Deb Tisler
Author Archives: Deb Tisler

Back Portal Redesign Phase 4

Details make all the difference!

Windows before...

It’s amazing the difference one seemingly small detail can make!  We were a few months into the summer, and loving everything about our new back garden – the hot tub was in, we had planted several varieties of flowers, and the tomatoes were thriving.  The one thing that had been nagging at me long before we started the garden was the house wall that bordered it on one side.  In the middle of the wall there is a large window with privacy glass (the master bathroom is on the other side), and it just seemed so stark and unfinished…I had thought about adding a planter box underneath the window, and possibly adding shutters or a small trellis to create an overhang of some kind, but none of these seemed in keeping with the Pueblo style, and staying true to that was really important to us.  I kept thinking that the window should have been trimmed, but windows here aren’t done that way. Sometimes you’ll see a window with a large beam at the top, which is stunning, but is also part of the structure of the opening, and not something that could be easily added after the fact.  I had to come up with an idea to break up the expanse of the wall, and ideally bring in some color as well…

Talavera to the rescue...

I love the Talavera tile patterns that are so prevalent here – both the bright colors and artisan characteristics really appeal to me – but it can be tricky to use them outside as they are not designed to withstand the cold winters we have here in Santa Fe.  We did learn that you can get porcelain tiles that look like Talavera, and because they are a different kind of clay (and hence fired at a higher temperature), they are fine in the winter…but they are about $9 each!  Having just invested in the wall/steps/hot tub projects, we weren’t ready to spend $500 to frame out one window.  Even though I knew the effect would be amazing, we just couldn’t justify the cost.

We were at one of our favorite tile stores, asking if they had any suggestions, and that’s when we learned about silicone grout (once again, professionals can be such a valuable resource!).  As it was explained to us, Talavera tiles are fired at a lower temperature, and only have glaze on the top, so if they get wet and then freeze there is a good chance they will crack or the painted/glazed finish will pop off the top (or both).  As long as the silicone grout completely surrounds and seals the sides, no water can get in, so the temperature outside is no longer an issue.  We had a solution!  Talavera tiles are only about $2 each, even less if you buy them by the box, so cost of this project had just become much more manageable!

We decided to do a tile frame around the three windows that you could see from the portal – the one that overlooked the garden as well as the two that looked into the living room.  We also decided to do each frame in a different tile pattern – the portal is a fun, casual space and we thought it would be a great place to add a little whimsy 😊.  We intentionally selected tile patterns that had a colorful background to maximize the contrast to the stucco wall.  (in a future post I’ll detail an indoor project we did with Talavera tiles, where we selected tiles with a neutral background to get a completely different effect)

The project details...

I should mention that this was a true labor of love on Andy’s part (definitely not the first, and I’m sure not the last!)  He wasn’t at all sure that this was a good idea…he wasn’t sure a tile frame would look right, and he was more than a little bit anxious about cutting into the stucco to put them up.  I can be particular about projects, and this was one of those times – I wanted the tile to be flush with the stucco, instead of creating a 3-D frame that stuck out.  Installation would have been much more simple if the stucco hadn’t been applied yet (or if we had had any experience at all with stucco in the past), but that wasn’t the case. 

Once again, the solution was to ask a professional.  One day when our contractor was out checking on the wall/steps project, we asked his advice.  He explained how the structure of the window is built before the stucco is added, and that all we needed to do was grind away the stucco where we wanted the tiles to go, install the tiles, and then make sure the whole thing was sealed with the silicone grout.  The key would be not removing more stucco than was necessary (so we wouldn’t have to patch it), and grinding deep enough to accommodate the depth of the tiles so they would be flush with the finished wall.  This was not quite as straightforward as it seemed, because stucco (and the concrete underneath) is applied by hand, so the thickness can vary from one area to another – definitely a learning curve, but after three windows Andy is a pro 😉

We measured the width of the tiles, adding room for grout on either side to get our width measurement, then drew a vertical line using a level.  That became the outer edge of the space that needed to have the stucco removed.

