At This High-Desert Home, a Whole Wall Opens Up When You Crank a Giant Wheel
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Topped by an angled roof plane that extends over the southeast-facing deck, the living room features a 300-pound, 12-by-26-foot window wall that opens with the turn of a wheel. Fashioned out of a gearbox salvaged from an old irrigation pump, the mechanism was a collaboration between Olson Kundig’s "gizmologist" Phil Turner, and Bruce, who marvels, "A small child could open that door."
Kundig is intrigued by kinetics. "Natural forces, like gravity and levers and fulcrums, have always fascinated me," he says. "You can move these multi-ton things because you’re just being smart about using the nature of nature."
The sizable fireplace dividing the living and dining rooms is enclosed by hinged and sliding glass on three sides and sends hot air to the basement before returning it up through the chimney, which radiates heat back into the living space.
The house was built over the course of several years, mostly on weekends. "At some points there were three generations working out there," says Carol. "Bruce’s parents live up in the high desert, and they really wanted to be engaged because they’re both retired."
The family and the architect also designed a number of the furnishings, from the steel beds to the bent-steel coffee table in the living room. Kundig designed the huge dining table, and Bruce and his father and son built it out of wood found in an old barn on the property.
A well supplies the home’s water needs, while the electricity comes from solar panels near the house. "There’s backup propane to be used for cooking or the backup generator if you have a week of no sun," says Bruce. "I call it ‘way, way off the grid.’ It’s a delight to be able to drive out there, not having visited for three weeks, and the electricity’s on and there’s still cold beer in the refrigerator."
Carol says she never tires of watching the morning light wash into the canyon, or seeing the night sky crowded with stars. "Last Christmas Eve, it snowed at nightfall, and we watched it through the big door, warmed by the fireplace and radiant-heated floors. It would be very remote to function as a full-time residence, but we both secretly hope we get snowed in sometime."
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