By Paul Weideman

he renovation of a former Albuquerque Journal building for a high-tech workshop called the Levitated Toy Factory won DNCA Architects the top “Honor Award” in the annual design awards of the American Institute of Architects-Santa Fe.

“When we first went to see the building, it was one of those warehouses where you enter and the heart of the building was completely dark, pitch black, almost a sensory-deprivation chamber,” said the firm’s Devendra Contractor. He worked with Deirdre Harris, also of DNCA, to open up the space with skylights and light monitors.

In their entry for the AIA awards program, they wrote that the revitalized building “engages the growth of downtown Albuquerque while preserving its presence in an established urban context.”

The architects maintained the 6,000-square-foot building’s existing brick and structural steel, but increased its functionality and drama with new interior spaces, modernized windows, and a wraparound shade canopy loaded with photovoltaic panels. The PV array, arranged as a design feature rather than having the usual “add-on” appearance, takes care of all the factory’s electrical needs, including 3D printing and laser-cutting labs.

“It’s kind of a flexible program and the design reflects that as the client’s needs change, the use of the building changes,” Contractor said of the project that was completed in March 2014. “It was quite an extraordinary project for an exceptional client.”

The website of the Levitated Toy Factory shows art designs, many of which — including “Holy Cubes,” “Geodesic,

and “Life Stars” — possess architectural qualities. “What they’re doing right now is a little different,” Contractor said. “The client is, in my mind, one of the great digital artists of our time. I believe he continues to use the space for his digital explorations.”

We asked Contractor how DNCA has been doing in COVID times. “We’ve all been working at home, adapting to Zoom. We spend hours on Zoom. It’s kind of exhausting,” he said. “When the pandemic started, I thought I was going to get so much done, but some meetings are longer than in-person. But we’re all doing well.”

DNCA a few big projects on the horizon. One is the new Vladem contemporary art museum in Santa Fe. He said he expects that the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs will be making an announcement soon about that construction project. The other two are medical clinics for UNM Hospital, one for movement disorders and one for senior health. They will be connected and will be similar to what DNCA did with the Renal Medicine Associates building a few years ago.

“That was kind of an exploration in how to change the clinic typology where you go into the lobby space and then the clinic is almost a labyrinth and has a disorienting quality. So we introduced courtyards into the center of the building, so you have a good sense of view and you can orient yourself to the landscape. We’ve had lots of calls from the doctors and others saying that just going in there makes them feel better, which is a huge compliment. So we’re trying to do the same thing on these two new clinics.”

Another winner in the 2020 AIA-Santa Fe awards couldn’t be more different. It’s The Starship and it won the “Innovation Award” in the program’s conceptual category. It’s a design by the Santa Fe firm Autotroph for a 9,500-square-foot “transportable community hub.”

The project statement by Autotroph principal Alexander Dzurec and his client, Tim Schwartz, says, “With political tension, natural disasters and systems breaking down all around us, mobility is our greatest insurance policy. Behold the Starship! A sustainable, off-grid, mobile, community concept.”

It looks like a flying saucer. The base, more than 100 feet in diameter, is a structure of prefabricated steel floor units on concrete ballast pads. The primary building modules are modified 20-foot shipping containers. Everything bolts together, including a series of masts for the tensile-fabric roof, which is assembled on the floor deck; then self-hoisting winches on the masts hoist the roof into place. At center top is a glass geodesic dome for daylighting the large interior space (See photo on P. 7)

“This is an actual project,” Dzurec said. “We have a paying client who engaged us to do this work. We’ve been working on it for a few years. Tim is looking at climate disruptions and the fact that there’s a large workforce now that doesn’t have to go to work. He calls them ‘digital nomads,’ so this is a base camp for a digital nomad community.”

Surrounding the Starship will be a small village of campsites for nomads to inhabit during their stay.

The structure includes a 92-kilowatt PV system, graywater and blackwater treatment facilities, 6,000 gallons of rainwater collection storage, and a greenhouse for food production.

“We do have the ability to house people as well. We have flex units that have roll-up garage doors to open into the main space, and there are murphy beds. Then on the upper level there’s a collar that wraps around for that flying saucer appearance and it yields bonus rooms on the outside of the flex spaces. When you move, you can break down the roof elements and the rest of the containers are stand-alone units that can be loaded onto a truck or train.”

It looks and sounds far-out, but it may be a practical, and feasible, solution for living, gathering, and working.

Autotroph also won a “Merit Award” for its La Molina residence in Lamy. The custom house on 140 acres utilized rammed earth, colored concrete, and rusted corrugated metal “to harmonize with the tones of the site’s native soils,” according to entry materials. Projecting sunshades of perforated steel provide solar protection for the large windows framing views out to the landscape of the Galisteo Basin Preserve.

The client is an equestrian. “When we planned out the site, we had to think about the horses almost as much as about her,” Dzurec said. “For example we put in a wandering paddock, which is basically just a roped-off path, so the horses can somewhat roam freely but within the confines of the roped-off area and we ran it right by her bedroom patio, so she could literally walk out her door and greet her horses.”

The project also included twin casitas of contemporary design and substantial equestrian facilities: stables with a tack room and hay storage, and an arena.

The owner was interested in rammed earth, so Dzurec was able to reference “Modern Ruin,” the house he did with owner Zane Fischer and which took the top prize in the 2012 AIA-Santa Fe design competition.

