The Extraordinary House That Jim Built

by Jess C. Williams II of the Sun-News, February 1, 1987

It took one man’s special needs, one woman’s special imagination, one family’s determination to pitch in and one craftsman’s ability to translate the plan to reality.

This is the house that Jim built. He built it mostly for Murray.

Galves Home

Murray and Aurora Galves moved to Las Cruces from New York nearly 10 years ago. For eight of those years, the two lived here only during the cold months, going back to their home in New York when it got warmer there.

But Murray is confined to a wheelchair, and the moving got to be too much for him. The couple decided to make Las Cruces their permanent home since they had a son here whose family was able to look after Murray while Aurora, who is still quite active, traveled and took care of the couple’s outside interests.

It soon became apparent that caring for Murray would require special accommodations. Besides the difficulties inherent to getting a wheelchair through a home of standard design, there was the problem of shuttling people back and forth from the house of son, Al, his wife, Nancy, and two children, Andrew and Becca, which was several blocks away.

The answer, of course, was to regroup. And the plans for the house that Jim built began to take shape.

Jim Graham is an Albuquerque native who graduated from New Mexico State University in 1969 with a degree in biology. He’s a natural carpenter who worked construction jobs to put himself through school and has always had a project going somewhere. He was approached by the Galves family in June 1985 regarding the project of building a single, large home with two separate family living areas divided in the center by an enormous common atrium.

“It’s quite nervy at 81 years of age,” Aurora says, “to worry about a new house, and this one was my idea. But you live. And I’m alive. I get ideas.”

The Galves family bought two lots within the city limits, but were told by zoning officials that a building permit could not be issued because the house would contain two totally separate family dwellings under one roof.

Instead of scrapping the plans, however, the family scouted for land outside, but near the city limits. They found an excellent location on Engler Road just north of the city and a quarter-mile east of US Highway 85.

Construction began in June, 1986 with the erection of the 18-foot-high frame front of the atrium.

Graham said the frame had to be assembled and laid down on sawhorses, then pulled upright by a winch truck using chains and pulleys for leverage.

“People would drive by and look at it standing out here all by itself and wonder what we were up to,” Graham said. “A few even stopped to ask.”

The second order of business was to build a two-car garage that Graham could employ as a wood shop. Every beam in the house, every door, every cabinet, every window frame and even an elegant spiral staircase in the atrium were handcrafted by Graham’s crew using predominantly white ash, with black walnut and African purple heartwood for accent.

Inside the house are 5,300 square feet heated by a combination active/passive solar system. Graham said, however, that by the time all is said and done, there will be closer to 6,000 heated square feet.

There are five entrances, two double car enclosed garages, a double car carport, two kitchens, two living rooms, both with kiva-style fireplaces, six bedrooms, two full- and four three-quarter baths, an enormous built-in jacuzzi (on Al and Nancy’s side), a second floor writer’s room/office for Aurora (who is an aspiring fiction and non-fiction author) and an outside, second-story deck that faces west and provides an impressive view of the Mesilla Valley sunsets.

Built-in shelving and cabinets – all handcrafted by Jim Graham and his crew – soften the ambience of the living areas and kitchens. All the door and window frames are dovetailed; nails and screws were used sparingly in the construction of this behemoth.

“It’s a pretty astounding house,” Graham said, leaning against the staircase railings. “It was miraculously free of backtracking and screwups. We had a high skill level on the crew, a good foreman who kept me on track and top quality journeymen all along the way.”

Graham said that a large part of his pride in the home resulted from the high standards he set for himself and the many requirements set by the owners.

An integral part of the plan for the house is privacy. There is enough room for all six occupants to get away and be alone, yet all are close enough to help Murray if he needs it. An extensive intercom/alarm system ensures that anyone in any part of the house can communicate with anyone, anywhere else.

“Caretakers,” Aurora explains in a lilting Italian accent, “need time off. The way the house is designed we can be alone, but available if Murray needs us. I can travel without worrying and the children can help take care of Murray without sacrificing their privacy.”

The west side of the house – Murray and Aurora’s side – is designed particularly with Murray in mind.

Graham made all the doorways extra wide and almost eliminated doors inside the house, opting instead for wide and graceful archways.

The archways, Aurora says, were Jim’s idea. “I like them except they take up so much wall space where I wanted to hang art. As far as design, it’s more Jim’s house than mine.”

Graham acknowledged that he played a large part in planning specific aspects of the home that helped to fit the specific needs of two families and one handicapped individual.

Murray has a special place at the kitchen counter to which he can roll up and talk with Aurora while she cooks. In the spacious bathroom is a vanity arrangement that allows Murray to take care of his personal needs. There is even a roll-in shower so he can bathe with minimal assistance.

