green home

better with age Recycled materials and antique elements add an unexpected dimenison of sustainable style at this carefully designed home.

Tucked alongside a wooded canyon in Los Alamos, New Mexico, sits a new home with an old past. Here a profile of dormers and steep roof lines stands out in a palette of warm red-browns against the sky’s deep blue. At this recently built home, green design and building techniques demonstrate a modern philosophy. But intertwined amid the contemporary construction is a hint of something old. Aged doors grace new door frames—each different from the last because they come from a time before standardized sizing. A knotted juniper log serves as a post in the living room, topped with a corbel the owners believe to be about a century old. Wooden countertops in the kitchen look familiar: they used to be floor boards in a gymnasium.

“It’s so labor intensive to use old materials, but I have a personal love for old things and recycling,” says homeowner and designer/builder Bob Ellenberg. “Conceptually, I like the idea of not being wasteful and using old things.” His company, Robert Ellenberg Inc. Design/Build, is based in Los Alamos. The home’s substantial list of recycled materials includes plumbing fixtures, doors, beams, countertops, metal, wood paneling, interior window sashes, light fixtures, glass block, and weathered railroad ties. Most of the structural wood is composite to avoid using large pieces of virgin timber. Even the juniper post in the living room was recycled from a burned area of the forest.

These elements stretch life out of materials many wouldn’t consider using and provide the home with another layer of interest. “I think it adds a lot of character,” says Karen Ellenberg, who collaborates with her husband on home designs and assists in the day-to-day running of the business.

The original concept for this Northern New Mexico style frame home called for adobe construction. “We were very much enamored with adobe houses and the style of them,” says Karen, who with Bob came to New Mexico from the East Coast. In fact, the pair took an adobe-building class through the University of New Mexico and attended the Southwest Solar Adobe School. “We eventually settled on the idea of incorporating adobe into a new home built primarily of conventional building materials with advanced building methods of energy conservation,” Bob explains.

The home’s roof is made of recycled heavy-gauge corrugated carbon steel. Exterior walls measure nine inches thick with an R value of 34, while the roof system measures 14 inches thick and rates at R-54. Meanwhile, the house has a two-inch-thick layer of polyiso foam insulation with sealed seams. Much heat loss and energy cost comes from air leaking from a house, Bob notes, so he sealed and conditioned the underside of the home to prevent heat from escaping through the floor. The sealed and insulated crawl space means the high-efficiency furnace doesn’t run as often and the floors stay warm. “It’s an incredibly comfortable house to live in,” he says, adding that the utility bills are quite modest.

Beyond the front door and the door from the garage, an air lock entry helps keep heated or cooled air in the house, and the space between doors also functions as the mud room. A HEPA air filtration system promotes good air quality inside.

The Ellenbergs applied passive solar design techniques such as placing glass on the south side of the house to take advantage of solar gain. Off the kitchen and living room, they incorporated adobe construction with a passive solar room built with adobe bricks. They can close off this room from the main house and later throw open the doors to admit heat stored in the thick adobe walls.

Outside, the Ellenbergs harvest water runoff from the roof and hard surfaces, including the driveway. The water collects in a 5,000-gallon cistern in the backyard under the deck. They generally irrigate landscaping with this water. It also feeds the external perimeter fire sprinkler system, which is in place to spray the outside of the house as protection from a fire sweeping through the neighborhood—a particular consideration in Los Alamos, where memories of the devastating Cerro Grande Fire are still fresh. With a backup water supply and generator, the system is satisfyingly self-sufficient. Locally mined stone covers patios and forms the dry-stacked (mortarless) walls on the property.

A phoenix from the fire
The new construction allowed the couple to integrate green-building techniques, but they took care to prevent never-before-used materials from looking too new. Take the bricks for the passive solar room. The natural, unstabilized adobes were artificially aged to replicate the crumbling old walls around New Mexico that Bob loves so much. He created the look by cutting off the surfaces of the bricks and wearing them down with brushes and water. The bricks were finished with a sealer.

When Bob and Karen used a new material, they aged it. The pine plank flooring was scalloped at the edges with a draw knife to make the boards look worn. Punched tin panels covering the kitchen appliances were designed to look like the antique tinwork Bob and Karen saw in local shops. The couple took tinwork classes but didn’t like the shininess of the new tin, so Bob learned how to tone down the new metal and created a motif for the kitchen. The panels were a labor intensive but original element. “They’re truly unique,” he notes.

The kitchen countertops came from a place in Albuquerque that sells, among other things, old bowling alley and gymnasium floors, Bob recalls. They bought huge slabs of gym flooring, which were stripped, sanded, stained, and finished with a varnish for a hard, durable surface.

