The real-estate market in Santa Fe now is very slow compared with that of the pre-recession mid-2000s, but new houses are being built here and there. An especially active segment is for smaller contemporary homes, according to Gabriel Browne, the principal of Praxis Architects. His 1,615-square-foot residence for James David and Gary Peese fits the description. It’s basically contemporized Santa Fe style, with sharp-edged corners, silver anodized-aluminum windows, and a casita stuccoed a deep gray-green.

Inside, the house — which received the annual Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects-Santa Fe on Dec. 12 — exhibits some dramatic flair. One example is the staircase. The clients, who are fans of the Dutch designer Axel Vervoordt, “had a vision of what they call ‘elemental,’ so they didn’t want veneers or what I call thin finishes,” Browne said. The staircase is simply composed of thick slabs of wood and sheets of black steel, with two bends. “We called it the origami staircase because the vision is of a long, thin piece of steel that sort of wraps upward.”

There’s an interesting story behind the house, on Hadisway Avenue in the Fort Marcy area. One day, after more than a year of planning work, Browne was standing with the clients on their lot. He had discovered that the area was still zoned for 21 units per acre and mentioned that this would permit the owner of the neighboring lot to tear down the two old, existing buildings and put up six new units — right across from the clients’ main view-window.

David and Peese asked the architect to keep an eye out in case that lot came on the market. They departed and, just 20 minutes later, a Realtor friend approached Browne. “It was Dia Winograd. She was my neighbor when I was 7 years old, growing up in Dixon,” Browne said. “I asked her what she was doing there, and she told me she was about to list that lot. It turns out it was owned by other old hippie friends of ours from Dixon. Their grandmother had lived in the house there.”

The clients probably hoped to be able to purchase the lot in a few months, or perhaps weeks, but Browne called them barely a half-hour after they left, and they ended up buying it. The job on the new lot involved remodeling both a concrete-block casita and a 1960s adobe main building, a house that Browne described as “classic hippie-built.”

Is that just a casual descriptive term, or is it something that qualifies as a style? “I have a Ph.D. in hippie-built, and I think it’s a vernacular,” Browne said. “It adopted the vernacular techniques but added decorative flourishes that are unique. That was very much what was going on when I was growing up in Dixon, between 1969 and maybe 1985, when I went away to school. You weren’t an adult until you built your own house.”

Another handmade house, one that boasted a personality best described as ultra-eclectic, was the subject of a singular “renovation” that brought a 2013 AIA-Santa Fe Merit Award to Spears Architects. This was the 1930s building known as Seton Castle, the home and education center of famed naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton. It burned down in 2005, two years after the property was purchased by the Academy for the Love of Learning.

“The fire totally decimated the building, but the stone walls were still standing,” said Beverley Spears, who won the award for her design work to stabilize the castle ruins. “The site was cleaned up, but then the academy had the decision about what to do with the ruins. It was decided to stabilize them and keep that as a memorial to Seton but also as almost a standing sculpture for meditation and certain events. One two-story wall is kind of on a hillside, so it was a rather complex situation.”

Her additions often served more than one purpose. One example was stabilizing the walls of the former library, which was the heart of Seton Castle. This was done with hefty, hollow steel tubes placed to recall the vigas that had burned. Similarly, the west-facing porch was rebuilt in rugged steel, and plate steel was employed to line windows — both for support and appearance.

“The question was how to stabilize the walls for safety and permanence and make the space navigable, usable,” Spears said. “There was a lot that went into it structurally, and we wanted to be in keeping with the original house.”

The second of three Merit Awards was given to Krupnick Studio for its Freeman residence in Corrales. “The interesting thing about this and all my projects since this one is that I fully engage the client as a design partner,” Michael Krupnick said. “Instead of being the great architect with all the grand ideas, we sit down as a team all the way through.”

His clients, an engineer and a sustainable-building consultant, had a pretty solid idea of what the home would be. It had to be durable, green, and maintenance free. They and the architect came up with the concept and floor plan in two days. Details of appearance took a few months to iron out.

“Aesthetics comes second, but it’s the only thing that matters in the end,” Krupnick said. “My idea of green is that if it’s not beautiful, it’s not green, because it’s going to get torn down. I saw way too many awesome ’60s adobes with solar sunrooms and Trombe walls that were so ugly that everyone tore them down as soon as they could.”

The Freeman house has lots of insulation and solar panels and was awarded the highest LEED for Homes certification, Platinum. “It’s an awesome house: humble, clean, green, and soft and sexy in some areas. It looks and feels like concrete block, and that fits into the neighborhood, with corrugated metal and concrete block and pipe fencing around the property.

“The clients wanted an award-winning, fun architectural piece [which includes a 19-foot cantilevered roof off the kitchen and dining room], but the neighbors say it looks like a horse barn. It’s exciting that it worked out so well.”

The third AIA-Santa Fe Merit Award recipient was still farther afield — a residence in St. George, Utah, by Archaeo Architects, Santa Fe. A set of very rigid covenants in the Kayenta subdivision made this a challenge. “They virtually don’t want the houses to be seen, so there’s a 12-foot height restriction and many stylistic restrictions,” said Jon Dick, Archaeo’s principal. “You can’t even have an exposed bulb visible from the exterior.”

The house is essentially in the Santa Fe style. “I gestured to the historical vernacular of the hacienda courtyard. I tried to break up the massing to make it look as if there are several structures collected around a courtyard, but in fact it’s all one.”

Dick’s strategies for admitting views of the area’s tremendous red-rock formations and bringing light into the abode are the use of broad, butt-glazed corner windows and, in other places, narrow windows that extend upward and transition into skylights.

The architect pushed for traditional pigmented plaster on the interior walls. Nobody in St. George does that, and the team ended up using Santa Lucia Plasterers (Gustavo Duran) in Santa Fe. “The floors are pigmented concrete, but in the kitchen they’re black walnut. We found some monks in the northeast who harvest the walnut environmentally, using horse and wagon, and the clients loved that.”

AIA-Santa Fe awarded honorable mentions to three projects: College Town, a 129,000-square-foot residential/commercial project near Florida State University in Tallahassee, by Krupnick Studio; the rebuilding of the historic, fire-damaged Santo Domingo Trading Post by Spears Architects; and the new Santa Fe Trails bus shelters by Autotroph Design (Alexander Dzurec, principal). ◀

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