The other thing I was really particular about was that we didn’t have any cut tiles – I know that in most tile projects that’s unavoidable, but I really felt like it would take away from the effect, so I was determined we could figure it out.  The answer became varying the size of the spaces between the tiles ever so slightly, in each row.  This drove Andy crazy!  He is an engineer by trade, and the idea of having grout lines that were not uniform wasn’t something he could put his head around. To his defense, I understood his concern that the finished job would look unprofessional, but I reminded him that Talavera tiles are hand-made, and the tiles themselves aren’t exactly the same size, so we would have to have varying grout lines regardless.  This tile project was going to involve both art and math, and we just needed to accept that from the get-go.

We took our measurements, figured out how many full tiles we could fit and laid them out on the floor, adjusting the space between them to arrive at our final measurement.  If the row had an odd number of tiles, we knew that the middle of one tile would align with the middle of the measurement.  If a row needed an even number of tiles, then we would have a grout line in the middle of the measurement. We put down a piece of blue painter’s tape the length of the row of tiles, and with a sharpie marked the edge of each tile on the tape.  That gave us a template to work with.  We stuck the marked tape on the window frame, lined up each tile next to its corresponding mark and stuck it to the wall using a construction adhesive for outdoor projects. We also used blue tape to help hold the tile until the adhesive dried.  We only installed about 4-5 tiles at a time – more than that and the tiles started slipping. It was a long process, but it only took a few tiles to see that the finished project was going to be amazing!

The learning curve also included working with silicone grout, which is sticky and has a mind of its own! Thankfully, since the two larger windows were under the portal roof and would not be exposed to the elements, we were able to use regular grout on those, which is much easier to work with.

To say that we are pleased with the result is an understatement!  Each box of tile was about $125 (we have extra tiles and I’m sure they will be used on future projects), and we went through several tubes of construction adhesive as well as several grinder bits to remove the stucco, so I would put the cost of each window at $150-$165.  Of course with DIY projects, we usually don’t think about adding time and labor in the cost column - on this project they were both significant (if memory serves it was 3 weekends).  But we would do it again in a heartbeat – we dreamed it up, figured it out, learned a bunch, and had fun doing it together – all-in-all a definite DIY win!

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Back Portal Redesign Phase 3

Creating a view!

I mentioned previously that when we selected our NM home, one of the things we had to let go of was a house with a view.  Technically, we have peek-a-boo views of the mountains from a few windows, also from a few specific spots in the yard, but there isn’t anywhere that gives you that “wow, would you look at that view” feeling. Certainly not the end of the world, as we love our new home more and more the longer we live here, but as much as we were enjoying the outdoor living with our portal, the little back yard that it overlooked was pretty dismal. 

The far side of the portal had a roughly 3-foot tall retaining wall holding back the back yard, and the yard space was enclosed by the house on one side and a much taller retaining wall as the long side of the triangle.  It was such an odd mix…scraggly plants we couldn’t identify, an assortment of concrete blocks used to edge beds, a tree with orange berries and wild onions growing at the base….and a cluster of the most beautiful Iris plants I had ever seen!  Running through the middle of all of this was a Y-shaped dry river bed with partially buried river rocks – hundreds of them – which seemed such an odd choice here in the high desert…

The good...the bad...and the "what is this and why is it here?"

We cleaned up, pruned, discarded…and decided we had much more to learn about landscaping in this environment.  So, our next stop was the SF Botanical Garden, and a tour with a very helpful docent.  We learned that we were over-watering the native plants and under-watering things like the fruit trees…in fact, on one trip to a local nursery, I asked the tree specialist about how much water to give the fruit trees (a few new ones that we had planted out front, as well as an established peach tree).  I mentioned that I was trying to balance keeping the trees healthy and not having a $400 water bill every month – her reply (with strained politeness) was “90% of fruit is water, and you’re trying to grow it in the desert…you’re going to have a water bill!”  Her eye-roll was implied 😉

