Flying X Construction

Jasper Vassau, designer and builder
License #
GB98 - 57756

260 Los Pinos Rd., Santa Fe, NM 87507 Tel. 505-424-0137



Recent high-end project, from design to completion

Design and comfort are everything at Flying X Construction.

Jasper Vassau brings a strong sense of site design to his creation of new construction, remodeling work, residential and small commercial construction.

(Lussiez home -- see article below)

He apprenticed with famed designer Lawrence Halprin, and continues to focus strongly on how a building fits in with the landscape and vernacular style of the project.

Other emphases are energy-conscious design, natural light, and use of native materials compatible with site. The structure has to be comfortable and livable, while creating the style.

Creating a living space for our clients is our basic goal and challenge.Design through the study of ceremonies and the ritual of life deepen our sense of the spaces we create. Visible quality and a satisfied client are the measure of our foundations and ideas being put into practice.

It's more than numbers, and even more than good ideas. It's the foundation of everything we design.

CLICK ON PHOTO BELOW (5 min., 9.7mb Windows Media) 

Produced by Jim Terr


"I really liked the Flying X Construction harmonica video - a lot. Not just the house represented, but the concept. In fact, I called Jasper as a result of your video. I would think realtors would keep you busy creating these for their clients. Virtual tours are lousy quality, and contain no warmth whatsoever. Love the dog. Love everything about it!"
- Gail Trotter


Tribal Building Concepts

Create Affordable Housing in Santa Fe

In a city where the median home price is over $300,000, designer and builder Jasper Vassau is creating a reproducible model of affordable home ownership.

by Jim Terr

From The Sun Monthly, Santa Fe, New Mexico
October 2004

Schoolteachers Yann and Jennifer Lussiez and their daughters Sophia, 2, and Elaina, 9 months, faced a problem shared by many Santa Fe couples. After living for several years in a rented two-room apartment, they needed space to live and grow as a family.

"We shopped around," says Yann, 35, "looked at new homes on the south side and so on, and the houses we could afford were so cramped and so close to other families, we figured we might as well be with our own relatives, and in a better location. Either way, we weren't going to have a huge yard."

The option of living with their own extended family was due to Jennifer's 90-year-old grandmother, Emma Sanchez, living in a house on Baca Street that her late husband, Guadalupe Sanchez, had built with his own hands, as he had many homes in Santa Fe years ago. In the back of the lot, adjoining the Railyard Redevelopment Area, were the remains of a small casita that Guadalupe had also built, in which Jennifer had been raised by her mother, a schoolteacher as well.

Grandma Emma was more than willing for the "kids" to build a new home in the rear of the lot. "Wouldn't Grandpa be delighted?" she had exclaimed. However, the problems were numerous and almost insurmountable. First, the ownership of many of these traditional neighborhood plots is sometimes so diffuse and unclear that it deters banks from loaning money against new projects on these properties.

Second, a "zero lot line" (building right at the edge of the property) was required in order to create a new structure of any size, and this technique is highly restricted due to fire considerations. And third, based on such traditional appraisal factors as "comparables," the loan wouldn't have been large enough to build the type of house the couple needed for themselves and their two young daughters.

Enter Jasper Vassau, 49, a designer and builder of mostly high-end homes in Santa Fe and Taos. The Lussiezes met Vassau socially, and Vassau was intrigued with the challenge of building an affordable home for a third-generation, moderate-income couple in the already high-density Baca Street neighborhood, in a city where the median home price recently passed $300,000. "I was interested in creating a reproducible model of ownership and demonstrating that the neighborhood density can be increased and still hold its integrity," he explains.

A short man in a wiry, highly energetic frame, Vassau accompanies his explanation with animated eyes and hands: "The Baca Street density was already considered too high. And even the loan amount they'd have gotten if they could $130,000 wasn't enough to build much of a home. But there's a strong driving idea here: Baca Street and Baca people! It's interesting that banks would have easily loaned money to someone new coming into the neighborhood to tear down an existing home and build a new one."

Vassau wanted to challenge some of these obstacles, including the question of how to fit this traditional family plot into the bank's idea of a financeable homesite. So he got involved to an unusual degree in the loan and zoning process, even suggesting that the entire family form a corporation (LLC) to clarify ownership issues, thereby making the bank more comfortable, and creating drawings and models to allow the bank to more easily see the potential.

