High Desert Retreat

Architect: Aidlin Darling Design

Location: Mountain Center, CA

Perched on a rocky plateau near California's Palm Desert, this retreat embraces the rugged climate and offers captivating views of the Coachella Valley and the San Jacinto Mountains. Informed by a simple brief that called for a modest home to serve as a retreat from the owners' busy urban lives, this abode quietly contrasts with the surrounding landscape's lighter palette.

Many camping trips on the site allowed the team to better understand the climate's nuances, including the significant temperature swings between day and night and the positioning of the site's pinyon pines and sculpture-like boulders. Enhanced by the power of the ever-changing light conditions, these trips shifted the thinking around the house, leading to a vision of it as a simple framing device through which to observe the dynamic terrain.

Crisp in its geometry, the house sits low to the ground to minimize its presence on the landscape, and it contrasts with the desert's organic forms. The exterior is wrapped with wood siding that has been acetylated, burnt, and wire-brushed to provide a highly textured finish that is both insect- and rot-resistant. Inside, the team opted for a mix of concrete, wood, stone, and steel that works in concert to provide both durability and warmth.  

Informed by the simple brief that called for a modest home to serve as a retreat from the owners' busy urban lives, this adobe quietly contrasts with the surrounding landscape's lighter palette.

The home's diagram is split into three discrete elements: a floating roof plane, a collection of wooden volumes, and two concrete anchor walls. The square roof handles several functions, namely shelter from the intense desert sun and ample exposure, through a single aperture, at the pool area. Below the roof, seven wooden volumes define the home's program, and the two anchor walls frame the entry sequence from the garage. The parallel walls not only lead to the glazed entrance of the home, but they also frame the dining area and the grand view of the valley to the east.

Many who live in this remote region, which is only accessible by vehicle, have pledged to keep the environment as intact as possible. In alignment with the owners' wishes, no ancient pinyon pines or rock formations were disturbed during the construction process. On a site where wild meets constructed directly, the pool and other water features provide evaporative cooling and serve as fortuitous watering holes for local wildlife. The home's open-air breezeways have not disturbed existing animal pathways, allowing jackrabbits, quail, and other animals continued access to their cross-ridge trails.

Additional information

Architect: Aidlin Darling Design

Interiors: Client + Aidlin Darling Design

Contractor: D.W. Johnston Construction Inc.

Structural Engineer: Strandberg Engineering

Mechanical Consultant: Monterey Energy Group

Geotechnical Engineer: Sladden Engineering

Civil Engineer + Surveyor: Feiro Engineering, Inc

Low-Voltage Systems: Custom Controls


Carol Bentel, FAIA, Chair, Bentel & Bentel, Locust Valley, NY

Michelle Watanabe, AIA, Leo A Daly, Minneapolis, MN

John Harrison, FAIA, GreenSlate, Seattle, WA

Venesa Alicea, AIA, NOMA, New York, NY

Heather Rose-Dunning, IIDA, Yellow Dog Studio, Minneapolis, MN

Image credits


Joe Fletcher


Adam Rouse Photography


Adam Rouse Photography


Adam Rouse


Adam Rouse Photography