The new handmade house

A residence with the nickname “Modern Ruin” took the top prize in the annual design competition sponsored by the Santa Fe chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Alexander Dzurec, Autotroph Design, collaborated with owner Zane Fischer for the latter’s home in Agua Fría Village.

Completed in 2012, the residence has two wings — one holding the living/dining room and the other (a long, Quonset hut-type building) holding a workshop and art studio — articulating off a central tower that incorporates the entry, bedroom and rooftop garden.

A carport, still to be built, will connect the corrugated-steel wing to the tower (rusted-metal panels on concrete) and the other wing (rammed earth).

“Zane brought a photocollage of ideas, things he liked, to our first meeting,” Dzurec said about the process of designing the Fischer house. “Then I came back with options, computer models, for very simple massing. We both liked an L-shaped plan and he has a thing for ruins and clean, contemporary architecture.”

Thus the house’s clean lines and its study in emotional contrasts: the more industrial rusted-metal element with hard-edged slot windows warmed up by the adjacent rammed-earth building.

Fischer has an affinity for the Brutalist qualities apparent not only in the vertical metal box of the tower but in the form marks visible on the naked concrete walls on its interior. Even the slablike rammed-earth surfaces perhaps posit sort of a “Santa Fe brutalism.”

“That’s right,” Dzurec said. “Zane said he likes the little imperfections you see as remnants of the construction process.”

And in dialogue at the property, Fischer said, “Whenever I’m in a parking lot, I feel like I want to live there. Hopefully what we have here is kind of a balance: some of those harsh materials but put together in a way that feels warm and inviting.”

Some of the dwelling’s softness comes from the interior doors and staircase made of Brazilian cherry wood purchased from Plaza Hardwood Inc.

The rammed-earth walls are 2 feet thick, providing a level of structural integrity so that no buttressing was needed. “We both liked the thickness of those walls, which we thought also was ruin-like,” Dzurec said.

Fischer has an added level of satisfaction, because he did the rammed earth himself.

“After getting bids from a few contractors here, it seemed like rammed earth is subject to a real sort of Santa Fe surtax, so my girlfriend [artist Katherine Lee] and I went to Arizona and took a class with Quentin Branch, a contractor with a lot of experience in rammed earth, including on houses Rick Joy has done and the Univision studio in Phoenix.

“So we ended up doing the work ourselves in barn-raising style with friends and pizza and beer.”

Much of the earth for the walls came from the building site; it was augmented by some imported soil, and the builders added about 9 percent Portland cement.

The house includes some south-facing glass for wintertime solar gain. The earth walls act as thermal mass, retaining heat. Some houses also have thermal mass in interior walls, but there aren’t many interior walls in the Fischer abode. “Zane had a big thing against drywall and wood framing, so the interior walls in the tower are six-inch concrete block.”

“I was a house painter for a long time and I didn’t want any painted surfaces, either,” Fischer added.

The homeowner indulged a childhood dream with the deck outside his bedroom and a bed on wheels, which he can push out and sleep outside whenever he wants to.

He fabricated some unique ceiling lights using molds for concrete bases for rail ties. “There are some things that are slightly funky, but we had fun doing it ourselves,” he said.

Autotroph also won the AIA-Santa Fe Merit Award for an unbuilt project called “Re-Barn.” Dzurec, who also maintains a Maryland office, has always loved the old tobacco barns, some dating to the 1750s, in that state. These are basically barns built with extra lumber structures inside for hanging tobacco leaves, and having gaps in the siding, and sometimes shutters and flaps, for ventilation.

He identified one of the barns, probably dating to the 1930s, that had a good solar orientation. He developed a set of plans that describe building a home inside, using structural insulated panels, then cutting out large parts of the skin and rebuilding them as operable flaps. Those would be raised to shade the building, and porch/patio spaces below, in the summertime. A solar array would be added flat onto a south-facing portion of the roof.

It represents a creative example of adaptive re-use. Dzurec’s references (outside of his own brain) include a Kentucky tobacco barn that now serves as a visitor center — “although that was just inserting a glass cube into part of the inside space,” he said — and the Australian architect Sean Godsell, who has incorporated flaps into some of his houses.

Autotroph is at work on several projects, one a series of Santa Fe Trails bus shelters featuring designs based on the traditions of Hispanic punched-tin works and Native basketry. The firm did two prototypes, installed on Sandoval Street and Guadalupe Street, and has submitted drawings to the city for 40 more bus stops.

The other winners in the 2012 AIA-Santa Fe design awards, announced last month, are AOS Architects, Archaeo Architects, and Spears Architects/Fentress Architects. Those winners will be featured next Sunday.

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Neil D. Lyon CRB, CRS, GRI Cell: 505.660.8600 Direct: 505.954.5505

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