Lisa Sette and Peter Shikany’s house is a love story that started with the decision to move in together that turned into a decision to buy a place together. Soon after, the pair of design professionals—she runs an art gallery and he runs a graphic-design firm—stumbled onto one of Phoenix’s architectural superstars right as it went on the market two years ago.
The House of Earth + Light had been featured in the pages of the New York Times and on the cover of Dwell’s premiere issue, so the couple knew it was something special when they saw it for the first time. But as soon as they stepped inside, Sette says, they fell in love.
"You kind of know it at a gut level," she says. "We were just seduced by the design and how beautiful it was."
They aren’t alone in that assessment. Shortly after moving in, Shikany watched from their new bedroom as a busload of Japanese tourists on an architecture tour poured into the street and started snapping pictures of the house. The experience was a little unsettling—it inspired the couple to complete a privacy wall that screens the bedroom windows a little sooner than expected—but Shikany says he was also tickled to discover that their new home exudes such a wide appeal.
The exquisite house is composed of three minimalist boxes fused into a single structure—two poured-earth "bookends" connected by a steel-and-glass bridge that spans the desert wash bisecting the lot. It sits at the foot of one of the steep, craggy hills that pop up at regular intervals from Phoenix’s otherwise-level grid in a neighborhood dotted with houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, Will Bruder, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
The glass-walled bridge holds the open dining and living area, while the bedrooms and kitchen rest on solid ground between thick, earthen walls the color of the gray granite found on the site. Expansive windows let in views of Piestewa Peak and glimpses of the coyotes, jackrabbits, and other creatures that venture into the neighborhood from the nearby Phoenix Mountains Preserve. But the first time Sette and Shikany walked into the house, what really amazed them was the soft glow that suffused the interior, thanks to the translucent fabric roof.
The roof, which is similar to that of the Denver International Airport, was an experiment designed by the house’s architect, Marwan Al-Sayed, and installed by the original owners, a Phoenix firefighter couple who built the house themselves (with a little help from their buddies in the department).
Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t quite work as planned. The way the fabric was joined to its steel support trusses let in rain, and a lack of insulation meant the house got hot during the searing Arizona summers. Really hot—triple-digit hot.
The roof wasn’t the only issue. Money problems kept the original owners from installing double-glazed windows or fully insulating the bottom of the bridge. As a result, the air-conditioning just couldn’t keep up.
Sette and Shikany were warned about these performance issues by both the previous owners and Al-Sayed, but they really, really loved the house, so they crossed their fingers and signed on the dotted line. After closing, they called Al-Sayed to enlist his help and set about transforming the huge, steel-skinned workshop behind the main house into guest accommodations because they knew they’d need a place to stay during renovations. However, they didn’t anticipate they’d live in what Sette calls the "big Richard Serra shed" for a year.
Sette and Shikany brought in expert after expert, and while the process helped them discover interesting things about their new house—like the fact that the floor of the bridge was reaching temperatures of 92 degrees and that their windows were too hot to touch on summer days—they weren’t making much progress on finding a way to seal and insulate the roof. After months of trawling fabric-construction trade shows and reading everything they could find on the topic, the couple found a company that guaranteed a fix. Unfortunately, the cost totaled well into six figures, and that’s when they came to a troubling realization.
"We didn’t want to be known as the people who ruined the House of Earth + Light," Shikany explains, but they didn’t feel like they had a choice anymore. Their budget forced them to look at alternatives. That also forced them to find someone other than Al-Sayed to help do it. Not wanting to compromise the integrity of his original idea for the house, Al-Sayed bowed out of the process at this point. "If I were to change the roof, it would be like admitting that the concept doesn’t work, and I know it can work," he says. "I know that pains them because they wanted to pursue the project, and it pained us because we obviously wanted to see it stay the same concept."
However grateful Al-Sayed is that he got a chance to break new ground with the design of the house, he says in the end, the experience was bittersweet. He compares trying to retrofit his design to being an artist who is asked to go back and change his work. "Architecture is a different thing because it’s kind of a functional object people live in, but at an emotional level, it’s not different," he says.
So with their options dwindling, a roof that still leaked, and a house that still got unbearably hot in the summer, Sette and Shikany called in yet another team of experts, the Phoenix design and contracting firm The Construction Zone. Andy Byrnes, the company co-owner, and Wesley James, one of its head project managers, presented the couple with three options. The first was retrofitting a new fabric roof, an idea Sette and Shikany had already rejected as too expensive. The second was replacing the whole thing with a standard roof, but the couple only wanted to do that as a last resort. The third option was somewhere in between, and, like Goldilocks’s porridge, it turned out to be just right.
Instead of relying on fabric to keep out the rain and heat, The Construction Zone’s design called for a standing-seam metal roof consisting of steel panels coated with Kynar, a corrosion-resistant coating. The magic ingredients for this plan were the trusses the previous owner had built with steel salvaged from the baseball stadium downtown. They were incorporated into the new plan as frames for the 11 skylights that now pierce the roof in a regular march across the length of the house.
James describes it as a compromise in the best sense of the word because it fixed the leak problem while preserving two of the couple’s favorite features of the old design: the shadows cast onto the floor by the trusses and the flood of light the fabric let in.
"It’s a little different quality of light," Shikany says. "It’s a little harsher and not that translucent glow, but now you can see clouds and birds fly over."
James and Byrnes made several adjustments to the house to address the heat issue. They replaced most of the single-paned windows in the house with better-insulating double-glazed ones, for example. They coated the metal window seams on the bridge with a ceramic insulator called Supertherm to keep them from radiating so much heat into the interior. They replaced the clerestory windows on the west side of the house with opaque, low-emission glass. And finally, they pumped up the air-conditioning by adding a third unit to the house and reconfiguring vents to spray air across a wider area.
"On the hottest day in the summer, it’s still not perfect," says Byrnes, but he and James are proud of the work they did and the way they were able to strike a balance between the needs of the owners and the original design of the house.
After nearly six months in the renovated house, though, Shikany admits that he still habitually checks for leaks when it rains. But despite what they went through to get here, the couple almost trip over each other’s words as they talk about how much they love the house now: "It’s a really magical space, just really well designed," Sette says. "It’s warm and inviting."
"And miminal at the same time," Shikany interjects.
"People don’t think of architecture like this as family and eating and drinking," Sette says, but they insist that it’s the only place they’ve ever lived where they could imagine hosting a get-together, as they recently did, that included dinner and tango lessons for 15.
And while neither want to repeat their saga, Shikany says the long journey to make the house their own might have been for the best because it "kind of tested our relationship . . . in a good way."