Article No: 207
High Mesas home
By: Carole McMichael
Photography courtesy of Morgan King
Mention of New Mexico usually brings to mind the rugged but beautiful mountain vistas of Santa Fe, the Mecca of Native American and Western artists, so it is not surprising that Jim Woodson, artist and Texas Christian University art professor, and his wife, Barbara Moore, chose to build a vacation home in the “land of enchantment.”
Northwest of Santa Fe, into the high mountain desert dotted with cactus and tumbleweed, the land’s elevation reaches approximately 6,500 feet. This is where Woodson and Moore bought a 10-acre site in a subdivision called High Mesas at Abiquiu. They chose Morgan King Enterprises to build their desert retreat.
King’s construction career started off in computer-aided drafting, but he preferred to build the things he was drawing. He switched to hands-on home maintenance, and then progressed to grander projects. Now, he’s been a remodelor for 16 years. Woodson made the leap to building with concrete systems because he and his wife liked the remodeling work King had done on their wood-frame home in Texas, and wanted him to build their new house—but they wanted it built of concrete.
“I had never worked with ICFs [insulating concrete forms] before,” King says. “The permanence of it was highly appealing to me. I feel our society is a throw-away society. We don’t build things that will last, that can be handed down for generations. The things we build are really temporary.
“The traditional way of building in New Mexico has been with adobe. People love the adobe look, but the insulation value in adobe is so low, it is nonexistent. You have thermal mass, but no insulation. In ICF homes, you have a lot of insulation—an R-value from 48 to 50 with an 8-inch core. What is wonderful about ICFs is you still have the adobe wall thickness, but with tremendous energy efficiency. It is a great product for that particular look. Woodson liked that look, but wanted a contemporary slant on the traditional adobe—one with cleaner, crisper lines. We mostly stuck to the angular edges and stayed away from the rounded ones to keep the style more refined and less traditionally rustic.”
King chose to use Nudura ICF forms on the Woodson home. “It seemed like a simple system to use and inexpensive to get the things that are necessary for that type of system,” King says. “And there was a niche in the New Mexico building market because there are not enough people building with ICFs. I heard a lot of pros and cons about the various ICF systems out there, but not any cons about using Nudura.”
The standard Nudura form is 8 feet long and 10 inches high. Specialized shapes—corners, angles, brick ledge, and half and half—and varying core sizes are available. According to King, the forms assemble quickly. At any given time, there were only two crewmembers (he was one of them), totally inexperienced with ICFs, stacking the walls. They erected the entire house—all the alignment systems, bracing, and everything that had to be secured and stabilized for the concrete to be poured.
A distributor, Future Stone, in Fort Worth, held classes on Nudura construction for anyone who wanted to learn to use the system. King attended a demonstration on the possibilities of how to use ICFs and how to assemble the product. He also learned about its advantages, such as resistance to rot, termites, and fire. He also went to a site in progress to see a house being built with ICFs. He was impressed that it took less than four hours to pour a two-story home.
The High Mesas home
The 1,730-square-foot living space was custom tailored to what Woodson and Moore wanted and needed—their “little dream home.” Throughout the house, the floor plan maintains a marvelous flow. The house lacks interior load-bearing walls—the clearspan beams reach from one concrete outside wall to the next, eliminating the need for any supporting walls inside. “That’s a nice way to build,” King says.
To maintain the concept of openness, the house has very few doors. Instead, the design calls for small hallways and niches. Steps to the master bedroom lead into a small hallway that rounds a corner, which screens that area from adjoining rooms. Multiple floor levels have a corresponding play on roof height, a trait typical of adobe architecture. Ceiling height in the master bedroom is 10 1/2 feet, 9 feet in the guest bedroom, and 10 feet in the kitchen.
The home’s open great room holds a two-sided fireplace that is built on a corner, allowing it to be viewed from the adjoining kitchen and dining areas. The kitchen is very plain and neat with warm cherry cabinetry without handles, black granite countertops and serving bar, and stainless steel appliances. The interior design, adhering to the owners’ artistic aesthetic, is spare and uncluttered.
Although the contemporary feel was important to the couple’s vision, so was the adobe styling that unifies it with the New Mexico landscape. The 8-foot entry door is custom made of antique, distressed wood. The ceilings in the great room (14 feet, 8 inches) are finished with a modern version of vegas (square-sawed timbers instead of round). Every room of the house, including the bathrooms, has the same ceiling application. A kiva fireplace, a signature Southwestern feature, anchors the master bedroom, and
space-saving, built-in bancos with cushions are flush with its hearth.
