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Operation Desert Shed

Architect Lloyd Russell’s design for this desert getaway passively mitigates the elements with a utilitarian solution, turning a modest modern retreat into a hardy, region-appropriate home.

The rustic look of surfwear entrepreneur Jim Austin’s home both stands out and also conforms with its rough-and-tumble surroundings in Pioneertown, California. Photo by David Harrison.

The desert is a study in ecological extremes—–a place where the elements of nature and climate are inextricably intertwined with every form of life. In the iconic Southern California desert city of Palm Springs, these environmental factors have long been regarded as forces to be reckoned with and conquered in order to maintain a climate-controlled lifestyle. Beyond the golf courses and swimming pools, though, the desert still exists.

Up and away from the posh estates and casinos of greater Palm Springs is Pioneertown, a settlement surrounding a living set for Western movies and cowboy TV shows that was built in the 1940s by Roy Rogers and other Western actors. Hitching posts and old-timey wooden structures still stand here, a facade of an era long past. But the mentality of the cowboy persists in the area’s residents. They embrace the land, doing what they can to adapt to the environment, not the other way around. This principle was important to Jim Austin, a former San Diego surfwear entrepreneur who set out in 2007, with architect Lloyd Russell, to build a new home near Pioneertown that would reflect and embody the idyllic and resilient character of the desert.

“It’s a very simple life, so you want it to be pretty simple architecture,” says Austin of the two-unit, 1,600-square-foot home completed in 2008. “It doesn’t have to be ugly to be simple.”

The result is an unapologetically  modern house that noticeably diverges from the standard Spanish- and ranch-style homes that dot the desert hills nearby, 4,500 feet above the sea. The house is basically rectangular. Its rusting, corrugated-steel-clad walls alternate with large sliding glass that give the home a rustic feeling, but one that’s also very new. Aesthetics were  an important consideration as the home was being designed, but the idea of suitability took precedence.

Austin and Russell wanted to build a space that blended in with its desert surroundings, which meant accommodating the harsh climate, where temperatures climb into the hundreds and dip into the teens, with winds that top 90 miles per hour. So they took a low-tech approach, designing a highly adaptable house where many of the wall spaces can be opened or closed to facilitate heating or cooling. The main element of the passive temperature control is the steel canopy that shelters the house. It’s a scaled-down version of the type of shading structure found covering bales of hay on farms, and it provides constant shade for the house and its patio areas, maintaining a relative coolness amid the heat.

“When you’re out in the desert, shade is gold. It’s the most valuable asset you have, so to make more shade was such a sound strategy,” says Russell. “That really resonated with me, because I didn’t want any extra frills. I didn’t want it to be complicated, I didn’t want it to be expensive, but I wanted it to have that engaging contemporary space.”

A musician with an affinity for the Americana of old Western music, Austin frequently hosts friends for concerts, parties, and other events. The house is oriented toward a center courtyard on the ten-acre property, which also holds four rental cabins and a garage that’s being converted into a recording studio. All of the buildings on Austin’s Rimrock Ranch surround a large open-air barbecue area, but the highlight is the stagelike patio that tucks into a nook next to the main kitchen. A roll-up wall of windows that resembles a garage door opens the kitchen onto the stage, transforming this zone into the soul of the home during parties. As a whole, the building is a very active space, sharply contrasting its passive design.

“I hate the idea of ‘form follows function.’ Form should transcend. It should do more than just function,” says Russell. “Of course the house is going to work. But what extra benefit do you get from arranging it just right?”

Austin wanted his house to act as a canvas for the make-do culture of the area and its cowboy aesthetic. The interior is a compilation of reused materials from an architectural salvage shop, matching the rugged metal shell of the house—–a strategy that reduced costs and environmental impact. From the old elementary-school drinking fountain he uses as a bathroom sink to the salvaged machined steel parts that form handles on his cabinets and drawers, Austin takes pride in the new life his home has given to the old things within and around it. He calls it “the ultimate desert structure,” both inside and out.

“It’s either recycled stuff or stuff that’s going to last forever. And to me that’s as green as you can get. It’s going to be there, you never have to go back and retouch it or fix it,” Austin says. “This place is bulletproof.”

  • austin residence illustration canopy

    Made for the Shade

    The rusted red corrugated-steel canopy that covers Jim Austin’s home at Rimrock Ranch is visually striking in its desert surroundings is your online home in the modern world. Join us as we follow our team around the globe on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Want more? Never miss another word of Dwell with our free iTunes app.


Why cant DWELL include more photos on their website?

They don't really spell it out for you, but if you click on "slideshow," there's all the photos for the article from the magazine, and there's usually some extras also that weren't in the actual magazine.

I like the simplicity of the structure. The concept reminds me of what you find in some of the old trailer parks in Palm Springs, where owners built elaborate roof canapies over their trailers to cut down on the direct sun, and created shade. (Check out the Sahara Mobile Home Park next time you're in Palm Springs!