The exterior of La Molina — named for the windmill that remains from the property’s ranching time —is about protection from sun and wind, but the interior is all about warmth and comfort. “The rammed earth works for both,” Dzurec said. “It’s a rugged material but it is made from earth so it has a warm color palette, as do the exposed wood joists. And all the interior walls that are not rammed earth are covered with earthen clay plaster.”

Autotroph’s Luca Marino Baker was in charge of interiors and also served as project manager for the job, completed last June.

The rammed earth, like adobe, is not a good insulator. But it offers excellent thermal mass, particularly when the walls are two feet thick like these. The earth walls absorbs heat in the daytime and radiate it at night. “We also have a geothermal heat pump system. We’re operating close to carbon-neutral on that project.”

Other green elements include a photovoltaic array, a 10,000-gallon rainwater-storage cistern, and a blackwater treatment unit to supply additional irrigation water.

Aaron Bohrer, Archi-Scape, won an AIA “Merit Award” for 1713D Montaño Street, a house for himself and his wife, Dalinda (Dee) Bangert and their son, Chantz. Located on a city infill lot, the house, completed in 2015, is just 1,254 gross square feet.

“We were coming from a 700-square-foot condominium that Dee had, so when we got to the house immediately it was about space. It’s 500 square feet larger and we could do a bedroom for Chantz.”

The contest entry describes it thus: “Along the street, a high wall is designed to add monumentality. A void in this metal clad wall signals the entry into a sky garden courtyard. The living room is composed of two rooms, one interior and one exterior. [At the junction] a six-foot roof projection provides shade and protection from inclement weather while visually extending the interior space outdoors.”

Windows at the usual height are absent, but there are rows of clerestory windows for plenty of natural light. “The house has a magical, heavenly quality because of the clerestory windows that just filters in light that changes during the year,” Bohrer said. “Chantz’s bedroom has one window facing out into that green entry courtyard. The room is filled with light from the clerestory windows that are vented to allow hot air to escape in the summertime.

The materials palette is interesting and pleasing. “It’s funny what you collect when you walk around as an architect, but years ago, La Montanita Co-op had gray metal and bright green stucco that I really loved. It no longer has that, but it was very striking. As memory serves, when Dee and I selected the gray metal, I wanted something bright and contrasting. So that becomes our sky garden. It’s a cloistered space, just green walls all the way up to the beautiful blue sky.”

The house won a “Gold” certification from the LEED green-building program, so the power bills are very low. The home is on the small side, but Bohrer and Bangert love it. “When we went into lockdown last spring and all three of us were home, we found it very comfortable,” he said. “Part of it is just having the three doors that look into the courtyard and feeling like you have that relationship with the exterior every single day. It has been a real delight.”

Bohrer gleaned a second kudo, a “Commendation Award,” for the master suite addition he did at 110 Circle Drive.

“The existing house design missed opportunities to include the site’s more sublime qualities,” according to the PowerPoint entry. “Therefore, this 586 square foot master suite addition incorporates more of the property’s natural features by introducing exterior rooms as the dominant design objective.

“The addition leverages existing site grades and property boundaries to create lofty interior ceilings while respecting the home’s existing roof line. a colonnade wall extending into the garden defines the master sitting room as both indoor and outdoor space.”

That roof line was an important fulcrum for the design.

“We wanted to maintain that low-slung roof. That’s what makes it an unusual project,” Bohrer said in a recent interview. “It’s a stucco wall but it has a good three-foot overhang, a more modern gesture. We wanted to extend those rooflines and that became a horizontal datum line, not to exceed that height. That’s where dropping down in grade and getting a story-and-a-half space in the sitting room was real advantageous.”

His clients came from New York and bought this house, which Bohrer said has “some nice bones” but had lost its original design integrity with various renovation projects over the years. “The whole idea was to try to bring back the original sort-of ‘Santa Fe Midcentury Modern’ idea.”

The three-year job included renovating the house, building a guest wing, and redoing the kitchen and a bathroom. Bohrer fashioned two twisted clusters of poles (one load-bearing and the two others essentially props) to hold up roof elements at front and rear. “I’ve recently been playing with the idea of multiple poles or columns supporting corners for a little bit of relief,” he said.

Another standout feature is the glassy bathtub alcove that projects out from a wall of the home. “It’s kind of a different place to take a bath,” Bohrer said with a laugh, “but the intimacy of that site, just trees, afforded an opportunity for bathing in nature.”

Appropriate to pandemic limitations, AIA Santa Fe formulated the 2020 design awards ceremony as a digital event, held on Dec. 17. There were 15 entries: 12 built and three conceptual. The jury chair this year was Marc Appleton, principal of Appleton & Associates Inc. Architects, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.

During the ceremony, AIA-Santa Fe executive director Tom Spray received a special accolade, the Architectural Service Award. Event chairwoman Beverley Spears, FAIA, said Spray “has been steadfast in his understanding of the needs and operations of our chapter. He has tirelessly and gently guided us in every aspect of our chapter’s activities, finances, and responsibilities.

“He is always there for us and has the diplomacy to treat everyone with respect and equanimity. His grace and humor, kindness, and wisdom make serving on the executive committee a pleasure.”

AIA Santa Fe put together a splendid website, where you can find more photographs, plans, and detailed information about the award-winners and the other entrants. See

Writer/Editor of Real Estate Guide

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