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Expressing a strong connection with its surroundings, the design of this new home also incorporates sensible environmental strategies

Designed by DUST, this rammed earth desert home is divided into three zones – a central open-plan living area, with a sleeping zone to the left and a music studio/den to the right


Tucson Mountain Retreat

Photography by Jeff Goldberg, ESTO

Architect's description:

A dream to reconnect his roots into the awe inspiring Sonoran Desert, along with a deep seeded desire to indulge in a love of music as lifestyle, provided the initial instigation for Dr. David Francis to build the Tucson Mountain Retreat, an experiential rammed earth home that embraces engagement with the raw, living, desert landscape.

The site, with over nine hundred feet abutting the pristine Saguaro National Park and three hundred and sixty degree views of endless towering Saguaro Cacti is an extremely rugged, lush and fragile expanse of land that exudes a sense stillness and permanency. It is at once a magical and mysterious landscape that beckons an architecture that is carefully situated and shaped by the immediate natural environment.

The initial decision to use rammed earth to build the project informed the entire process and contributes to integration of the home into the landscape. The inherent poetic qualities of rammed earth appear native beside the rock out-croppings and desert flora and fauna.

The program for this private residence is defined by a desire to share rather than simply exploit the gifts of the unspoiled location, with a focus to allow the constantly changing desert light, and the backdrop of the living desert landscape, to holistically inhabit the spaces and be integral to the life experiences in the home. Simple functional requirements for living, sleeping, and indulging in live music suggested a unique design strategy, which places an emphasis on clear separation of each function and offers desired sound isolation.


Design and craft a timeless heirloom that enhances the human living experience, engages the senses, expresses strong connections with the desert and integrates sensible environmental strategies.

In the attempt to discover the connections between architecture, art, life, and human emotion, we lean on an ideal bending of architecture towards a functional high art that is engaged with the process of human discovery, and seeks to stimulate the senses and evoke genuine human responses.

To execute this requires a desire to craft architecture with impeccable attention to detail while also incorporating material decisions that can hold, spark or awaken the human imagination, or better yet evoke a simple human response such as to touch or smell something. A single handle, a door, or a burnt piece of wood - everything we make, we can touch, whether it is with our hands or our eyes. Each decision is a design opportunity that holds a potential experience.

The reduction of spaces to their bare essence opens the potential for the architecture to fade to the background of life, thus becoming an empty canvas, a simple vessel for human occupation and interaction which is really the true measure that gives relevancy to the design.

A held belief requires that every project should also inherit the direct concern from inception, the integration into our natural environment driven by sensible environmental design strategies. By minimising door and window openings in the narrow east and west facades, solar heat gain is reduced.

Deep overhangs direct prevailing cross ventilating breezes into the spaces, provide shelter from the summer sunlight, and capture the winter light for passive heating. The home includes a generous rainwater harvesting system.


When the large glass panels are fully opened, the residence evokes a boundless Ramada-like spirit, animated by ever changing desert, its light and scent.

From a remote parking Ramada, a short walk along a narrow path through the desert reveals obscure views of the house through desert vegetation. The arrival is marked by a sequence of fractal concrete cubes that ascend toward two entries; midway up the steps a narrow slit marks the bedroom entry, while a dark square void defines the main entry.

Rammed earth walls weave through the plan, dissecting it into three zones and enclosing spaces on three sides as they imprint the home with a warm texture and massive weight that can be felt and heard. The living space, the only space open to both the north and south facades, is the heart of the house and also acts as a barrier to the music studio on its west from the bedrooms to the east.

The smell of Spanish cedar permeates the bedrooms as the charred walls that clad the bathroom core invite touch and evoke visual references of a drought ridden desert floor. Each programmatic function must be accessed through an exterior passage that forces an exit and encourages engagement of the desert environment. Further reinforcement of the permeability in the design is discovered as dappled light filters beneath a spiral stair that leads towards a panoramic star gazing roof deck.

© Jeff Goldberg, ESTO
© Bill Timmerman (Project Thumbnail, Introduction gallery)

Artwork featured in images:
Mayme Kratz
Jim Wade


First published date: 29 January 2017

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