Vassau credits Los Alamos National Bank president Bill Enlow and loan officer Dion Silva for having the vision to see that the project was doable. A loan was arranged for construction of the $180,000, 2,100-square-foot, two-story frame stucco home!

Clowning and bouncing a ball with his lively daughter, Sophia, homeowner Yann Lussiez discusses the process: "Our original idea was to build a little casita with a couple of bedrooms upstairs and a small living room. But as Jasper looked into what we could do with the city, the house started getting bigger. We definitely got a lot more for our money: 2,100 square feet versus the 1,600 or 1,700 feet we'd have gotten for the same money, way out in the boonies."

Builder Vassau's background is unusual, and it provided many resources that allowed him to approach this project creatively. He was born and raised as a cowboy and rancher on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, toured as a ballet and modern dancer, trained as an architect with famous urban designer Lawrence Halprin in San Francisco, and was the tribal architect for 12 years before moving to Santa Fe, where he is an independent contractor-builder operating under the name Flying X Construction.

"My whole approach to this was based in the idea of 'family plots' that I grew up with," says Vassau. "That is, at least three generations have a relationship to a piece of land, which has the flexibility to include new members of the family and their structures to come and go, and to change. If you buried your people there, you could say you were really from there; otherwise you're just passing through.

"I've always had a real reverence for that," he continues. "When I'm asked to participate in site selection, I'm often drawn to sites that have a history of the family, versus that part of the American psyche that says, 'Let's move to the next plot and leave Grandma in Ohio,' or wherever. I'm actually more interested in Grandma in Ohio! I've done that in my own way, like playing my grandfather's violin. That's the sweetest thing tracing my grandfather's hands across the violin."

Weighing in the project's favor was the fact that the Baca Street neighborhood is a subdistrict of the Railyard Redevelopment Area. This subdistrict permits some building techniques not allowed elsewhere, without the added cost of applying for a variance. "Baca Street is rather unique," says Vassau. "It's located between the Indian School property, which is actually federal land, and the Railyard community property.

"I made sketches and models and went to the city and discovered that the property was within a southern 'node' of the Railyard property. I was thinking of it as being in the Guadalupe Street district, as most of the Railyard activity is, but this was a little-known spur that goes with the railroad easement, behind the Deaf School, creating a second 'node' in the Baca Street area. You see, part of the Railyard planning effort had been to encourage development in this area.

"But," Vassau goes on, "Yann and Jennifer didn't like the 'row house' planning language or feel that was developing nearby, and almost went elsewhere to a new development before we came up with our plan. On the north side was a young California guy. He created three units on his lot, which set the precedent for the height of our building but which wasn't in the traditional 'infill' pattern, which is to build around a site and leave an open courtyard."

"We had positive input from both neighbors," Vassau says of the plan as it emerged. "I wanted to work with the pattern language of the structures in the neighborhood. Ours was to be a large-volume building with an open courtyard in the center so that what might have been viewed as simply a backyard became a courtyard. The neighbors to the south, actually a Baca family, were very pleased, and we even hired some of their family to work as Security for the job site."

"This design concept is historical," reports Vassau. "It's partly a function of building the house as a fortification, which results in an interior courtyard. This whole system is a 'southern settlement' arrangement, a low-tech method of cooling the interior space, by creating a cool block of air on the northeast side, which can then be drawn inside. This results in a virtual canyon or oasis even a changed wind pattern which creates a cooling effect, and in this case it required building the house at a zero lot line in back."

A closer look at Vassau's background illuminates more of his creative process and his excitement about tackling this project. He pauses to look quietly at an arresting photo of himself and his son, Micah, taken shortly after Micah's bar mitzvah. "My ex-wife, the mother of my two eldest children, is Jewish," he explains, "and so was my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Levi. He lit a fire under me. He taught me that a person's life was to get out and do things and get to know the larger world. Even in southeastern Montana he'd find things to show me that represented the world beyond, like examples of modern architecture. He always said the West is in its infancy there's a lot yet to build. He questioned everything I said, so I learned to argue and defend what I thought.

"The thing that most shaped my outlook on life was growing up in a tribal community," he asserts, "where you had the idea of being part of a village that was also the capital of our nation, even though it was basically a rural ghetto. Still, it had a thoroughfare and society houses meeting places, stores and so on strategically placed around the community. I left with this sense of what planning was about, and I went into architecture with the idea of being a rural planner.

