Su Casa/AIA Albuquerque Residential Design Award Winner

let it be

Hewing close to tradition, architect Sam Sterling creates a small masterpiece of New Mexico design.

This article first appeared in Spring 2007 Su Casa

Driving me down to see his award-winning renovated adobe house in Peralta, New Mexico, architect Sam Sterling takes the “scenic route.” He chooses the byways threading through the rural and architecturally chaotic South Valley below Albuquerque, where Mexican restaurants, zapaterías, mariscos stands, and the like eventually yield to broad alfalfa fields and crumbling adobe ruins. Shortly after passing under the interstate and running across the farms and marshlands surrounding Isleta Pueblo, Sterling veers onto a narrow, snowy, muddy road into the Pueblo proper, a warren of alleys and abbreviated driveways and homes of indeterminate but wide-ranging vintage. A late-model Corvette sits outside a mobile home. Slouching exposed-adobe dwellings lean like tired dogs against freshly plastered additions, while abandoned sheds—barns? houses? garages?—nearby melt back into their native earth.

Isleta bears little resemblance to, say, Taos Pueblo, the definitive multistoried, adobe-ladder-viga sequenced “apartment” pueblo that seems to capture in Anglo mythology all that is exotic, ancient, and mysterious about the native people who first settled the American Southwest. Rather, Isleta flaunts a “messy vitality” wholly real. It’s a place where people have lived a long time on the outskirts of the nation’s economic frontier. Their homes unconsciously express spontaneous responses to their needs: build on here, patch it up there, add new windows, shore up that wall with a coat of cement stucco. Life goes on. And on, and on. A hundred, two hundred, three hundred years of communal habitation have spawned a surprisingly harmonious yet seemingly random aggregation of buildings.

We splatter through the slushy puddles in Sterling’s anonymous Ford pickup. An engaging, articulate, and contagiously enthusiastic man, Sterling now can hardly contain his delight. He points left, he points right, he cranes his head to see back behind.

“They let each piece be its own thing,” adding on when they need to, he suggests. The walls of one home wear a coat of creamy stucco, another a gray scratch coat, elsewhere naked, bare terrón blocks slowly erode away, their embedded grass roots wavering like a stringy beard. “There’s been no attempt to unify the additions, to homogenize them,” he summarizes. He points to an older adobe, one room wide, its dimensions undoubtedly fitted to the natural spans of easily acquired vigas. “That stuff still influences me.”
As we round a final corner and bounce back toward the highway, Sterling grins over at me and says, “That’s the architecture course I took prior to remodeling the Peralta house.”

Besides this eyes-on course at the Pueblo, Sterling studied architecture as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico before earning a master of architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993. Starting in his student days through 2006, Sterling spent almost a dozen years in scattered stints with the firm of Antoine Predock, New Mexico’s reigning prince of architecture. With Predock, Sterling was executive senior associate on such prestigious projects as the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, the Flint RiverQuarium in Albany, Georgia, and the Ohio State University aquatic center. A Gallup, New Mexico native, Sterling also worked with leading New Mexico architects Jon Anderson and Barry Langford. Recently breaking out into practice on his own, Sterling has designed a collection of commercial and residential projects, including the Vista House featured previously in Su Casa (see “Homesites: Love where you live” in the Winter 2007 issue).

Thirty miles south of Albuquerque, nestled tight between the rising sand-and-gravel foothills on Isleta Pueblo and the broad, irrigated Rio Grande valley, Sterling’s award-winning Peralta house has been in the Aragon family of Sterling’s wife, Helen, for generations. Her father, Philix Aragon, was born here. In an old photo, Helen’s grandfather Alfredo Aragon holds a baby—no one is sure which one—outside the house. The sense of place and of herencia, or legacy, is palpable. Sterling didn’t approach the project to “flip this house.” He came to polish, to preserve, to renew an heirloom of great value, working closely with Philix (who also served as the “unofficial historian”) and with master adobe craftsman Isidro Serrano, “who is really responsible for the ‘craft ethic’ of the house,” Sterling says.

