“I take a modern approach to desert architecture,” says architect Andy Byrnes of the home that he designed and built just outside Scottsdale. The owners, who were relocating to the area after decades on the East Coast and a short stint in the Midwest, wanted a contemporary home constructed with warm materials that would blend into the surrounding desert. According to Byrnes, the gently sloping lot allowed him to create just that effect. “We were able to set the house back on the property and sort of sink it down into the ground on the backside,” Byrnes explains. “That let the house sit low enough to keep a low profile but high enough to catch the city lights on the south view.”
Built with masonry and a steel frame that has been allowed to rust over time, the home is sited among large barrel and saguaro cacti as well as native palo verde, ironwood and mesquite trees. Although the desert environment appears untouched, landscape architect Stephen Bardorf says that appearances can be deceiving. “One of our goals was for the home to fit back into the existing landscape as much as possible,” states Bardorf, who prepared the site for construction by salvaging native plants, granite and rocks, which he placed into a temporary on-site nursery. Post-construction, Bardorf and his crew worked in reverse, carefully restoring the material and incorporating new plantings, yet making it look as if his crew had never been there.
Floor-to-ceiling windows in the main living areas provide expansive vistas of the restored landscape. On the southeast side of the house, they can be opened and slid back into the wall, offering the owners direct access to the exterior patio and pool area, which also includes a fire pit. The home’s flat, horizontal roof extends far past the envelope of the sprawling structure, creating shade over the patio dining area. Here, Byrnes purposely left the roof out of the structure over the spa so that it acts as an outdoor skylight.
Controlling the light was a key goal of the project. To that end, Byrnes designed the layout so that main rooms have windows on two or three sides. “When you only have windows on one side of the room, it feels unbalanced, especially in Arizona where the light is so strong,” he says. Natural daylight is also enhanced by a long, thin band of clerestory windows along two sides of the home, creating the illusion of a flat roof floating over the entire space. “The house is oriented just perfectly,” the husband says. “In the winter, the sun is so low that it streams into the living room.”
Because there are no hallways, light flows through each room and spills into the next. “It lives like a much larger home, because of the way it circulates,” says Byrnes, noting that the masonry block walls, oak plank ceiling and even the expansion lines in the concrete flooring continue past the building structure, blending the interior and exterior as if they were a separate living area.
Treating the entire project as a single element, Byrnes designed built-in cabinetry made of rift-cut white oak for the kitchen, master bedroom and office. To complement the owners’ existing collection of contemporary furnishings, Byrnes also created several stand-alone pieces, including a steel rectangular dining table covered in walnut veneer and a contemporary chandelier, both of which echo the home’s horizontal lines. “Everything is exceptionally clean,” the husband says. “What you see is the design, inside and out.”
After spending most of their lives back East, the owners are adjusting to the change of scenery quite well. “It’s paradise,” says the husband, noting that he and his wife enjoy hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities year-round. “We love it here. This house is exactly what we were looking for.”