A Texas couple balances contemporary conservation efforts with traditional design on New Mexico’s historic Flying Diamond Ranch.
For former Texans Linda and Bill Herrmann, the allure of settling on the historic Flying Diamond Ranch in San Jose, New Mexico, was obvious. “The weather is the best anywhere in America,” Linda points out. “There’s no pollution, and — unlike Dallas — there are incredible outdoor amenities like hiking and camping. And then there’s the appeal of having a home in a place that’s totally isolated and unused, where you can do anything you have a vision for.”
In the Herrmanns’ case, that vision included building a traditional homestead on the centuries-old ranch that takes advantage of contemporary green technology. Set 7,000 feet above sea level amid undeveloped Bureau of Land Management property overlooking nearby Rowe Mesa, the 5,000-acre retreat was the kind of place the couple hoped their children and grandchildren would make regular pilgrimages to. So it was important to the Herrmanns to protect the land and wildlife — which includes plenty of deer, bears, and coyotes — for generations to come. Adopting a tread-lightly approach to their design, the couple restored riparian streambeds, replaced invasive non-native vegetation with regional plants, and implemented green building systems.
“We wanted the design to be plain and simple, and to fit with the architecture of northern New Mexico that has remained pretty much the same for hundreds of years,” says Linda, who relied on Santa Fe architect Steve Shaw to make the couple’s concept a reality. “It was also important that the buildings be discreet and fit with the environment. I didn’t want to be high up on the property and look south and see this big expanse of rooftops. This house is all about looking out, and I didn’t want anything to interfere with that.”
Shaw immediately began imagining a story for the ranch house, barn, workshop, and shed according to the Herrmanns’ vision. “We wanted this to be a place that could have been assembled in the 1800s that you might discover on a trip through the back roads of the Pecos River Valley,” says Shaw. “The intent was not to make a formal architectural statement but to site it in a spontaneous fashion like an early settler might have done.”
A visit to the local archives revealed homesteads with simple designs and floor plans that employed straightforward framing methods. Shaw followed suit by selecting a palette of minimalist materials and eschewing unnecessary embellishments. “Our goal was to stay true to the time, and that meant being rigorous about things like incorporating nondecorative hardware,” says the architect, who decided to first start with the barn. Home to the Herrmanns’ donkey and five mules, the board and batten structure sports a standing seam metal roof, similar to tin roofs in the local vernacular, and is nestled against a hillside, featuring clerestories for fresh air and light.
With environmentally friendly insulated concrete form walls, which mimic adobe, the main house sits in an open grassy meadow surrounded by ponderosa pine, spruce, juniper, and pinyon trees. The low, rounded walls announcing the entry provide protection from hungry herbivores for the owners’ vegetable and flower gardens, while in the interior, plaster walls, pine trusses intentionally devoid of ornamentation, and distressed oak floors establish a natural flow from the outdoors.
When decorating the home, the owners wanted to implement traditional ranch-house style as well as functionality and durability, keeping in mind their active grandchildren and three dogs. “There’s lots of leather and wood furnishings because they just hold up better than fabric pieces, and the wood floors are dirt friendly and look just fine with a few scratches on them,” Linda says.
Local furnituremakers were commissioned to fabricate custom furnishings like the dining room’s wooden table and chairs with studded leather upholstery, and an area blacksmith forged the intricate chandelier that illuminates the intimate dining space. A sense of history continues in the galley kitchen where farm-style cabinets with a glazed finish line the walls, and the enamel apron sink overlooks dramatic views of the surrounding Pecos River Valley.
Throughout the house, brightly patterned pillows and flat-weave kilim rugs from Turkey add splashes of warm colors to the brown palette of dark woods and leather. In a nod to her former urban life — “Our last home was very contemporary,” says Linda — the gallery-style walls that lead to the bedrooms are lined with selections from the couple’s extensive modern art collection.
Although much of the property’s design is rooted in the past, its structures utilize 21st-century green technology to the max. A full photovoltaic solar array is hidden in the nearby trees, providing heat for water and the interior, and in lieu of gutters — “Which were not available in these parts back then anyway,” says Shaw — a below-garden storm drainage system handles water capture and containment.
At the end of the day, Shaw is proud to have helped the Herrmanns achieve their goals of preserving the ranch’s sense of history while protecting its natural environment. “It’s gratifying that we were able to create a home that is incredibly energy efficient and still stays true to the aesthetics of the past.”