A small balcony jutting from Lee Gamelsky and Sue Frye’s North Valley home overlooks the bosque. The house utilizes abundant glass, concrete, and steel.
Can you see the wooden slats embedded in the concrete slab separating a hallway from the sun-filled dining and living spaces? The wood came from the first house the owners shared in New Mexico. A wall of commercial grade windows offers views to the center courtyard.
Though modestly sized, the kitchen is extremely functional in terms of both cooking and storage. All of the brilliant white cabinets, drawers, and shelves are built low, including in the center island, for easier access and a more open look.
Finished in the same trio of materials as the rest of the house—concrete, glass, and metal—the minimalist bedrooms were designed for peace and serenity.
A bright turquoise door is a fun jolt of color in the otherwise neutral master bath which opens directly to ...
...a concrete-walled outdoor shower (right) for a truly indoor-outdoor living experience.
Part of the house is clad in metallic siding (inset), which gleams in the sunshine.
All acute angles and defined geometries, the courtyard’s fish pond is lined with Mexican river stones for visual contrast. It’s accessible by boardwalks that float above the ground.
by Ben Ikenson photographs by Kirk Gittings
A green, sustainable home along the bosque integrates seamlessly with its surroundings
The blue metal front door of Lee Gamelsky and Sue Frye’s home in Albuquerque’s North Valley opens to reveal an enormous wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and a dramatic preview: a partially enclosed courtyard with a trapezoid-shaped lily pond, and beyond, a young fruit orchard and the bosque lining the banks of the Rio Grande. It is a bold statement about the home’s connectivity to the outdoors, a major consideration for the couple who, after years of designing houses and properties for others, took it upon themselves in 2014 to design their own custom residence—a high-efficiency modern masterpiece with plenty of outdoor living spaces.
“We wanted the home to be integrated with the outdoors,” says Gamelsky, who served as both architect and general contractor for his personal home project.
A native of New York City, Gamelksy studied environmental science and studio art before landing a job with the City of Albany, where he was tasked with inventorying the city’s stained glass. “This gave me an opportunity to really appreciate buildings,” he says.Eventually, on the advice of an architect friend who suggested he “go West, young man,” Gamelsky enrolled in the UNM School of Architecture and later started his own architecture practice in 1987. After architecture school, Gamelsky met Frye, a native of Chicago who’d recently earned a degree in fine arts. Initially they lived in a Victorian house in the historic Huning Highland District, which they completely gutted and renovated, before moving to the modest home in the Altura Park area in which they raised two daughters.
A few years ago, after accompanying a friend to a solar energy conference, Gamelsky returned home enthusiastic about the possibility of installing PV panels on the Altura Park home. But Sue wondered if the installation cost on their existing home would be worthwhile; maybe it would make more sense to design a new home from the ground up?
“Lee had always wanted to live in the Valley, but we didn’t want to uproot the kids from their schools and friends,” says Frye. “After I finished a graduate program in landscape architecture at UNM, the kids were grown and out of the house, and it seemed like the perfect time to make the move.”
To their delight, Frye discovered a couple of acres adjacent to the Bosque. Long before construction started or blueprints were even drafted, Gamelsky installed an orchard, a well, and an irrigation system. “The house design didn’t really start until after we sold our previous residence, but all those days working in the orchard gave me time to understand the nuances of the property,” he explains.
Inside the home, an immediate focal point is a 7 x 9-foot concrete wall, a freestanding slab that serves to separate a hallway from the open dining/living room without completely closing the spaces off from one another. Embedded in the concrete wall are colorful slivers of sugar pine the couple managed to salvage from the first home they shared together, the old Victorian. Not only are the wood pieces remnants from the couple’s personal past, they provide a curious contrast to the more contemporary building materials primarily used for their current home—namely, concrete, glass, and metal.
For all its modernity, the home seems to interact with its surroundings in an almost organic way, without detracting from the serenity of the landscape.
“I grew up in my father’s machine shop, working on lathes, grinders, drill presses, and milling machines at an early age,” says Gamelsky. “Metal isn’t ‘cold’ to me.”
Indeed, much of the exterior is metallic, including one corner of the home clad in metal shingles, adding a touch of modernist variation in texture. Inside, many of the building materials appear in their natural state, such as the hard-troweled concrete floors and the concrete walls of the outdoor shower, sauna, and greenhouse.
The interior is sparse and orderly, imbued with a sense of pragmatism and a subtle midcentury modern aesthetic. At one end is the master suite; at another, down a hallway with built-in shelving, a pair of guest rooms. The kitchen is set off in the northeast corner, where it gets plenty of morning light but isn’t visible from the open living/dining room (“so we don’t have to see the mess after we’ve cooked when we sit down to eat,” says Frye). The centerpiece of the home, the open living/dining room that looks out to the angular lily pond, is an atrium overflowing with natural light, further connecting the interior to the outdoors.
For all its modernity, the home seems to interact with its surroundings in an almost organic way, without detracting from the serenity of the landscape. There are sitting areas, including a small covered patio on the north side of the house that remains cool and shaded even on the hottest afternoons, Gamelsky claims, as well as a deck above the front door that’s accessed by a spiral staircase housed within a tower. From this vantage, one can admire the long, tree-lined driveway and front yard, a low-maintenance oasis of shade trees, clover, and low-water flowering shrubs.
The courtyard, partially enclosed by the home itself, is more formally designed, with the small pond, narrow boardwalks that float above patches of clover, and paths leading toward the Bosque through the orchard. Gamelsky maintains two active beehives on the property, and, Frye notes, “A kitchen garden is in the works for this season that will feature herbs.”
“I grew up in my father’s machine shop, working on lathes, grinders, drill presses, and milling machines at an early age. Metal isn’t ‘cold’ to me.”
What’s more, the home itself is a study in high-efficiency architecture. An array of 18 solar photovoltaic panels affixed to the sloping roof of the garage provides more electricity than the home consumes—and even powers Gamelksy’s electric car a couple times a week. Two solar hot water panels augment the heating system as well. The tower above the front door is designed to capture air flow and facilitate natural ventilation. Other sustainable features include high-performance glazing with solar control, a well-insulated building envelope, all LED light fixtures, energy-efficient HVAC and appliances, and rainwater harvesting catchments. Even the lily pond, which helps cool the outdoor space in summer, was designed to provide solar reflectance into the 12-foot-high living space during the winter months.
For Gamelsky and Frye, their quasi-farm in the bucolic North Valley represents a radical shift from their big city roots. Says Gamelsky, “Our home is a reflection of our belief in the importance of sustainability, living in harmony with the land, environmental stewardship, and creating a design that is in context to the site.”
Lee Gamelsky AIA LEED AP BD+C, Lee Gamelsky Architects
Western Building Supply
Susan Frye, Landscape Designer and Lee Gamelsky
Steel Welding, Entry Gate
Exterior Metal Panels