written by:
photos by:
March 7, 2010
Originally published in Prefab Today

The Blue Sky prototype home tiptoes gracefully across the desert landscape just north of Joshua Tree National Park. Nestled amid piñon and juniper trees and outcroppings of boulders, the house’s six steel columns permit a seasonal stream to run underneath it. The clever steel frame allows the house to float above the wilderness—a concession to the lightness on the land that its owner, architects, and engineers so clearly wanted. Figuring out how to achieve this lightness, however, was anything but clear. When David McAdam, co-owner and chief dreamer of Blue Sky Homes, bought 2.5 acres of cactus-studded land near Palm Springs, California, he didn’t know what kind of getaway he wanted to build, but he did know one thing: no wood. “It’s boring, and I see how it works in the desert. It gets destroyed,” he says, remembering the damage he’d seen other houses suffer in the unrelenting sun. If the material isn’t handled perfectly, arid conditions turn it into a pretzel. So if not wood, then what?

Nighttime hikes often end at the the “cowboy” hot tub where Smith soaks his feet: two nested Hastings galvanized livestock feeders. The tub is surrounded by a Veranda faux-wood deck and fed with hot water from the house’s solar hot-water system.
Nighttime hikes often end at the the “cowboy” hot tub where Smith soaks his feet: two nested Hastings galvanized livestock feeders. The tub is surrounded by a Veranda faux-wood deck and fed with hot water from the house’s solar hot-water system.
Photo by 
1 / 10
The Blue Sky prototype house leads a second life as desert getaway for David McAdam and his partner Scott Smith.
The Blue Sky prototype house leads a second life as desert getaway for David McAdam and his partner Scott Smith.
Photo by 
2 / 10
One large room houses the kitchen, dining, and living area; the backsplash and countertops are made by Vetrazzo.
One large room houses the kitchen, dining, and living area; the backsplash and countertops are made by Vetrazzo.
Photo by 
3 / 10
A Plyboo wall divides the interior of the house.
A Plyboo wall divides the interior of the house.
Photo by 
4 / 10
The main living area extends to the deck through sliding glass doors. The orange David Chair and ottoman were designed by Palm Springs-based interior designer <a href="http://www.christopherkennedy.com">Christopher Kennedy</a> and are from his eponymous l
The main living area extends to the deck through sliding glass doors. The orange David Chair and ottoman were designed by Palm Springs-based interior designer Christopher Kennedy and are from his eponymous line of furniture. Kennedy did the interior design for the whole house, playing a large role in choosing the decor and eco-friendly surfaces.
Photo by 
5 / 10
The secret sauce for the Blue Sky Home is its framing system, which resists twisting and bending and won’t rust.
The secret sauce for the Blue Sky Home is its framing system, which resists twisting and bending and won’t rust.
Photo by 
6 / 10
Eight carefully placed bolts in the joints in the steel frame absorb any movement, allowing the home to rest on small footings and meet California’s strict seismic standards.
Eight carefully placed bolts in the joints in the steel frame absorb any movement, allowing the home to rest on small footings and meet California’s strict seismic standards.
Photo by 
7 / 10
Modern carport near Palm Springs, California
The carport stands apart from the home and is topped with Solar World’s Sun Module photovoltaic panels. McAdam and Smith have grown quite used to their small electric bills.
Photo by 
8 / 10
As a paean to the old steel-mining shacks that inspired the home, McAdam sprayed the the corrugated-steel exterior with apple cider vinegar to create a warm rust effect.
As a paean to the old steel-mining shacks that inspired the home, McAdam sprayed the the corrugated-steel exterior with apple cider vinegar to create a warm rust effect.
Photo by 
9 / 10
For all its hard environmental work, one of the most immediate of the Blue Sky Home’s pleasures is how it sits so snugly in its desert surroundings.
For all its hard environmental work, one of the most immediate of the Blue Sky Home’s pleasures is how it sits so snugly in its desert surroundings.
Photo by 
10 / 10
Nighttime hikes often end at the the “cowboy” hot tub where Smith soaks his feet: two nested Hastings galvanized livestock feeders. The tub is surrounded by a Veranda faux-wood deck and fed with hot water from the house’s solar hot-water system.
Nighttime hikes often end at the the “cowboy” hot tub where Smith soaks his feet: two nested Hastings galvanized livestock feeders. The tub is surrounded by a Veranda faux-wood deck and fed with hot water from the house’s solar hot-water system.
Project 
Blue Sky Prototype
Architect 

Taken with the architecture of Rick Joy, McAdam thought about concrete, but he quickly learned that it wouldn’t meet his budget. He then considered a rustic steel structure reminiscent of the mining cabins he had explored over the years in the Mojave Desert. But again, cost was an issue. Then he visited a friend who was building equestrian facilities on her property. McAdam marveled at how the modular steel elements came together elegantly and quickly to form the barns, shelters, and other structures. After speaking with Barret Hilzer, one of the heads of FCP, Inc., the company that did the work on his friend’s property, McAdam became convinced he could use a similar steel framing system to build an affordable, sustainable, beautiful, and prefabricated home.

The Blue Sky prototype house leads a second life as desert getaway for David McAdam and his partner Scott Smith.
The Blue Sky prototype house leads a second life as desert getaway for David McAdam and his partner Scott Smith.

