written by:
illustrated by:
June 17, 2009
Originally published in Act Locally

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 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.
1 / 3
The bathroom. Austin sourced most of the materials from Architectural Salvage of San Diego. Photo by David Harrison.
The bathroom. Austin sourced most of the materials from Architectural Salvage of San Diego. Photo by David Harrison.
2 / 3
The steel shading structure and massive concrete foundation help keep the home’s temperature a comfortable 70 degrees. In a climate where highs and lows can vary by 100 degrees, keeping temperatures stable would seem a huge energy drain. But the air-condi
The steel shading structure and massive concrete foundation help keep the home’s temperature a comfortable 70 degrees. In a climate where highs and lows can vary by 100 degrees, keeping temperatures stable would seem a huge energy drain. But the air-conditioning unit required by county codes still hasn’t been turned on. Photo by David Harrison.
3 / 3
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 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.
Project 
Rimrock Ranch
Architect 

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.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Rare green AD65 radio from Ecko.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016
gable game austin texas cantilevered home facade windows upper level car port
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to indoor/outdoor living. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
June 18, 2016
Modern prefab lakeside home in Bloomingdale, New Jersey
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
June 18, 2016
Rectangular bento glass table with compartments.
These top-notch projects by design students earned a spot on our honor roll.
June 18, 2016
bozley all
Jory Brigham picks up his family’s trade and takes it in unexpected directions.
June 17, 2016
ph133407
The outlandish Belgian fashion designer, a member of the iconic Antwerp Six, creates a quirky pattern-filled capsule collection for the Swedish mega-retailer—with a high-tech twist.
June 17, 2016
2016 Triumph Pavilion
A creative take on the classic children's toy.
June 17, 2016
planar and simple chicago farmhouse addition kitchen mutina cabinets tiles pella window kohler faucet
A relaxed interior and radical roof make a home more sociable and energy-efficient.
June 17, 2016