HERE IN the high desert north of Palm Springs, the tranquillity may be inspirational, but the elements can be harsh. Coping with 100-plus heat one month, flurries of snow in another can prove tough for residents in the cramped, wooden homes typical of the area -- some left from when this enclave was built as a film set for the westerns of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
But just off one of the few paved roads that extend beyond Pioneertown, there is this: a thoroughly modern, light-filled house, shaded from the pounding summer sun by a steel-framed canopy. Completed in spring, this experiment in desert design not only conquers the harsh climate but also melds an improbable urban style with the rough-around-the-edges cowboy heritage of the high desert.
Rimrock Ranch, as the place is called, is San Diego architect Lloyd Russell's solution for Jim Austin, a musician and surf-wear entrepreneur who wanted a space that was part house, part rental, part performance venue. Composed of two units that can be combined into one large home, and equipped with a kitchen where a roll-up garage door opens to a stage, the ingenious design is a hideaway for regulars such as Lucinda Williams and recent Grammy winner Jim Lauderdale.
For Austin, the house needed to capture the sense of escape that the desert represents.
"It is why we all come here -- to play and write songs," says the stand-up bass player. "No one wants to go to the middle of L.A. to record anymore, so here -- way off the grid, where there's no Internet and cellphones barely work -- it's all much easier. Bands get so much done."
The challenge for the architect was to build a house that opened up to the desert yet functioned well in this environment. With sticks in one hand and beers in the other, Russell and Austin sketched out ideas on the sand in discussions that went late into the night.
Years before, Austin's country swing band, then known as the Golden Hill Ramblers, had played nearby down California 62 at an old adobe cabin kept cool by a shade structure. Russell immediately embraced the canopy idea. Driving up from San Diego, the architect had seen hay storage facilities and other agriculture structures that used a similar steel frame and roof construction, and he thought a canopy would help the contemporary design blend into the landscape.
The version now up at Rimrock, ordered online from Braemar Building Systems in Colorado, has a particular elegance, thanks to the way steel supports taper below the roof line. More critical, it turned out, were the environmental benefits. Russell was all too aware of the extreme changes in temperature -- up to 50 degrees in a one day.
The canopy became a way of ameliorating such drastic shifts inside the house, reducing the need for expensive heating and cooling systems. (Austin did install them, begrudgingly. "The county made me do it or the house wouldn't have been up to code," he says. "I haven't used them yet.")
The 6-foot gap between the top of the house and the peak of the canopy allows breezes to pass through on hot days. When nightfall brings a massive drop in temperature, the canopy keeps warmth from leaving the house.
"There are two times in a day when it's 70 degrees," Russell says, noting the constantly changing outdoor conditions. "We designed the house to be at that temperature at all times."
No longer concerned about harsh sun coming inside, Russell was freed to install floor-to-ceiling sliding doors and windows. The canopy's vital shade -- a visual relief from the bright sunlight -- further cools the concrete floors and porches, making even summer a delight. In winter, the sun dips below the canopy's overhang, providing welcome warmth.
AS BEFITS a house designed to complement such an elemental location, the project owed its inception to nature's wrath. Two years ago, the Sawtooth fire rushed up this side of the Yucca Valley. The fire veered away, but swirling winds carried a piece of burning ash onto the roof of Austin's house at Rimrock, which also included a series of 1940s rental cabins. Austin's home burned to the ground in minutes.
Austin, who first came across the ranch five years earlier after playing at the desert honky-tonk Pappy & Harriet's, was distraught. It took time to see the brush fire as an opportunity.
"What I had here was this hip, little scene, with people coming here for a long time," he says. "But any time I wanted to make changes, I'd hear people say, 'Damn, I liked that.' Now I realized they couldn't say anything."
As his 50th birthday approached, Austin wanted to expand the number of rental units and build a house where he could retire. Enter Russell, whose solution -- built for slightly less than $400,000 -- called for two suites at opposite ends of a 1,660-square-foot house. A large kitchen sits in between, lined with handsome cabinets made by drummer Corbin Turner and connected to the larger suite, where Austin sleeps.
The roll-up door opens to a deep concrete porch -- the stage for bands who play at the ranch. Audiences can pull up chairs or unfold rugs on the desert floor out front, lie back and hear the set unfold.
The raw nature of the desert and its existing architecture inspired such design choices as the rusty corrugated metal siding, or RCM, made by Recla Metals in Colorado.
Its decaying reddish tones help the new house blend in with its more rugged companions: the old rental cabins and four Airstream trailers that Austin recently added.
THIS roughness is deceptive, as the new suites are designed for comfort and function. The smaller of the two units actually can be divided further: The bathroom has two doors, one leading to a bedroom, and the other to the living area. Theoretically, two couples could use the space yet maintain privacy.
With only one window, the bedroom is a reminder that abundant glass and light aren't always best. With a 12-foot ceiling, it is a rare desert oasis, peacefully dim and quiet. The bathroom -- with "RRR" writ large into the tiles above the tub -- shows off Austin's love of exposed copper pipes.
"The last time I saw something like them," Russell says, "was in the Schindler House in West Hollywood."
The larger suite where Austin lives is an open-plan bedroom and living space with sliding floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The door facing the courtyard is 16 feet of glass. In the bathroom, Austin continues his "campaign to make sure this place isn't too sterile of a modern environment," hence the Galvalume "cowboy tub" and the long, elementary-school sink from an architectural salvage store.
The mix represents what's successful about the house: its fusion of urban form with rugged landscape.
Austin offers an unabashed smile and his own metaphor: "It was definitely the filet mignon of the high desert cow."