In technical terms, the steel framing system that bewitched McAdam is a mezzanine system, with a point-loaded, bidirectional, moment-resisting frame made of cold-formed, light-gauge galvanized steel manufactured by ASC Profiles in Sacramento, California. It’s strong in two directions, resists twisting or bending, and won’t rust. It also happens to be cheaper than the structural steel systems normally used in residential construction. Each steel element is made in a factory and delivered to the building site, where it goes up like an erector set, requiring zero welding, little assembly time, and reduced costs.

Once he saw the framing system’s potential, McAdam expanded his dream house in the desert into a dream of a marketable steel homebuilding system. After drawing up his own plans for a 1,000-square-foot weekend retreat using Hilzer’s system, he recruited residential builder Solterra Development, an architecture firm called o2 Architecture, and Hilzer. He also contacted Robert Brada, an old colleague and fellow architecture enthusiast, and they formed the company Blue Sky Homes. Their mission was to make McAdam’s home, and the homebuilding system he had stumbled on, into a reality. They succeeded.

A Plyboo wall divides the interior of the house.
A Plyboo wall divides the interior of the house.

Every room in the house has a door to the outside. “Given the mostly temperate climate, you tend to have all of the doors pushed wide open all the time, and you find yourself outside as often as not,” explains McAdam. Unlike a wood-frame house, where load-bearing walls need to go in certain places to support the structure, a Blue Sky steel frame house doesn’t require interior walls. The architects at o2 capitalized on the flexibility the steel afforded them by emphasizing open space and a connection with the surrounding nature.

Half of the house is one large public room containing the kitchen, dining, and living area. It extends to the outside through sliding glass doors that open up onto a 340-square-foot cantilevered deck out front. “When you’re in the main room, your eye is drawn inexorably to the dramatic weathered rock formations that rise steeply just beyond the house,” McAdam notes.

The secret sauce for the Blue Sky Home is its framing system, which resists twisting and bending and won’t rust.
The secret sauce for the Blue Sky Home is its framing system, which resists twisting and bending and won’t rust.

A bamboo wall divides the interior. To maximize space, it doubles as a two-way storage unit, with cabinets for the kitchen and closets for the bedrooms. The cabinet boxes are Forest Stewardship Council–certified, and aside from the interior doors, they’re the only wood in the house. Behind the wall, two equal-size bedrooms sit on either side of the building’s factory-built core: the bathroom, water heater, air handler, and washer and dryer. One is hard-pressed to decide in which bedroom to sleep: The east bedroom looks out to rocks, and the west opens onto the desert floor.

To achieve McAdam’s steel-home dream, though, the Blue Sky team had to overcome a significant problem: the thermal properties of steel. It can burn wicked hot in the desert sun before turning searingly cold on a frosty desert night. The conductive properties of steel tend to amplify whatever’s happening outdoors inside the house. After months of research, the team found a solution in the form of steel studs insulated with expanded polystyrene foam. A Pennsylvania firm, Accelerated Building Technologies, created a channel system through the foam that forces hot and cold temperatures to follow a zigzag path along metal pieces embedded in the insulation, thus deadening its effect on the interior temperatures.

With the conduction problem solved, the builders were left to enjoy all the positive assets steel has to offer: Every piece is perfect, the frame goes up straight without any fuss, it’s mold resistant and fireproof, and it can be made with up to 70 percent reused materials and is completely recyclable itself.

In fact, should you take it apart, you could put most of the Blue Sky home back in the recycling bin. Steel frame aside, the countertops in the kitchen and bathroom are Vetrazzo, a material made from recycled glass. A graywater system feeds the desert flora in the yard. Sunshine is recycled through the hydronic heating system that provides the home’s hot water and space heating, making this desert flower an off-the-grid marvel.

But the key sustainable attribute is the building system itself, which boasts all of the environmentally friendly advantages of prefabricated construction. Like traditional prefabs, Blue Sky homes generate less construction waste than stick-built homes. Since everything is made to order in a factory and then shipped to the site, everything is used and nothing is left over. But unlike most prefabs, which require heavy site preparation that can be environmentally damaging, the Blue Sky frame adjusts to the site’s topography, and no harsh grading of the land is necessary. Scraping a housing pad is environmentally disruptive wherever it happens, but in some areas, like the near-pristine desert, it becomes a limiting factor. Environmentally inclined developers have approached Blue Sky about using its system to design low-impact resorts in locations with fragile ecosystems.

“Hybrid prefab” is how McAdam describes the building system his firm created, which is fabricated in a factory but assembled onsite. The prototype was built in eight weeks for $325 per square foot. Taking what they learned from the experience, the builders believe they can complete future homes in about six weeks for $265 a square foot. Not the most expensive prefab on the market, but not cheap either. “This house is the Prius of prefabs,” says McAdam, referring to a hybrid of another sort, “but people are willing to spend a little more money, because it’s better engineered and better for the environment.”

And here, it’s hard to resist that environment—the almost alien boulderscape that beckons from every vista in the house. When McAdam and his partner, Scott Smith, are entertaining friends, they like to go on starlit hikes—rambles that often end around the fire pit or in the cowboy hot tub made from steel (what else?) troughs and filled with water warmed by the sun. But when the revelry ceases, the utter quiet and profound darkness of the Mojave Desert takes hold, and McAdam closes his eyes and resumes dreaming. 
 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016