials. But the real brawn of the home’s daily functioning sits behind a rustic coyote fence on one side of the property—a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic array, the largest private PV system that can be tied into the grid through Public Service Company of New Mexico. The panels are intended to provide most, if not all, the home’s electricity. “We wanted the array to be the last thing visitors see,” the husband remarks.
While electricity is generated through the array, the sun also provides much of the home’s heating and cooling. Jay Maze of Dahl Plumbing in Santa Fe designed a large geothermal heat pump system, which was installed by Universal Plumbing and Heating. The system essentially taps into warmth stored in the ground. (Both the solar and geothermal systems qualify for federal and New Mexico state tax credits.)
The geothermal system uses city water in addition to water collected in a 15,000-gallon cistern buried underground. Internal roof drains gather about 98 percent of the rainwater that lands on the roof to be used for landscaping and irrigation. For about a month in late summer and early fall the system draws warmth out of the cistern water, rather than the earth, for domestic hot water. Having the geothermal field shut down for a time allows the sun to regenerate the ground’s warmth. Electricity to run the geothermal system (as well as the house) comes from the solar array.
“The homeowners were there and involved from the first dig in the ground,” Watson says. “They know where all the pipes and wires are, which is especially impressive with a building as complex as this one. It was the most thrilling thing, to work with a young couple who want to do the right thing.”
“We both grew up with the sensibility that we need to take care of the earth,” the wife reflects. “To do it in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing, that’s exciting to us.”
Gussie Fauntleroy writes about homes, art, and architecture for national and regional magazines. Her own homes have included a Virginia log cabin, Paris apartment, and a Crestone, Colorado, passive solar residence.