Even the house rests on a repurposed site. A home stood on the lot until the Cerro Grande Fire in May 2000. Bob worked with the owners, Walter and Dorothy Hatch, who had raised their family in that house, when he came to Los Alamos to work on catastrophe insurance claims after the fire. Although he was building a home in Florida at the time, he and his family liked the area so much, they moved here.

During the claims process, Dorothy’s husband died, and she ultimately decided not to rebuild a home for herself on the lot, Bob recounts. He says watching a new house being built where Dorothy’s old home had stood was a sentimental experience for her. While excavating for the house, they found family mementos that were lost after the fire, such as a stone face one of Dorothy’s sons had carved. “It was a very special thing to see a house go up there,” Bob muses. A sign reading “Casa Dorothea” now greets visitors outside the home.

Practical but “wow”
As he designed the new house, Bob’s first consideration was the site, including its orientation to the sun, views, and topography. He started with the practical questions, then attended to making the house exciting. “My philosophy about designing a home is it’s easy to design a practical floor plan,” Bob explains. “It’s fairly easy to design a ‘wow’ house. The real art and skill is in doing both.”

Upon entering the home, you are greeted by a lovely foyer area with a curved stairway and a bottle-shaped kiva. The walls are coated with a mixture of mud from Abiquiú in northern New Mexico, plaster, and straw. In the living room and other areas of the house, the walls have a polished Venetian plaster finish.

The kitchen, dining and living rooms, passive solar room, powder room, and master suite reside on the main level. Upstairs you find an office, exercise area, loft space, and bedroom wings. One of the wings has a separate entrance and can serve as guest quarters or an apartment. Although it’s designed to flow as part of the home, this space has a sound wall and can be closed off from the rest of the house to help the owners save energy.

Some homes have state-of-the-art wine refrigerators. This house has a wine cellar. The unique, energy-saving feature was built into stone under the house to naturally keep up to 1,200 bottles of wine the proper temperature without electricity. “It’s a little larger than most wine coolers,” Bob jokes. The cellar is accessed through a trapdoor in the floor of the foyer. Bob can remove the rug covering the hatch, open the trapdoor, and descend into the cellar, which is attractively accented with antique stamped ceiling panels.

The panels prove another example of that one-of-a-kind style the Ellenbergs have created for their home. They gathered these elements from a farflung variety of sources—antique shops, scrap sales, a man selling old doors on the side of the road in Ohio—and the hunt provides an enjoyable step in the process. “We absolutely love it,” Karen confesses. The hand-carved corbel in the living room is one of their favorites. The Ellenbergs found it at the bottom of a pile of scrap wood they purchased—$10 for all they could fit in the pickup.

Reusing materials whenever possible, from the architectural details to the structural wood and roofing material, demonstrates mindfulness toward what is consumed during a building project. At another level, it’s a special way to add dimension to a carefully designed living space.

“I believe a house both needs to be a practical place to live and a fun place to live,” Bob reflects. “To me, my house is fun. I’m never tired of it. It’s absolutely fun.”

