By Paul Weideman

The historic house at 518 Alto Street is remarkable for a reason that in the past was not remarkable at all in Santa Fe: its exterior wall facing the street has a traditional mud-plaster finish. Earthen plasters have to a great degree been abandoned in favor of the more maintenance-free cementitious and elastomeric stuccos.

The home known as the Donaciano Vigil House also sports a high-performance natural wall system in the new dining-room addition. The rest of the house is adobe, but the addition is light straw clay.

That’s a material that architect Paula Baker and her builder husband, Robert LaPorte, were using in their Econest houses in Santa Fe during the 2000s. But those were in Santa Fe County. “This is the first permitted light straw clay project in the city,” contractor Scott Cherry said during a recent visit to the Vigil house. “And we have light straw clay IRC code now that I helped write with Paula.”

The house is a nifty blend of old and new, going back some two centuries. The “recent” additions before Cherry’s include the windows and a door that were salvaged from the old Loretto Academy by artist and architect William Lumpkins, who purchased the home in 1946; and the huge, Mexico-influenced wooden gate and zaguan that were added at the street entrance to the house by Charlotte White and Boris Gilbertson after they bought it in 1958.

Cherry, who has the firm Lightfoot, Inc., redid the floor and fireplace in the distinctive sala, which is one long room facing on Alto Street. “The sala has taken a lot of different forms,” he said. “I think it was always one room, but it once had portál off the front and a wood deck, with various doors. The zaguan and this portál are historical fantasy from Charlotte and Boris. People come in here all the time and say, ‘Oh! Can’t you just picture the wagons and the horses coming in through that big gate?’”

“It has materials appropriated from other buildings and it’s been altered a ton. And if you read their book [Within Adobe Walls, A Santa Fe Journal: Selections from the Charlotte White Journals, edited by Corinne Sze], the back section wasn’t finished until the late 1980s.”

But that layering just adds interest. “It’s awesome,” Cherry responded. “That’s part of its history, that it’s changed so much.”

Owner Christopher Watson said, “To me it’s a piece of vernacular architecture that just kept evolving and that’s what vernacular architecture does, especially adobe. I love the fact that they [White and Gilbertson] sourced bricks from the old state penitentiary.”

This is an unusual house, the two parallel sections separated by a courtyard and with some common walls with the neighbor houses at 516 and 524 Alto. It is thought to have been built in 1832 and to have been the home of Donaciano Vigil, a secretary of the New Mexico Territory.

“He also became interim governor for a short time after Charles Bent was assassinated in 1847,” Watson said. “As to that 1832 date, the historical information is varied. It could have been built in the late 18th century and maybe later than 1830s.

“And it’s questionable whether he even lived here. There definitely was a deed that his parents left to him and it may be this property. But Donaciano was an incredibly intriguing historical character and an important character in terms of the transition of the territory, and that’s enough.”

The Donaciano Vigil House was long owned by the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. “For the people who take on these houses, the maintenance is a real job, a labor of love,” Watson said. “It was an impulse buy; I never thought the place would be on the market.”

Cherry called the renovation and addition project “a huge scope of work. It was a gut remodel.” Part of it involved cutting through the courtyard to install a new sewer line. “These cobbles you see all around are from an old riverbed. It wasn’t a nice, clean trench. It was cobble-infested, extraordinarily challenging.” His crew replicated the existing brick coping that are on two of the walls facing the courtyard on a third wall. On the south building, they added a door, removed a window, and added a fireplace that was inspired by a square fireplace in Georgia O’Keeffe’s house.

“The most extensive change we did was to that building’s south-facing elevation,” Cherry said. It was all plexiglass panels and we’ve replaced it with a John Gaw Meem Los Poblanos-inspired conservatory-type wall of glass.” Along the top are operable transoms for good ventilation.

The dining room and adjacent hallway were designed around a beautiful apricot tree just outside.

The heating and kitchen appliances were previously all gas-fired, but the gas has been disconnected. The new house is all solar electric, with rooftop photovoltaic panels and an electric boiler. It is anticipated that excess power generated during the summertime will build up credits to be used in the winter, with net-zero metering the goal.

However, from a building standpoint, the light straw clay is the most interesting part of the story. The material, a natural, breathable insulation, is is stuffed into a wood frame structure. First, it has to be prepared.

Cherry sourced his high-quality clay from California.

It’s extremely high quality. “If I was going to harvest dirt from this site, there would be 30 percent clay at best and I’d have to get all the rocks and sand and silt out. When you buy a bag of clay at Santa Fe Clay, it’s not 100 percent clay; the majority of it’s silt. For this high-performance light straw clay, you need mineral material with more than 40 percent clay by weight. In our light straw clay wall, 90 percent of the volume is air.”

Cherry built a high-shear disperser to mix the powdered clay with water to make slip. Then it’s pumped through a tumbler machine that was invented by the late architect Alfred von Bachmyr, and the straw is mixed into the clay mix.

“It is more expensive, but you get a nontoxic wall with a great ability to manage moisture,” Cherry said. He explained that in a typical house wall, hot, moist inside air goes into the wall through outlets and gaps in the drywall, hits the plywood in the wall, and condenses to create perfect conditions for mold growth.

“But clay is hydrophilic. Any moisture that gets is absorbed and dispersed to the next available dry clay particle. There’s no barrier for it to collect on. Also, clay is used in holistic agriculture for pest control. If you’ve ever had clay on your hands, it dries you out. Bugs and rodents don’t like it.”

The main reasoning behind using the light straw clay is that it accepts an earthen stucco system, Cherry said. “If we had built this addition using adobe, in order to meet model energy code we’d have to add a couple inches of foam on the outside to get the insulation value. And to put earthen stucco on the outside of that, it would really be a faux job.

But on this light straw clay, the stucco is part of the breathing natural wall system. And these walls have insulation factor of R-22.

“This is a high-performance natural wall.”

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