Tucson Mountain Retreat


This holiday house with rammed earth walls by US architects DUST is nestled amongst the rocky outcrops and sprouting cacti of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona (+ slideshow).

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

With a long narrow body that ambles gently across the terrain, the Tucson Mountain Retreat is a single-storey residence with terraces along its north and south elevations and a small deck upon its roof.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

DUST architects Cade Hayes and Jesus Robles planned a location away from animal migration paths and overexposure to sunlight and wind, then used local soil to build the house's red earth walls.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

"Great effort was invested to minimise the physical impact of the home in such a fragile environment, while at the same time attempting to create a place that would serve as a backdrop to life and strengthen the sacred connections to the awe-inspiring mystical landscape," explains Hayes.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

The rooms of the house are separated into three zones, comprising a sleeping and bathing area, a central living room and a music studio. Residents have to leave the building to move between zones, intended to provide acoustic separation.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

The living room features glazed walls on both sides, which slide open to enable cross ventilation. The music room opens out to a north-facing deck, while the two bedrooms have a terrace along their southern edge and feature a chunky concrete canopy to shelter them from harsh midday sun.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

A spiralling metal staircase leads up to the roof, offering residents a wide-stretching view of the surrounding desert landscape.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

The house produces all its own water using a large rainwater harvesting system that filters the liquid until it is clean enough to drink.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

There's also a small car parking area a short distance away and it can be accessed via a narrow footpath.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

Another project we've featured from the Arizona deserts is a cast concrete house that is sunken into the ground. We've also published a cabin built by students in the Utah desert. See more houses in the US.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST

See more architecture using rammed earth, including a research complex in India.

Photography is by Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.

Here's a project description from DUST:

The Tucson Mountain Retreat is located within the Sonoran Desert; an extremely lush, exposed, arid expanse of land that emits a sense of stillness and permanency, and holds mysteries of magical proportions. The home is carefully sited in response to the adjacent arroyos, rock out-croppings, ancient cacti, animal migration paths, air movement, sun exposure and views. Great effort was invested to minimise the physical impact of the home in such a fragile environment, while at the same time attempting to create a place that would serve as a backdrop to life and strengthen the sacred connections to the awe-inspiring mystical landscape.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST
Ground floor and roof terrace plan - click for larger image

Intentionally isolating the parking over 400 feet from the house, one must traverse and engage the desert by walking along a narrow footpath toward the house, passing through a dense clustered area of cacti and Palo Verde that obscure direct views of the home. Upon each progressive footstep, the house slowly reveals itself, rising out of the ground. The entry sequence, a series of playfully engaging concrete steps, dissolves into the desert. As one ascends, each step offers an alternative decision and a new adventure. Through this process, movement slows and senses are stimulated, leaving the rush of city life behind.

The home is primarily made of rammed earth, a material that uses widely available soil, provides desirable thermal mass and has virtually no adverse environmental side effects. Historically vernacular to arid regions, it fits well within the Sonoran Desert, while at the same time it embodies inherent poetic qualities that engage the visual, tactile and auditory senses of all who experience it.

The program of the home is divided into three distinct and isolated zones; living, sleeping, and music recording/home entertainment. Each zone must be accessed by leaving the occupied zone, stepping outside, and entering a different space. This separation resolves the clients' desired acoustic separation while at the same time, offers a unique opportunity to continuously experience the raw desert landscape.

Tucson Mountain Retreat by DUST
Cross section - click for larger image

Rooted in the desert, where water is always scarce, the design incorporates a generous 30,000 gallon rainwater harvesting system with an advanced filtration system that makes our most precious resource available for all household uses.

Solar heat gain is reduced by orienting the house in a linear fashion along an east–west axis, and by minimising door and window openings in the narrow east and west facades. The main living and the sleeping spaces extend into patios and open toward the south under deep overhangs that allow unadulterated views and access to the Sonoran Desert. The overhangs provide shelter from the summer sun while allowing winter sunlight to enter and passively heat the floors and walls. They also scoop prevailing southerly breezes and enhance cross ventilation, which can be flexibly controlled by adjusting the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. When the large glass doors are fully opened, the house is transformed, evoking a boundless ramada-like spirit where the desert and home become one.

  • Josh

    Don’t climb up and down those “stairs” outside if you’re drunk. A broken ankle will be the least you get.

  • marco

    Together with Boltshauser’s Rauch Hause one of the most impressive examples of the modern use of rammed earth. In both cases however one has to criticise the complete disinterest of the architects for the true characteristics of the material – apart from its qualities as nicely textured wallpaper. Rammed earth – when used unprotected – either has to be stabilised by adding cement (making it more close to concrete than to rammed earth), or it has to be recovered constantly. In other words: walls in real rammed earth typically come with large overhanging roofs to protect them from the rain.

    Unfortunately, the fashion of using this material is primarily related to the fact that it looks so sexy when rendered, which is a rather immaterial interest.

    • Well covered. The cellular nature of it immediately looked suspect to me, that and the HUGE window opening. It has no flexural strength so that is impossible without a frame of some kind. Description needs more honesty – but I still like it.

      • marco

        Actually, I mistakenly recognised the project as Mauricio Rocha’s School of Visual Arts of Oaxaca when saying it is one of the most impressive examples of the modern use of rammed earth. It is impressive to see to what extent the two projects look alike.

    • taipa

      I’m sorry Marco, but you really can’t generalise perspectives. Rammed earth is truly a worldwide technique, different in USA, France or India. Apart from the fashion and marketing razzle dazzle (I agree) we need to speak with knowledge about the rammed earth essentials.
      It’s not true what you say, the earth/clay material may be stabilised, when needed, with a range of diferent bonding materials apart from cement (bio-polymer oils, nopal, etc.), although I agree it is the most common. Some of these stabilisers also allow the walls to be left unrendered without any problems, for hundreds of years. And even when covered, today you have perfect rendering solutions.

  • Another good one for a Bond film. What a setting!

  • endeshavdz

    I can’t open the ground floor link?

    • Hi, sorry about that, it should be fixed now. Amy/Dezeen

  • stan

    It works again!

  • rock

    Nice spaces + framed views + great materiality of the earth + concrete + timber.
    Just a shame about the aluminium joinery, out of place!

    Great to see earth, water recycling, etc being used.

  • francois

    Even when you’re sober Josh, those stairs are going to need all your attention.

  • rodsta

    This is a beautiful house in an out-of-this-world environment. The outback American dream! Criticism of the stairs is, in my opinion, unfounded. They’re not stairs at all, just a tamed piece of terrain that gets you to the entrance door.

  • Anton Huggler

    …how does one enter the bedrooms? Through the (sliding) windows?

  • Love the balance between minimalist architectural space and earthiness :)

    Of course, without the landscape as a setting it would probably lose its context and effect.