Remaking an Old Adobe in the Territorial Style
by Ken Wolosin

Fine Homebuilding
October/November 1999

A new wing adds space and unifies a design with a strong regional flavor

New life for an aging adobe. A 100-year-old adobe outside taos, New Mexico, was ripe for an overhaul when it changed hands. A new wing added living space and created a sheltered courtyard at the rear of the house. Remodeled photo taken at A on floor plan, original photo taken at B on floor plan.

Photo by Jean Clinton

The old adobe that Jean and Gary Clinton bought had been built by one of the earliest settlers to the Valdez Valley just outside Taos, New Mexico. Added onto many times since its construction in the late 1800s, the house was still too small and in real need of a rehab (inset photo, facing page). The Clintons wanted to put on a sizable addition and restore the house so that it would reflect the valleyıs Spanish farming and ranching character.

To anyone thinking adobe houses are square, flat-roof structures, the territorial style of northern New Mexico will come as a surprise. Appearing in the mid-1800s as American influence increased in the rural Southwest, territorial-style houses had traditional adobe walls. But roofs were gabled, metal clad and steeply pitched. Floor plans were long and narrow, and gabled dormers were common. The design for the addition and renovation--worked out among me, Jean Clinton (who has a background in design), Angela Matzelli of House Floor Plans in Taos and Donna LeFurgey of Taos Drafting and Design--leaned on this regional style.

With walls of traditional adobe brick, the 1,540-sq. ft. addition (photo above) sits at right angles to the original house and creates a sheltered courtyard area at the rear of the house (photo facing page). New living spaces include a large master bedroom and family room, each with high ceilings lit by gabled dormers (floor plans above). Trim and other exterior detailing, plus a new coat of cement stucco on old and new parts of the expanded house, help to unify the design. The Rio Hondo, a small river running below the house, and the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountains up the valley to the east are features that needed no improvement.

A change in grade becomes the first problem to solve

Because of a sloping site, the addition had to sit above the existing house by about 4 ft. When finished, the addition was linked to the existing house by a curved staircase (photo bottom left, facing page). Atop a 24-in. wide concrete footing, the additionıs stemwall of 14-in. block went up between three and nine blocks. Once the footing and stemwalls were done, we poured a concrete floor over compacted earth and a layer of crushed stone. Polystyrene insulation 1 in. thick provides a thermal break in the foundation.

Going uphill for new living space
A sizable addition includes a new entry, a master-bedroom suite and a family room. Connecting old and new portions of the house is a curved staircase that overcomes a 4-ft. difference in grade on the site.

Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 3-1/2
Size: 4,350 sq. ft.
Cost: N/A
Completed: 1996
Location: Taos, NM
Builder: Ken Wolosin

Not all adobes have flat roofs. A pitched roof and gabled dormers are typical details of a New Mexican territorial-style adobe. Photo taken at B on floor plan.

A private master-bedroom suite. At the far end of the new wing, the master bedroom is generously supplied with natural light. Photo taken at C on floor plan.
Adobe bricks that form the outside walls are 10 in. by 14 in. by 4 in., laid in cement mortar and capped with a steel-reinforced concrete bond beam. At the top of the adobe wall, two 2x plates anchored to the bond beam tie the roof system to the walls. The 5-ft. kneewall above the bond beam is framed conventionally with 2x10s.

Although adobe has incredible mass, its insulating value is low. So the exterior walls include 2 in. of rigid, foil-faced insulation. In keeping with the architectural style, wood trim is set around the windows. We used Pella Architect Series double-hung windows with divided lites and insulating glass (Pella Corp.; 800-847-3552;

The Clintons wanted cathedral ceilings in both the master bedroom (photo top left, facing page) and the family room. Across the 22-ft. width of these rooms, we ran large peeled logs called vigas, a traditional element of adobe houses. Set on 4-ft. centers, these structural vigas leave the high ceiling and dormer windows visible from below (photo below) while serving as collar ties for the roof. The 2x12 roof rafters are covered on the inside with beaded 1x6 tongue-and-groove boards. The beading, a territorial motif, also is used on door jambs and doors.

With high ceilings at both ends of the addition, the center of the new structure, consisting of a hallway, half-bath and master bath, has flat ceilings. Above is a meditation loft reached via a kiva ladder on one wall of the bedroom (photo top right, facing page).

Reworking the existing house helped to blend the two structures

Remodeling on the house was extensive: Vigas were added to one room; an existing bath was gutted, the ceiling raised and completely redone; new heating, plumbing and electrical systems were installed; new doors and some new windows were added; the old family room got a new oak plank floor; and baseboards and mud plaster were added.

Outside, we cut back the roof overhangs so that they would more closely match those on the addition. We removed the wide chalet-style fascia boards and added narrower trim on all the doors and windows. In the territorial style, head casings have a small peak at the center of the window. And we redid the roof with the same galvanized steel that we used on the addition. Once the exterior walls of the whole project were plastered over with cement stucco, the parts blended.

Detailing inside and out is more than an afterthought

Many elements combine to give the house the feel of a traditional Spanish territorial home: tin light fixtures and mirror frames, custom doors, forged door hardware, kiva fireplaces and thick exterior adobe walls. Mud plaster used to finish interior walls of the addition is especially important. It is a traditional mud and straw mix that is applied over a cement scratch coat.

A ladder leads to a small loft above the master bedroom. Photo taken at D on floor plan.

Stair links addition to existing house. A gently curved set of stairs overcomes a grade change to provide access to the new family room. Photo right taken at E on floor plan.
Before mud plaster was applied, we installed door casings and baseboard so that the finished plaster walls would be nearly flush with the trim. In the bathrooms, wall tiles and cabinets were installed, followed by plaster. Trim work in the house was painted with a white enamel.

To me, among the more interesting features of the project are the tapered posts on the porches, or portals as they are called around here. The design was inspired by the posts of an old Spanish adobe in Jacona, New Mexico, which at one time belonged to the artist Cady Wells. Cabinet- and door-builder Ed Paul made the posts by wrapping 3/4-in. exterior-grade plywood with 1-in. pine protected by West System epoxy (Gougeon Brothers Inc.; 517-684-7286). Concealed rabbets at the bottom of the posts accommodate galvanized brackets that are pinned to porch floors with 5/8-in. threaded rod.

New family room. Photo taken at F on floor plan.
Ken Wolosin has been a builder in Taos, New Mexico, for more that 20 years. Photos by Scott Gibson, except where noted.
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