Seen the house and there are a few going up in the area using the same idea. Seems to me however that the builders have forgotten that in Pioneertown we also have some pretty cold winters. With temperatures dropping into the 20s quite regularly. So if you are living in such a house you aren't taking advantage of passive solar heating during winter. I have to wonder if the cost of heating doesn't in-fact increase due to the permanent shade?

Thank you MPete for the advice, I didn't notice the slideshow button, duh. I am also in the process of building my off the grid space and really appreciated the salvaged bath tub in the photos-very creative.

I was thinking the same thing as Vance regarding the cold winters, but more along the lines of the slab. The article in the printed magazine has more details about the concrete foundation. It has a low thermal conductivity, which should reduce temperature variation. My house here in Atlanta is slab and it gets quite cold in the winter, so I'm curious as to exactly how cold that slab would be where the temperature drops into the 20's. Adding that into what Vance points out as losing out on the solar heating, how is this house maintaining warmth in the winter?

Just for grins... does ANYONE know how much it might cost to built a house like this say in or around Green Valley, Arizona???

Finally a nice looking shade structure home! Out in the SW Texas desert where I live - the landscape is dotted with the dreaded doublewide shaded with the ugliest steel structures...But I'm guessing that this Dwell feature was built for a about $350,000. Check out my desert shed at My little house cost $3000 in materials and 3 months of my own labor. I am working on a larger structure with four shipping containers (2 for storage, one for an office and electronics workshop and one for a guest house. The 20 foot containers are arranged to provide a greenhouse courtyard that is 16' x 50'. My budget is $50,000 for this poject and I am doing all the building myself - to be completed by the end of '09.

Carol. At least for the metal structure you can expect $18 per sq. ft. As for the dwelling that will vary depending on what is used towards high energy saving materials such as windows the cost could be $125 up.

My wife and I have property not far from you in Rio Rico. We'd been thinking of straw bale, but I'm fascinated by the idea shown here for a small "starter" structure. I would make the protective metal canopy a bit more "artsy" however, if affordable.


during winter, the sun may be at a low enough angle to shine in the windows and provide heat

That steel roof not only provides shade and heat reflection, but would be a perfect place for a solar water heater as well as a photovoltaic array, making this an even "greener" home.

There is a 4,000 sq ft. "off the grid" house in Austin Tx that is using the same concept. In this case the house is located mid way up a valley. The heat rises up out of the valley providing a high/low pressure to maintain constant air flow.

Living in Melbourne, Australia, I have polished concrete floors in the main part of my home. (I'll update the website in the next few days.) Our weather varies from around 42C (108F) in summer, to 5C (40F) in Winter. Melbourne is where the horrific bush fires, or wild fires, were early in the year.

Anyway, it stays wonderfully cool in summer, and is fairly good in winter, except when there is no sun. I designed the house so that the winter sun came under the eaves and could stream in through the vast windows, warming the concrete. In summer, the higher summer sun doesn't come under the eaves, and (mostly) misses the windows, keeping the house cool.

The only time cooling has become a problem was during our bush fire heatwave, where we had 5 days straight of temperatures around 45C (113F). If I lived in an area where the heat became a problem, I think I have a solution, but have not really seen it used in a domestic sense........ add a "fly" to the house!

The fly solution would need to be removable or retractable, suspended above the roof surface. This would work extremely well on a flat roofed house as it could be out of sight, and could also mean that the roof could be painted a heat generating colour, such as black to aid heating in winter (providing it doesn't snow!!). So in winter, the black roof aids in heating, and in summer the fly is stretched above the roof to assist in cooling. Depending on the material and method of application, I don't believe the cost may even be that great?? A near-12ft square sail on Amazon is only $125...

I have been turning a design like this over in my head for many years to build on 10 acres I bought in Central Nevada. Lake/Flato did a home in Kyle, Texas utilizing a recycled cement plant that got me started.

John, I was thinking of straw bale for this design. It could be load bearing because the roof doesn't have to carry much load. In fact, just insulation and a lightweight flat roof. Oriented as Matthew describes for solar gain by placing the house correctly under the structure will go a long way towards helping with heat in the winter and this could be augmented by radiant heating put in the slab under the living areas and heated with solar hot water.

I imagine that the indoor/outdoor living spaces provided under the "super structure" would make a house of this design extremely livable in the desert. Very nice.

The location of the shade structure was offset from the house to take advantage of the low winter sun angles. Also the slab has a thermal break at the exterior walls so that the interior temperatures don't fluctuate that much.
Lloyd Russell

I'm surprised they don't take advantage of the roof of the lower structure. If you make that an outdoor living room you get views (possibly) and better air movement when it's hot. That might require a little taller shade structure and a stronger roof, but I would think the benefits would be worth the extra expense.

What was the total cost of this from start to finish?