We also met with a landscape designer (Donna Ehle of Mariposa Landscaping) who was incredibly helpful, and we learned so much from her.  Donna is the one who explained the dry river bed, which is actually an intentional, critically important part of the drainage plan for the yard.  Why do you need a drainage plan in the desert, where it rarely rains?  As it turns out, there are two reasons.  First, when it rains here, it rains hard!  Really hard! There must be a path for the water to take, as it comes down much faster that the ground can absorb it.  Second, the houses have flat roofs with sides but no gutters, so there must be a way to keep the water from collecting on the roof during a downpour, or the roof structure could be damaged. Enter the Parapets and Canales – the parapets are cutouts along the side of the roof walls (yes, just like on the tower of a castle), and the canales are the traditional spouts where the water travels to get off the roof.  This spout creates a waterfall, and the water lands in the dry river rock bed, which carries the water away from the house, and ultimately to the street.  As she was explaining this, I looked around and realized, sure enough, there was a collection of rocks under each and every canale, at various points around the perimeter of the whole house – one of the many amazing things that we learned about NM in that first year!

Both functional and decorative, Canales are often painted bright colors to add detail and interest to flat roofs.  There is a current trend to add contemporary styling to Pueblo architecture, and in that case the canales are often metal instead of the traditional wood shown here.

Coming up with a plan...

 We were so impressed with Donna, we asked her to create a design for our back yard. Remember how we like to dream big?  Our goal was to access the back corner of the lot (behind the tall retaining wall, so a higher elevation - and mountain views!) and her plan was fabulous - modifying the retaining walls to enlarge the space, putting in a hot tub, and planting a variety of plants and trees that would thrive here.  We talked about putting in some steps from the portal, so we could easily access the new hot tub – we would completely transform the space! 

We knew it was a really big plan, and something we wouldn't be able to implement for a while, but it was such fun to think about!

We spent a few months in that space of “This project would be so amazing…but the scope is enormous, and probably not the best use of our resources…but this project would be so amazing!”  That space can be hard - you can envision something and know how great it could be, but even if you could afford it, would it be the right thing to do?  But this space is also one of creativity and possibilities…and that’s often where great ideas and solutions are born, so in our experience, it’s OK to sit in that space for a while 😉

I have an idea...

Meanwhile, we had found new light fixtures to hang in the portal – the original ones were not in keeping with the Pueblo style, and after 15 years were definitely showing their age.  We loved the look of this punched tin, and knew it would be perfect!  Andy was up on the ladder tending to the wiring, and I was literally just standing next to the ladder, supporting the weight of the new light until it could be secured…

I was looking across the portal at our sad little triangle of a back yard, and it hit me! What we needed was some connection…something to make this little area a part of our outdoor living space!  With the new light fixture installed, Andy got down off the ladder and looked at me, saying, “I’ve seen that look before…what are you thinking?”  “I have an idea…”, I replied.  I’ve mentioned that we’ve been doing projects together for years – without saying a word he went into the house and returned with his tape measure…”what do you have in mind?” 😉

I explained that I thought we needed to lower the wall between the portal and the back yard, which would create a visual connection between the two spaces, and then replace a section of the wall with a few steps so we could access the yard and make it a destination!  I could envision the whole thing – the newly lowered wall would be faced with flagstone, and a flagstone cap added to top, at the same height as the fireplace hearth - it would look like it had always been there.  We could landscape the back yard (now an English Garden in my mind) and there would be room for a small hot tub at the end of the new flagstone path.  I just knew the impact would be amazing, and best of all, because the scope was much smaller than the original plan, we could go ahead and get started!  Suddenly, instead of our tall retaining wall being a hinderance, it would provide the backdrop for what I knew could become a magical space!

So we hopped over the wall and started measuring, planning, and coming up with ideas…over the next two weekends we did the prep work - we removed the small tree in the center, which really opened up the space.  We removed scraggly plants from the various beds and remove the concrete blocks, which opened up the space even more.  We now knew that the river rocks need to stay, but they needed some serious attention.  There was so much silt and debris among the rocks – we suspected that this impacted their effectiveness, and it certainly made them look a mess.  So we took out the rocks, one by one (I have never harvested potatoes, but I imagine the process is similar!), and scooped out the remaining dirt and debris – what a surprise to discover that they were really more like shallow troughs lined with landscaping fabric!  Once the rocks were replaced it made such a difference – maintenance projects aren’t always fun, but the results can be significant!  

