BY GUSSIE FAUNTLEROY | PHOTOS BY DOMINIQUE VORILLON
In 1996, Brooklyn-born Howard Mintz was ready to leave city life. He was running a successful San Francisco-based construction business building custom residential and commercial projects on both coasts, which he managed remotely. While considering where he might relocate, he remembered how he’d been mesmerized by Northern New Mexico’s expansive beauty when he bicycled through the state as a young man. With that in mind, he conjured up a modest vision: buy a couple of acres near Taos and put up a $60,000 cottage for his slowing-down days.
Instead, he found and fell in love with a magical forested mountaintop just west of Taos, with spectacular views and the kind of isolation and deep quiet that feed his soul. As soon as Mintz found the property, he abandoned the idea of a small, simple home. He began combining his extensive design and custom-building experience with an intensive study of sustainable construction in the Southwest. He toured Michael Reynolds’ Earthship community and investigated passive solar design, water catchment and recycling systems, and various materials and technologies that meet the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ratings, even though LEED had not yet been established in New Mexico at the time he began to build. He chose a site near the highest point on his 300-plus-acre property and has spent the past 20 years designing and building a . . . well, not a cottage.
It’s more like—or will be when it’s finished in a couple more years—a minimalist yet commanding work of sculptural art that doubles as a survival shelter. The 4,000-square-foot structure radiates an aura of strength and cohesion and reflects Mintz’s commitment to thoughtfully employing and protecting the gifts of the earth. That includes zero-maintenance poured-concrete walls, an efficient passive solar design, renewable Alaskan yellow cedar-wrapped steel beams and doors, Brazilian black soapstone floors for heat-storing mass, and a never-rust zinc roof, among countless other details of sustainability and custom design.
In keeping with the predilections of its owner/designer/builder, the home also serves as something akin to a one-monk monastery. Mintz has traveled the world and studied Taoism, Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions, and he also pursued a 24-year Hatha yoga practice before a speed-induced motorcycle incident almost severed off one of his feet. At 71 he lives alone, currently in a green-built guesthouse on the property. His days are a mix of overseeing his longtime crew of local carpenters and craftsmen, collaborating with Taos-based architect William Hoffmann, and quietly being in a place he loves.
From the decks off his home-in-progress, he takes in the magnificent panoramas that include a view of his herd of 65 yaks, which provide local and online customers with meat. He enjoys the activity of horses and llamas, three large dogs, and the colorful koi in the infinity-edged pool bordered by the house and front walkway. He glimpses an abundance of wildlife: raptors and other birds, bobcats, mountain lions, and assorted smaller critters. “I love the isolation,” he says of the 640 acres that constitute his own land and the adjoining ranch where his neighbor is happy to allow the yaks to roam.
The structure is also pretty much indestructible. Drawing on his seven years of seismic upgrading work in San Francisco, Mintz designed and built his New Mexico house to withstand an 8.0 earthquake. Virtually every material is fireproof and can handle extremely strong winds. The reinforced concrete walls and zinc roof will last centuries with very little maintenance. And everything—from solar gain and thermal mass to exceptionally high insulation values, including custom-made windows with a one-inch air space between panes—is aimed at maintaining a comfortable indoor environment with a minimal carbon footprint.
“This is my passion: custom building,” Mintz says. It doesn’t matter to him that many of the construction elements took years to research and custom source. Or that he and Hoffmann worked closely together for six years and went through nine scale models before coming up with the current design, a process the architect describes as a “long and fascinating search for the right expression of Howard’s vision.” Part of that exploration involved looking at the work of well-known architects from around the world. Mintz is particularly attracted to Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s minimalist aesthetic and use of cast-in-place architectural concrete. For this structure, Mintz and his team engineered and custom-built all the forms for pouring massive amounts of concrete for walls and other architectural elements.
Yet even years into construction, the home’s design has continued to evolve. At one point Mintz realized the master suite needed to be larger, and the only way to accomplish that was to extend one wing. When he did that, the front entry suddenly became visually balanced with the rest of the house. Themes of balance and repetition run through every aspect of the design. All the floors are black soapstone. All the ceilings are bamboo. All the walls, which will remain unpainted, bear the same snap-tie pattern, small circles from the ends of snap-tie bars reinforcing the concrete.
Balance is also an essential theme in Mintz’s life, especially since his motorcycle accident. One day in 2017, he was riding his Indian bike at high speed. Passing a car on a two-lane road not far from his ranch, he revved it up to 105 and was almost past when an oncoming car emerged from a dip in the road. He swerved to squeeze between the two cars and was a hair away from making it when his foot hit the oncoming car. A hundred yards later he managed to stop. When he looked down, he saw that his foot had been wrenched around 180 degrees, and he soon learned that all the bones were shattered.
Specialists were able to reconstruct the foot, and now Mintz walks with a cane. “It completely slowed me down,” he says. “I appreciate things differently now. I get deeper into what I’m doing—I’m more focused in the moment. It’s so simple, I can’t explain it. Everything is here, and now I’m more open to see it.” Gesturing to the sky, trees, and vistas, and, closer in, to his ultimate project, he smiles and adds: “I just wake up every day to this.”