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

A husband-wife designer-builder team relies on natural materials and a tradition of craftsmanship to create their healthy New Mexico home.

| March/April 2002

  • 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.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • Bamboo flooring and Tatami mats in the meditation room make a perfect surface for yoga. The room is a small alcove off the living room; shoji screens can be closed for privacy or opened so the room becomes an extension of the living room.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • Earthen floors, traditionally created from ox blood and clay soils, are a New Mexico tradition. Paula and Robert’s vegetarian version is finished with several layers of Livos oils and a final topping of beeswax. “Walking barefoot on an earthen floor is like walking on fine leather—a very sensuous experience,” Paula says.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • Paula, Robert and Paula’s daughter, Sarah, have found living in the home a nurturing experience.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • The large weather-protected flagstone entryway, six inches lower than the rest of the house, is designed to eliminate tracked-in dirt. “Rarely do we have to ask people to take their shoes off because the request is implicit,” Paula says. “And getting people to take their shoes off is one of the healthiest things you can do to keep your house clean. I’m always reminded of that when I see how much dirt collects in the entryway.”
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • Paula and Robert refer to the deep window seat in the dining room as a “sun bump” because it takes in eastern sunlight. The drawers underneath provide ample storage for bulk food supplies.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • The south-facing “sun bump” provides as much as 60 percent of the home’s heat. It protrudes to within eighteen inches of the roof overhang and provides winter sun while it blocks unwanted summer sun. The rustic flagstone floors act as a good heat sink to store solar heat—and Paula doesn’t have to worry about spilling water on them when caring for the plants.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • A rice paper screen in the ceiling diffuses the light from two skylights by day and electric lighting by night. Robert found the ponderosa pine “elephant trunk” beam in the woods; Paula says it’s a tribute to his fine craftsmanship.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • “We are in love with the Tulikivi,” says Paula of the radiant soapstone stove that provides 40 percent of the home’s heat in the winter. Tulikivis are costly compared with traditional fireplaces, Paula says, but the investment pays for itself in superior efficiency and comfort. “We have had several winter parties where as many as twenty people will congregate in the dining room largely because of the cozy atmosphere the stove helps create.”
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • Twelve-by-twelve-inch granite tile countertops provide the luxury and durability of solid granite without the cost. Paula used attractive solid wood open shelving instead of upper cabinetry, in part to offset the greater costs of the formaldehyde-free cabinet boxes below.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • Natural slate tiles with a tumbled marble border add elegance to the master bathroom. The natural wall plasters receive their green color from copper carbonate added to white clay and silica sand with a little mica thrown in for luster and workability.
    Photo By Laurie Dickson
  • The south-facing “sun bump” provides as much as 60 percent of the home’s heat. It protrudes to within eighteen inches of the roof overhang and provides winter sun while it blocks unwanted summer sun. The rustic flagstone floors act as a good heat sink to store solar heat—and Paula doesn’t have to worry about spilling water on them when caring for the plants.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford

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.”



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