Salt Lake City firm Imbue Design recently completed a desert retreat for a Buddhist practitioner near a little Utah ranch town called Grover. The company has a unique workflow. All three of the design partners meet with the client and propose a different scheme based on their individual interpretation of what is wanted. In this case, the client chose the most experimental design put forth. “She was interested in exploring architecture and exploring what a house is,” said firm principal Matt Swindel.
The minimalist structure emphasizes outdoor space and views of the high alpine desert and the mountains. The site is 7,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by juniper trees. Visitors approach along the top of a hill and enter the house from above, through a 93-square-foot ipe wood roof deck. A staircase from the deck descends into the building.
The walls of the house are made of gabion cages filled with volcanic rock from the building site and the surrounding area, which absorb heat during the day and release it at night. The deck prevents summer heat from reaching the envelope of the building, and creates a double roof that acts as a natural convection system, as air flows under the wooden surface and pulls hot air away from the structure. In addition to the passive energy conservation features, there’s a whole-house fan for summer use. A fire orb and radiant heating system keep the house warm in the winter.
The 1,350-square-foot house has two bedrooms and an office. The architects kept the cost to $225 per square foot by using inexpensive local labor and reclaimed materials. They kept the windows affordable by using standard sizes rather than paying extra for custom work. For example, the wall-to-wall windows in the living room were made from standard sliding glass doors. The house is sparely furnished with design classics and contemporary pieces that keep the focus on the architecture and the views outside.
The exterior space, including the deck and several covered patios, made up half the cost of construction. So far, the deck has been worth the money. The owner has hosted group meditations there, as well as a local orchestra from the nearby town of Torrey.
The house was completed last fall, and the designers are gearing up for the second phase of the project—a separate 500-square-foot structure that will be used as a Buddhist retreat. The retreat will be designed to satisfy the most basic human needs as simply as possible, with a two-burner stove, a toilet and shower, minimal storage space, a wood stove, and a mattress. Like the house, the retreat will face east, an important orientation for Buddhist practice.