"Second," says Vassau, "I ended up in an apprenticeship with Lawrence Halprin, a major figure in urban planning, and I worked on projects in Jerusalem, the Los Angeles Library Gardens, and the Angels' Flight Renovation in L.A., around the railroad station on Grand Avenue. These were great projects that put me in the company of international architects and planners and affected how I viewed things much later in life.

"The third thing was my study of dance and the creative process while attending the San Francisco Dancers' Workshop. The whole idea of choreographing space, lighting, even acoustics for dance, started to shape how I responded to moving through environments."

New homeowners Yann and Jennifer especially appreciate living behind Grandma Emma's home and property. Tucking 9-month-old Elaina into bed in her spacious upstairs bedroom, Jennifer quietly explains, "We love the fact that Grandpa built Grandma's house and she's still there at age 90. We built on the old casita that I grew up in with my mother, so we brought back the essence and the memory of my grandfather, Guadalupe Sanchez, because he was so loved he built so many houses here in town. Grandma's house in front has been the centerpiece of the family, gatherings and so on, so we want to continue that tradition with the new house, with our extended family, new generations.

"Also," adds Yann, "we're glad to be in the middle of the Baca Street art community; there's a community show here every Christmas." He notes that the house plans included extra lighting for his painting and for his photography, which reflects mostly his years in Africa with the Peace Corps from 1992 to 1996.

"There was an upright beam in the old casita that we left exposed, just as a reminder of Grandpa's building work on the old, original structure," reveals Jennifer. "We like the way Jasper built the house because he included a lot of the old casita that Grandpa built things like an old beam but also stuff you can't see, like using some of the old wood and incorporating that into the framing! We tried to save as many trees as we could, including an old pear tree, for the same reason."

Vassau put significant effort into controlling costs. "We used a lot of techniques to keep the price down," he shares. "First, we kept our focus on the concept and our model, rather than letting it get to be a huge project. And a lot of that basic concept was that these are young people schoolteachers and we're doing something good here. We went to bat for them in several ways, such as using neighborhood contractors and trying to get them to go along with the idea of doing things as economically as possible to get this project done. And we scaled a few things down, for instance anticipating the owner putting in tile later, by himself, rather than us finishing everything off.

"In a way this is a little closer to the Habitat for Humanity concept of home ownership the owner participating some in the building, rather than delivering a 'turnkey' home. This goes back to the tribal homes we built years ago, where for instance we could save $5,000 on a starter home by putting in a plywood floor and painting everything white instead of arguing about what shade it's going to be."

The Lussiez' cost of operating the home should bring them some continued satisfaction as well, again due in part to Vassau's background. "There was another important concept in our building on the res," Vassau observes, "and it's just as applicable here, today. We had to convince HUD to, for example, not require us to put in a central heating system. Instead, just install a wood stove rather than a propane tank that you'll fill once and can never afford to fill again.

"Plus you install super insulation, skylights for natural light, cross-ventilation in every room again, an old tribal thing and you end up saving so much money in energy costs that you can actually afford to live in the house once you move in! Otherwise you end up with people who are disappointed because they can't afford to operate the house! When you look at it that way, the cost of installing a skylight and so on is the cheapest thing in the house; you can end up saving hundreds of dollars a month in energy costs, summer and winter!"

The result of this focus on both tradition and economy is a handsome two-story, three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,100-square-foot home with a courtyard opening on what will be the Railyard Redevelopment Area. It has unusual copper detailing and surprising views of the Baca Street neighborhood, the Railyard and the Sangre de Cristos all for $180,000!

Now four generations of one family can live on the property, and a model of both design and financing has been created that could allow more Hispanic and traditional families to build and live in their neighborhoods. States Vassau, "I hope we've done something here that will challenge some of the standard ideas about housing, pricing and planning in Santa Fe."


Website and photos by Jim Terr 
(c) 2006 Jasper Vassau


PROJECT NOTES o Fully landscaped o GE-monogrammed stainless steel kitchen fixtures o All Kohler bathrooms o Jacuzzi tub o Walk-in shower o Kiva fireplace in master bedroom o Diamond plaster walls o La Puerta custom entry doors o Pozzi doors and windows o Built-in vacuum (this one can be eliminated if necessary for space) o Wood ceilings o Elegant patio with Jemez Mountains view o State-of-the-art cistern o Copper detailing and flashing o Natural lighting throughout o Granite counter tops o Hickory cabinets