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The Tucson Mountain House sits in a secluded valley marked by unusually harsh meteorological extremes. Searing heat alternates with nighttime chills. Monsoon rains crawl up from the south.Thunderstorms appear out of nowhere, electrifying the scrub with lightning bolts. Traditionally, residents in the area have adjusted to the climate by building low-slung adobe dwellings with small windows and thick walls, and much of the area's new construction recalls this classic southwestern regional style. But the earth-colored paint and rounded corners typical of recent subdivisions can't substitute for an authentic vernacular.
Rick Joy, a National Design Award-winning practitioner of environmentally responsible architecture—or "architecture rooted in its place," as he describes it—has put a new spin on time-honored desert building methods. The Tucson-based designer spent twelve years working as a musician and finish carpenter in Maine before enrolling in architecture school at the University of Arizona. After graduating in 1990, he worked for three years in Will Bruder's Phoenix studio before establishing his small, collaborative practice with a series of striated rammed-earth houses that pair ancient building techniques with modern lines and astonishing desert views. All of Joy's projects are driven by a careful consideration of solar orientation and resource conservation. Each one also reflects his profound respect for the landscape and poetic understanding of space. The Tucson Mountain House is a prime example of how the architect's characteristic blend of traditional building techniques, boldly modern shapes, and industrial materials harmonizes with the desert's colors, moods, and topography.
Secluded in the Sonora Desert outside of Tucson, the one-family house for a local couple is deliberately small—less than 2,000 square
^ Set in the Sonora Desert on a site far removed from the city, Rick Joy's Tucson Mountain House is designed to blend into the landscape, both aesthetically and environmentally.
feet—as if to announce that it cannot possibly compete with the vast mountains looming in the distance or the immense dome of the pitch-black night sky above. Its low profile makes the singlelevel home unobtrusive in the gently sloping landscape where sagebrush and cacti run rampant.
The house consists of a master bedroom and a guest room adjacent to a combined kitchen-dining-living room. On the north side, a large porch functions as an outdoor room. To the east, a stepped entryway leads down to the foyer. "One of my rules is no garages," Joy says, so the parking area is hidden behind the house and a simple path, aligned axially with the central spine of the house, paves the way to the front door. The compact arrangement has an angular, butterfly-shaped roof of corrugated steel. Its deep eaves shade expansive glass walls that face north and east, offering unobstructed views out to the desert without excessive solar gain. In the other directions, small, geometric cutouts frame the owners' favorite desert vistas. Throughout the house, windows positioned close to ground-level promote cross ventilation.
Ranging from deep rust to pale taupe (depending on the direction and angle of the sun), Joy's signature rammed-earth walls—a mixture of desert soil from the building site and 3-percent Portland cement—endow the Tucson Mountain House with the colors and textures of the surrounding landscape. Poured into wood casts and tamped down in layers, the compound appears striated when it hardens and is removed from the mold, as if eons of geological shifts had formed it. On the exterior, the rammed earth's rough, porous surface blends into the terrain. Inside, where a coating of sealer prevents it from dusting off, its coarseness makes an impressive contrast with the smooth polished concrete floors and minimalist built-in furnishings made of maple. Environmentally, these earthen walls—which run 2 feet thick and 16 feet high on the north and south sides of the house—make an ideal match for the desert by providing passive air-conditioning. Their mass easily absorbs daytime heat, when 100-degree
^ On the north side of the house, beneath one wing of the pitched roof, an expansive porch with fireplace, lounge, and views functions as an outdoor room.
temperatures are not uncommon, so that the interior remains cool. At night, when outside temperatures plummet, the walls gradually transfer the stored-up heat, warming the interior.
Like other desert dwellings built by Joy in recent years, the Tucson Mountain House is designed and constructed with a great deal of reverence for the fragile Sonoran ecosystem, a spare, forbidding environment that, on close inspection, brims with many varieties of flora and fauna. Humble yet visually confident, the house satisfies its owners' needs while intruding only minimally on its surroundings. "My version of environmentalism is about a deep level of respect for the landscape," says Joy. "That translates into how I build and what I build. The desert is always the first consideration."
The front door, a glass panel set between the stucture's two volumes, offers a first glimpse of the house's stunning desert
^^ A wall of east-facing glass panels in the living-dining area opens the house to the desert's rich flora and wildlife.
^ In the bathroom, sliding glass doors and mirrored panels create the illusion of an outdoor shower.
The striated rammed-earth walls supply structure as well as texture, inside and out.
^ While the house has many large swaths of glass, only a few panels contain operable windows. All of these are strategically positioned to encourage cross ventilation.
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