Photography ©Wendy McEahern

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Mission Accomplished: A Smaller, “Purpose-Built” Home

by Emily Van Cleve

Rita and Scott Karns had two objectives when they approached Keith Gorges at Tierra Concepts about building a 4,100-square-foot home for them in 2017: They wanted to downsize from their custom-built 7,000-square-foot home in Sierra del Norte, and they were interested in a “purpose-built” home.

“For us, purpose-built meant getting exactly what we need,” explain the Karns, who have been living in their new home on 1.5 acres in The Hills at Bishop Lodge since September 2019. “We knew what we loved and wanted to bring from our former home to our new home, and we knew the things we wanted to change.”

The Karns chose their lot for its stunning western views of the Jemez Mountains, southwestern views of Mount Taylor and northern views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Because the home had to be built into a hill to maximize the views and the homeowners desired a single-level residence with no steps, there were specific construction challenges associated with the project.

A southwestern home against a stunning sunset
A simple, but stunning entrance invites visitors in. Photography ©Wendy McEahern.

“The foundation was the most difficult part,” recalls Gorges, who notes that cutting through the lot’s hard rock was a time-consuming and laborious process. “We also had to deal with unstable soil.”

Once the foundation was securely in place, the Karns could begin realizing their dream home as empty-nesters who had raised two sons. They already knew they wanted a soft modern/contemporary design with Southwestern elements. Working with Tierra Concepts was a perfect fit.

“We have a ‘contextual modern style’ of building,” explains Gorges. “Our home designs are inspired by the Santa Fe area and our natural surroundings. We blend traditional Pueblo Revival and contemporary styles, which means, for example, that our homes have exposed beams in wood and in steel. Wood and steel beams are found throughout the Karns’ home.”

When it came to choosing floor, wall and ceiling colors, the Karns preferred warm, earthy colors with an organic and natural feel to them. The interior of the home has textured, hard-troweled plaster walls, which the Karns had enjoyed in their previous home.

A dog sitting in a bedroom.
The family dog stands sentinel in a bedroom. Photography ©Wendy McEahern.

“This kind of textured plaster is a throwback to the way homes in the Santa Fe area were traditionally plastered,” Gorges adds. “However, in the Karns’ home, the plaster was applied in a contemporary way, so it has a contemporary look. What this means is that the plaster has a relatively flat surface and sharp, rather than rounded, exterior corners.”

One of Tierra Concepts’ trademarks is building light-filled homes, and the Karns’ home is no exception. Gorges introduced the Karns to his way of incorporating skylights into the design.

“Most people use skylights in the middle of the room and hallway to add light to a room,” he explains. “Often, there’s too much light in one part of a room — and it can be hot if you stand under the skylight — and too little light in another part. We use skylights to accentuate the architecture and balance light in a room.”

Gorges designed many ceiling-to-floor windows throughout the home to create a connection with the outside environment. To help balance the light, Gorges installed skylights at the top of walls and against parapets.

A double-sided, floor-to-ceiling bookcase separates a media room from an office/sewing room.
A double-sided, floor-to-ceiling bookcase separates a media room from an office/sewing room. Photography ©Wendy McEahern.

Plenty of natural light enters the Karns’ kitchen, which is the heart of their home. “I love to cook,” says Rita Karns, “and Scott loves to grill outside.” While the couple’s previous residence had both a breakfast area and a formal dining room, these two spaces were nixed in favor of an open and light-filled kitchen/great room.

Today, the Karns enjoy most of their meals while sitting at the large kitchen island, which has a prep sink, a microwave, two refrigerator drawers and drawers for utensils and kitchen accessories. Scott Karns designed the light bar above the island.

While eating and working in the kitchen, the Karns appreciate viewing an impressive tapestry by Columbian visual artist Olga de Amaral that’s hung on a wall behind the island. De Amaral is known for her large-scale abstract works made with fibers and covered in gold or silver leaf. “It’s my favorite piece,” says Rita Karns. “As we were building the house, I looked for the right place to have our special “Olga” wall.”

