It was serendipity that we discovered the town of Abiquiu, New Mexico, after vacationing in Colorado. We were attracted because Georgia O’Keeffe’s home is here, but when we arrived, the beautiful river in the desert landscape stunned us. It was love at first sight. Nearly four years later we moved to New Mexico, thinking we’d have a house built in four to six months. It happened a little differently.
I grew up with Danish design in Copenhagen, and Madeline shares my commitment to modernism. While paging through books and magazines we came across the 2003 design invitational with proposals for the first Dwell Home. We loved the ideas of the brothers Mark and Peter Anderson of Anderson Anderson Architecture. There was a lot we could relate to, especially because the house was designed for a musician: Madeline is an accomplished pianist, and I work for the Santa Fe Opera.
So one day, we picked up the phone, called the Andersons, and said, "This is our situation: We don’t have a lot of money, we have a beautiful site, and we really love what you do. Would you be interested in working with us on the Abiquiu House?" We were surprised that it was a go.
When we started collaborating with the Andersons, we talked a lot about our lifestyle. Their questions were not "How many bedrooms? How many baths?" but "How do you want the house to work for you on a daily basis? What are your priorities? What would make this a comfortable living space?" We were not building a house for resale value; it was the house we would spend the rest of our lives in.
Since music is such a huge part of our existence, the Andersons asked us for a discography. Our house was designed to a soundtrack of 14 hours of classical, Gypsy, and Latin music. Mark and Peter also asked for photographs and measurements of the furniture we wanted to have in the house. The piano was the centerpiece.
We were very committed to open space and a feeling of air and light everywhere, like a loft. There are hardly any interior walls, unless they’re load-bearing or enclosing a toilet. In fact, we didn’t want doors either, but we have sliders for closing off the pet apartment and bathrooms. The focus was on wash-and-wear, low-maintenance materials, like concrete radiant floors and galvanized-steel cladding.
It was very important to us to make this amazing site part of the house. The inside and the outside are blended, with lots of windows, porches, and easy access. It’s a 30-by-60-foot footprint and there was almost no excavation, no damage to the surrounding vegetation; it’s all natural landscaping.
But the week of ground breaking, our contractor, who had experience with structural insulated panels (SIPs) like we were using, filed for bankruptcy. Finding another contractor was a problem because everyone here builds with adobe (which never has to be perfectly plumb), and nobody had ever seen a design like ours. What kept us going was that Mark and Peter were so supportive and encouraged us to act as owner-builders. Our bank was the opposite. They had approved our loan on the basis of using a general contractor. When the contractor went, our financing went too.
So I brought the plans to a local bank and showed a loan officer there. The design excited her. She said, "I think you can do it, and I’m going to give you the money to do it, acting as your own contractor." Realizing a third party believed in us was a pivotal moment. We started bidding for subcontractors and ended up coordinating and managing work among 28 different people.
When the walls went up I took Mark and Peter to the second floor, where there’s a window meant to provide light to the main room. When you stand at the top of the stairs you see this 300-year-old adobe church through it, framed like a photograph. I said, "This is just amazing. How did you know this would happen?" Mark looked at me and said, "I guess I just got lucky."
And that is one of the positive aspects of building a house—all the things you didn’t anticipate that, in most cases, are happy surprises. When we first climbed a ladder to the roof, the magic of stepping up from ground level to see the spectacular views, knowing that this would be ours for the rest of our lives, and realizing that Mark and Peter were able to imagine this three-dimensionally, while just standing on the empty ground—that was astounding.
Of course, a great site helps make a great house, but it’s important to have architects who jibe with your ideas and expectations. Our desire to live in Abiquiu was the driving factor, but we really needed the empowerment of other people: from a friend who first told us about the property to the incredibly kind loan officer, local craftsmen, and, of course, Mark and Peter. It took 16 months to build this house. You can’t get discouraged. Once you put problems behind you, it’s only the positives left standing.
Chelsea Holden Baker
Chelsea is the former online editor of dwell.com. Her architecture chops come from swinging hammers for her father’s design/build business in Maine and living with an architect in San Francisco; a city she loves for its supreme bike-ability.