Cleaning out the dry river bed and planning the layout for the flagstone path...

We called the contractors who had built our fireplace about 6 months before, and they were able to get started the next week.  Once again, it was such a privilege to watch artisans at work, and it was fun to see them get excited about the results as the project neared completion. 

Lowering the wall from the left corner of the portal to the center column...

The wall was lowered about 8 inches, then faced and topped with flagstone.  Before (left), during (above) and after (below). Eventually the concrete floor will be covered with bricks, so we are ignoring the peeling paint for now.

On the right side of the back wall, in addition to lowering the wall, a section was cut out to create steps to access the back yard...

It was time to landscape...I had visions of an English Garden – snapdragons are one of my favorite garden flowers, and I knew they did well here.  We inherited several beautiful rose bushes when we purchased the house, and I had seen hollyhocks growing all over town the summer before, so knew they would be a great choice, too.  But we are in the desert, and so we do have to balance the need for water with the desired outcome.

Thankfully Donna’s original landscape plan had several great choices!  We chose Turkish Speedwell as a groundcover, and while it needed some babying the first summer, it is thriving now! We decided on shredded bark mulch – it’s often windy here, so mulch of some kind is needed to help minimize the water loss and blowing dirt, and wood mulch keeps the ground cooler than the gravel mulch that is prevalent in other parts of our yard (an important consideration when nurturing young plants here).  The sunlight is intense (we’re at 7200ft altitude), and the flowering plants are prolific (provided they get enough water, and aren’t fried by the UV rays…it’s a constant balance, and we are still on the learning curve).  We decided to add a fountain to the middle of the river of rocks – it’s made from a beautiful pot, and is such a great addition that we put one out by the front gate as well.  The fountain serves a few purposes – it’s really beautiful to look at, the water sounds are wonderful (and they help block the traffic noise we get when the wind is just right) and it’s a big hit when our grandchildren come to visit!

Before and after from the other side...

I have mentioned the difference to the portal when we added the outdoor curtains, but that was nothing compared to the difference when we had the wall lowered!  It was only about 8 inches, but that one change completely altered the sightline, and our little back yard was not only visible, it was inviting!

What a difference!

As I’m writing this, it’s mid-March, exactly a year later – we planted tulip and hyacinth bulbs in the fall and are excited that they have started to come up, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with how this project has turned out!  By connecting our back yard, we have expanded the outdoor living space and created the view that we were missing! This week we are having a few evergreen trees planted behind the tall retaining wall to provide some color contrast and help shade the late afternoon sun, and we’re planning what we’ll be planting in the next few months.  Definitely tomatoes and strawberries, as both did really well last year… and giant sunflowers will line the wall next to the hot tub.  In a few weeks it will be warm enough to turn on the fountain and start planting…“Gran’s Magic Garden” has become a cherished part of our NM home!😊

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Back Portal Redesign Phase 2

The Portal gets an Outdoor Fireplace!

Before the fireplace...

With fall approaching, we started dreaming about how we could make the space more of a year-round living area.  Another disclaimer here – when we dream up ideas, we start big! Our first thought was “I wonder if we could have those great retracting glass doors installed?” We had no idea how expensive those are, not to mention how difficult it would be to retro-fit them into the space, plus the minor detail that even if we were able to enclose the space, there wouldn’t be any heat!  But dreaming big serves a purpose – it’s fun, it gets your creativity flowing and helps you envision how you’d like to be able to use a space, and it often gets you on the path to an idea that might not have occurred to you otherwise. 

Our idea became an outdoor fireplace - we just had to figure out how to make it work!  A fireplace would really anchor this outdoor living space, and would be both warm and welcoming, making the portal a destination, not just the space between the house and the back yard (which was awful, but that’s another story for another post).  If you’ve had a chance to read the About Us section of my website, you’ll know that Andy and I have been DIYers for decades, but this project was way beyond our scope, and it was time to call in the pros. 

