This project is strongly about the architecture and materials,” explains Sarah Swartz Wessel about the modernist steel, concrete and wood abode she and her husband and business partner, Ethan Wessel, designed on a 1-acre desert lot at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac in Paradise Valley. “The neighborhood is full of big grass lawns, but our clients wanted a desert environment, and that’s what we lean toward, as well.”
Their clients, an outdoorsy retired couple who summer in Idaho, discovered the Wessels after touring an open house for another home they had designed nearby. Although too large for the clients, its concrete walls and embrace of the exterior held great appeal, and they soon approached the design duo about conceiving a brand- new house. “The work that Tennen Studio does with cement is very interesting and has very good energy,” the wife says. “Their homes have a very solid, organic feel that we really appreciate.”
Board-formed concrete walls create an entry corridor between the living and private spaces of the home, and a single pane of glass at the end of the hall allows unobstructed views of the desert and courtyard beyond. Like all of the concrete walls throughout the project, snap-tie holes—remnants of the rods used to join the wall molds together—have been left exposed. Adding another dimension, some of the walls, including the one between the entry corridor and the dining area, have been formed using thin strips of rough-sawn Douglas Fir. “You see the wood grain and knots in the concrete,” says Ethan Wessel, who also served as the general contractor on the project. Even walls formed with smoother plywood sheets have some texture. “We used each form three to four times, and they got a little more character every time we poured concrete in them,” he says.
The Wessels also thoughtfully incorporated the use of ever-changing light into the home. “We really consider natural light to be a material, and we love working with it,” Sarah Swartz Wessel says. “The light is going to change every single day and throughout the year. Architecture isn’t static.” An outdoor roof opening—one of several throughout the project—allows the sunlight to filter through the entry court, forming a dramatic X shadow on the ground. Inside, precisely placed skylights and LED lighting strips reveal the textures and patterns in the walls.
To enhance the link between inside and outdoors, the concrete walls and structural steel roofline extend beyond the envelope of the structure. Even the rough-sawn Douglas Fir ceiling in the living area flows out to a courtyard with a detached casita and an outdoor living area around a replace where the owners enjoy hosting Thanksgiving dinner. “We have an outdoor wood-fired oven,” the wife says, noting it has become a holiday tradition to cook the turkey in it. “It’s a very fun place to have a party.”
Just inside, the kitchen’s natural oak flooring with exposed knots and a butcher-block island countertop enhance the home’s rustic sensibility while hewing to the clean contemporary feeling that is a hallmark of the Wessels’ work. “The warm rustic materials stand out even more against the super-clean lines,” Sarah Swartz Wessel says.
Despite the home’s minimalist look, the simplicity is deceiving. “A lot of effort and detailing goes into making it look so clean,” Sarah Swartz Wessel explains. A scrupulous attention to detail can be found everywhere, from the custom vertical brass pull on the walnut front door to the dining area’s built-in live-edge buffet that appears to hover in the air. In perhaps the Wessels’ most complex feat, the door to the master suite has been designed to notch into a concrete wall when open. In a technique also used in the dining room, the wall is suspended from the sides to allow for a horizontal window along the floor beneath. Concealed within the concrete is a shade that extends to the floor and an LED strip that casts a warm glow at night.
Windows in the master entry hall, bathroom and bedroom all frame views of the ornamental grasses and Agave “Blue Flame” succulents the Wessels selected for the spacious outdoor area they created off the master suite. “The house sort of sits in the middle of the desert property, and for all intents and purposes there were no views, besides sky, to be had,” Sarah Swartz Wessel says. “We worked very hard to create views within. It’s all about looking through the house and out onto the courtyards.” In this case, bamboo and other greenery screen an intimate sitting area and a hot tub from neighboring homes while contrasting with the predominant desert landscape. “They wanted one area that felt a little more lush,” the residential designer adds. “It’s their own private oasis.”
On late afternoons, the owners can often be found sitting in their secluded garden with a glass of wine, taking in the view. “The house blends into the desert, so you notice the whole environment, and then you walk into these beautiful, calm spaces,” the wife says. “It’s very Zen, and we really love it. The Wessels were very fun to work with, and they did a great job.”