Sometimes, a shift in perspective makes all the difference. That’s what made architect Hugh Knoell’s design proposal for a family’s new home in Lost Canyon, Arizona stand out among the rest. Instead of positioning the house on top of the hill, he asked the owners, why not place it at the base?
“In Lost Canyon, most of the valued properties are on the hills,” Knoell explains. “But I said, ‘It’s better to look up at the desert canyon than to look down at roofs.” The owners agreed—and they weren’t just enticed by the seclusion that came with it. They also loved Knoell’s vision to keep the architecture in harmony with the landscape, respecting the natural patterns of the canyon waterways and its flora and fauna.
Working with builder Joe Costello, Knoell created a flat-roofed abode with no visible masonry. The simple stucco exterior recedes elegantly into the terrain, positioned to maximize the sun in winter and minimize it in summer. Bridges and walkways allow for the flow of storm water beneath the home, while the floor, wall and ceiling materials are continuous from the inside out, framing the mountain views.
Interior designer David Michael Miller notes that it was important to him that the interiors reflected Knoell’s architectural vision. To mirror the soothing simplicity of the façade, Miller brought in local firm Woodesign to fabricate millwork in warm combinations of rift white oak and rift walnut, achieving an organic richness with clean lines. Throughout the abode, a color palette of camel and sand draws visual ties with the topography of the desert outside. In the living room, a smooth wall of stacked travertine frames the fireplace; it’s a well-executed exercise in muted yet cozy minimalism. Overhead, sandblasted plain-slice Douglas fir lines the ceilings, countering the cooler tones of the concrete floors.
“Sometimes with modern and contemporary architecture there’s the risk of the interior feeling unfriendly, stark or polished to the point where you don’t feel any richness,” Miller says. “There could be beautiful objects and clean space, but it’s really not a place to live. So I wanted the interiors to be warm and comfortable—a place where you want to sit down and relax.” While keeping things mostly natural and minimal, he injected a few surprising visual moments throughout. In the kitchen, an earthy midcentury-style dimensional backsplash adds a tactile quality to the space, while a sculptural lighting fixture and vibrant artwork in the dining room inject cheerful irreverence.
Landscape architect Jeff Berghoff saved as many indigenous native trees as possible from the excavation and replanted them strategically throughout the property to ensure it blended well with the terrain of the canyon’s basin. Ironwood trees line the driveway and front entry walkway, while blue palo verdes frame the latter. Berghoff also planted desert cactus species like teddy bear cholla and prickly pear alongside black dalea, indigo bush and pink fairy duster.
To ensure the fusion of interior and exterior, covered patios extend from many of the rooms. “It’s important to shade in the desert,” Knoell says. “So all the overhangs are designed so they let the winter sun in and keep the summer sun out.” The patios allow for different experiences depending on the time of day and year, highlighting the myriad desert scents and sounds and the mesmeric color changes of the canyon. In an especially magical design touch, a bridge extends from the main bedroom to the remote observation deck, where the family can while away the evenings gazing at the galactic expanse above.
And that’s not even this home’s most striking feature. That accolade, Knoell and Miller agree, belongs to the entryway. Though the concrete retaining walls serve to protect the house from the flow of storm water, they also form a sculptural part of the south entry courtyard. In the spirit of a traditional oasis, a dramatic reflective water feature leads to the front door, through the sunlight-drenched interiors and out to the pool, culminating in a magnificent tableau of desert and mountains. It’s a fitting end to the journey, since the landscape is what captured the owners’ hearts when they first viewed the lot. “It was very important that they have an intimate connection with the desert—they just wanted to be immersed in it,” says Miller. “And that’s how this house came to be.”