Operation Desert Shed

Operation Desert Shed

By Nate Berg
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 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.

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.

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.

The bathroom. Austin sourced most of the materials from Architectural Salvage of San Diego. Photo by David Harrison.

"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 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.

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."


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