Simple, organic materials belie the complexity of a modernist dwelling
Written by Tate Gunnerson
It’s said that iron sharpens iron, and that was certainly the case when architect C.P. Drewett assembled a seasoned team—interior designer David Michael Miller, builder Jeremy Meek and landscape designer Jeff Berghoff—to create a sprawling compound on more than 200 saguaro-studded acres in the Sonoran Desert.
The owners envisioned a resort-like space where they could host family and friends as well as philanthropic events. “Not all projects are created equal,” Drewett says, noting this one offered a site unparalleled in its beauty, committed clients and an ambitious, often exacting, scope. “It was a remarkable design experience.”
Rather than compete with the spectacular surroundings, which Drewett compares to a state park, he selected a pared-down palette of four materials: Sirewall—a type of rammed earth using a mix of local soils; mill-scale steel, which features a blue-black surface finish resulting from oxidation; sleek concrete; and a warm mix of woods. “It’s very peaceful, and there’s not a lot of visual chatter,” he says. “The Sirewall feels indigenous and gives the residence a sense of place and belonging, like it’s growing up and out of the site.”
The rammed earth walls were built in advance of the slabs, standing like ancient monoliths until the structures slowly took shape. Hidden inside those walls are light switches, wires, conduits and pipes, which, unlike with conventional construction, cannot be moved once installed. It’s a challenge that requires careful attention to detail, says Meek, noting all the mechanicals and wiring must be precisely placed. “It takes extra effort and attention to complete, but it’s well worth the aesthetic,” he explains. “It’s truly a jewel of the Southwest.”
The buildings include a multicar garage that harbors an enviable collection of classic automobiles, a guest house, a wellness center and a pavilion-like abode with a cantilevered roof, clerestories, and expansive metal windows and doors that open to a series of outdoor areas designed by Berghoff. “Even though it’s heavily grounded, it feels sort of like it’s floating, open and fully transparent,” Drewett notes. The materials pierce the boundary between inside and out, further blurring the distinction. “The house lives very exquisitely,” Berghoff adds. “Your eye just goes for miles and miles to the horizon.”
Just as Drewett deferred to the natural surroundings, Miller deliberately selected a muted interior palette with a mix of modern furnishings and lighting that allow the architecture to shine. For example, both the custom intersecting rectangular pendants over the Bulthaup kitchen and the coarsely sawn white oak shell he designed to surround the sleek white cabinetry play off the exposed mill-scale steel beams throughout. “I wanted it to feel classic, mellow and rich without making a bunch of clever moves,” he says.
Wool-and-silk area rugs atop the concrete floors establish a cozy milieu, anchoring a series of distinct conversation zones that flow into one another. In the main living area, a low-slung sectional and a pair of contemporary chairs surround a tall, steel-clad fireplace—one of several throughout—that takes advantage of the soaring ceilings. And in the media area, tineo veneer panels atop the rammed earth walls create the sense of a lower ceiling. “I wanted the house to have some intimacy,” Miller explains.
Not to mention drama. A large-scale painting by Doug and Mike Starn that takes up nearly an entire wall enlivens the dining room, which features clerestory windows and walls of glass doors on either side. It’s a stunning backdrop for a 17-foot-long walnut dining table surrounded by 14 leather chairs. “It brings nature into the residence in an electric and exciting way,” the designer says.
After dinner, it’s easy to imagine conversation flowing over to the bar, overlooking the pool and mountains in the distance. Sporting a wood base with a backlit laminated wire-meshed glass apron, “it glows in this subtle way that’s very sexy,” Miller explains. Distinguished by leather panels with a bronze reveal, the office door also fits that description—one of the many doors Miller designed throughout. Just outside, a placid pond surrounded by cacti and ironwood trees creates a welcome oasis during the strong desert heat.
In January 2023, Drewett Works’ first book, STRATA a desert dwelling (Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers), was published. Filled with vivid imagery by photographer Werner Segarra, informative text, and detailed drawings, the 268-page hardcover book offers an in-depth look into the makings of this extraordinary home.