Bancos, Canales & Coyote Fencing Explained: Key Features of Santa Fe Architecture
A banco provides built-in seating beneath a wall of curved windows in this contemporary Southwest home. Interior styling by Debbie DeMarais. Photo by Marshall Elias.
Here’s an interesting exercise: Google the phrase “best places to see unique architecture in the US.” Not surprisingly, our amazing city shows up in nearly every article that pops up. (Only two lists in the top ten skip over Santa Fe, but hey, nobody's perfect.) There’s a reason Santa Fe is celebrated for its architecture. Nowhere else will you find our particular intersection of history, cultural influences, and design aesthetics.
So I thought this would be a great time to round up a few more of the architectural posts I’ve been sharing on social media to give a little background on some of the architectural features that make Santa Fe unique. This is actually the second architecture post—you can see the first one here.
Today I’ll share three more features that are either unique to Santa Fe, or that are used in a way that’s distinctive for our city. We’ll look at bancos, canales, and coyote fencing. You’ve no doubt seen them around town. Now you’ll be able to identify each one, plus you’ll have a little history in your back pocket—just in case you run into some architecture buffs who are visiting Santa Fe.
Bancos: Relaxation and Warmth by the Fire
Translating to “bench” or “seat” in English, a banco is a plastered bench built into a wall, under a window, or flanking an adobe fireplace. With their rounded edges and smooth plaster finish, they can serve as seating or as a shelf for storage. Traditionally, they added thermal mass to an adobe wall (thereby helping with temperature regulation within a room), and when connected to a fireplace they offered an enticing place to warm up during the winter. In modern home design, the banco serves more aesthetic than practical purposes, since most homes aren’t relying solely on fires for warmth, or thick natural adobe for cooling.
Bancos are often placed near the fireplace in a central public space to create gathering spaces or cozy seating nooks. Interior styling by Debbie DeMarais. Photo by Marshall Elias.
Nevertheless, bancos have become an architectural feature symbolic of Southwest style, even if they’re no longer tied solely to homes actually constructed with adobe. In today’s homes, bancos are a great place to display traditional earthenware or accent pillows, and provide extra seating when visitors arrive.
Canales: Critical Detail for Flat Roofs
Look up at just about any home with a flat roof and you’ll see this unique feature. Canale is Spanish for “channel.” These roof-based structures channel water off the flat roofs of adobe homes, moving the water away from the walls and foundation. When your home is made of dried earth and organic material, it’s a pretty good idea to keep water well away from your walls. Nowadays, when adobe-style homes are more likely to be stick frame construction, it’s still important to move water off of a flat roof. That’s just what canales continue to do.
Just below the roofline on an adobe or adobe-style house, you’ll see rectangular protrusions sticking out about a foot—that’s the canale. Historically, canales were made from a half section of hollow tree trunks. Today you’ll often see what look like three-sided boxes made from wood, with or without metal sheeting. Some are decorated with scallops, rosettes, and ladder-stepped designs. On older adobe homes, you may see longer carnales with angled supports, since it was more important to move the water farther from the foundation of authentic adobe.
A typical modern canale in Santa Fe, with its distinctive U-shaped box design protruding from a notch in the roofline. Photo by Debbie DeMarais.
A modification to the typical canale design, with decorative wooden bracing helping the canale to drain much farther from the building’s foundation (or to direct water to a plant or water catchment system hiding behind the stucco wall). Photo by Debbie DeMarais.
More and more these days, rain barrels are situated beneath canales, often with a rain chain or down spout to direct water to the barrel. Used for landscaping and other irrigation needs, they’re fairly simple means to harvest rainwater here in the desert.
Coyote Fencing: A Practical Solution with a Rustic Look
This is a true Santa Fe favorite: coyote fencing. If you’ve seen a fence that looks like a series of skinny upright logs fastened together, you know just what I’m referring to.
Coyote fencing was first developed out of necessity and availability. Imagine you were a farmer raising chickens before the advent of big box hardware stores. To keep out the Southwest’s most wiley and popular predator, you had to get creative. A simple fence made from local materials did the trick. Built from long straight branches of cedar and pine trees, the rough, unfinished logs were bound together vertically using baling wire. Cedar and pine trees are abundant in Northern New Mexico, and by placing the posts vertically, the fences were much more difficult for coyotes to scale (and coyotes are pretty good climbers).
A more modern approach to the coyote fence, with the tops of the poles cut to a fixed dimension for a more tidy appearance. Photo by Debbie DeMarais
While the tops of coyote fences were traditionally left uneven, with most modern examples you see a leveled top for a cleaner appearance—some even use peeled poles with the bark removed. You’ll see this fencing style throughout Santa Fe as a nod to our ancestral roots. It’s as natural and laid-back as our dear city.
A short wall provides a platform for a decorative band of coyote fencing lashed to a simple rebar lattice which is integrated into the stem wall. Photo by Debbie DeMarais