The Home I will Likely Never Build: The Elevator

I have a house in my head. There was a time I even owned a patch of land near Santa Fe I imagined building it on. But things change, and that land now has a completely ordinary home on it, and the home in my head, not constrained by any physical reality, continues to evolve.

This home, from its inception, has had stairs. Elegant stairs, with wood and wrought iron or whatever materials the artisans choose to use.

But not everyone can take the stairs! There has to be another way to move between the levels of this house. So there’s an elevator. But the elevator can’t just be a convenience begrudgingly installed for our less-abled friends; it has to be awesome, and fun, and every much a part of the experience of living here as all the other features.

It has to be a place the kids will ride, just for the fun of it. And while the rest of the house you have seen emphasizes old-world materials and design, the elevator is a place to let technology come to the front.

When you push the call button for the elevator, you realize it is already on its way. The doors slide open, and you step in. You turn to face the closing door, as you have been long-trained to do, and as they slide shut you feel as if the elevator is made of glass. You can see the other people nearby who have decided to take the stairs for some reason. On your other sides you see the walls of the elevator shaft.

It’s obvious this is video, of course, but it’s as immersive as you can get.

For the moment you choose to go up. There is a button to push, or you can just gesture, or you can say “up”. As the elevator starts to rise, the view in the video moves with you.

But in fact, the video is moving much more quickly than you are, and between the actual levels in the house, you catch, and hear, and maybe even feel, a different, in-between level.

Perhaps, on the way up, you pass through the sky domain of Pegasus, or right through the middle of a battle from Lord of the Rings, or just a beautiful beach. When going below ground, it might be Dwarven mines, subterranean lava rivers, or Mario Brothers plumbing as far as the eye can see.

How many different virtual floors will there be? At first, only a few. But I imagine some of the kids that ride that elevator over and over to absorb every detail of those floors will eventually be inspired to add floors of their own. One hundred years after my passing, that elevator will be a hell of a ride. By then, those same kids will have upgraded the hardware and I’m a little afraid of what that elevator might become.

Which makes it very important that you can control what you see. There are probably secret ways to control which thing you see, and absolutely non-secret ways to turn off the whole feature and just get to the damn floor you asked for with minimal fuss. The elevator will remember that you do not appreciate the malarkey.

There is a potential for creepiness here, so let me address it. The elevator recognizes you, and knows if you don’t want the show or if there are particular virtual floors you dislike. The elevator will not, indeed cannot, tell anyone or anything else about you. The house in its entirety shares that philosophy. There will be no Alexa within these walls.

What I love about the elevator is that it can see the future*. It is built to be a project that grows over time, as generations add the software and the hardware to make new levels real. But those first primitive virtual floors will still be there, and the aging great-aunt can smile when a level she made goes by, even if her offspring have eclipsed her with their fancy new tools.

I have thought a great deal about how the people who build this place can leave their marks, but I need to find more ways that the occupants of this place add to that legacy. The elevator is just the first step. This building is an evolving, living monument to the people who interact with it, in particular the people who make it their home. What will you leave behind? And will it be a secret?

I’ve sent you upstairs, but while that is an awesome place, it is not especially ground-breaking. Mini-kitchen, wet bar, dumb waiter from the main kitchen, deer-antler chandelier — the place to shoot pool and get loud and watch the Big Sports Game. The view from the windows, north and south, is breathtaking (terrain allowing). But it’s the stuff any good architect could pull off. From here there is one more level up, onto the roof, closer to the stars.

You will really love it up there; the desert sky is breathtaking, but there’s more of interest if we go down.


The Home I will Likely Never Build: The Common Room

After a peaceful stroll through the garden, and an appreciative look at the sun-facing side of the house, you have now walked inside. I recently discussed the overall philosophy of the architecture, but so far all you really know about this room is that it has floors, a fireplace, and a predictable assortment of furniture.

The trick with structures that live only in your head is that they are always changing. Without getting too specific, however (there will be no floor plan), I would like to share with you the room I have long imagined as the lungs of this home. (We will find the heart later.)

It is a large room, but the acoustics are surprisingly soft. In part this is because there are very few truly flat surfaces. The walls curve gently; their corners are rounded, suggesting they were carved, rather than constructed. The base colors are earth tones, reflecting that the walls are literally constructed from earth, but everywhere are bright splashes of color.

A staircase sweeps up one curved wall, its treads richly-stained hardwood, the bannister held by a lattice of cast iron, perhaps created by the same artist who made the gate that was your first introduction to this place. You can check for the artist’s mark on their work if you want to be sure.

There is a small door that leads to the space under the stairs. It matches the stair treads. Under-stair spaces have always been a little bit magical and mysterious to me (I grew up in a home without one), so I want to turn these spaces into hidey-holes, comfortable enough for a visiting grand-nephew to roll out a sleeping bag. Every under-stairs space should have at least one secret compartment, trap door, or other hidden surprise. Lights that respond to secret gestures, things like that.

“Secrets” are a feature in this home, even if everyone knows them. (Or do they? The possibility that there might be more secrets is pretty intoxicating. I will encourage the people who make this home to put in secrets not even I know about.) The secrets are the source of legends, stories that are passed through generations, gaining momentum with each retelling.

You have already met the fireplace and the cozy furniture that circles it. Behind the sofa there is a large table, magnificent and wood. It feels like it was made exactly for this place (it was – the craftsperson left their mark), and affords plenty of space for a great feast or a Warhammer game, or whatever tabletop games the kids are playing now.

Perhaps beneath the table the tile of the sun-warmed section of the floor has given way to wood as well, durable hardwoods that will last for a century (with a little care), but already the floorboards creak a little under your tread. Pure artifice, but the kind I enjoy; a reminder of the rustic foundations of Southwestern architecture.

