At This High-Desert Home, a Whole Wall Opens Up When You Crank a Giant Wheel

By Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Photos by Gentl and Hyers
In California, architect Tom Kundig delivers an off-the-grid retreat designed for both connection and solitude.

It’s a familiar story. After the kids move out and on to college and careers, their parents decide to pull up stakes. But a question lingers: Where will the family gather for holidays and other events once their longtime residence is sold?

Carol Horst and Bruce Shafer, who had raised their son and daughter in California’s high-desert community of Tehachapi, envisioned a self-sufficient vacation home that embraced the outdoors and featured a layout with a common area and wings for themselves and their children. Situating it in the mountains near their former residence would anchor it to the rugged landscape they all loved.

For Bruce Shafer and Carol Horst's vacation home in the Tehachapi Mountains, architect Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig chose materials suited to the harsh climate. "The area is super cold in winter and super hot in summer," says Kundig, who designed a deep overhang to shade the core of the house from solar gain. "In the high desert, it's not just about being in the sun, it's about getting out of the sun."

For Bruce Shafer and Carol Horst's vacation home in the Tehachapi Mountains, architect Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig chose materials suited to the harsh climate. "The area is super cold in winter and super hot in summer," says Kundig, who designed a deep overhang to shade the core of the house from solar gain. "In the high desert, it's not just about being in the sun, it's about getting out of the sun."

The pair, who now live about two hours away, had built their original home, and they were game to repeat the process. Bruce, an engineer who formerly managed a local manufacturing plant, planned to serve as general contractor.

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Working with Bruce, who acted as contractor, architect Olson Kundig’s "gizmologist" Phil Turner fashioned a 12-by-26-foot steel-framed window wall that opens the structure to the outdoors. "We can feel the evening breeze move through the house," Bruce says.

Working with Bruce, who acted as contractor, architect Olson Kundig’s "gizmologist" Phil Turner fashioned a 12-by-26-foot steel-framed window wall that opens the structure to the outdoors. "We can feel the evening breeze move through the house," Bruce says.

They purchased 36 acres in an area known as Sawmill Canyon, a property acquired as much for its remote beauty as for the potential of getting away from it all. "It’s five miles off paved road, at a five-thousand-foot elevation in the Tehachapi Mountains, where the oak trees stop and the pine trees begin," says Bruce.

An angled overhang prevents snow from collecting.

An angled overhang prevents snow from collecting.

While searching "cool cabins" online, he came upon Chicken Point Cabin, a rustic getaway that Tom Kundig of Seattle-based Olson Kundig had designed in Idaho. The couple immediately sensed a kindred spirit. "We appreciated Tom’s connection to the geography," says Carol. She was less sure that he would take on a project like theirs. "We just didn’t seem like typical clients for a big architecture firm," she explains. "Our desires were very simple."

But it was precisely the sort of undertaking that appeals to Kundig. "Personal projects for families and important moments in their lives are very much the kinds of things I’m interested in," he says. "And I was born in Merced, California. I’d never been in that particular area, but it’s a familiar landscape and a familiar culture."

High ceilings and clerestory windows fill the public rooms with light.

High ceilings and clerestory windows fill the public rooms with light.

The couple walked the property with Kundig and settled on a site—a clearing near the mouth of a canyon—and talked about how they wanted the home to function. The architect responded with a sketch of three wings that connect to a central space consisting of a living room, dining room, and kitchen.


"Using common materials in uncommon ways is really important to me." Tom Kundig, architect

The area's extreme environment—and the potential for wildfires—figured into his selection of materials. "Because the climate is so tough on anything that has any maintenance associated with it, steel and concrete were obvious choices for the outside," says Kundig, who worked with project manager Elizabeth Bianchi Conklin.