The AIA Albuquerque jury that gave the honor award to Sterling’s Peralta house was composed of two architects—Lee Gamelsky and Patrick McClernon—plus the recently retired director of The Albuquerque Museum, James Moore. (Look for other award winners in future issues of Su Casa.)
In announcing the award, the jury wrote: “The Peralta House by Sam Sterling honors the Hispanic vernacular architecture so typical of the middle Rio Grande valley in its simplicity, tranquility, and respectful response to the surrounding community.” The judges noted that the project has “the unadorned lines and simple furnishings of the original adobe structures in the area, from the raked dirt yard with minimal plantings to the glowing plaster walls inside.”

In his design competition submittal, Sterling wrote, “The intention of the renovation was to restore the house to its original material presence.” He says the project was “a subtractive process,” a matter of stripping away “improvements” made over the years to “just let the house be itself . . . or several selves. The challenge was to resist textbook ‘historic renovation’ and instead try to bring back some of the depth, richness, and sense of time in which it was created” by three successive generations of the Aragon family, with different needs and different materials at hand. “The perfect model” for this kind of organic growth, he suggests, is Isleta Pueblo—hence, our tour.

Being a hands-on kind of architect, Sterling and adobe craftsman Serrano did the renovation work, from top to bottom. It included the only strikingly updated element, a modern kitchen with maple casework and stainless steel appliances. Their simplicity fits the context. Arranged in a simple, truncated U, the kitchen sits just by the front door—which was once the back door, no doubt, but the increasingly busy road to the east has reoriented the house west toward its expansive yard. Out there, Sterling renovated the oldest building, a free-standing terrón granary dating to about 1900. He stripped the stucco to prevent trapped moisture from further eroding the mud walls, shored up one side with new stabilized adobes, reroofed it, and left the exterior unplastered. A porch roof and brick patio extending to the main house define a courtyard space. Inside the granary, now a studio, he poured a new earthen floor.

The studio sits perpendicular to the main house, forming the south leg of a disconnected L—one enters the property through a gate between the two buildings. This sheltered portion of the lot ends at a new stabilized-adobe wall to the west, beyond which Sterling has planted fruit trees and defined a circular parking area. New cottonwoods will someday bring deep shade into the turfless yard, where crusher fines maintain the vernacular treatment of outdoor living space typical of New Mexican villages in this arid climate.

Back inside, the house will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time in old New Mexico homes. Deep window openings and doorways, simply but elegantly covered in casement planks, reveal the double-thick walls (two courses of stacked adobes or terrones) of the oldest rooms. Sterling and Serrano finished all the interior walls with unsealed mud plaster and sandblasted the original wood ceilings; in one room, a series of milled 3 x 12 ceiling beams is interrupted by a sole viga, a raw, untooled log. They left wood floors intact where possible and replaced them with brick where they were damaged beyond repair. New Douglas fir doors match the originals.

As in most old adobe homes, hallways don’t exist in the Peralta house. “The room is the circulation,” Sterling points out, meaning to get from the kitchen to the main bedroom, you walk into the living room, then into the bedroom, which contains the only original closet. This space, a 1960s, wood-frame, Sheetrock-clad addition, once had caught fire, apparently without disastrous consequences. On the other side of the house, a 1940s wing of single-course adobe construction attached in-line with the kitchen now serves as an office, with a small bathroom. The ceilings and floors change from room to room.

His final results invisible to the eye, Sterling replaced all the major systems in the house: new electrical, new plumbing, and new heating and air conditioning using ductwork that he added in the attic, after first shoveling out a one-foot-thick layer of dirt, the traditional ceiling insulator one finds in all these old adobes. He also removed small aluminum windows that had been retrofitted in a previous remodeling, restoring the window fenestrations to their full height—big enough to walk through, with broad ledges for plants or seating at the sill.

Standing in the kitchen, you can see into most of the house. One interior view in particular epitomizes the classic New Mexico, grown-by-accretion home. The deep doorway into the living room, with its well-trodden, sagging plank threshold the width of a double-adobe wall, frames the next door in sequence connecting the living room to the main bedroom. This second doorway is offset considerably to the right of the first. It’s a view you can still see at Chaco Canyon; maybe the misalignment was unintentional, the result of some structural element that couldn’t be cut through to create an opening to the new room. Or maybe it’s intentional asymmetry.
Sterling stands with me a moment, admiring this untutored design element. Then he shrugs. “You have to resist those architectural urges to fix things up. I wanted to let them be the way they wanted to be.”