A Breath of Fresh Air: Natural Materials Help Create a New Mexico Home

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Photo By Laurie Dickson
Robert likes to give his homes “a good hat and a good pair of shoes.” In this case, a four-foot roof overhang and stone wainscoting work together to protect the natural wall system from the elements. Rainwater is collected from the roof and stored in cisterns for Paula’s vegetable garden.

Paula Baker-Laporte considered her career as a residential architect many things–challenging, creative, satisfying–but dangerous was never one of them. Spatial relationships were Paula’s love; construction methods and materials selection took a backseat to the aesthetics of form. Then, several years ago, she joined the ranks of the chemically sensitive.

“It was a real mind blower for me,” says Paula, who traces her illness to formaldehyde exposure during a short stint spent living in a new mobile home. Suddenly, visits to job sites–where the plethora of chemical-laden building materials exacerbated her symptoms–were impossible, a threat to her health. “I thought, poor me; I’m sick, and I can’t be an architect anymore.”

Determined not to walk away from the profession that she loved, Paula began to explore healthy, ecological building techniques. She studied baubiologie (German words for “building” and “life”), a holistic discipline that includes the impact of buildings on human health. And eventually, she discovered the work of green building pioneer and teacher Robert Laporte, whose timberframe and straw-clay homes are the embodiment of safe, conscious, and aesthetically beautiful building. Paula immediately signed up for one of Robert’s workshops in Crestone, Colorado, where her perspective on building was completely turned about. “Working with Robert is more like cooking than building,” she says, describing a process that combines natural materials in simple, user-friendly recipes.

Paula left the workshop determined to collaborate with Robert. “I decided he needed an architect–even though he didn’t know yet that he needed one,” she says. “We’ve been together ever since.”

Setting their site

Naturally, once they’d hooked up romantically and professionally, planning a wedding and forming the Econest Building Company, Paula and Robert needed a home for themselves and Paula’s teenage daughter, Sarah. Robert set his sights on Tesuque, an idyllic hamlet just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where rolling hills and long vistas make for some of the Southwest’s prime real estate. Paula thought that would be lovely–and warned Robert that they certainly couldn’t afford it.

But Robert had faith. A realtor drove him out to a strangely affordable piece of land in Tesuque and was shocked when Robert actually got out of the car. “Most people took one look and said, ‘Take me to see another property,'” Robert explains. “It really was just a ditch. It was like a giant had taken his hand and clawed this south slope–gouged it. To the common eye, it really was just a wash.”

But Robert understood that this was to be his home the moment he set foot on the land. Where others saw problems, he saw possibility. The land was heavily eroded, but it was sheltered on three sides–an amphitheater that embraced the southern sun. Its severe slope made it ideal for capturing water. “The widest stretch of land was twenty feet, but there was something about this property that said–and this is going to sound romantic–but it said, ‘I need to be restored.'”

The couple devoted 20 percent of their development budget to just that. After consulting with permaculture experts, Robert and his crew hand dug and hand balled twenty-eight major trees, most of them pinons, and moved them away from the home site and into arroyos, to help check slow water flow from dams. Gabions–rock-filled chicken-wire cages–also slow the water and allow silt to collect. “Where there were deep scars, now there are wildflowers,” Paula marvels.

The dramatic site caused Paula to scrap her original design for the home, which the couple had consciously decided should be small and light on the land. “Building small is, by its very nature, ecological,” she says. To keep the footprint small, Paula had been designing two-story homes, but this site seemed to want to tuck in around the home on one story. “We didn’t want a structure that looked like a missile ready to launch,” Robert explains. “When you build in the mountains, it’s hard not to have that happen.”

In her design for the 1,360-square-foot home, which the couple dubbed The Peregrine, Paula relied on the timberframe structure to create well-defined spaces that open onto one another. She also borrowed a trick from the Japanese, using sliding shoji screens that can be left open for spaciousness or closed for privacy.

“I’ve always been drawn to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the practitioners of the Arts and Crafts movement, who were greatly influenced by Japanese architecture,” she says. “Getting to work with a genuine timberframer allowed me to explore the idea of simple lines.”

Building the framework

After they laid a foundation of insulated concrete forms, Paula and Robert hosted a workshop to build the timberframe skeleton out of sustainably harvested native white fir. “This is, by no means, the ideal timberframer’s wood, but being here in our own backyard, it was the ideal ecological builder’s wood,” Robert explains. “There is a little struggle of the heart. The timberframer wants stable wood– ideally, dry wood. None of the native species here dry without distortion. If you let the wood dry, you lose 50 percent of its substance, and it will twist, bow, distort. If you work with this wood, you pretty much work with it green–and you still get some shrinkage. But properly designed timber joinery will restrain the bulk of that movement.”

Robert, an aficionado of silky smooth Japanese hand-planing, was also sad to learn that the white fir did not plane well by hand. Instead, they had it machine-planed and left it bare. “When you oil or finish a frame, it makes the wood grain speak loudly; the flavor of this house is serene and quiet,” he says.

Running across the living room ceiling is a curved beam made from a ponderosa pine that Robert found in the forest. “The shape really echoed what Paula had designed,” he explains. “When I measured it, it was within a half-inch of her original drawing. The beam found us, really.”

True to Paula’s prediction, Robert began to understand how much he needed an architect as the timberframe came together. “The beauty of the design really started to shine,” he says. “I got such an appreciation for good design–and that’s my good fortune at this point in my career–working with Paula. I’ve built a lot of buildings, and when you put one all together, it can sing or it can just go together. This one was singing. And that’s such an inspiration to a builder–to be able to spend all that time pouring your heart into something and have it sing back to you; that really revolutionized my way of thinking about design. A properly designed timberframe not only helps define–but also celebrates–the spaces created by the architect. It is a collaborative process.”

Energy matters

The frame of the Laportes’ home was filled in with one-foot-thick light straw-clay walls made from local soils, which provide both insulation and thermal mass. Used in Europe for centuries, straw-clay walls are weatherproof yet porous and allow for the slow transfer of fresh air and moisture into and out of the home. The walls were covered with earth plasters tinted with copper carbonate, which makes for a green color in the bathroom, and with yellow iron oxide, which creates ochre everywhere else. Because the mud plasters are hygroscopic, taking in and giving out moisture to moderate temperature and humidity, they contribute to the even, comfortable atmosphere inside the house year round. Earthen and stone floors also moderate interior temperatures and humidity.

Oriented to the south, the home takes 60 percent of its heat directly from the sun. On gray or extremely cold days, a Tulikivi radiant fireplace, which stores heat within a soapstone mass and slowly releases it after the fire has gone out, provides additional warmth. The home is equipped with radiant floor heating, but Paula and Robert use it only in the bathroom. “We’ve never used the central heat in the main part of the home; I no longer like it,” Paula says. “I like it being really cold in some places, hot in some. The temperature variation makes me feel alive in the house.”

Robert points out that while the R-value of the straw-clay walls and the mass of the adobe surrounding the Tulikivi are all important, the home’s orientation and design are crucial to its energy efficiency. “In ecological building, you not only want to build a house with minimal impact, you want to build one that maintains itself with minimal impact,” he points out. “This house will last for 500 years, and if it’s an energy hog for 500 years, it will be condemned in hell. So if you build well–so that a house lasts longer–you have a bigger responsibility.”

Econest Building Company
P.O. Box 864, Tesuque, NM 87574
(505) 989-1813, www.econests.com