We had met a local builder at a recent Parade of Homes, and he came out to our house to listen to our ideas and give us his thoughts.  Turns out that our plan for a corner fireplace would be prohibitively expensive because the column in the corner was holding up the roof for the entire portal, so it would require a structural engineer to make any changes.  But the builder had another solution – we had a very wide opening on one side, and there was room to build a fireplace and still have enough room on either side to access the flagstone patio in the side yard (which, thankfully, was much better looking than the back yard!).  An added bonus was that a fireplace in that location would block the main view of the side of our neighbor’s house as well.  We decided to go forward with the project, and were so excited!

We had a few things on our wish list – we wanted to have a hearth the right height for people to sit on, we wanted a mantle, and we wanted the finished fireplace to look like it was original to the house.  When the craftsmen arrived the next week, I showed them a few photos I had seen on-line and they got started.  What a fascinating process to watch - with only my description and a few photos they created our fireplace in less than two weeks! 

I admit to being nervous when I saw how big this seemed during construction...but once it was finished the scale was perfect for the portal's twelve foot ceilings!  

This was the first time we had ever hired someone to do a home renovation project for us, and truthfully it was a bit surreal.  Over the years we have painted, repaired appliances, removed and installed wallpaper, replaced flooring, built fences, decks and pergolas, torn out walls, done minor plumbing, turned a carport into a garage and even installed an in-ground swimming pool – mostly because we came up with great ideas, but didn’t have the budget to hire out the jobs.  We had to figure it out as we went along!  We still love to do projects, and I’ll share many through these blog posts, but in this case we enjoyed being spectators!

If you missed our earlier posts about this project, you can catch up here... Intro and Back Portal Phase 1

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Back Portal Redesign Phase 1

Working with what you have...

When we were looking at houses in Santa Fe, one of the things that was high on our list was being able to take advantage of the outdoor lifestyle that we envisioned – so a courtyard or back patio was a must, and a view would be a big bonus.  The available houses with “the full package” were out of our price range, so the compromise became an L-shaped, covered back patio, which in Pueblo architecture is called a Portal.  The space is large, and thankfully we had wicker furniture from the porches in our previous home, so we were able to start enjoying the portal right away.  We literally had dinner out there every evening from May-September.  We tried several arrangements with our wicker furniture, and the portal became more than a back porch – it was our second living space.

Our starting point...

I flipped through catalogs looking at outdoor furniture ideas, and we brought home more than a few indoor/outdoor rugs to try, but nothing was quite right – so many outdoor spaces have either a tropical vibe or a nautical theme, which is definitely not what I was going for here.  I tried some bright southwestern pillows, but the intensity of the sun faded them so quickly, and while I found some great furniture options, the truth was that our outdoor wicker furniture was still in great shape, and I couldn’t justify spending the money on new pieces.  We’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to stick with what you have for a while.  Andy made a coffee table by cutting down the legs of an old kitchen table that we had gotten when we were first married, and I painted it with Navy blue chalk paint – this became the anchor of our seating area as well as the inspiration for our color scheme.  More than once I thought about painting the wicker to provide a contrast to the never-ending tan, but something stopped me each time.  I love painted wicker, and think it’s a great choice in many situations, but I wasn’t confident that it would be the right choice here (and there’s no turning back once you’ve painted wicker!). 

While you don’t see much painted wicker here, you do see lots of painted wood pieces, and I had a few odds and ends hanging around.  An old oak cabinet (literally from a neighbor’s trash pile about 30 years ago) and mirror with a carved wood frame got a new look with turquoise chalk paint and a brown wax finish. Once they were painted and had new hardware, they looked like a matched set! So that became our starting point…tan wicker, a navy blue coffee table and a turquoise chest and mirror…

Odds and ends become a set!

