We were just done with snow,” says Kim Balaschak of the journey she made with husband Jim from their Russian home to the sunnier, warmer climate of Arizona. After more than a decade in Moscow, where Jim served as a country manager for a U.S. corporation, the couple set up camp in Philadelphia until the allure of the Sonoran Desert proved too great to resist.
A chance invitation to play golf initially brought the Balaschaks to the desert, but it was a newly opened section of the development—with dirt roads and not one house in sight—that really caught their eye. “It sits up high, which makes this a fantastic building site,” Jim says. The gently sloping location afforded the couple a view of Pinnacle Peak, the surrounding mountains and, after sunset, the lights of Scottsdale. “We took one look at it and said, ‘This is it.’”
“They had a strong sense of how they wanted to live, from a public and private standpoint,” observes architect Andy Byrnes, who, along with project manager Ian Wolfersteig, used a combination of glass, steel, wood and concrete to turn the gently sloping Scottsdale property into the Balaschak’s dream residence. The structure they conceived embraces nature, complete with board-formed, packed-in-place concrete exterior walls covered in a vintage Kynar-coated metal that “appear to come up out of the desert,” says Byrnes. Inside, a decorative wall was created by stacking quarter-inch glass to give it a fluid, translucent look. It is of a piece with the front door, made of hot-rolled steel and glass that aligns with the exterior’s horizontal cladding. The result exhibits a certain chic simplicity, accentuated by a thin, floating butterfly roof that looks as if it’s held up by glass.
“The house is intentionally modest,” notes the architect. “That was important in terms of scale. It’s low to the ground and has a desert palette.” Sliding doors open the great room out to the courtyard and, as Byrnes puts it, “just invites that pool right into the living room.” The whole idea of the house, he says, was “grounding the desert and bringing it into that courtyard.” To continue this feeling of immersion, Byrnes turned to landscape architect Stephen Bardorf, who brought in a variety of cactus and succulents—slipper plants, cardon cactus and aloe Hercules among them. The goal was to lend the outdoor living spaces a garden atmosphere and, as Bardorf says, “add an alternative compositional quality to the landscape, adjacent to the architecture.”
When it comes to interiors, the Balaschaks lean toward European midcentury influences and designer Jessica Ruiz found that much of the clean-lined, minimalist furnishings the couple already owned worked well in the sophisticated space. So, she simply augmented the collection, adding pieces as needed. The bigger question was how to display the couple’s extensive art collection, which numbers some 100-plus pieces—a blend of Soviet realism and contemporary Russian artists and photographers. “We were drawn to depictions of life in the former Soviet Union,” Kim says. “They gave us an insight into what life might have been like in the country that we were then calling home.”
Ruiz worked side-by-side with Kim in the art placement, ensuring that each piece the couple brought to the new abode felt right. “The art was broad reaching,” says Byrnes. “But we just knew, once they moved in, we would find homes for all their pieces.” In the glass-steel-and-concrete great room, the couple felt that “the architecture is the artwork,” says Kim. So, they opted against hanging pieces there, choosing instead to turn a hallway on the west side of the home into a long gallery for much of their collection.
The entire crew agrees that it’s not just paintings, photographs or sculptures that serve as art in the dwelling. “We had a fun day spending time at the stone quarry picking out the material for the kitchen backsplash,” Byrnes says. “Eventually we all fell in love with the most expensive piece of stone in the place. We convinced ourselves that it was a piece of art in itself.”
The same could be said for the entire property. “It’s not too big a house, it’s not too small a house,” Jim concludes. “Every room has its function and use.” Adds Kim, “I get up in the morning and walk from our bedroom and the light coming in is so special. I walk like I’m in a dreamland every day.”