Case Study: Sundial House by Specht Architects

Santa Fe, N.M., has the dual distinction of being the oldest state capital in the United States and the highest in elevation, at nearly 7,200 feet. Its physical beauty, nestled between vast mountainous state forests, and its history as a cultural and arts mecca make it a very desirable place to live or to visit. It’s not, however, an easy place to build a house. Even beyond the city boundaries and its very strict style and construction requirements, severe height restrictions limit what architects and builders can accomplish with exterior elevations.

Architect Scott Specht, AIA, had somewhat of a reprieve with Sundial House because he and his clients chose a building site about five minutes out of town and out from under the harshest of city building restrictions. Still, Scott had to cap the height of this second home to 14 feet—from the average point. Given the topography of the 8-acre ridge-top site, that actually meant digging down and recessing the building into a series of courtyards.

Scott practices in Austin, Texas, and New York, primarily, so he’s dealt with conditions similar to Santa Fe’s huge range of temperature and weather. From Texas, he understands extreme heat, which the city suffers during the summer. And he’s coped with snow loads for houses in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. However, Santa Fe’s arid high-desert climate was a new challenge. Summer months can also produce heavy monsoon rains; therefore, houses still need fortification against moisture.

Wild Weather

Coping with wild swings of weather and the city’s water and power constraints informed the design in many ways, as did the architect’s professional commitment to sustainable design. The first major move was to keep house size under control. Ultimately, it came in at 2,500 square feet, accommodating the couple an their visiting children and grandchildren. The second move was to optimize construction methods to conserve energy. For ideas on that, Scott looked to local building traditions.

“Climate and microclimates have to be considered,” Scott explains, “and that’s where looking to traditional construction methods is important. Thermal massing works really well to cope with the very extreme temperature swings—absorbing the heat during the day and releasing it at night when the temperature drops. We ended up deploying that quite a bit.” The local tradition of adobe construction accomplishes the same thing, but for this house, Scott and builder John Wolf, of Wolf Corp., used insulated concrete forms with a stucco finish and a slab-on-grade foundation.


At 7,200 feet and higher, the sun is scaldingly strong and natural shade is hard to come by. Scott kept this in mind in the design phase, coming up with a series of deep overhangs to cool the interiors and protect exterior entertaining space. “In Santa Fe, ‘portales,’ or porches, are used to create shade,” he explains. “We have 12-foot cantilevered overhangs to shade outdoor areas. There are not a lot of shade trees here because the hilltop gets scoured by wind. There’s a shaded courtyard that’s recessed. And we put three pear trees that will bloom and grow there, and provide some shade over time.”


Flat Top

Despite the need for shade and winter’s snow loads, flat roofs are the norm in Santa Fe construction. Scott looked no further than local tradition for how to engineer the roof system. “It’s a spray- foam roof on a plywood deck and has gravel on that. It provides great insulation value. This is what people do in the area because it works well and is very durable.” When clients balk at the idea of flat roofs and possible leaking, Scott puts their minds at ease with this factoid: “I always use the example of Walmart and Target. Would they build all those flat-roof buildings if they leaked all the time?”



Big-box lessons aside, flat roofs are the prevailing style in Santa Fe’s adobe and Pueblo Revival styles. There’s something powerful about letting the surrounding mountains have the peaks and valleys to themselves. Another charming aspect of adobe construction is its hefty roof beams, or vigas. Typically, they were left exposed inside and continued through exterior walls. For Sundial House, Scott has evoked the tradition but with Glulam beams given a dark stain and kept inside the interior envelope.





A narrow skylight runs 125 feet along the length of the roof. It casts shadows down through the Glulam beams and over the chunky reliefs of the board-formed concrete walls. “You can almost tell the time of day by the progression of the light,” says Scott. “There’s a nice progression of sunlight through the house, not unlike a sundial. It’s just beautiful.”

A carefully controlled palette of white oak covers the floors over a hydronic radiant heating system and appears in rift-sawn form in the custom kitchen cabinets, the office built-ins located in the hallway, and the master bedroom. The same dark stain on the Glulams is applied to the oak floors. Says Scott, “We like the look of a consistent whole.”







Desert Green

Although the house is on public water and has its own well on-site (albeit a slow producer), fire and firefighting are real concerns in the desert climate. To address this, Scott devised a rain-water collection system that captures runoff from the roof and directs it into two 10,000-gallon galvanized steel rainwater tanks. One is designated for fire resources and one for irrigation.

Down the slope from the building site, a solar field of 16 ground-mounted photovoltaic modules supplies much of the power for the house, says Scott. And the one-car garage has a rapid charge system for an electric car.


These active conservation strategies and others, combined with the passive strategies of shading, thermal massing, and the like, have already earned Specht Architects and the Sundial House the Jeff Harnar Award for Contemporary Architecture. The prestigious regional award, sponsored by the Thornburg Foundation in Santa Fe and the University of New Mexico School of Architecture + Planning in Albuquerque, honors modern work that is also sensitive to site and environment.

Sundial House’s architecture is indeed sensitive to site, environment, and several centuries of Santa Fe building traditions. But that doesn’t stop it from also deploying some dramatic flair on its hilltop ridge. There’s a grand, muscular concrete arch that stretches from the roofline of the house across the driveway and then appears to soar over the cliff. “You drive through that arch to get to the parking court in the back,” says Scott. “I love the idea of these concrete walls becoming almost land art.”


Plans and Drawings



Project Credits

Sundial House


ARCHITECT: Scott Specht, AIA, Specht Architects, Austin, Texas, and New York

BUILDER: John C. Wolf, Wolf Corp., Santa Fe

INTERIOR DESIGNER: Noirine Hayes, Dallas

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: James deGrey David, David/Peese Design, Austin

PROJECT SIZE: 2,500 square feet

SITE SIZE: 8 acres


PHOTOGRAPHY: Taggart Cojan Sorensen



Windows & Doors





COUNTERTOPS: Caesarstone






SECONDARY FAUCETS: Dornbracht, Graff



LIGHTING: Tach Lighting






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