Photo © Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

Tucson Mountain Retreat



Beneath the Sheltering Sky: A design-build firm uses earth and space to connect its first project to a remarkable desert site.

By Clifford A. Pearson

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Cade Hayes admits he was nervous when he started work on the Tucson Mountain Retreat, a 3,650-square-foot house on the edge of Saguaro National Park. Having grown up in New Mexico, he had developed a love of the desert. “It was our first project and we didn't want to scar the land,” says Hayes, who runs DUST, a Tucson-based design-build firm, along with Jesus Robles. Both Hayes and Robles studied architecture at Texas Tech, and Hayes had worked for architect Rick Joy for five years, so they had the skills for the job. But their respect for the area's rugged yet fragile terrain kept them humble in the face of building on it.

Luckily, their clients—David and Karen Francis, who live in San Diego, and their daughter Nina, who is at college studying music—shared their kinship with the land. David Francis grew up in Tucson and wanted a house there for weekends and vacations, a place where he could reconnect with the desert and indulge his love of music. He had visited a friend who owns a rammed-earth house designed by Joy and told him, “You'll have to call 911 to get me out of here.” But instead of commandeering his friend's residence, he bought a 6½-acre site nearby in the Tucson Mountains and built his own house. “I wanted a low-maintenance place, since we would be there only part time,” says Francis, explaining why he picked rammed earth. “And it just seems like the right material for this area.”

The decision to use rammed earth informed the entire design process, starting with the orientation of the house and its placement on the site. To exploit the material's effectiveness in absorbing heat from the sun during the day and releasing it in the evening when outdoor temperatures drop significantly, Hayes and Robles aligned the rectilinear structure along an east-west axis so the main elevations faced north and south. Only one small window interrupts the thick walls on the west, and none on the east. The architects and clients wanted the house to embrace the desert—not hunker down in it—so they opened all its main rooms to big views and shaded patios on the north and south. Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass panels can turn interior spaces into covered extensions of the outdoors. “The clients wanted each room to be just one step away from the land,” says Hayes.

The earth walls, which range from 18 inches to 3 feet thick, snake through the house, protecting rooms on two or three sides and imprinting both interiors and exteriors with their warm, textured presence. But the architects wanted to be efficient with materials. “Wherever we could take away a wall, we did,” says Hayes. Likewise, the clients pushed for efficiency in layout and asked for no hallways. So the architects devised a plan that works as a trio of attached boxes—one for a bedroom wing, one for the living/dining/cooking space, and one for a music room that can double as a guest suite. Each box is entered only from the outside: a narrow slit in a rammed-earth wall for the bedrooms, a deep porch for the living pavilion, and a simple door off a patio for the music room. This means people have to go outside to get to another part of the house, but Francis says, “It hardly ever rains here. And it reminds you that you're in this wonderful desert.”

Concrete beams that are 3 feet 3 inches deep extend 40 feet in the living pavilion and 46 feet in the bedroom wing to tie the boxes together and support the roof, which has a 450-square-foot deck for stargazing and margarita sipping. A winding steel stair tucked away in a small office leads to the roof, while a dumbwaiter delivers the margaritas. The clients plan to move in this spring, and Francis is looking forward to testing out the music room, which could serve as a professional recording studio.

This being Tucson, water is a critical issue. Small pumice stones on the roof filter rainwater, which goes to a 30,000-gallon cistern buried in the ground. Landscaping, which will begin soon, involves bringing the desert right to the house and will include native plants growing between the concrete steps that cascade down the slope from the front door. Right now those variously sized concrete blocks stick out against the dry terrain, but they will eventually look as if the desert is enveloping them. Connecting to the land is what this house is all about—whether you're in the living room appreciating the views, on a patio breathing the desert air, or on the roof lost under a starlit sky.


Photo courtesy DUST
BURN THIS. A door has a custom pull that works for both lefties and righties; Caleb Coy chars Spanish cedar.


A traditional Japanese way of preserving wood by charring its exterior, shou sugi ban creates a crackled black surface that is both elegant and rugged. Hayes and Robles had learned of the technique when reading about the work of Terunobu Fujimori, an architect and author who applies old construction methods and handcraft to quirky new teahouses and other buildings. Although the clients at first worried that the black wood wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the house, the architects had a hunch it would work well with rammed earth, since both materials feature irregularities created during fabrication. “Burn master” Caleb Coy charred Spanish cedar, which was installed in a few places such as the bedrooms and the outdoor foyer between the bedrooms. The clients now say they love it.


Completion Date: June 2012

Size: 3,650 square feet (indoors); 965 square feet (covered outdoors); 450 square feet (roof deck); 700 square feet (carport/pump house)

Total construction cost: withheld

Tucson, Arizona 85705
p. 1.520.270.4205

April 2013
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