All the floors in the west half of the house are elegant tile or hardwood to make it easier for Murray to get around in his chair. Kitchen cabinets and drawers are down low so he can get to items he needs, and there are plenty of windows where he can sun himself and read.

The east half of the house is for Al and his family.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew has the room farthest south. The walls to his room are all solid adobe so he can crank up his stereo without disturbing other members of the household. He has his own bath on the east side of his room, which provides yet another insulation against sound.

His sister, Becca, 15, lives upstairs from her brother with a room overlooking the atrium. She, too, has a private bath.

Al and Nancy, both 46, share an enormous master bedroom that connects to the bathroom with the jacuzzi.

The upper level of the house is mostly carpeted in rich earth tones. Downstairs is predominantly sand-colored tile, with the exception of Andrew’s room, which – at his special request – is carpeted in an unforgettable purple.

The house contains, by Jim Graham’s estimation, some 29,000 feet of wiring, 9,000 of which is devoted to the intercom/alarm system. It took a full-time crew of 15, eight months to construct the thick adobe walls, piece together and varnish the woodwork, and generally stick the rest of the house to the atrium window.

“It’s quite a house,” Graham said proudly, looking around at his handiwork. And the Galves families seem to agree.

Earth Sheltered Homes

Adobe Homes

Jeanette Harris is a freelance writer, realtor, and lover of interesting houses. Her article appeared in Southwest Homes, Sun-News on June 30, 2002.

Today adobe is labor and detail intensive. Some adobe bricks are still made with straw and also have a small bit of asphalt to stabilize them. Recipes can vary, and there are many types of adobe.

The end result, however, is a much heavier house than a frame variety. An adobe house requires not only cleared but compressed ground before the foundation and bricks are laid. Once the foundation is completed a layer of special adobe bricks made with more asphalt for waterproofing is laid. Consistency is important with not too much clay or sand.

Adobe Home

The traditional adobes have lintels made from beams of wood over the windows and doors that can be attractively carved. Bond beams are laid to tie all the walls together and wood vigas are laid on top with more adobe between them. Latias, smaller poles of pine, spruce or aspen, are laid at angles to each other and so create an interesting pattern. Fiberglass insulation can be installed between the sloped sleepers and a canale or drain channel helps drain water from the roof. Extra foam insulation can increase the R-value. While a frame house may be built in a couple of months, a 3,000 or so square foot adobe might take five times as long. Charming bancos, nichos, trasteros (a built-in cupboard), tile work, corbels, and lintels add to the character and the cost.

Rammed Earth Houses

Rammed earth houses have also become popular and may be suitable for wetter conditions, too. I always think of them as adobes on steroids. Rammed earth was apparently used on the eastern seaboard around the time of the Civil War and later in the 1930’s in an Alabama homestead program. Walls are formed by pounding a mixture of soil, cement, and water into reusable forms using pneumatic tampers which create very efficient and owner-friendly homes that are meant to be termite-free and fire-proof, as well as energy efficient and solar oriented.

Small wonder that adobe is experiencing a rebirth. A timeless classic that both saves the owner energy and requires little energy to produce compared to other building materials, it provides beauty with real substance. When the Spanish explored this part of the New World, they were intent upon finding the cities of gold and were rather disappointed at their lack of success. Perhaps we know better. Not all that is gold glitters here as the sun both creates and shines on a unique landscape of homes that hug the shimmering earth.

Adobe Home

Baker-Gregware Home

This is a 3,000 Sq. Ft. home with both active and passive heating and radiant cooling. It is adobe with 18” thick walls, extensive custom woodwork, and a sunroom.

Baker Home
Baker-Gregware Home

“Our new home is 3,000 square feet.  The temperature within the new home remains constant and comfortable from day to night and throughout the seasons.  Our former home was smaller (1,100 square feet), yet the utility bills were higher.  Even with electric heat, the old house was often cold on winter evenings.”

Custom Home

We were impressed by the quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail.  We appreciate Sun & Earth’s customer-friendly approach.  We felt part of a collaborative effort to bring our dream house to fruition.”

”the in-floor radiant heating system is much less drying than forced air during the winter months.”

Baker-Gregware Home
Sun Room

 ‘the house has not required heavy maintenance due to the quality of materials and workmanship, high quality stucco, roofing, insulation and other features that have saved money over time.”

Dining room
Dining Room Woodwork

“We are very pleased.  The house has exceeded our expectations in terms of aesthetics, quality, and energy efficiency.” 

“Friends from Germany said this was the most beautiful house that they had ever seen that real people lived in.”

Dr. Nancy Baker and Dr. Peter Gregware, professors at NMSU, eight years after initial construction, typical results of Sun and Earth client oriented approach.

House Plans
House Plans