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

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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