Canales, which direct water through a parapet off the rooftop, are also characteristic of adobe architecture. Some builders use a hole just large enough to insert the canales, but King used open canales placed according to where he wanted the water to fall.
“You don’t want one in front of a window,” King says. “You also try to balance them so they are pleasing aesthetically. They extend out past the roof so the water pours off the roof away from the wall.
“We used concrete for the floors, finishing them with an acid etch for color,” King says. “They were sealed in two parts. There is a clear urethane coat and then a coat over that that gives it a deep mirror finish. We chose a greenish hue that complements the exterior stucco color, which is called tumbleweed—sort of a pale green that blends with the grass and surroundings. We chose this color to make the house disappear into the landscape. It is beautiful the way it blends.”
From start to finish
Planning involved tweaking the size of the rooms to best use the square footage and varying the roof heights,” King says. “It was largely an organic process, playing with the spaces in a joint effort. We worked on it as far as the scale of things, balancing things out—where to put a beam and how wide to make an opening. We would pick a room and lay out tape on Woodson’s current studio floor and see how it worked for their style of living and use.”
As with anyone building in a subdivision community, they have to deal with bylaws that restrict construction. To protect the privacy of the homeowners, High Mesas’ bylaws dictate the area that owners can build on, marking a building envelope within 100 feet of a pole on each lot (the smallest is 10 acres).
The soil at the site couldn’t be better. It is non-expansive, with a high sand content and just the right amount of clay so that it doesn’t move. King prepared it for the footings by removing about 5 or 6 inches of the vegetation layer. Natural disasters aren’t a threat to the area’s homes, and the summers are mild and dry, but water is an issue. The house gets its water from a well 750 feet deep.
“Because of the 8-inch core wall, the footing needed to be a little wider than normal,” King says. “The slab was 5 inches thick. With the stucco exterior, and interior finish over drywall, the total wall width is close to 15 inches. The first course of ICF forms was glued to the slab. Once it was verified to be really true, then 1/2-inch horizontal rebar was installed. This was higher than the building code required because this is a high-wind region. On top of the wall was a treated plate and the one foot of beams.
“When we poured, using a 6- to 7-inch slump mix, we started under the window bucks and worked around in 4-foot lifts, making sure to have a lapse of an hour between lifts. We never had to stop the pour. Everything went smoothly.
“For the roof, we chose a bri or ‘torch down’ system. It is more durable than a typical foam roof. Since we have exposed beams above, we don’t have a pocket for insulation, so we insulated when we put the slope in. The drainage was established, then a more dense layer of rigid foam with backing on the top was laid on tapered foam to make one consistent thickness. Then we put down tar and a final roof membrane that was torched to melt the seams and that became one layer of roofing. Where seams were melted, we laid down small shingle-style gravel with a matching color, so the seam disappeared.”
King chose tapered foam with the bri rather than a foam build-up because the bri system is a lighter option. Also, birds have a tendency to peck into the foam. Once the roof takes on moisture, it is very hard to figure out where the leak is and to stop it.
King had no problem working with subs and did much of the electrical wiring himself. Instead of nailing electrical boxes to studs, he just removed some foam and glued them to the concrete, using liquid nails. Then, he cut grooves in the foam, ran the wires and filled up the grooves. Unlike some states, New Mexico law requires building inspections in all areas. But again, everything went smoothly as the inspectors were familiar with alternative building materials.
A dream house
Woodson and Moore love the house, according to King, especially with the great room serving as a studio. “The windows are 9 feet by 15 1/2 feet with very little margins between,” he says. “As always for an artist, the ideal direction is facing north. The house is filled with lighting for every wall surface—there are 60 lights, all on dimmers. Several are placed to illuminate Woodson’s paintings on display.
“With the quality of the house, the size, the flow, and openness of it, it is like walking into a museum. The house is an artistic statement. When you see the design and the shape, you realize it is a huge sculpture.
“Since building the High Mesa house, I’ve had so many people approach me about building. I tell them, if, you don’t want it out of Nudura, I’m not your guy because that is all I’m going to build with. It really is that good of a system. This house is going to last for centuries. After all the stick houses are gone, mine will still be there. I like the idea of that.”
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