And in every Southwestern home, you must look at the ceiling. Exposed beams, as round as they were when they were trees, cross the ceiling, supporting a lattice of wooden slats above. This is the most simple and iconic ceiling style, in other rooms you will discover the many, many variations on this simple theme that are possible. Here, the dark wood of the ceiling gives the room a cozier feel, more intimate despite the room’s size.

Over the table is a chandelier – perhaps also wrought iron, perhaps not (we will save the inevitable deer antler chandelier for another space). It creates a brighter pool of light even when the subtler lighting for the rest of the room is dimmed.

There is music here, as well. There is a sound system that does what all good sound systems do, but without being gaudy about it. Speakers are discrete but effective, and can get plenty loud when the need arises. The vinyl collection will probably live in a different room, closer to the heart.

Sound, but… huh. No television. There will be places for watching TV in this house, but this is not one of them. And when you really start looking hard, you will also see there is no plastic. That tells you two things: this room is built to last, and this room is a fantasy. But ultimately the goal is to employ no material that won’t still be viable 100 years from now (solar panels grudgingly excepted).

Of course with a big banquet table there must be a kitchen nearby! On the far side of the room from the curved glass wall is a curved adobe wall with a bar that communicates with the kitchen just beyond. The “main kitchen,” we will call it. (You have already seen the outdoor kitchen.)

While I will leave the details of the kitchen to the architects, from the common room you can get some of its vibe: Windows letting in northern light, stone countertops, and hand-carved doors on cabinets specifically crafted to follow the easy contours of the walls. Modern appliances, island, breakfast nook, and all that. A bright and comfortable place that still feels hand-crafted.

The curved south face of the house is also one of the walls for the “hallways” that extend to either side of the common room. On pleasant summer nights there is no wall at all, and the bedrooms open directly into the garden. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Perhaps later we will explore a bedroom or two, but “nice chambers, fireplaces maybe, quiet as only foot-plus-thick walls can grant, beautiful and varied ceilings, breezes” sums them up pretty well. For bathrooms, “hand-made tile, good light, elegant fixtures built to last, easy to clean” is the bullet list. The water reclamation system is actually more interesting than the water closets.

But around behind the stairs going up, you find two things: elevator doors, and stairs going down. I am very excited to tell you about both of those things.


The Home I Will Likely Never Build: Stepping Inside

I have had a dwelling living in my head for my entire adult life. The place I want to build, the place I want to live. It has magic in it.

I have described the garden, and the first impression of the home you get looking from the garden. But so far I have ignored the most important part of any home: the people.

Fundamentally, a house provides shelter, comfort, and security for its occupants. But we all know that a real home does much more. A home also brings people together, it inspires, it creates joy. Much of those influences come from the people, rather than the structure, but still it’s worth asking, “how can a structure encourage that community?”

I have seen “dream houses” that are filled with architecture that looks, honestly, pretty cool. Angles and light, and big open spaces that will be drafty and acoustically awful. The “wow” you feel wears off for the living in it. (Note: I have never lived in one of these places.)

Some of these places seem more a celebration of the architect than a great place to live. The Home I Will Likely Never Build shall never forget that it is in service to its occupants and guests.

There are people here. Importantly, there are children here. Modern architecture seems to forget them, but no one loves a secret passage more than a ten-year-old. The children that ride the magic elevator up and down will grow to be the kids that enhance the elevator.

There is laughter here, and cocktails, good food, and honest joy. There are fires to gather around, and perhaps even singing. Somebody’s got to play that banjo in the corner. A structure cannot force people to be contemplative or communal or even nice. But it sure as heck can give extra juice to people who are already inclined that way.

It is autumn as you step into the house from the garden. The glass walls are closed, and the setting sun is throwing its last ruddy rays into the room you find yourself in.

From the outside, you saw how the house worked with the sun. Now, you feel the weight of the place. You feel the earth. The walls are thick, even the interior walls. Sound does not pass through these walls. They hold heat the way our planet does.

(Originally, I imagined this house being made with straw bales. But glorious mud has been here forever, doing what mud does. This is an adobe house, with steel structural reinforcements — unless a qualified architect changes my mind again.)

You take off your boots, and the tile is warm under your feet, exactly as you expected. You are a little nervous now, walking into a home that is obviously lived in. You are in a large open space. In front of you a cushy couch faces a fireplace where piñon has largely gone to coals, delivering a steady warmth to the room. There are childrens’ boots on the hearth, gently steaming.

The tile is not uniform. A few of them are sculpted, or embossed, with images or motifs or geometrical patterns, or something else. I don’t know exactly what makes those tiles special; that’s up to the artist entrusted to make them. I will demand that whatever the artist creates, it won’t annoy bare feet, and it will still work after 100 years of barefoot traffic. We will appeal to science to find the best material for the job.

On this day, perhaps there are people playing scrabble on the low table between the couch and the fire. Perhaps someone is reading in a side chair, and you tiptoe quietly past, or better yet grab a book of your own. Like the seasons, like the weather, life is ever-changing; you and the house adapt.

There are rugs on the floor. They are nice rugs, but not so nice you’d feel bad getting mud on them. Still, you shed your boots and leave them in the heap by the door.

Stocking feet, platforms, Birkenstocks, or stilettos, walk on what makes you feel good. The floors here will not judge.

There is laughter upstairs, and we will get there eventually. But first you have to really see the room you are in. This episode was more about the philosophy of the home than the execution. Next time, I will try to pin down the whirling ideas in my head and describe a room.