A great room with an informal dining area
A thoughtfully designed kitchen opens into a great room with an informal dining area. Photography ©Wendy McEahern.

The kitchen has all the accoutrements the Karns need to store food and cook meals, including a stainless-steel refrigerator covered with wood that complements the kitchen’s maple cabinets, three ovens (a steam oven, warming oven and traditional oven) and a large, functional pantry. Inside the 125-square-foot pantry is a wet bar, refrigerator, ice maker, sink and wine coolers.

Instead of a formal dining room, the Karns made a space for a dining table in the great room, adjacent to the kitchen. This table, surrounded on two sides by floor to ceiling windows, is a perfect place to share meals with family and friends.

When it’s time to relax after dinner, the Karns often retire to the great room and sit on a sectional facing a wood-burning fireplace surrounded by stone. “In our former house, we had a half dozen fireplaces,” explains Scott Karns. “We didn’t think we needed that many for this home, so it only has two, and we wanted both to burn wood. One is in the great room, and the other is outside on the portal.”

If the Karns decide to step outside the great room to enjoy the fireplace on their portal, all they have to do is exit through a pocket glass wall. “We put a lot of pocket glass walls in our homes,” says Gorges. “There are four huge glass panels in the Karns’ great room. When the panels are slid from right to left into a pocket, the whole room opens up to the portal.”

A functional, spacious portal looks out on the Jemez Mountains
The functional, spacious portal looks out on the Jemez Mountains. Photography ©Wendy McEahern.

While the covered portal isn’t used frequently during the colder months, it’s a go-to place when the weather is nice. Complete with recessed lighting and solar shades, this over 600-square-foot space is ideal for entertaining dinner guests, sitting back and relishing a good book on a sunny afternoon, or savoring a post-dinner glass of wine while watching magnificent sunsets behind the Jemez Mountains. The Karns liked the outdoor furniture from their former house so much that they brought their outdoor dining table and an outdoor glass coffee table to their new one.

The Karns enjoy spending some evening time in their media/television room. This cozy spot has two recliners that face a 65-inch television. Off to one side of the room is a double-sided bookshelf. While one side faces the media room, the other faces a rectangular room with huge windows that serves as Scott Karns’ office and Rita Karns’ sewing area.

A southwestern master bathroom
The master bathroom features a tub encased in stone. Photography ©Wendy McEahern.

The master bedroom, a relatively modest space, is adjacent to a spacious bathroom with floor-to-ceiling windows. “Keith had initially designed two sinks in one line, but we realized that we liked the way our former master bathroom had been arranged with L-shaped sink areas,” explains Rita Karns. “The master bathroom tub is also similar to the tub in our former house in that it’s encased in stone, but this one is a regular tub while the one in our previous home was a Jacuzzi tub.” The bathroom also features a shower and a steam shower.

Other rooms in the home include two additional bedroom suites to accommodate visiting family members and friends, and a powder room near the kitchen pantry.

Just as the Karns paid meticulous attention to every detail in the inside of their home, they brought the same awareness to the landscaping. Kendall McCumber, owner of McCumber Fine Gardens, worked with them to design an outdoor space with lots of terracing and stone retaining walls and several different kinds of low-maintenance wildflowers, grasses and shrubs. An underground drip irrigation system that the Karns can control via phone makes sure that their native and adaptive plants, surrounded by pecan shell mulch, thrive year-round.

“This house is just exactly what we had envisioned when we set out to downsize,” say the Karns. “It more than meets our aesthetic and functional expectations for style, finish and comfort, as well as being the perfect size for the two of us and our family. On top of that, it provides enough space for hosting parties for the many new friends we have made since moving to this great neighborhood.”

Emily Van Cleve
Associate Editor

Writing engaging articles for print and websites continues to be one passion of Emily Van Cleve. She has been a freelance writer and journalist in Santa Fe since 1994, serving a wide range of clients including magazines, newspapers, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations. Emily has been a contributor to Santa Fean magazine for many years and is delighted to be working with the Santa Fean and Essential Guide team. An abstract painter and former professional pianist, Emily also enjoys hiking throughout New Mexico and at the Grand Canyon.


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