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Enhancing the Sense of Place: Sharon Woods of Santa Fe's Woods Design Builders Talks of a Home's Soul

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders

Photo Credit: Peter Ogilvie

Many great writers have defined, as best as they could, the poetry and mystery of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and even more artists have called it home (George R.R. Martin, Cormac McCarthy, Georgia O'Keeffe, to name a few). It is the oldest capital in the United States and at 7,000 feet above sea level, it is also the highest. The early cold and the bracing, high altitude air, as D.H. Lawrence once wrote, makes "the stars snap like distant coyotes, beyond the moon."

With two distinct cultures (the Spanish and the Indian) and two different mountain ranges (the Jemez and the Sangre de Cristo), Santa Fe is rife with history and beauty. People have lived here since 1000 AD and in 2005, Santa Fe became the first U.S. city to be chosen by UNESCO as a Creative City, one of only nine in the world to hold this designation. The high altitude combines with the history of the land to make this a special, almost spiritual place—Santa Fe actually means Holy Faith. It is a labor of heart and mind to have a design/build firm here, since in order to be successful, a company has to have the preservation of land in mind and Woods Design Builders (WDB) has just that.

As the oldest family-owned design build firm in Santa Fe, Woods Design Builders is managed by CEO Sharon Woods and her family—most notably with her two sons, Shane and Rob. As a 40-year resident of Santa Fe, Woods has an in-depth knowledge of the city's history, unique architecture, and most importantly is able to incorporate these poetic elements into creating and/or remodeling a client's luxury home. Woods’ structures are built in several styles, from contemporary and pueblo to traditional and territorial. In fact, more than 200 homes have been built and over 50 have been remodeled by WDB.

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

But there is something more in the soul of this business than merely the "measure twice, cut once" philosophy. Building new homes certainly takes a practical sensibility, but doing renovations and restorations must also take into account the building’s historic past and the reflective relationship between the old architectural history and the new home being built.

The fact that Woods and family has emerged at the top, with several awards, is a testament to the soul of the company. Most recently they completed their 51st home at the high-end community Las Campanas, have renovated part of the historic La Posada de Santa Fe hotel and the Professor Wood home, one of the oldest in Santa Fe proper. Woods is also the co-author of two coffee-table books, Santa Fe Style and Santa Fe Homes.

Considering Woods really knows her stuff, we decided to interview her and chat about her company and what it's like to work in such an historic and artistic area. 

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

JustLuxe: What attracted you to Santa Fe?   

Sharon Woods: Its history, culture, clean air, mountains, and architecture.

JL: How soon after you came to Santa Fe were you involved in home building and design?

SW: I taught art in the public schools in the mid-'70s and then we built our first home in 1978. We had never built before, had no idea what we were doing, but did everything ourselves including plastering, [and] electric. We made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot. It was our essential education into building—we learned how to fix basic errors, which was [really] helpful.

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

JL: I know you do remodeling, but have you also done renovation/restoration? Could you discuss these processes?

SW: We have restored several historic buildings and have won awards and recognition especially for the Professor Wood home on Armijo Street. This home was built in the mid-1800s and the first superintendent of the Santa Fe schools, Professor Wood, lived there. It was one of the oldest intact territorial homes in Santa Fe. After completing the renovation the house was designated by both the state and the federal government. The process involved a great deal of research looking for original photos, restoring original fabric, and going through the Santa Fe Historic Review Board, as well as carefully working to save and restore original fabric during the construction process.

JL:  There is a type of soul and history that Santa Fe has, that has been well described by artists; as a builder you must have a deep respect for the history and soul of this land—could you talk a little about this?  

SW: I believe you [can] sense the history…in every step because of the preservation of our historic architecture. As Chair of the Historic Review Board for the city of Santa Fe, I have worked to write historic preservation language into our city code in order to preserve our architecture, which I believe is the key to this community so that the spirit is there for generations to come.

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

JL: On your website you say that when people come into one of your houses, they feel as if they have come home.  Could you talk about this feeling and what it involves? 

SW: That is a really good question, what are the qualities in our houses that feel like home? I would say proportion, palette, and the relationship [between] inside [and] the great outdoors. Our homes beckon to be lived in; each room asks, in a sense, to be occupied.

JL: How do you think your buildings and design reflects the soul and history of Santa Fe?