Unless otherwise noted, businesses below are in New Mexico, the area code is 505, and the prefix for websites is www.
Builder: Bob Ellenberg, Robert Ellenberg Inc., Design/Build, Los Alamos, 661-8287,, Designers: Bob and Karen Ellenberg, Robert Ellenberg Inc., Design/Build, Los Alamos, 661-8287,, Interior design: Bob and Karen Ellenberg. Adobe: Adobe Factory, Alcalde, 852-4131, Appliances: Maytag refrigerators and Bosch dishwasher purchased at Lowe’s, Española, 367-1900,; Frigidaire five-burner stainless range, dual ovens, gas burners, and electric ovens purchased at Baillio’s, Albuquerque, 883-7511,; hood fan was custom-designed and constructed by Bob Ellenberg. Backsplash: Capco Tile & Stone, Denver, CO, 303/759-1919, Cabinetry: KITCHEN Rosebud Manufacturing Co. Inc., Madison, SD, 605/256-4561, Ceiling: smooth, painted drywall. Ceiling panels: antique ceiling panels in the wine cellar and powder room from Coronado Wrecking & Salvage Co. Inc., Albuquerque, 877-2821, Cistern: catchment system, including lining, piping filtration, and decking designed by Bob Ellenberg and built under his supervision. Concrete: supplied by Los Alamos Transit Mix Co., Los Alamos, 662-4214; finished by crews employed by Robert Ellenberg Inc., Design/Build, Los Alamos, 661-8287,, Countertops: KITCHEN heart pine gymnasium flooring, stripped, sanded, and stained with natural materials and finished with McCloskey’s Spar Varnish; flooring was purchased at Coronado Wrecking & Salvage Co. Inc., Albuquerque, 877-2821,; varnish purchased at Valdes Paint & Glass, Santa Fe, 982-4661. Crucifix: purchased at an antique shop in Pojoaque. Doors: exterior doors, Kolbe Windows & Doors, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. Inc., from Western Building Supply, Albuquerque, 823-2500, Antique doors purchased at Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Española, 747-2690; Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Santa Fe, 473-1114,; The Corner of This and That, Española, 927-7407; Jackalope, Santa Fe, 471-8539,; and various out-of-state antique shops. Electrical: Rob Simpson, Cavalier Construction, Los Alamos; backup power generator manufactured by Guardian Plus, Generac Power Systems Inc., Waukesha, WI, Fireplaces: manufactured by Heat & Glo,, supplied by Western Building Supply, Albuquerque, 823-2500, Fireplace in the foyer is a self-supporting, bottle-shaped design with a natural stucco and straw finish, designed by Bob Ellenberg and constructed under his supervision. Flooring: 12-inch-wide pine plank flooring with scalloped edges hand-shaped with draw knives. Boards are from Los Alamos Home Improvement, Los Alamos, 662-5371. Flagstone flooring in the airlock was mined from the national forest near Abiquiú with a National Forest Service mining permit, National Forest Service, El Rito Ranger District, El Rito, 581-4554. Framing: materials from Los Alamos Home Improvement, Los Alamos, 662-5371. Glass block: purchased at Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Santa Fe, 473-1114,; redwood framing antiqued and finished with Briwax, Mann’s Woodcare & Restoration Products, 800/274-9299,; framing designed and built under the supervision of Bob Ellenberg. Hardware: new hardware, Emtek Products Inc., 800/356-2741,; remaining hardware is an eclectic, antique mix. Hat & coat rack: built from four antique skis at Bob Ellenberg’s direction. Heating & cooling: materials supplied and installed by Henry Flores, Los Alamos Heating & Air Conditioning, Los Alamos, 412-0915. Insulation: insulation and sealing of the building envelope installed by crews of Robert Ellenberg Inc. at Bob Ellenberg’s direction. Iron rack: (page 60) purchased at Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Santa Fe, 473-1114, Landscaping plants & design: consultation with Mary McCormick regarding design and recommendations for plantings, Santa Fe Greenhouses, Santa Fe, 473-2700,; installation by Andy Olibas of Española. Latillas: purchased at New Mexico Vigas, Española, 753-6189 and The Corner of This and That, Española, 927-7407. Lighting: except for new installations, many of the fixtures were cleaned and refurbished antiques, purchased at a variety of used building material stores and antique shops in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and out of state. Lumber: Los Alamos Home Improvement, Los Alamos, 662-5371. Paint: Sherwin-Williams, Santa Fe, 982-3559, Plaster: purchased at Valdes Paint & Glass, Santa Fe, 982-4661; applied by Alfredo Vanchalk, Best Plastering, Española, 670-7715. Plates: from the Tiles de Santa Fe studio in Pojoaque; purchased through Habitat for Humanity of Española. Plumbing: Ron Smith, Los Alamos, 690-7585. Plumbing fixtures & hardware: many fixtures are Kohler; new fixtures purchased through Dahl Plumbing, Santa Fe, 438-5020; used fixtures purchased through Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Española, 747-2690 and Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Santa Fe, 473-1114, Drainboard sink in the main kitchen is a 1948 Kohler. Railings: ironwork custom-made by Jonathan Morgan. Roofing: 100 percent recycled, heavy-gauge, corrugated carbon steel, purchased from Recla Metal, Montrose, CO, 970/249-7922, Rugs: antique wool Karastans that have been in Bob Ellenberg’s family and used for more than 70 years, originally purchased in Eden, NC. Karastan-Bigelow, Eden, NC, 336/627-7200; Karastan, Dalton, GA, 800/234-1120, Sprinkler system: designed by Bob Ellenberg and installed by employees of Robert Ellenberg Inc. under his supervision. Stone: hardscape walls and patios designed by Bob Ellenberg and built under his supervision; stone for the walls is locally excavated ryolite; flagstone for the patios was mined with a National Forest Service permit from Abiquiú. Stucco: manufactured by El Rey Stucco, Albuquerque, 873-1180,; purchased at Chaparral Materials, Santa Fe, 471-3491,; applied by Alfredo Vanchalk, Best Plastering, Española, 670-7715. Tinwork: tinwork covering the dual refrigerators, dishwasher, and custom hood designed by Bob Ellenberg. Greg Saunders of Española worked closely with Ellenberg on the tooling, finishing, and installation. Vigas & lintels: lintels above doorways are weathered railroad ties and twisted pieces harvested by Bob and Karen Ellenberg from Cerro Grande Fire mitigation areas; some purchased from New Mexico Vigas, Española, 753-6189. Windows & sliding glass doors: Kolbe Windows & Doors, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. Inc., from Western Building Supply, Albuquerque, 823-2500,