In the woods outside Santa Fe, Amy Stone creates a high-functioning, elegantly simple home with minimal impact on the environment.
Amy Stone and John Rutherford enjoy the morning sun at the Forest Studio house in the mountains outside Santa Fe.
Structural steel roof beams and a concrete floor mix form and function. Walls are Nudura, an insulated-concrete-form system for high insulation and excellent fireproofing—a welcome feature in this forested area.
This article first appeared in Winter 2008 Su Casa
Perched like a butterfly ready to take flight, the Forest Studio home of Amy Stone and John Rutherford leaves a light imprint on the ancient oaks, ponderosa pines, and granite outcroppings sharing space in the Santa Fe National Forest. Conceived by Santa Fe–based Verde Design Group, the designers/owners wouldn’t have it any other way. Environmental considerations and sustainable products are at the heart of this small, green-built home in the peaceful Apache Canyon a dozen miles from New Mexico’s capital city.
In the middle of a forest, one might expect to find a house of wood and stone. Stone and Rutherford opted instead for concrete and steel, blending these most basic of building blocks into a graceful combination of Southwestern and Japanese architectural design elements. Sited comfortably among the trees, the Forest Studio rises from the ground to its inverted-butterfly roof, a design that lends a contemporary twist while serving a functional role in the home’s water catchment system.
At 8,300 feet above sea level, this 1,000-square-foot contemporary home begins its green journey with a passive solar alignment. Functionality, however, is the backbone of any successful small home, and it’s found here in a myriad of ways ranging from concrete floors that stay cool in the summer to storage space created in hidden alcoves tucked close to the ceiling. Even the bathroom is centralized with a pocket door separating the washroom from the shower, giving the owners and guests the privacy of their own bath.
“What’s the simplest way to build something and make it elegant?” is the question posed by Amy, who has a graduate degree in architecture from the University of Colorado and is a general contractor. She wanted to design homes with ties to the local culture and environment. Five years ago, Amy and John, a builder from New Zealand, formed their own design and build company known as Verde Design Group. Shortly thereafter, they married.
The two need look no further than their own snug house for some of the answers to the “simple, but elegant” question. A little-traveled but public dirt road bisects the five-acre property that Amy discovered for sale two years ago while driving the back byways near the village of Cañada de los Alamos. Eager to get settled on the land, Amy and John picked a building site near the road, one that offered easy access to electricity and a community water system. They began construction of what was to be a guest house. While it remained small, the project soon evolved into their main home. It’s that livable. With core-filled insulated concrete form (ICF) walls, a steel frame, and low-maintenance metal roof, the contemporary home has become the couple’s best advertisement for a less wasteful and more economical approach to residential building.
“The home was built on-site although certain elements were engineered off-site and brought in to come together at different stages of construction,” Amy explains.
Amy adheres to a “kit-of-parts” approach to home building, an idea with applications as broad as the landscapes in which her homes take root and the clients who will live in them. For Amy and John, the “kit-of-parts” philosophy means the design adapts to sustainable off-the-shelf materials readily available in the area, rather than requiring the materials to conform to the design. Whether these parts are steel beams or modular closet systems, the home’s building blocks, for the most part, are found locally and in standard sizes. The materials’ availability, along with design foresight, can reduce waste during construction. And it’s a concept that can be repeated in other homes of varying styles.
Simply put, why design a 13-foot wall when dry wall comes in 12-foot lengths? In this case, why not design walls that work with the dimensions of the insulated concrete forms? Why put bathroom, kitchen, and laundry rooms on opposite ends of a small house when the plumbing work can be consolidated in side-by-side locations along an interior wall? The design is based on the dimensions of the building products, which dramatically reduces labor cost as well as material waste, Amy explains. Affordable and functional design can go hand in hand, according to Amy, who holds green building at the heart of her design work.
The home’s basic building blocks are insulated concrete forms (ICFs) assembled almost like a giant Lego set and then core-filled with rebar and concrete. The fire-resistant ICF system not only adds to the home’s mass and insulation values—the 12-inch-thick walls are rated at R-50—but also provides peace of mind to the owners of this home that sits in a mountain forest at risk for wildfires. So enamored are Amy and John of building with the insulated concrete forms, they’ve become the authorized New Mexico distributors for the Nudura product line. They “stacked” their own home’s exterior walls, including framed windows, in less than a week. Stucco adheres to the foam forms on the exterior; plaster adheres on the home’s interior.
Among the elements in Amy and John’s home are windows, bathroom slate tiles, a space-saving combo washer and dryer, easy-to-assemble closet and cabinet units from Ikea, concrete floors and countertops, and a radiant heating system. Exposed steel beams made from 80 percent recycled metal are precut to needed lengths and reminiscent of vigas. Basic as all that may sound, the couple’s small, open home is hardly lacking frills. It’s far from boring. The house looks like no other.
With the dramatic butterfly roof design, Amy accomplished several goals, both aesthetic and practical. The roof rises from a center height of nine feet to eleven feet at the edges, providing shade and shelter as well as that viga appeal. A steel canale runs the length of the inversion, creating a clean and contemporary model of a traditional New Mexican drainage system and allowing the roof itself to drain water from just two locations to facilitate water catchment and complement the gray water system.
