When driving to Santa Fe from Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the first things you notice is the towering thunderheads that float above the scruffy landscape and into the mountains. Water is limited in this arid region, but during the monsoon season, usually from July to August, when as much as 25 percent of the annual rainfall happens, it’s continuously present. As it falls, it provides needed relief to the vegetation, but it’s not always easy to direct the flow.
The parch-and-soak pattern is something that the landscape architect Kenneth Francis, ASLA, of Surroundings Studio keeps at the forefront of all of his projects: how to capture as much as possible from any given rainfall. How much can be carried, and how far? Where should it be concentrated? These questions were among the first as Surroundings Studio began a recent residential project set in the hills just west of Santa Fe.
The house, a modern one-story stucco of about 2,900 square feet designed by Stephen Beili, has a deck that faces the northeast with views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In every direction is a hilly landscape of juniper and piñon woodlands, studded by yucca, for as far as the eye can see. Storms roll quickly through the area, shedding their blue-gray curtains of water directly onto where they hover. Without a way to collect or retain some of what they bestow, though, what’s relinquished soon evaporates.
Houses of more than 2,500 square feet in the area are required by law to hold 1.15 gallons per square foot of heated area, though that requirement depends on the landscaped area. But cisterns can empty out quickly—so Surroundings Studio likes to employ multiple passive irrigation techniques to retain even more water. With a supportive climate-conscious client who wanted only plants that could survive in the native landscape, Francis was able to create a design that didn’t need any potable water.
“The cool thing about this house is that the water demand we calculated is based on all the plants in the planting design,” Francis says, “what the average rainfall is and what we can capture in the cistern versus what we get from rainfall during the year.” The firm created an Excel file with the water balance equations to figure out exactly how much water would need to be dispersed and from where. Ideally, most of the equation would borrow from passive irrigation techniques—they might scar the land initially, Francis says, but they wind up being the most cost-effective.
In the quest to capture as much water as possible, the firm hired the civil engineer and geologist Oralynn Guerrerortiz of Design Enginuity to survey the land and record the natural vegetation on the property. Guerrerortiz used federal data to figure out what the rainfall average might be on the site and noted what other storm events are likely to occur. She also gathered hyperlocal soil information to figure out how much water the soil on site will naturally retain.
The plan for this project called for terraced shallow ponds and a fine-tuned grading plan to spread the water out effectively to the planted areas, a tactic Guerrerortiz is fond of employing because it helps keep the landscape irrigated for much longer than the typical deep pond commonly used in the region. “If you make one deep pond, you get more evaporation, and you’re not feeding the plants,” Guerrerortiz says. With a terraced approach, however, “You create a more lush environment, and it’s more likely you won’t have problems downstream because the plants hold the water and soil in place.”
1 ADDRESS MARKER
2 STORMWATER SWALE
3 PARKING COURT
5 GLAMP SITE + FIREPLACE
6 ROLLING MEADOW
8 ROOFLESS ROOM
Starting at the top of the driveway, runoff infiltration swales totaling 4,500 square feet with an average depth of three inches capture water and divert it from running down the gravel. The swales are complemented by a rolling meadow to slow down water runoff leaving the site, promoting gradual irrigation and keeping with local regulations. “We do a lot of meadow conditions, and we see the ecological benefits of meadows,” Francis says.
The swales weren’t without some resistance, though. The homeowner association was concerned about damaging the natural landscape. But, by having the water savings calculator include the swales near the driveway, the HOA had second thoughts when shown how much water would be redistributed back into the land—a solution said to be a first for this type of project.
At the end of the driveway, two short pueblo walls provide backing to a row of tree cholla. The clients, who were opera singers in their former careers, have named the cacti “soldiers for music,” because they look as if they’re performing for arriving guests. There’s also a large rubber rabbitbrush that’s taken off next to the cholla—it’s not yet in bloom, but it’s stealing the show.
