To Build A Family

Date February 28, 2006 at 11:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


Imagine you're a single parent living in a dark, cramped trailer with not much privacy and no yard, feeling trapped there forever-it's a struggle just making the rent and feeding everybody, never mind ever putting aside any savings. Now imagine a deus ex machina-like shift where you're transported into a brand new home, one you own, that you even helped build, a gloriously light-filled house with storage space and views of the mountains, nestled in a small safe cul-de-sac with friendly neighbors on either side.

So far, Santa Fe's Habitat for Humanity affiliate has performed this miracle 53 times since 1987, "and we're working on our 54th,"€ adds Habitat's Manager of Resource Development Cheryl Pink with obvious pride.

Habitat's modis operendi is to evaluate the applicants, choose five or six families each year and then match houses to individual family circumstances. Single parent families with at least two or three kids are the norm. Each family owes a certain number of hours' labor ( "sweat equity"€) in order to be able to move into their house; volunteers do the rest. If one family's house is ready before they've put in their full hours, they make up the difference by working on a neighbor's house. Just like barn-raisings of old.

"Zero interest mortgage,"€ says Cheryl, "is the key to our affordability."€

And the key to the sensitivity in designing these houses is architect Tara Teilmann-Way, of Teilmann-Way Design, who draws up the plans, pro bono, for each of the six or seven houses a year that Santa Fe Habitat builds.

"Tara just does a wonderful job of blending the affordability factor with something a family is proud to own,"€ Cheryl says.

She first began donating her architectural services to Habitat about eight years ago, in Orange County, California. "The head of the affiliate there was this philanthropic big builder, and it was so wonderful to be a part of that community,"€ Tara recalls. Then her desire to be working with more natural, healthy construction materials led her to Santa Fe.

Fittingly, the first house Tara designed for Habitat in Santa Fe was a straw bale construction located on the road to Glorietta. She also designed the double-walled adobe houses in the West Alameda complex (their green pitched roofs are visible from the road) and several in the new Aldea neighborhood.

Has she had the opportunity to design any additional straw bale houses for Habitat? "No,"€ she answers, a little regretfully. "For the most part, because we rely so heavily on volunteer labor, we stick to the basic frame house, which is easy, it's up fast, it's familiar, it's well insulted and it's just generally worked out well to go with that."€ Likewise, the subdivision concept, with its more standardized design, "is a lot more sane-otherwise, with new volunteers each time, it would be like constantly reinventing the wheel."€

Tara tries to emulate pre-World War II levels of craftsmanship, as opposed to what she refers to as "postwar institutional manufacturing throw-em-up higher density housing"€ which, while being economically more feasible, results in houses without soul. "As a designer, I want my clients to feel a joy about it, especially with the history of affordable housing being so devoid of character, so sterile-I want them to feel that they matter, too, instead of thinking, "€˜Oh, I'm getting reinforced Kleenex for a house.'"€

The epitome of Habitat's accomplishment in Santa Fe, Tara believes, is the Barrio del Coraz-n neighborhood under the management of the Tierra Contenta nonprofit mixed housing subdivision along Jaguar Road. The streets are small, lined with newly-planted honey locust trees which will eventually spread their canopies, connecting tree to tree the way she hopes the families will also connect, not just as neighbors but as friends looking out for one another, in what she compares to such old downtown Santa Fe neighborhoods as the Acequia Madre area.

"The streets discourage those coming in who don't belong, and you can't very well speed down them-they're too short!"€ she laughs. The whole complex has a very "neighborhood"€ feel, the sturdy, well-built houses facing the mountains and hiking trails, each house with its two-car pad and additional parking spots for guests so as not to clog the streets, a landscaped turnaround in the center of each of the three cul-de-sacs. Families are encouraged to join the Homeowners' Association and to be aware of each others' comings and goings. "Ideally, we want it to be a safe place for kids, where the families are comfortable out on the front porch, talking to each other."€

The houses' interiors can't be customized beyond a certain point- "If we do it for one family, we have to do it for them all,"€ Tara points out, although she acknowledges that there are exceptions. "Last year, we had a woman with MS who required certain compensations, including accommodating her assistance dog."€ Carpeting in each of the homes is restricted to the bedrooms, "The rest of the flooring is vinyl because carpet gets so beat up in the building process, what with so many volunteers coming and going. But you can always throw down area rugs. And, of course, later on, you can always upgrade, if you want to."€ Choices are offered for kitchen counter tops and cabinetry. Mini-blinds are provided for all the windows, "because you need privacy and not everyone has curtains when they first move in."€

All the roofs are pitched metal, which last a lifetime, with good overhangs and gutters for harvesting water. "I'm a real stickler for light,"€ says Tara. "I put in more glass area than probably is typical."€ (Cheryl adds, "She always puts a small window or block of glass underneath the kitchen cabinets-you know, that area that's traditionally so dark? I wish the builder who designed my house had done that!"€) Habitat's litmus test is "simple, decent housing"€; accordingly, cross ventilation and ceiling fans are provided rather than swamp coolers. "We make everything low maintenance because these families are on limited budgets."€ Tara is conscious of preventing a claustrophobic feeling by providing glass in the front doors, which also, she says, encourages the "eyes on the neighborhood"€ attitude she wants to foster. And she's particularly concerned about how the bathrooms and kitchens work.

"I always like to put bathrooms on an outside wall, if at all possible, for light and fresh air. I'll even sometimes put the laundry room on an outside wall, if I can get away with it."€

Tara concedes that home ownership is a unique step for these families. "Everyone benefits from everybody taking care of their places. Everybody's property values rise, and because planned communities are arranged in certain ways, the restrictions help guarantee that nothing will be compromised. Their mortgage is with us but we step away and allow them to enjoy their home and maintain it."€

"And no one trades up,"€ adds Cheryl. "It's not that they couldn't-no one's stopping them, but they just don't."€ The implication being, of course, that everyone is there to stay.

Cheryl also marvels at the ways in which Tara works around what she calls the challenges of density. "All of these houses are very compact and, for example, in Aldea, we can buy lots for around $25,000 as opposed to the average market rate of $60,000 and up. These are topographically irregular lots, and Tara is brilliant at designing houses that accommodate those features."€ She cites Dorothy Moore's house in Aldea as a good example. "You enter the front door and immediately take two steps down into the dining/living area. Then, just around a corner, you take the same two steps back up to get to the bedrooms. It's essentially a split level, and it saves us otherwise all that hauling and packing dirt. Hers is really a charming, charming house."€

Does Tara keep tabs on her houses once their families move in? "You bet,"€ she says. Like any good artist-crossed-with-social-scientist, she needs to assess the results. "I've got to test for myself, is it working? Are the yards providing a good outdoor relationship? How best can we facilitate that relationship?"€

Tara's feeling, by her own account, is very maternal about what's going on with the Habitat houses. As an artist, "I get to create, to fulfill my raison d'être in the best possible way."€

Tara's next self-imposed challenge in her pro bono designing of Habitat houses is the evolution and refinement of water harvesting on the properties. "We've also been working on other permaculture concepts such as swaling, but it's not as good as it could be."€

Dorothy Moore, homeowner in Aldea, told Cheryl that this is her dream come true: "I get to work in my yard planting plants that I can see grow and I know I won't have to leave them."€

Asked just what defines Tara's architectural magic for their clients, Cheryl isn't sure it's necessarily any particular outward design concept. "I think it's just when a family is able to say, "€˜This is where we can all be together and be ourselves.' Maybe the best design is one that fosters that feeling."€