SW: Historically, indigenous materials were used to build Santa Fe homes where form truly follows function. In other words, those beams (or vigas) are actually holding up the roof. The lintel across the top of a window is holding up the structure above. The materials in our homes include wood, rock, brick, plaster, etc. There is comfort in both living with these indigenous materials and actually seeing the form and function working together. There is no wasted space when vision, practice, form, and function work together.

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

JL: You have built over 50 homes in Las Campanas. For those who don’t know what Las Campanas is, could you explain what it is and why it is so special for the identity of Santa Fe?

SW: Las Campanas is the only residential golf, tennis and horse community close to Santa Fe. You find that the people who live there share a love for the art and culture of the town, as well as the outdoors. This duality is reflected in the homes we build there. The architecture of the houses and the community itself share the spirit of Santa Fe. 

JL: We think that great design builders must understand how the soul of a home is actually created, from the original vision of the client to the end of when a house becomes a home.  Explain how your success is tied to your understanding about how the home’s soul is created. 

SW: I believe it is an evolutionary process. I begin at the site, looking at the views as well as the things that don’t want to be seen, like another home close by or a street. The design process begins from the outside in. What view wants to be seen from each room? How are outside spaces created by the structure? What rooms want east morning light or south light, sunsets or cozy quiet north light? Where does the entry want to be and where is the back yard? The most satisfying part of this process is when the house starts to tell me what it wants. Then I know its soul has emerged.

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

JL: One of our favorite architecture books is The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. In it he says, “We owe it to the worms and the trees that the building we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.” Do you sense that the homes you build and design will stand as promises to that kind of happiness? What are some of the design components that you see daily that provide this type of happiness to customers and homage to the land? 

SW: A Santa Fe home should emerge from the earth and compliment the natural landscape, not interrupt it. This is always my goal. I believe my homes are happy because they are a collaboration with the client. The client is an integral part of the process bringing their dreams and desires to the forefront. I then work with their dreams and use proportion, palette, light, and classic design elements to give them what they want, and essentially also, what they need.

JL: In understanding the process and strategies of taking a client’s paper outlines and turning it into a home, what are some of the general personality components you need, both from an architecture and a design perspective, to make that dream a reality?

SW: Each home that we design is unique because each is a combination of the site, the views, the dreams and desires of the client, and the client’s budget. I am just one piece of the pie, however it is my job to take all these variables and create the client’s dream home. It must exceed their expectations, bring the outside in, take advantage of the views, accurately respond to their program, and most importantly, be the house of their dreams.  

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

JL: In your book Santa Fe Style, you mention a woman, Amelia Hollenbeck, who came to the city in the 1930s and had architect John Gaw Meem design a home for her. She said, " I hope it will look merely natural and sort of inevitable." We think that is a great quote, and wonder how you see the sense of "merely natural and sort of inevitable" as benchmarks for what you do, both at Las Campanas and in other areas of Santa Fe?

SW: John Gaw Meem is a very famous Santa Fe architect who revived the Santa Fe pueblo and territorial style. My goal when designing a home is right in line with Amelia Hollenbeck—the home should naturally emerge from the earth, have an organicity to it, and enhance the natural landscape, not compete with it. 

JL: In the same book, there is a story about a sawmill that was renovated into a Santa Fe style home. In the 40 years of Wood Design Builders, have you and your team ever renovated a building that was once used for something else?

SW: Many years ago we did renovation work on La Posada, a hotel here in Santa Fe. It was formerly the home of a prominent Santa Fe family, the Staabs. The property has many fruit trees whose original cuttings were brought as gifts from France to the family by Archbishop Lamy. We renovated the original bedrooms used by the family on the second floor which are said to be haunted. The original front entry to the home had become an interior space when the property was turned into the hotel. We researched old photos and completely restored the original entry, which now leads from the lobby to the bar. It was a memorable process, as we felt the history of the area all around us. We were deeply respectful of that and hoped our renovation reflected such a respect.

santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders
santa fe properties, Woods Design Builders
Photo Courtesy of Wood Design Builders

Susan Kime

Susan Kime's career combines publishing, journalism and editing. She was the Destination Club/Fractional Update Editor for Elite Traveler, and senior club news correspondent for The Robb Report's Vacation Homes. Her work has been published in Stratos, Luxury Living, European CEO, The London Telegraph, Caviar Affair, ARDA Developments, and Luxist/AOL. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Travel Conno...(Read More)

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