1 DRIVE ENTRANCE
2 PARKING COURT
3 ROLLING MEADOW
4 ROOFLESS ROOM
5 SECRET GARDEN
6 GLAMP SITE
7 OUTDOOR DINING
8 WATER HARVESTING
9 NATIVE LANDSCAPE
Across the driveway from the tree cholla, a small meadow of wildflowers and native grasses surrounds the front entrance of the house. Upright prairie coneflower, evening primrose, and blanketflower add colorful notes to the lush green of the grasses. The firm specifies its own wildflower and grass mix, but may also use Plants of the Southwest, a seed bank and store for regional plants and a favorite place of landscape architects in the area. Toward the back of the meadow, three Gambel oaks line a wall. As deciduous trees, they’ll briefly provide color when wildflowers and grasses have died off for the year.
Around the side of the house, a small backyard is contained by short pueblo walls only three to four feet high. This space contains more regional wildflowers and grasses that spill over the walkways. The clients prefer a loose, natural look that feels carefree, and indeed, the grasses look windswept, almost messy. They are cut back in the spring, but until then, they are allowed to overgrow the short walls and fill the gaps in the staggered pavers. “The architecture is clean, simple, and modern, though there is this wild that counteracts that form,” Francis says.
The backyard leads into the main living room, a room with one large sliding window that opens up toward the backyard deck, and another on the opposite wall that opens into a small courtyard. When both windows are open, the transition feels seamless between indoors and out, with the plants peeking around every corner. The clients find the arrangement keeps the house interesting; the plants help make the space more dynamic.
The living room itself is a space engineered for music and performance; you immediately notice the curved acoustic panels hanging from the ceiling and that the flooring has a crawl space below, an uncommon feature in Santa Fe, but one made so that certain instruments played in the space will have a much better sound.
Beyond the living room, in the courtyard, an apple tree is planted dead center in a ground of crusher fines—it was loaded with nearly ripe apples when I visited the house. Climbing roses line a small niche to the right; below the roses is a row of Mexican feather grass, fronted by a long basin of black Mexican beach pebbles no more than a few inches deep. It follows the right wall of the courtyard to the back wall, then ends under a small slit underneath a pale yellow, frosted glass panel. Any water that comes off the roof into the basin empties at the end of the courtyard into a small catchment on the other side.
On the roof above the courtyard, two specially designed canales face perpendicular to each other, one above the entrance to the courtyard and one above the niche to the right, to direct water flow from the roof into the basin below. “Instead of it being the canale into the catch basin, we created the pool so that it would fill up and create a reflecting pool,” Francis says. The pool can hold the water from a storm up to seven hours after the storm.
If the rain is plentiful enough, it might totally flood the crusher fines and the rest of the courtyard, but it eventually ends up in the catchment‚ then down into the cisterns. In total, the cisterns catch roughly 1.15 gallons per square foot of the roof area, and the water held in the cisterns is made up of about two-thirds capture of the roof. The rest is collected through the water falling into the catchments naturally. But the roof isn’t Francis’s biggest concern. “From a balancing model, the cost of cisterns is usually not super efficient for us to do. We don’t want the entire roof to capture the system. We like to use passive irrigation,” he says.
The house is emblematic of the work for which Surroundings Studio is known. Francis, along with principals Faith Okuma, ASLA, and Sandra Donner, Affiliate ASLA, started the studio in the midst of the last recession; Francis and Okuma had been laid off by the closing of the Santa Fe office of Design Workshop in 2008 and figured it might be time to go it alone.
EPHEMERAL POOL – SECTION
EPHEMERAL POOL – SECTION
Because of its location, the firm works on a wide variety and scale of projects. Luz del Dia might be a small-scale residential project, but the firm also concentrates on large-scale regional land planning projects. This diversity is something that intensely fascinates Okuma: “The questions we ask ourselves for these projects are the same. ‘How are the spaces connected? Who’s using the space? How do you maintain it?’”
A part of the ethos of Surroundings Studio is intention: Francis espouses the need to think about how every aspect of a design relates to everything else. But more than the design, Okuma is also thinking of how the profession should be more intensely involved in the conversation: “I worry sometimes about landscape architecture. We worry a lot about what’s pretty. I think that’s a challenge. I don’t think we’ve led the practice as strongly as we should have.”