The house has plenty of space. It features an open great room composed of kitchen, living, and dining areas. The home’s second half contains bedroom, office/guest room, bath, and laundry room. A 500-square-foot deck, built of dense, renewable pucte, a Central American hardwood, extends the living space outdoors and is shaded by dramatic overhangs created by the steel beams that cantilever beyond the walls. A 200-square-foot workshop, also built of Nudura walls, is detached from the home.
“I’ve been surprised at how comfortable a small house can be,” Amy says. “The only thing I miss is what would have been the second story views. Then again, I like being nestled in the trees.”
True to the home’s contemporary styling, the concrete and steel used in construction have been carried inside as essential design elements. Not only are the home’s interior walls framed with light-gauge steel beams, but heavier steel I-beams also traverse the ceiling before jutting outdoors.
Concrete is brought indoors as well. The kitchen and bathroom countertops are formed of concrete. Tubing for a radiant heating system is embedded in water-etched concrete floors. At an elevation well over a mile above sea level, operable windows shaded by the overhanging eaves serve as the cooling system. Even on the warmest summer days, the indoor temperature has yet to exceed 76 degrees, according to Amy.
By its size, passive solar orientation, and water-conserving systems, this home makes a green statement. Amy and John have taken the next step to include Energy Star appliances, low-E windows, dual-flush toilets, a 10-gallon combo washer/dryer, and a combo water heater/radiant floor heater.
Nevertheless, it’s a relatively minimalist dwelling in which the construction was driven by budget as well as taste. Happily, here the two were able to coexist, but flexibility was key. Who needs expensive granite countertops when concrete looks so contemporarily cool? The major expenses in this compact mountain home come down to concrete and steel, the very ingredients that define it.
Freelance writer Jane Mahoney resides in a fixer-upper in Albuquerque’s South Valley and frequently writes about home builders and real estate issues for the Albuquerque Journal.
Unless otherwise noted, businesses below are in Santa Fe, the area code is 505, and the prefix for websites is www.
Architect & builder: Amy E. Stone, AIA, principal; Paul Fretz, architect intern; James McWhorter, AIA; John Rutherford, production manager; Verde Design Group LLC, 474-8686, firstname.lastname@example.org, verdedesigngroup.com. Interior designer: Amy E. Stone, principal, Verde Design Group LLC, 474-8686, email@example.com, verdedesigngroup.com. Appliances: Viking dishwasher, vikingrange.com, from Baillio’s Electronics & Appliances, 438-3039, baillios.com; KitchenAid refrigerator, kitchenaid.com, and Amana oven, amana.com, from Sears, sears.com. Armoire: LIVING ROOM Jackalope, 471-8539, jackalope.com.
Art: LIVING ROOM Spirit Poles sculpture art by John Geldersma, johngeldersma.com, represented by LewAllen Contemporary, 988-8997,
lewallencontemporary.com; (piece to the right of the armoire) painting by Lee Ann Stone; (piece over the fireplace) painting by A. E. Rutherford. Backsplash material: Daltile, Albuquerque, daltileproducts.com. Bathroom fixtures: Caroma dual-flush toilet and recessed sinks, caroma.com; Philippe Starck Duravit bathtub; both from Ferguson Bath & Kitchen Gallery, ferguson.com. Cabinets: Ikea, ikea.com. Chairs: OUTDOORS (orange chairs) vintage Herman Miller with covers from Design Warehouse, 988-1555, designwarehouse.com; (black chairs) butterfly chairs from Design Warehouse. Concrete: Santa Fe Concrete, 471-1900, santafeconcrete-2.com. Countertops: concrete bathroom countertops; Ikea kitchen countertops, ikea.com. Deck: made with pucte wood certified for sustainable harvest, Forest Stewardship Council, fscus.org; wood from Plaza Hardwood Inc.,
992-3260, plzfloor.com. Dining chairs: vintage French chairs from the 1940s, purchased at an estate sale in Dallas, TX. Dining table: by Bruce Gueswel, Mayatek Inc., mayatekinc.com. Doors: Brother Sun, 471-5157, brothersun.com. Flooring: concrete. Gate: built with ipê wood from Plaza Hardwood Inc., 992-3260, plzfloor.com; designed and built by Verde Design Group LLC, 474-8686, firstname.lastname@example.org, verdedesign
group.com. Hardware: Emtek Products Inc., emtekproducts.com. Heating & cooling: Bradford White combo unit, Ferguson Enterprises, fergus
on.com. Insulated concrete forms: Nudura, 877/400-8686, nudura.com. Lighting fixtures: Dahl Lighting Showroom, 471-7272, dahllighting.com. Nightstand: vintage, from Stephen’s: A Consignment Gallery, 471-0802, stephensconsignments.com. Paint: Dunn-Edwards Paints, dunnedwards.com. Painting: Andy Reeves, Silver Fern Painting, 570-9095. Paneling: BEDROOM maple veneer from The Home Depot, homedepot.com; custom-cut by Verde Design Group LLC, 474-8686, email@example.com, verdedesigngroup.com. Plaster & stucco: Olvera Construction Corp.,
660-1234. Roof: steel roof, Mueller Inc., muellerinc.com. Rug: LIVING ROOM antique Turkish kilim. Soffits: Hardie Board. Steel: Reliance Steel Company, Albuquerque, rsac.com. Walls & structure: Nudura insulated concrete forms. Washer & dryer: 10-gallon combination washer/dryer, LG, lge.com. Windows: Brother Sun, 471-5157, brother-sun.com.