The design evolved organically.  We had been in our home for about a month the first time we had friends over for dinner, and of course we were outside.  As the sun was setting, the light was intense  – something that was easy to work around when it was just the two of us, but not so much when we had a group and all of the chairs were occupied.  Before the next gathering, we decided that outdoor curtains would be a practical solution.  Installing the curtain rods (plumbing pipes and brackets) became one of our first frustrations that we laugh about now – it turns out that drilling into a massive beam that has been baking in the NM sun for 15 years is not as easy as you might think, and Andy literally broke 6 drill bits before all of the curtain rods were up!  I selected tan panels, made of an outdoor fabric (found them for a great deal at, so they would blend into the stucco columns when they were open.  Mission accomplished, in that we had a solution for when the setting sun was the most intense.  But I had not expected the impact the curtain panels would have on the space – they literally turned it into a room!

Then, on a random trip to Home Depot, we spotted two outdoor area rugs – navy blue with turquoise borders!  There were only two – one large, one smaller – and we guessed that someone had returned an on-line order because there wasn’t anything else like them.  The colors and sizes worked perfectly…now we were getting somewhere! Portal Redesign Phase 1 – complete! The next two phases were much more involved, but I think it's important to remember how much we enjoyed the portal from the very beginning, even when we were "making-do"!

If you missed the Intro post, you can catch-up here Intro

To see the next phase of the project (and the fabulous outdoor fireplace...) Back Portal Phase 2

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Welcome to our Santa Fe Redesign!

It’s been quite the adventure, moving to Santa Fe, NM and turning our house into a home – learning about Pueblo architecture and landscaping, making our furnishings and décor work (to make it feel like ours and also stay on budget) and envisioning, planning and executing new projects! 

Our house hunting experience started a few months before we arrived, with many searches on Zillow and, but nothing prepared us for actually seeing the area – the topography (high desert) surrounded by several mountain ranges, no grass, completely different vegetation, and all of the houses as well as most of the commercial buildings are some shade of tan, designed to blend into the desert.  So completely different from South Carolina, with its lush lawns, azalea bushes and trees everywhere…

But there is a beauty in the desert that calls to you – the brightest blue skies, and views that go on for miles (literally!) The summer flowers range from cactus blooms (expected) to Hollyhocks (unexpected, and literally growing from cracks in the sidewalks!) and even Trumpet Vines and Bougainvillea, which I have always considered to be tropical plants.  The colors of the blooms are topped only by the sunrises and sunsets, which are extraordinary, and often take up 360 degrees of the sky!

It’s no wonder that the focus of the houses is often the view from the inside, looking out.  This became one of the differences that we first noticed - there is really not a concept of “curb appeal” here, at least not in the southern sense.  In many cases, you can’t even see the front door in a Pueblo home because there is a walled front courtyard between the home and the street, accessed by a decorative gate that might be carved wood or perhaps forged iron.  No front porches with ferns and geraniums hanging from pots and rocking chairs inviting people to stop and stay a while (a disclaimer is necessary here – we had one of those amazing front porches on our home in SC, and in 20 years we rarely used it because in addition to lush lawns, azaleas, etc, that part of the country has high humidity and plenty of mosquitos!)

But we wanted to embrace the Pueblo style – we were in Santa Fe, after all – and we were enchanted!

The house hunt was extensive, and emotions ran from excitement to overwhelm with occasional bits of disbelief thrown in (we put in a full-price offer on one home, and the seller’s response was to take the property off the market!?)  But we had a wonderful realtor, and the knowledge that God had a plan…so we kept at it, and after about 6 months found a house that worked for us.

Then the fun began – moving in, getting settled, and starting the list of projects to turn this house into our new home!  The house and the process together have become our Santa Fe Redesign, and I’m excited to share the projects – the fun ones, the frustrating ones, the wins and the lessons learned, with plenty of before and after photos along the way 😊 

Columns of drying chili peppers are called Ristras, and can be found all over the southwest.  Traditionally, when chilis were harvested each fall, they were hung to dry so they could then be ground into chili powder.  Hanging ristras have become a symbol of hospitality, and while this bunch is only about 15" long, you can find them as long as 6-8 feet!

Read about Phase 1 of our Back Portal.

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