Luz del Dia earned a LEED Platinum designation for its design in no small part because of early interactions among the builder, Tierra Concepts; the house’s designer; Surroundings Studio; and the civil engineer. Part of this too, Francis explains, was working with clients who saw or were open to learning more about the value of conserving wherever possible.
For other projects that don’t come together as easily, Okuma advocates for leaning into the conversation. “Landscape architects think that design can stand on its own,” she says. “That can’t be the measure of success. If we’re going to bring the environmental side of our projects, you have to ask. If we don’t focus that discussion, even with the draftsman, it disempowers us all.”
At Luz del Dia, many of the plants will die out come winter, though Francis points out that most of the plants chosen still have winter character. The Gambel oaks, for example, will change color before the leaves fall off; the grasses might be brown, but their texture remains after they die. Instead of endless green and vibrancy year-round, the plants reflect their natural state—something that can be hard for a lot of clients to accept. But for projects such as this, where water is a scarce resource that must be fiercely protected, Okuma is adamant about questioning the past hundred years of landscape design and using more water than needed to prop up models of beauty that are wasteful.
“We’ve been schooled to see one kind of beauty,” Okuma says. “How do we retrain our eyes so that we can appreciate the beauty already in nature?”
HANIYA RAE IS A FREELANCE DESIGN WRITER WHO LIVES IN BROOKLYN.
CLIENT/OWNER BRIAN JOHNSON AND MARSHA HUNTER, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE SURROUNDINGS STUDIO, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO. HOME DESIGN STEPHEN BEILI, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO. HOME BUILDER TIERRA CONCEPTS, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO. CIVIL ENGINEERING DESIGN ENGINUITY, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO. LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR EL TORO LANDSCAPE, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO.
x Chitalpa tashkentensis ‘Pink Dawn’ (Pink Dawn chitalpa)
Forestiera pubescens var. pubescens (Stretchberry)
Pinus edulis (Twoneedle pinyon)
Prunus armeniaca ‘Chinese’ (Chinese apricot)
Quercus gambelii (Gambel oak)
Rhus glabra var. cismontana (Smooth sumac)
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Kinnikinnick)
Cercocarpus montanus (Alderleaf mountain mahogany)
Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’ (Kelsey’s dwarf red osier dogwood)
Cylindropuntia imbricata (Tree cholla)
Fallugia paradoxa (Apache plume)
Mahonia aquifolium (Holly-leaved barberry)
Mahonia repens (Creeping barberry)
Prunus besseyi ‘P011S’ (Pawnee Buttes sand cherry)
Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ (Gro-Low fragrant sumac)
Rosa x ‘Joseph’s Coat’ (Joseph’s Coat climbing rose)
Yucca glauca (Soapweed yucca)
Agastache mexicana ‘Acapulco Orange’ (Acapulco Orange Mexican giant hyssop)
Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Golden Spur’ (Golden Spur columbine)
Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ (Blonde Ambition blue grama)
Calamagrostis brachytricha (Korean feather reed grass)
Helictotrichon sempervirens (Blue oat grass)
Miscanthus sinensis var. purpurascens (Chinese silver grass)
Nassella tenuissima (Finestem needlegrass)
Oenothera macrocarpa (Bigfruit evening primrose)
Penstemon pinifolius ‘Mersea Yellow’ (Mersea Yellow pineneedle beardtongue)
Penstemon strictus (Rocky Mountain penstemon)
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Little Spire’ (Little Spire Russian sage)
Ratibida columnifera (Upright prairie coneflower)
Salvia officinalis (Kitchen sage)
Sorghastrum nutans ‘Sioux Blue’ (Sioux Blue Indian grass)
Allium ‘Gladiator’ (Gladiator ornamental onion)
Narcissus (Daffodil, Yellow)
Native Grass Seed Mix
Wildflower Seed Mix