If a respect for place is the litmus test of a good building, this one faced a tougher challenge than most. It acknowledges two starkly different environments—the raw Sonoran Desert at its back, and a suburban cul-de-sac in front. But this isn’t just any Phoenix subdivision. Dug into a steep hillside at the end of the street, the house sits at the neighborhood’s high point. Cresting the property on foot, you can see for miles across Phoenix’s South Mountain Park and Preserve.
The owner—who also was the builder—had asked architect Eddie Jones for a family friendly house with a string of connecting outdoor spaces. “There’s so much wildlife and variations of cacti and succulents here,” the owner says. “We wanted to have that available to the inside.”
In a neighborly gesture, Jones used the cul-de-sac’s center point as the radius for the house and a series of tall, curved walls that extend into the landscape. The cement block walls, mixed with crushed stone excavated from the site and sandblasted, are both practical and poetic. They step the building into the slope, which was necessary to meet height restrictions, and interweave the inside and outside. “A concave curved retaining wall is inherently stronger than a straight one,” Jones observes. “And when it rains and all that water comes down the hill, a curved wall directs it around the building.”
The house is an experience of mounting the hillside, layer by layer, culminating in a rooftop deck on the detached studio. Visitors are greeted by Cosanti bells at the foot of monumental stairs that zigzag up to the mid-level entry floor. This is the quiet zone, containing the living room and three bedrooms, and outside, a patio and fireplace. There’s also a garden with a circular spa, fed by a scupper that spills water from the upper-level swimming pool. From a glass-walled landing between the second and third levels, which holds a coffee bar, the family can look down on the waterfall. Upstairs, the kitchen and family room lead out to the 45-foot-long pool, a graceful arc laid with 1-inch glass tiles.
Asked to design a private meditative space, Jones came up with an enigmatic structure that looks, from the pool terrace, like a beehive fireplace. It’s actually the upper part of a prayer room, accessed through a secret passage in the living room one floor below. The conical room is 23 feet tall and topped with an oculus 5 feet across, and its concrete blocks were dry-stacked and then mortared into place. “They would have been happy to have an alcove off the bedroom,” Jones explains, “but I didn’t want the room to be obvious. The idea of a meditative space being surrounded by the weight of the earth seemed poetic.”
This is a house that worships nature, while sheltering the owners from it. Packs of coyote pass through, and recently, “a coyote sat on the retaining wall outside the kitchen for about 10 minutes, looking over the house,” the owner says. Not bad for life in the suburbs.
Architect: Jones Studio, Phoenix; Builder: Reliance Build, Chandler, Ariz.; Photographer: Ed Taube